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Natives for newbies

It can be totally overwhelming when you first begin learning about native plants. You probably weren’t even aware there was such a thing, or that most of the plants already in your garden aren’t “native”. After all, we’ve been taught to follow the cardinal rule of hardiness zones, and if something can grow here, that must mean it was meant to be here…right?


Not quite.


Before we get too deep here, (in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit wordy), I want to clear up a few misconceptions surrounding the native plant community for all the newbies.

  1. We aren’t all know-it-all Botanists. People who have spent years in school have earned the right to share their knowledge, for sure, but don’t feel as though you are the only person in the room who doesn’t know how to pronounce Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium.

  2. Learning the botanical names for plants is important, for reasons, but don’t let the Latin intimidate you (too much). Once you practice a little, you’ll have those names rolling off your tongue like a pro. Until then, don’t worry about using common names for plants. Do understand that common names may be used for more than one plant in different areas (hence using the botanical names).

  3. You don’t have to be a garden master to join a local plant group. I’m going to plug our beloved Wild Ones-South Shore, Ma, here! Take a chance and try out some groups in your area. Yes, some may be very passionate about particulars and geared towards more experienced gardeners, but hey, everyone had to start at the beginning, right? The right group will welcome you in, no matter what level you consider yourself to be. (pssst…Wild Ones-South Shore Ma…come as you are!)


Ok, so let’s dig in.


Native plants are perfect for new gardeners and experienced ones alike. You don’t need to spend years learning the minute details (although it is awfully fun) about every single plant. You don’t need to worry about zones and temperatures and special soil additives and pesticides and herbicides…No. There are three basic things you need to know to get started with native plants.


First, where are you? Are you near the coast, in the mountains? Are you surrounded by sweeping plains or deep forests? If you read my first article (Why Native? Go ahead, I’ll wait), you will see a map in there that has all kinds of swirly colors. Those colors show you what region you live in. If you are reading this, chances are pretty good you are somewhere along the Northeastern Coastal Zone. Perfect. Tuck that knowledge into your pocket and keep going!


Next, what kind of soil do you have? Don’t freak out, I’m not asking about pH levels and mycorrhizae levels. I mean, pick a spot in your yard where you want some plants. Dig up a shovelful and take a look. Is the soil soft and dark, nice and…well…dirt-like? Pick up a handful and squeeze it. Does it stay together when you open your hand, or does it crumble away?

  • Darkish, stays together when squeezed, falls apart when poked- moist to average soil

  • Lighter, doesn’t stay together well, grainy- well-drained-dry, sandy soil

  • Reddish/brown, stays together, does not fall apart- wet and/or clay (might not be both!)

Last bit for our little garden space, what kind of light do you have? Take a few days and check out that plot a few times throughout the day. Does the sun hit early in the morning and stay there throughout the day? Is it shady in the morning and then late afternoon sun? Maybe only a few rays get through, but it stays mostly shady, or perhaps it hardly ever sees much sun and stays fairly “dark.”

  • Morning sun, sunny all day- Full sun

  • Shady in the morning, late afternoon sun- Part sun (more sun than shade)

  • Shady most of the day, some sun poking through- Part shade (more shade than sun)

  • Shady all day, rare sunbeams- Full shade


There you have it! These are the basics you need in order to start your journey with native plants. Why don’t you need to know more? Because the evolutionary process already did the work for you! The beauty of using native plants that have spent thousands of years in a particular area is that the plants already have everything they need to thrive here. They are adapted to the water levels (or lack of), they can handle the late or early frosts, they are sturdy enough to stand up to our crazy Nor-Easter storms, and the wildlife has grown right along with them.


Our good friend Mr. Dan Jaffe Wilder loves to say, “Right Plant, Right Place”. You know your “place”, now the real fun begins. Let’s find the plants! Go ahead and check out our Shop page. If you click on “all plants” you will see beautiful photos of the plants we carry, and on the left are all the filters you can use to search out the perfect plant. Start with checking the correct box for “sun needs” and then choose the right “water needs” for your soil type. The plants that show up on the right are now already sorted for you! Go ahead and play around with the other options, choosing different bloom colors and such. Fun!


These plants are able to grow in environments that many standard ornamentals would wilt away in. Now, here’s the caveat. They are still living things, so don’t think that low maintenance means no maintenance! Especially for the first year, you will need to water regularly and keep areas free from invasive weeds. However, once your plants are well established, you can take a step back and put on your low-maintenance hat. Putter around, if you will, just keeping an eye on things.


Drats, I’ve done it again and written a mini-novella. Well, I still have a lot more to say, so keep an eye out in the coming weeks for more posts tackling the ins and outs of being a newbie in the native plant world. Feel free to email me any questions you would like to see answered! kristen@bluestemnatives.com









Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash



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