Native Plant Gardens

Dennis Paige brought native Illinois prairie plants to his suburban condo development. They're not just beautiful; experts say native plant gardens are great for the environment. We revisit Jay Shefsky's profile on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

Native plants are the way to go, especially if you’re a first time gardener. Not only do experts say that native plant gardens help slow climate change, but they also take to the soil quicker and better.

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“They can tolerate our winters and our seasons,” said horticulturist Liz Rex, who takes care of the Native Plant Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “They might dieback on the top, but I’m not actually worried about the plant actually dying.”

And in a city like Chicago, with its summer hail and heat, any plant that won’t wilt in extreme weather has a definite advantage over more foreign perennials. Rex also shared some of her favorite native plants for three seasons: Spring, Summer and Fall.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Image Credit: Chicago Botanic Garden

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla): A woodland bloomer, the Twinleaf is a daisy-like flower.

Sand Phlox (Phlox bifida): The Sand Phlox actually prefers sandy soil, and blooms between Spring and Summer.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): Purple Coneflowers do best in full sun.

Royal Catchfly (Silene regia): With its tall, red tubular flowers, the Royal Catchfly often attracts hummingbirds.
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis): Best in late Summer, early Fall, this plant is actually a finely textured grass that smells like popcorn when it blooms.

Goldenrod (Solidago): With their tall stems, Goldenrods stand up strong in the Winter and provide visual interest even as their flowers die.

In addition to taking what seasons your plants will bloom into account, Rex recommends considering sun exposure and soil type when determining what native plants are best for your garden.

“The biggest factor is the sun exposure,” said Rex. “A lot of the prairie stuff will take a little bit of shade. The soil is the next big thing. Especially with the prairie—a lot of them can handle really heavy clay. Dig around and see what you find. If it’s really heavy, hard and clay-like, you have a more clay-like soil. If you have more trees around, you probably have really nice loamy soil—if you have a lot of leaf matter that collects and decays. It’s sandy if it feels coarse and you can pick it up, and it doesn’t stay clumped together like a clay soil would.”

If you decide to transition your yard into a native plant garden, remember to have a mixture of plants. Competition will keep your garden healthy. For instance, if you have both grasses and blooming plants, the differences in their root systems will keep them in check.

Research how much the plants grow and spread. A lot of prairie plants have a fibrous root system, so they can easily take over the garden. Look for clumpy prairie plants as well.

Once you determine the proper native plants for your soil type, you can almost just leave them alone.

According to Rex, “Once they’re established, you don’t have to baby them a bit. If they enjoy the soil, they’re going to take off.”

To see some of the flowers mentioned above and learn more about native plants, view the slideshow and links below.

To contact native landscaping consultant Dennis Paige, click here.

- Written by Jessen O'Brien

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