Native plants and natural landscaping may seem like they don’t fit in all spaces—especially urban ones. Cities and suburbs aren’t typically associated with agricultural crops. Some native plants are too big for small spaces. Some plants (like a rare orchid) can be intimidatingly particular and only survive under specific conditions. Worst of all, if you replace your front lawn with pollinator habitat, what would the neighbors think? For me, living in the city and crossing these barriers to urban wildness has been a slow and clumsy journey, but so worth it.
My foray into gardening with native plants has been mainly through living vicariously through others. I like to hang out with native plant experts, listen to them, go on walks with them, photograph things they point out, and gradually let the information sink in. I am surprised at how much I’ve absorbed this way and how that knowledge will resurface at odd times. Sometimes I will see a particular flower, and it’s name will pop into my head, without me even really trying. Other times, I stare at a common leaf and can’t summon the name. This is sort of what natural landscaping is like. Unpredictable.
I have made the common mistakes all newbies to native plant gardening have made. First and foremost, by calling myself a gardener, it implies I have control over something growing. That’s not so much the case with natural landscaping. After all, I do love the plants for the their inherent wildness.
I can stand back in awe of the colossal spreading sunflower (pictured above) that consumed my entire flowerbed at my downtown apartment complex. I planted the unassuming little green sprig, excited to bring it home from a plant exchange, wondering why nobody else wanted this native sunflower. Had I simply flipped the tag around, I would have seen the operative word, “spreading,” and had a clue as to what it’s tendency would be.
The 8-foot-tall stalks that angle awkwardly toward the sidewalk wait until just the last minute of the summer to finally bloom and prove to all the neighbors that this is in fact an intentional planting and not a weedy fire hazard. This pretty yellow flower attracted monarch butterflies, so I love it despite its assertiveness. It is a close relative to the sunchoke, extremely prolific with little baby sunflower shoots coming up every spring, and outcompeted mint and day lilies. Better suited to a wide open lot, it’s a pretty and powerful colonizer.
In contrast, my favorite native plant has to be wild ginger. The root is small but mildly gingery, and can be harvested for some of that flavor if you have enough of the plants to sacrifice a few. I was introduced to it by my partner, who took me and a few other volunteers on a plant rescue. He does environmental restoration work, and his project was going to disturb the earth around a stream in order to redirect its flow and stabilize it. We dug out the flourishing native plants and relocated them out of harm’s way. I brought home a ginger plant. I thought maybe I could keep it in a pot on my porch, but soon a squirrel discovered it. I’m not sure what it wanted with the plant, but it soon got tipped over, and I decided it deserved better treatment than that.
In honor of my partner’s mother, whose name is Ginger, I planted this little treasure in my flowerbed on Mother’s Day. It went into an area that I had cleaned out, previously filled with broken glass, construction rubble, cigarette butts, bottle caps and other debris. Because this was my first native plant, I sort of expected it to just wilt and die in the poor, urban soil. It has surprised me year after year, returning a little more robust each spring. Not aggressive at all, just minding its business in the shade where forgotten trash once littered. Its velvety round leaves invite stroking, and I pause to remember the forest where it came from and admire its persistent and quiet resilience.
Pin Oaks & The Plants That Live Beneath
Now, I live in a more suburban space, with an actual front and backyard, opening up a small world of possibilities for native landscaping. The main feature of the property is a giant pin oak, a quick-growing tree that developers installed in the neighborhood when they built the cottage-style homes around 70 years ago. These trees are aging, requiring some professional care, and nobody seems too fond of them. They are quick at dying, as well as growing, so homeowners need professional help for trimming, cutting, and in some cases, felling and removing. For my partner and I, we enjoy watching all the life and diversity that this single tree supports. Under its shade sprawls another beloved wild ginger, jack-in-the-pulpits, wood poppies, foam flowers, stinging nettles, and some ferns and sedges.
I particularly like the nettles, which I harvest with gloves and scissors, trimming but not destroying the plants. I boil and eat the greens and drink the tea. The stinging effect of the tiny hairs on the leaves is neutralized by cooking or drying. Nettles are high in vitamin A and iron, and their anti-inflammatory qualities are perfectly timed with allergy season. Some nettle tea with local honey is my staple drink in the spring and fall.
Pin oaks produce an abundance of tiny acorns, the sound of them on the roof signaling that fall has arrived. The acorns feed the gray squirrels, which keep our cats entertained for hours. Those squirrels plant the acorns all over the yard, of course, and forget many of them. Instead of mowing down the tree seedlings that sprout up, my partner transplants them. After potting them up, he takes them out and plants them in some of the larger landscape restoration worksites. I wonder, maybe by adding the genetic diversity of pin oaks from the city to the wilder ecosystems, can we help strengthen their chances of survival too?
Lexington, Kentucky, has been a wonderful place to learn about native plants, though I admit that certain plants remind me of my roots in a more arid environment. Living on the high plains of Texas, prairies full of wildflowers and waving grasses decorated the monotonous horizons against a backdrop of infinite skies.
I rediscovered those grasses here in the bluegrass state. Its namesake comes from little bluestem, a beautiful bunch grass, with pale blue stalks in the spring, which mature into a vibrant orange-red with wispy white seeds in the fall. Prairie dropseed also excites my senses with its intoxicatingly fresh smell. The scent of prairie dropseed cleanses my head and reminds me the change in the air before a rain or the smell of clothesline-dried sheets.
I could list a number of great native plants and all the ways they benefit wildlife, how you can use them for food and medicine, and when and how you should plant them. But the best advice I can give is to connect with native plant lovers and let them show you the way. Right now, I’m going to go dig a hole to transplant a native columbine I got last week at a fall plant exchange. It will join another little columbine I got last spring, and both of them remind me of my days in the mountains of Colorado, where the columbine is the state flower. I hope its flowers attract a few hummingbirds, my mother’s favorite bird. Go out and find your own reasons to connect with native plants. Plant a few, and see how they grow on you. Embrace your inner wild.