Plants living in their natural range — the ecosystem in which they originally evolved and for which they are specially adapted — are said to be “native”. Native gardening, in turn, is the use of native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees to create functional, attractive landscapes. Such gardens have many benefits: they are low-maintenance, once established; reduce flooding and erosion from storm water; beautify your green spaces; improve biodiversity and environmental health; and promote sustainable stewardship of nature.
There are many ways to develop native gardens, varying broadly in terms of cost, effort, scale, customizability, and likelihood of success. In general, you have to select and prepare a site, choose which plants to include, get those plants into the soil at a suitable time and in a suitable form, then tend to them while they establish and, to a lesser extent, after that. For this guide, let’s assume that you’ll be planting from seed.
Site Selection and Design
It sounds obvious, but take care to choose a site where both you and your native plants are likely to succeed.
The site must have enough space for a community of plants to reach their mature sizes and spread out as they see fit. Be sure to give trees at least a couple feet of buffer space when planting flowers and grasses, so they aren’t in direct competition for resources.
The site shouldn’t be in harm’s way from common urban hazards: in the middle of a walking path, close to a spot where dogs relieve themselves, in the splash zone from a street puddle, and so on. (Just use common sense.) However, it should be easy for you to access. Once established, native plants don’t need much maintenance, but they’ll benefit from having you close by when needed — and vice-versa!
Study the site’s soil and sun exposure so you can choose plants that will thrive under those conditions. Is the site in full sun, full shade, or somewhere in between? What’s the soil’s texture, moisture, density? Native plants can be found for most site conditions, but usually the soil must be relatively well-drained to prevent root rot. (If you’re not sure, watch the site after a rainstorm: if it stays wet and sticky for a long time after, it’s probably not well-drained!) Poor drainage can be somewhat mitigated by improving soil quality; see below for details.
If you have the time and inclination, create a site plan. This is especially helpful if you want to incorporate other landscaping elements around and/or within the garden — better to get it right the first time!
Create a focal point to draw the eye: a particularly elegant shrub, maybe, or a group of vibrant wildflowers. Arrange combinations of 3 or 5 species in “drifts” that repeat throughout the site. Scale the size of plants according to the available size of the site — bigger site => bigger plants — for an aesthetically pleasing composition.
Consider adding a permanent border to your garden to define the space and give it a cleaner, more intentional look. For example, it can be edged with limestone, brick, or some other natural material — even a clean-cut edge can help.
Incorporate decorative elements, such as rocks, statues, or wind chimes, or maybe something more utilitarian, like a bench or birdbath. This can make the space more interesting for you as well as for local wildlife.
Because a native garden can appear unkempt to some sensibilities, consider adding a sign to identify it and maybe even tags identifying individual plant species. Don’t be surprised if the neighbors get curious and ask questions!
Typically, plants are selected to fit the site (and not vice-versa) based on compatible preferences for
sun exposure (full sun, partial, or full shade)
soil conditions (wet, mesic, or dry)
climate (usually judged by USDA plant hardiness zone — Chicago is on the border between zones 5b and 6a)
germination (combination of time, temperature, light, moisture, and oxygen, which determines when to plant)
Seek variety and balance of plant species in terms of height, bloom color and season, high-level category (wildflower, grass, shrub, tree), and ecosystem benefits such as attractiveness to pollinators or critter resistance. Prefer perennials, but consider including shorter-lived plants (annuals or biennials), especially if they serve a particular function that would otherwise be missing. The end goal is a community of plants that interact with each other, local wildlife, plus the sun and soil to produce a resilient, native ecosystem that changes but persists all year round. In practice, this often results in a more “naturalistic” garden that features many species sharing a space in a harmonious but unstructured manner.
Find and purchase seeds from a nursery, most readily from an online store such as Prairie Moon that offers an extensive collection of native species and granular filtering options. The easiest approach is to buy a pre-designed seed mix, such as Prairie Moon’s Pretty Darn Quick (PDQ) mix, but if you’d like more control and creative agency, consider designing your own seed mix!
