Natural Landscaping 101

Are you ready to landscape with Wisconsin native plants but aren’t sure which ones are best suited to your sliver of urban green space? Answering that question may be a lot easier than you think, according to a couple of local landscapers. Perhaps their suggestions will inspire you to dig up at least a few square feet of your yard to start a wildflower or prairie garden to restore our ecosystem to its pre-european colonization state. If you don’t have the time now, clip the “Resources List” at the end of this article and save it for when you are ready. Step one: Create a nice bed of soil. Most Milwaukee soils are relatively high in nutrients but also high in clay content, which makes the soil too waterlogged for some plants. To create a soil template that most plants will like, get some compost that will lighten up your soil, mix it in, and then sow your native seeds. If you can, use your own compost that you’ve saved from going to the landfill. Contrary to popular belief, compost does not smell bad if done properly; it should smell like dirt if you add an equal mixture of grass clippings and leaves with each batch of food. Step two: Select your plants. Mike Marek of Marek Landscaping suggests that no more than six different species are plenty to start off with. Select a few species that are adapted to the amount of sunlight you have (or lack). If your yard is very shaded (as many Riverwest areas are), choose species that don’t mind being out of the sun. Lupine, purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans, or late-season asters are just a few, along with the ubiquitous impatiens. Step three: Line your garden with natural rock from farmers’ fields if you can find them, rather than from rock quarries. Rock quarries cause severe habitat destruction, not to mention releasing minerals that lower ground water quality. Most farmers are happy to share their unwanted rocks. Step four: Watch your garden grow. Add more plants gradually to fill in space. So why plant native? Native plants are better at retaining water and nutrients than the typical monoculture of Kentucky blue or gardens planted with non-native plants most Americans are obsessed with. “Natural plant communities or ecosystems are more resilient to disturbance, such as drought, when there are more species there,” says Stefan Schnitzer, assistant professor of ecology at UWM. “Plants have adapted over thousands of years to typical mid-summer droughts in this part of the world. They’ll go dormant if they need to and come back next year,” said Schnitzer. Planting native means you can kiss those brown, scorched, mid-summer lawns goodbye — with a mixture of native wildflowers and grasses, your lawn and garden won’t need extra water during those hot, dry summer days. That means lower water bills, better water retention, and an ecologically restored plant community that you can feel good about. You can start a native wildflower or prairie garden at any time during the growing season, so why wait? Clip the resource list below for native landscaping advice. Give any of these places a call and someone will be more than happy to answer any questions: Applied Ecological Services, Brodhead, WI 608/897-4898 Kellner’s Greenhouses, 3258 N. Humboldt Blvd. 414/264-6605 Peggy Karpfinger, Riverwest Landscape Architect 414/374-3666 Mike Marek, Marek Landscaping 414/305-6565 Prairie Nursery 800/476-9453 Wild Ones 414/299-9888, ext 2. Composting Resources:, 414/964-8505; Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, Inc. 414/272-5462.