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Step Four - Implement a Native Plant Landscape

You’ve done it!  You’ve developed a planting plan and now you’re ready to start transforming your property into a native plant haven for wildlife.  Keep in mind that “Going Native” can be done in small steps; you don’t have to replant your entire yard all at once.  You can start small by replacing one exotic tree with a native one.  You can choose to start in one area of your plan: a sunny butterfly garden, a rain garden, a thicket of cover plants for songbirds, or a section of turf converted into a bed of perennial wildflowers.

Whether you start large or small, proper site preparation, plant purchase, careful installation, and long-term maintenance will all greatly influence the success of your efforts.  Here are some tips that will help your native plant landscape thrive.

Taking Soil Sample
Have your soil analyzed before planting.

Site Preparation – Before planting, collect soil samples from different areas on your property and have them analyzed.  Each native plant species is adapted to a specific range of soil types, light conditions, and moisture regimes.  A small sample from your yard can be tested for nutrient content and will allow you to receive specific recommendations for preparing your soil before planting.  Use the results of the soil test to amend your soil appropriately.

Remove undesirable plants without using herbicides, if possible.  Woody plants may be cut to the ground; in many cases the stump and roots must be removed as well.  Eliminate unwanted turf by covering the area(s) with damp newspaper and piling several inches of composted leaves and mulch on top.

Where to Get Native Plants – The number of reputable nurseries that specialize in native plants is increasing.  Refer to the websites below for a list of native plant providers.  These lists are not comprehensive, so consult with local parks, nature preserves, garden clubs, botanical gardens, arboreta, and your County Extension Center for the names of additional native plant providers. 

Links to lists of NC native plant providers:

North Carolina Division of Forest Resources

North Carolina Botanical Garden

North Carolina Native Plant Society

Should I use cultivars to attract wildlife? – Cultivated varieties of plant species generally are as desirable to wildlife as the wild types, but be aware that some cultivars have been selected for qualities other than their value to wildlife.  For example, flower colors that differ from the native species may be less attractive to targeted wildlife, or a shrub cultivar may be selected for absence of fruit.

Should I collect native plants from the wild? – Collecting plants from the wild contributes to the destruction of their natural habitats and often increases the chance of planting failure.  Occasionally, local nature centers and botanical gardens initiate native plant rescues from areas soon to be cleared for development – these can be good and appropriate wild sources.  For more information on growing native plants from seed, see:

• Phillips, H. 1985. Growing and Propagating Native Wildflowers. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

• Bir, R. 1992. Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 

To Learn More About Native Plants

Certificate in Native Plant Studies at UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens

Certificate in Native Plant Studies at NC Botanical Garden

Plant Installation – Proper planting technique improves the likelihood of a plant’s success in the garden.

• Make the planting hole 2 to 3 times as wide as the root ball.  Plants grow out, not down.

• Make sure that the root ball of a shrub or tree is level with the existing grade and the plant’s root collar is above the soil.

• Use the original soil when backfilling the planting hole.

• Water thoroughly at the time of planting.  Continue frequent watering for the first year after installation.

Maintenance – An attractive and functional native plant landscape requires diligent oversight and maintenance.  However, special care must be taken not to over-manicure and degrade the quality of the landscape as wildlife habitat.

Taking Soil Sample
Spread mulch around plants to conserve soil moisture.

• Spread 2 to 4 inches of mulch over wildflower beds and at the base of woody plants.

• Prune shrubs and trees during the winter.  Never prune during the nesting season, which lasts from mid March through the end of July.

• Leave the old flower heads on the blooming plants (do not dead head) so that the seeds are available to birds during the fall and winter.

• Most native plants in a well-suited location will flourish and multiply.  Maintain the balance of your design by dividing these successful plants and sharing new plants with other gardeners.

Native Plant Garden
A native plant garden takes several years to establish.

• Avoid using pesticides that may harm the wildlife you hoped to attract.

• Continue to take pictures of your yard and record wildlife observations after plant installation is finished.  Use the photos and records to evaluate improvements.  Don’t be afraid to make changes in the landscape if the original design or plant selection is not effective.

• Remain patient when establishing a new native plant landscape.  It generally takes 3 to 5 years before the results of landscaping efforts pay off and wildlife use of native plants becomes obvious. An old adage says, “The first year a garden sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps.”

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