In Prairie Moon’s “seeds” section, filter to species with Illinois in their native range; a germination code compatible with a late-fall planting (any of C(*), G, or M); and add the “recommended for home landscaping” advantage, if you prefer plants that typically do well in a garden (as done here). Further filter the results by soil moisture and sun exposure to match your planting site’s conditions. Finally, vary the filters for plant category, height, bloom time, and bloom color in order to find a diverse, balanced selection of native plants. Note that different species include different numbers of seeds per packet (or ounce), so be sure to buy in quantities that reflect the underlying number of plants, ensuring a balanced mix of species.
Mark out the borders of your planting area to guide your site prep and subsequent planting, and to protect the site from passers-by — especially dogs.
A typical approach involves pushing or hammering stakes into the ground at each corner of the site, then wrapping a length of twine or string around a stake before stretching it over to an adjacent stake, one by one, until the entire area is enclosed.
For additional protection, consider adding short landscape fencing around the site. Most home improvement stores have inexpensive plastic or wire options between 8”-18” high. Note that you may want to install this after planting, so it doesn’t get in the way while you’re working on the site.
Clear out any existing plants and debris to make space for new native plants and reduce competition for resources — water, sunlight, and nutrients — during the growing season.
If your planting site is covered by turf grass, you’ll have to remove it by slicing under the sod with a spade, cutting it into manageable pieces, then taking it away for composting, patching up your yard, or some other productive use. Be sure to remove as much of the roots as you can!
Pull any weeds out by hand, and as for grass, get as much of the roots as possible. You may opt to turn remaining weed remnants under, but be forewarned: those plants may come back next season. Please note that we don’t recommend using chemical herbicides, since they harm the environment and could impair your future garden’s health.
Pick up any litter on or partially buried in the ground, including plastic, glass, and newspaper. Be sure to wear protective gloves if you need them! Lastly, use a (hand) rake to make the planting area flat and clean.
Improve the quality of the soil to make it more likely that your native plants will thrive in spite of harsh conditions, competition from weeds and invasive species, and damage from pests or chemicals. This is especially important if the soil is compacted and/or nutrient-poor.
Loosen up the top layer of soil by scraping, raking, and/or turning it over using a spade, a hand rake, or a small shovel. Note: Avoid working the soil when wet! This can cause compaction, clods, and other issues.
Add a 1–2” layer of organic matter — compost or potting soil should do — to improve the soil’s health and fertility, then mix it into the existing topsoil to further loosen and aerate the site.
Remove any rocks, roots, or hard clumps that you find in the process. Rake flat one last time.
Planting your garden
Timing: In Chicago’s climate, many native plants require “cold, moist stratification” in order to germinate — that is, they prefer to be planted in the fall, any time from late-October until the ground freezes, and then overwinter for at least a couple months. It’s better to plant when the ground is slightly moist, but don’t wait too long for rain if the weather isn’t cooperating.
Sowing: There are multiple approaches to sowing seeds. The lowest-effort method is to mix all your seeds together, then slowly and evenly distribute them, by hand, over your prepared site’s soil. Even better, mix the seeds in with a filler material such as compost or moistened sawdust — it helps with distribution, and offers a little protection for the seeds. With a bit more effort, you can even create seed mixes for specific areas of the garden, then spot-sow, giving you greater control over the positioning of your native plants.
A more work-intensive but consistently successful approach is to make seed balls — that is, a few seeds enclosed in soil mixture then dried, resulting in “pre-planted” seeds that are protected, nourished, and easy to sow. (Instructions for making seed balls can be found at the bottom of this guide.) A couple additional notes:
Depth: Native seeds need good contact with the soil to reliably germinate and grow; as such, it’s best to place the seed balls by hand — don’t just toss them! Gently push the balls about halfway into the soil until they’re firmly locked in place, but the top remains visible. Poke the hole first with your finger if the soil is too firm.
Spacing: To reduce competition and avoid overcrowded growing conditions, place seed balls about 12” apart in a grid pattern. Use the marked-out borders of your planting site as a guide.
Note: That’s it! Don’t add a layer of mulch on top of the site. Don’t pack the soil down — snow and rain should take care of that. Don’t bother watering until mid- to late-spring. Just keep passers-by off the site and let nature take its course until the growing season begins.
Tending to your garden
Watering: Plants need sunlight, soil nutrients, and water in order to grow. Nature provides most of these necessities, but gardeners are sometimes needed to pick up the slack.
