Diverse Ecosystem in your Garden

First, make an assessment of the environmental conditions (shady or sunny, drainage, soil types, irrigation, etc.). This assessment is a critical one.  It it extremely important you know exactly how many hours of sun the area gets.  The sun can feel quite strong in an area for an hour or two, but it may not shine strongly for the 6+ hours many prairie plants need for best development.  If you put plants that need shade in a full sun situation, they will not survive.  


It is also helpful when creating a naturalistic landscape design to consider the associations found in specific plant communities (a prairie, wetland or forest). You may also want to visit some local natural areas to observe these associations first-hand.


Planning and planting a native garden does not have to be done all at once. It can be installed in phases as your budget and time allows.

The easiest method to start a new garden is to use sheet composting or to make a lasagne bed, which is simply layering browns and greens on a bed of cardboard, in the fall.  There is no digging or tilling which is destructive to the soil food web.


First, make sure you have mown the area.  Place down cardboard and wet it thoroughly.  Then place a layer of leaves, then a layer of greens (lawn clippings are great), and so on till you have a pretty thick bed.  Water these layers.  Add a layer of mulch on top.  Over the fall, winter, and spring, all of the decomposers in the soil will be working and by late spring you can plant into your new garden.  All of the ingredients may not be thoroughly composted, but they are usually enough so that you can plant.  As the temps warm up, soil organisms will consumer materials and turn them into soil soon enough.


You can also make an immediate bed at any time during the season with cardboard and soil placed on top as long as you are using seedlings (roots are not so deep), and the soil is thick enough.  No need to cut holes through the cardboard.  Keep the seedlings watered, and the cardboard will soften and be consumed by the decomposers fairly quickly.


Pictures below show the success of the lasagne bed method. You can see the cardboard and paper placed on top of the lawn, and the layering of browns and greens in Fall of 2014.  Seedlings were planted in Spring of 2015.  Garden is fairly mature in Spring 2016 and Fall 2016 in photos below.















If you are making a new bed in an area that is lawn, you can either use the lasagne bed method or dig up grass (or hire someone with a sod cutter).  You can then plant directly into the new bed.  Be sure to use the plant labels (or make your own) to help you identify your plants until you can recognize them.  Be sure to mulch in order to suppress weeds, conserve moisture, and feed soil microorganisms.  Pull or clip unwanted plants (“weeds”) before they get too large or set seed. Clipping the “weeds” helps you avoid disturbing root systems of young plants nearby. If you pull them when they are young, simply leave them on the top of the bed, roots up, and they will decompose quickly, returning the nutrients back to the soil.

Choose species based on the soil, light, and water conditions of your site and for the size, shape, texture, and color you desire. Below are just a few of our favorites.


Suggested Prairie Plants (full sun):

Spring: Spiderwort, Golden Alexanders, Prairie Smoke, Prairie Phlox, Cream Prairie Indigo, Shooting Stars, Penstemon digitalis

Summer: Purple Prairie Clover, Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Butterflyweed, Culver’s Root, Rose Milkweed

Fall: New England Aster, Smooth Blue Aster, Stiff Goldenrod, Showy Goldenrod, Aromatic Aster

Grasses: Little bluestem, Big Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed, Indian grass, Switch Grass, Purple Love Grass


Suggested Woodland Plants (shade):

IMG_2906Spring: Wild geranium, Virginia Bluebells, Wild Columbine, Celandine Poppy, Jacob’s Ladder, Early Meadow Rue, Virginia Water Leaf, Wild Blue Phlox, Hepatica

Ferns: Marginal Shield fern, Ostrich Fern, Christmas Fern

Groundcovers: Wild Ginger, May Apple, Allegheny Foam Flower

Three-Season Plants: Solomon’s Seal, Solomon’s Plume, White Baneberry

Fall: Short’s Aster, Large-leaf Aster, Elm-leaved Goldenrod, Zig-zag Goldenrod, Blue-stemmed Goldenrod, Blue Mist, White Snakeroot (can be a prolific self-seeder, grows smaller in shady situations)

Shrubs: Hazelnut, Witch Hazel, Arrowwood Viburnum, Pagoda Dogwood

Watering during establishment critical

Your native plants will need time to become established. The critical period for watering and weeding is two to three weeks after planting or longer if you are planting in warm, dry seasons.  Even if the plants are labelled as drought-tolerant, they are NOT able to go without frequent watering in the beginning after they are transplanted. They will die.  


Importance of mulching

If you are planting trees or shrubs, apply a four to six-inch layer of organic mulch around them (but, not touching the main stem) and a one-inch or less mulch layer for perennials. Mulch can help control weeds, reduce temperature fluctuations, help retain moisture and give a finished look to the landscape.  Native plants usually do not require fertilizer. Many thrive in poor soil and applying fertilizer could chemically burn them, or stimulate either lush or spindly, weak foliage growth with few flowers.


The only “fertilizer” you will need

Leaving the organic matter in the fall and spring is all you need to do to have healthy plants. This material will feed the soil organisms which will then feed your plants.  Fungi are critically  important for the health of your plants, and they prefer whole material to consume.  Fungi deliver nutrients AND water to your plants.  

Enjoy the butterflies and birds that visit. Each year add more native plants. Make more prairie and/or woodland spaces. Educate your neighborhood by example! Once you get started, it becomes easier and easier every year to maintain your property/grounds — less mowing and watering; more wildlife and soil improvement.


To read further about native plant landscaping, check out this Penn State Extension article. It discusses misconceptions about native plants.

What is a Sustainable Garden? 

