Sunday, November 1, 2015

Growing Native Plants in Difficult Spots

People occasionally remark that they have trouble growing plants in their landscape because they have difficult conditions: pure clay, rocky soil, wet soil are the 3 most common reasons. This week’s blog offers some thoughts on that subject.
Aster that planted itself in a crack

First of all, native plants are well adapted to all the soils we have. Even nasty urban clay soils, stripped of the nutrient-rich top soils that they used to have, can support some of our tough-as-nails native plants. The solution is a matter of what you choose and how you plant it.

What you choose

Choosing potted plants from most nurseries and big box retailers is not the answer. These plants have two strikes against them: they are usually non-native and they have been grown in pots with soils that are optimal for growth (but not optimal for survival in your landscape). If you’re truly interested in having more success, pass on those.

Sourwood seedling in clay
Seeds are the way to grow plants in difficult spots, especially clay soils and rocky soils. Seeds put down a tiny root that grows and adapts to the conditions, even changing direction if needed. If you’ve ever seen a plant growing out of a crack, then you know how seeds can plant themselves and be successful.

Even so, the conditions must be right. You must do your research on what will thrive in your conditions: is the area sunny, shady, wet or dry?

Gather seeds when ripe

Once you have selected your target plants and obtained your seeds, do more research! Seeds have specific germination requirements: some want cold treatment before they will sprout, others need ample light (so don’t bury them too much) or warm soil temperatures … or even all of these things! It’s not complicated, so don’t be intimidated, but do pay attention.

Special note on seedlings: ask your friends if they get seedlings of plants that you want (and you know they have). They may offer you some of their extras.

Some of you won’t be willing to go the seed route and that is understandable. The next best choice is to select young plants that were grown by people that care about selling you good plants and having those plants actually live in your landscape. Smaller, younger plants have a better chance of getting settled into their new space if planted properly.

Special note when deciding: Plants that have a suckering/spreading habit will help you get more coverage, especially on hard-to-plant places like slopes.

How you plant it

There are so many ways to go wrong here. First, match the plant to the spot: sunny, shady, wet, dry. Next, dig the right size hole. The hole should not be any deeper than the plant’s pot (you don’t want it to sink later) and no wider than twice the pot's width. Gently tease apart any roots that are crowded.

Do not add amendments to the planting hole and definitely don’t replace the native soil with new soil. The plant needs to get used to this dirt. Some people even rinse off some of the dirt from the pot, but I don’t like to disturb the roots too much. Press the dirt into the hole afterwards to ensure good root-to-soil contact and remove air pockets.


How you treat the plant afterwards is important too. Native plants are tough, but they need water until they get established. Water the plant as needed and use organic mulch to help retain water around it (chopped leaves, pine straw, undyed hardwood mulch) and to provide nutrients as the mulch breaks down. Keep the mulch far enough away from the stem to avoid smothering it, but close enough to keep the ground from drying out.

Special note: Group plants with similar water needs together, just like nature would do. That way any watering you need to do can be done together.

I hope these ideas might have helped you to see a path towards using more native plants in what might seem to be difficult areas. Nature always finds a way and you can too.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! We're lucky to have the Georgia State Botanical Garden nearby. Their annual sale of native plants is so helpful!