Occasional, deep watering stimulates good root growth while your plants are getting established. Throughout the first year, a good rule of thumb is to give a good soaking (about half an inch of water) if it hasn’t rained in a week. During hotter, dryer months, you may want to water your plants twice a week. Note that surface soil should be dry before you water again; if you’re not sure, just poke a finger into the dirt to check for moisture. Watch out for yellowing or drooping plants, which can occur if you’re watering too much or too little; this is a warning that you should be more careful about soil moisture, and adjust your watering schedule accordingly.
In its second year — and beyond! — your native garden should only need watering during especially dry spells; in fact, once native plants become established, droughts can be beneficial because they kill off non-native species with shallow roots.
Weeding: Controlling weeds is crucial to success during the first couple years of a newly-planted native garden, and it must be done carefully.
During the first growing season, any soil disturbance risks killing native seedlings and spurring further germination of weeds; as such, pulling out the weeds is not recommended. Instead, cut or mow the entire site to about 5” in height whenever weeds reach a height of 8–10”. This will cut any weeds back while (mostly) going right over the top of your native plants, which should prevent them from being smothered while they’re still establishing.
During their second year, your native plants should grow much quicker and better compete with any remaining weeds. That said, you will still want to identify weeds and hand-pull them out by the roots, which is most easily done after a rain when the soil is soft. For some weeds, the roots are nigh impossible to pull out completely; in such cases, it’s enough to cut them off at ground level to prevent them from going to seed, then keep an eye on them to ensure that the natives (eventually) out-compete them.
The end goal is to permanently remove weeds from the site and prevent future re-seeding. This may take some time and diligence!
Long-term maintenance of an established native garden is minimal. However, if your native plants become overgrown, consider cutting/mowing the garden back in November or early spring — just don’t cut any lower than 8”. This also discourages woody shrubs and trees from taking over the site. Note that doing this every year is not required.
If certain plants expand beyond the preferred boundaries of your garden, you may be able to split them up and plant elsewhere, or give them away to friends. Note that this will depend on the species, so be sure to check first.
Remember: Patience is key! Native plants typically prioritize root growth before blooms, so they generally take a couple seasons to become established and show their full potential. If all goes well, by the third season you will have a dense and diverse mixture of wildflowers blooming from spring through fall, drawing a variety of pollinators to your garden. Grasses will fill in gaps and clump together, providing cover for wildlife on the ground. If you have them, shrubs and trees will provide shade, verticality, and even more habitat for you and your wild neighbors to enjoy.
Addendum 1: Where to Buy Supplies
Prairie Moon Nursery (site): Minnesota-based nursery founded to facilitate prairie restoration on a large scale. Sells the largest collection of native plants in the U.S. as seeds, seed mixes, and bare-root / potted plants.
Seed-balls.com (site): Humble but scientifically-sound purveyors of seeds, soils, kits, and education, focused on seed balls. Offers a variety of basic supplies and premade kits at reasonable prices — a convenient resource for a seed-ball adventure!
Addendum 2: Making Seed Balls
Seeds! About 3–5 seeds per ball is ideal; it should result in a high germination rate without overcrowding the seedlings.
Clay, for structural integrity and moisture retention. May be red or white, powdered or otherwise. Should be locally-sourced. If it stinks (caused by certain chemical processes), let it air out until dry and lighter in color, then slake it with water before making into seed balls.
Organic matter, for nutrients and moisture retention. Should be aged, sifted compost or potting soil; should not have any chemicals, debris, or seeds mixed in. Quantity should be roughly 2x as much as clay.
Water, as needed, for consistency.
Moisten clay until it’s the consistency of thick yogurt
Mix ~2 parts organic matter with 1 part clay (“cut and wedge”, like baking!)
Add water while kneading the mixture, for consistency; it should be workable and hold together, but not sticky
Pinch off a seed-ball’s worth of mixture, then roll it into a ball 0.5–0.75” in diameter (dime- to nickel-sized)
Push your finger into the ball to make a bowl shape, then place 3–5 seeds in the depression; larger seeds can go right in the middle, while smaller seeds should probably be placed closer to the surface
Re-roll everything back into a smooth, round ball
Air dry balls at room temperature in a dark, dry space until uniformly light in color