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How to Plant Native Plants in Natural Layers

By: James A. Baggett
Grow native plants in natural layers to create a meadow garden.

Penstemon and Golden Alexander by Kelly D. Norris: Penstemon and Golden Alexander make a great native plant pair in the garden.

Using native plants in your home landscape

Plants growing together in nature will establish themselves in their preferred environmental conditions. Adapting the same principle of planting in layers — using native plants appropriate for your region — can provide gardeners with a set of expectations about how plants will perform in the garden in the long-run. Kelly D. Norris is the author of the new book, New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden (Cool Springs Press).

When laying out a planting, disperse the plants in patchy colonies of multiple individual plants. Kelly Norris’ 3,200-square foot meadow in zone 5 Central Iowa is home to 140-plus different kinds of plants. He encourages planting in abundance (he planted plugs, which are less expensive and easier to plant than larger specimens). Planting in large numbers requires more resources at the outset, but it pays dividends over time as your garden becomes an interworking system of plants instead of a collection of specimens.

Sources for native plants

Three Oaks Meadow Garden Des Moines Iowa Spring, Kelly D. Norris: By late spring, Kelly’s front-yard meadow is punctuated with stands of showy vignette plants like penstemon and bee balm that bloom in drifts of pastel colors.

How to create natural layers

Kelly likes to organize wild plant communities into three principal layers:

  • Matrix: groundcover and understory plants used as a green mulch
  • Structure: architectural woody plants and perennials
  • Vignettes: plants with defined periods of seasonal interest

Sample native planting plan-by Kelly D. Norris

Sample native planting

A look at a sample 5'×5' planting scheme reveals how he combines these plants in layers. In this plan, the matrix is composed of oak sedge and little bluestem, the structure is provided by aromatic aster and the vignette plants include whorled milkweed, blazing star, penstemon, purple coneflower, Culver’s root, golden Alexander and mountain mint.

Plant list

Matrix plants

A) Oak sedge Carex albicans (10)
B) Little bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium (5)

Structure plants

C) Aromatic aster Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’ (1)

Vignette plants

D) Whorled milkweed Asclepias verticillata (14)
E) Dense blazing star Liatris spicata ‘Trailblazer’ (6)
F) Foxglove beardtongue Penstemon digitalis ‘Pochahontas’ (5)
G) Purple coneflower Echinacea ‘Kismet Raspberry’ (3)
H) Culver's root Veronicastrum virginicum (3)
I) Golden Alexander Zizia aurea (3)
J) Mountain mint Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (2)

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Published: Aug. 2, 2021
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