A shocking $250 water bill the first month in their new home convinced Joe and Mary Bochiechio of San Marcos, Calif., to replace their water-loving lawn with native plants. They used easy-to-find shrubs, trees and flowers, including pink-flowering currants, foamy blue swaths of wild lilac, and gray-leafed hummingbird fuchsia.
"We now have a little water bill, minimal maintenance and lots of wildlife in our garden," Mary says. "It's cool to watch the hawks, butterflies, quail and hummingbirds."
Natives are the plants that grew naturally in a region before settlers brought others from distant places. They are the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to landscape any yard because they are ideally suited to the soils and climate in which they evolved. Little water is needed after the plants are established, bugs don't bother them, maintenance is minimal and fertilizer isn't required.
Successful landscaping with native plants begins with knowing the soil type and how well it drains. "Select plants accordingly: drought-tolerant for dry, sandy soils or moisture lovers for heavy, wet ground," says Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis. (pop. 1,217). "Then think about your goals. Do you want color all season? If so, choose plants that bloom sequentially. Finally, pick plants that squeeze out weedsplants with thick, fibrous roots."
Ornamental grasses do that best. Diboll suggests prairie dropseed, which smells like buttered popcorn, and 2-foot-high little bluestem, which turns from silvery blue to crimson in the fall. "Add drought-tolerant sweet black-eyed Susans and baptisia for yellow and blue flowers. Baptisia will take over and look great in back of the lower-growing grasses," he adds.
In the hot, humid South, native plants must be both drought-tolerant and able to survive soggy soil. "We can easily get 12 inches of rain from a tropical storm," explains Patricia Martin of Seabrook, Texas (pop. 9,443). She and husband Tom were looking for landscaping that would tolerate the scorching sun on the west side of their house when they discovered the beauty and toughness of natives. They planted vivid orange pride of Barbados, yellow bells and lavender-flowered golden dewdrop to put on a continuous show of flowers and berries from early spring into winter. "The only maintenance I do," Martin says, "is to cut off old growth in late winter and prune a bit if I want to limit size."
Available for every climate, soil and sun exposure, native plants can be purchased at garden centers, from mail-order catalogs and on websites that specialize in them. Plant sales, nature centers and botanical gardens sell them, too. If you're unsure what to plant, ask a local county extension service agent for a list of plants native to your region.
Story by Doreen G. Howard of Roscoe, Ill