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Native Plant Gardens: How to Start

So many ways to jump right in!

First, the best news. It's pretty easy. How you choose to start depends a bit on the time you have, your budget and your garden wishes. You can do a little or a lot and still know you are making a difference! Planting just one native tree, shrub or container actually does make a difference, according to scientists. Plus your space will feel more alive and energetic.

Do One Thing

native river birch tree
newly planted river birch

If your time is limited, plant one tree or a shrub. Here are Professor Doug Tallamy’s top ten plants for insect biodiversity, measured by the number of moths and butterflies each support:

  1. Oaks (Quercus alba) (supporting over 500 species)

  2. Willow (Salix nigra) (supporting over 450 species)

  3. Cherry, plum or wild plum (Prunus Americana) (supporting over 450 species)

  4. River Birch (Betula nigra) (supporting over 400 species)

  5. Poplar, cottonwood (Populus deltoides) (supporting over 360 species) and not recommended for average gardens

  6. Crabapple (Malus coronaria) (supporting over 300 species)

  7. Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) (supporting over 280 species)

  8. Box elder (Acer negundo) (supporting over 280 species) and not recommended for average gardens

  9. Elm (Ulmus Americana) (supporting over 200 species) and not recommended for average gardens

  10. Pine (Pinus strobus) (supporting over 200 species)

Plant several shrubs

native red chokeberry
red chokeberry in spring

If you have a bit more time, shrubs are a great way to go. Many add at least three seasons of interest -- spring flowers, berries and fall color, for example. They do no require much maintenance once planted and established and, as larger plants, give you a lot of ecological value. Here are some of the best to start with.

Layer at multiple levels

native plants layered
magnolia, amsonia, inkberry, winterberry. virginia creeper

If you are interested in adding easier to grow native plants at all levels of your garden from the ground up, check out building blocks for groundcovers, perennials, shrubs and understory trees. To have a garden filled with birds, experts tell us that we need layers of native plants.

Add to a Garden with Lots of Ornamentals

common ornamental plants
ornamental garden

If you already have a mature garden of ornamental plants such as nandina, yews, Japanese hollies, Asian azaleas, cherry laurels, barberry and the like, there are steps you can take without going back to square one. Check out this post for some ideas.

Convert a Portion of Lawn

If you are ready to convert a portion of your lawn to garden bed and want ideas for places to start, check out these native plant garden templates from Howard County's Bee City USA initiative for all sorts of situations. If you want to create your own design but just need advice on which plants to choose, you can search plants native to your zip code here.

Plant a Container

heuchera 'Autumn Bride' container

Containers are an easy way to start. For a small container in sun, you might start with a long blooming perennial like blue hyssop. It's amazing, how many pollinators you will see. Have shade? Perhaps start with heuchera 'Autumn Bride.' You will have foliage and flower wands in August through to early October or so. Here are more ideas.

Hire A Pro

If DIY outdoors is not your thing, hire a pro. You can hire someone who will coach you or design the entire garden, plant it and maintain it. Scroll to the bottom of this page to see a few of the many services out there. Be sure to look for someone with a portfolio that demonstrates they work with native plants routinely.

Where to Get Native Plants

There are more and more places to buy your native plants every day and, likewise, the selection is greater every day. This page gives you a list of sources from small nurseries to online sources. If you are new to shopping for native plants, please see these tips.

Know whatever steps you take, we will all be better for it! Thanks for gardening for the Chesapeake.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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