Simply put, a sustainable garden helps the earth instead of damaging it by naturally regenerating the soil, encouraging biodiversity, and improving the overall health of our local ecosystems. Sustainable gardening practices involve working in harmony with soil biology, native plants and insects, and our home ecoregions. When we make this switch, we have many more methods to create a richer, more beautiful, and healthier space. 

How to Create a Sustainable Garden 

Here are a few of our favorite sustainable gardening practices you can incorporate into your regular landscaping routine this summer:

Think of your garden as a little piece of the ecosystem around you. When you plant more native species, you provide more resources to native birds, insects, butterflies, and other wildlife that rely on native plants for food, nesting, and reproductive shelter. Plus, you give space to the native plants themselves, which are often more resilient, require less maintenance, and have a unique, local beauty.  

What’s the difference between a turf grass lawn and an ancient tall grass prairie? Both are green and made up of grass, but the prairie is infinitely more biodiverse, containing hundreds of species of grasses and wildflowers that host thousands of different insects, songbirds, mammals, and birds of prey. While it would be impossible to plant an entire prairie in our Chicagoland backyards, we can bring a bit of that magic to our garden and lawn spaces by growing a more diverse selection of plants and hosting a wider variety of life! 

When we spray our plants with pesticides, we unknowingly damage our soil, rivers and lakes, health, and helpful local insects and pollinators. A sustainable alternative is to switch to organic pest control. Try using mesh around vulnerable vegetable crops, take advantage of companion planting, use predatory insects like ladybugs, and boost biodiversity in general, which builds a more resilient and sustainable space.     

Organic weed management is a boon to the insects, soil, and the miniature ecosystem of our garden space. Digging out weeds by hand, mulching, and using handy tools like a garden hoe are great ways to make fast work of weeds. 

Another way is to eat them. Many so-called “weeds,” like dandelions and chickweed, are actually super nutritious, edible greens that are best enjoyed when the leaves are young. Just make sure they haven’t been sprayed with anything before adding them to your next salad! 

Insects are the cornerstone of all life—both in our gardens and our broader ecosystem—but we unknowingly harm them by using outdoor lights at night. Roughly half of all insects are nocturnal, but our lights interfere with their nighttime travel patterns, vision, and mating habits. Ever seen moths buzzing around porch lights? Nearly one-third of insects caught in this situation die. If we simply turned off our lights at night, we could save thousands of insects every year in our yards alone. 

If you don’t want to nix your lights altogether, switch to motion sensor lights or use yellow or amber low-light LEDs, which are less disturbing to bugs.  

Reduce your water bill and consumption by capturing rainwater to use in your garden. A common method is to store it in rain barrels for later use, while another approach is to divert your downspouts into underground weeping pipes that bring rainwater to your shrubs and trees. In times of heat, these are sustainable ways to keep your garden space thriving without taxing the natural water supply.

*Please note that CGF does not recommend using water from rain barrels on crops you plan to eat without purifying it.

Few things are more sustainable and easy to create than a compost pile. It’s a DIY method to turn kitchen scraps, yard waste, and leaves into valuable, all-natural fertilizer for your garden. The key to composting is to get the right ratio of green matter–like weeds, fruit and veggie scraps, and coffee grounds–and brown matter, like dried leaves, paper and cardboard, and woody branches. Once you achieve the correct balance, the microbes start to thrive, and you have an efficient digestor with minimal scent.   

Synthetic fertilizers do a great job of boosting plant growth in the short term, but they actually impair soil microbiology and pollute our waterways with an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus in the long run. A sustainable alternative is building living soils rich in organic matter and microbes by using compost, aged manure, compost tea, cover cropping, or mulch on your garden rather than chemical fertilizers.  

Besides using rain barrels, efficient use of water reduces your overall consumption. Some of our favorite ways to water sustainably include mulching your plants to retain water, watering in the morning to reduce evaporation loss, growing your grass longer to reduce its watering needs, and using a drip irrigation line in your garden space.

Ladybugs, solitary bees, moths, beetles, and butterflies use leaf mulch and dead plant matter as shelter over the winter. We can boost the population of these beneficial insects by leaving our leaves over the winter in our garden and then waiting until the bees emerge in the spring before we do a clean-up. It also benefits the insects to keep a small messy area in your yard year-round.  

Berries, perennial food plants, fruit trees, and a good old-fashioned vegetable plot are great ways to reduce your family’s ecological footprint while enjoying the best food possible. During World War Two, victory gardens planted in people’s yards contributed 40% of their total food consumption. If we aim for something similar, we can greatly reduce our carbon footprint associated with the transportation of food and plastic packaging.

One of the best ways to live in harmony with birds, squirrels, butterflies, and other creatures is to start an observation practice in your yard. Spend a few hours per week observing who visits your space and what they’re doing there. Over the long term, you’ll learn how the birds, squirrels, and insects use the plants you grow. This knowledge will help you adopt more mutually beneficial gardening practices that will assist your local wildlife instead of competing with them or viewing them as pests. 

Not long ago, our yards and gardens were tall grass prairies, eastern deciduous forests, or mixed forest-grasslands savannas. Although these precious ecosystems have been greatly altered, they still exist in fragments around us, and getting to know your local ecoregion is a great way to become more invested in its preservation and regeneration. Visit your local nature parks, conservation areas, rivers, and lakes and experience the abundance of unique life and natural beauty that continues to thrive just outside your door! 

A final great way to make your gardening more sustainable is to get the kids involved. Children are naturally curious about animals, insects, and plants, meaning they absolutely adore biodiverse outdoor spaces. Plus, there’s no better way to build a more sustainable future than to get the next generation in the dirt at a young age!