By Jimmy Rogers

Do you look at your garden and wish it had more verdant energy? For generations, American gardens have placed a high value on order, consistency and predictability. This brings to mind dense mulch, clean rows of hedges and wildlife only present in designated areas. Now, a new generation of gardeners is exploring a more nature-inspired approach with native gardening.

Native gardens focus on planting local species that were not introduced by humans. These plants have deep relationships with our wildlife, especially insects, birds and small mammals. Native plants also require no fertilizers or pesticides, and need little watering after the first few months in the ground. 

On an aesthetic level, native gardens tend to be lusher, with plants growing tightly against one another. Their appearance also changes more frequently throughout the year. A well-curated native garden will have a bloom time from April to October, with a new type of flower opening every three weeks or so. Instead of seeing the same, static plants month after month, imagine a constantly changing landscape of colors, shapes and heights. Plus, butterflies, bees and birds will almost immediately begin visiting your oasis for food and shelter.


If this is your first native gardening project, start small. Choose one or two beds that you can realistically prepare, plant, water and maintain during the first season. A small number of square feet will keep your budget low and prevent mid-project burnout.

Next, create a vision. How will this part of your garden function and how will it bring you enjoyment? For instance, will you see it every day when you step out of your front door? Think about how you want to feel. Your vision can be practical, too. If you’re trying to reduce garden maintenance or fix a problem area, take note of that, as you may want to keep the complexity of the design low.

Before starting plant selection, consider how you will get around the garden. Paths not only allow access through and around a garden bed, they also make maintenance easier. Closely-spaced plants will form a significant barrier in high summer, so make sure you have an edge or a path no more than a few feet from any point in your bed. Additionally, paths signal intentionality in your design by giving the eye a clean dividing line to focus on. Your choice of path materials, such as natural stone, cement pavers or wood chips, will add a unique personality to your garden.

If you are particularly interested in birds, consider adding a small water feature. A birdbath in view of a window will give you a moment of joy the first time a feathered guest stops for a drink or a splash. Migratory birds particularly appreciate fresh water after a long flight. You’ll need to commit to refilling it regularly, so make sure it’s near a water source. Solar-powered bubblers are inexpensive and will keep the water moving and free of mosquito larvae.


Novice native gardeners often worry that their garden will look too “messy” in the eyes of their neighbors, or simply get out of control. The key to success is designing with layers to drive good practices and an intentional look.

The first layer is the structural layer, including anything that makes an impact on the look of the garden all year round. Take note of any trees or shrubs in place already. If you want a denser look, add more shrubs or even build the bed around a new understory tree like a flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) or a serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.). If you’re not sure about making changes yet, it’s ok to leave the structural layer alone on your first project.

The next layer is the groundcover layer. For a new garden, this is the most important layer, because bare ground invites weeds. Native groundcovers such as golden ragwort (Packera aurea) or golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) will spread across a new bed over the course of one year and prevent weeds from germinating. Additionally, most native groundcovers bloom at the start of the growing season (March or April) and this provides essential food for hungry bumblebee queens forming the year’s new nests.

The last layer is probably the most familiar to novice gardeners: seasonal interest. These are any showy plants that flower from May through November. Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) are good examples. They will happily coexist with groundcover species, first growing deep roots, then shooting up and pushing the groundcover into dormancy. Seasonal interest plants may only bloom for a month each year, so the key to a lively garden is a succession of different plants blooming one after the other. That said, if you have a larger bed, consider mass plantings of only a few species, as this will show passers-by that your garden was designed with purpose.

A good planting density is 1 to 1.5 plants per square foot. This is much higher than in a traditional garden, which relies on annual applications of mulch instead of ground cover to prevent weeds. When in doubt, focus on establishing your ground cover first, as there will always be time to squeeze in seasonal interest plants later. After the first year, your garden will likely crowd out any weeds and you can focus on thinning or moving any overzealous plants.


Once you have a vision, paths and a sense of your layers, you can begin plant selection in earnest. For some, this will be the most fun part. For others, diving into plant lists can be overwhelming. We have included some recommended plants to get you started. If you would like to search through a larger list, go to, which draws from the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommended plants for the Chesapeake watershed.

Recent studies show that even tiny patches of 70% native plantings make a measurable difference in species diversity. Whether your first native garden is 1 square foot or 100, you’re making space for local wildlife and restoring the land.