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How to grow a garden with ‘natural beauty’

August 8, 2016

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Minn. — In July, the cottage-style garden that Lynn Steiner tends in Washington County is gloriously abloom with a rainbow of colorful flowers — purples, yellows, pinks and reds set off by the cool greens of trees, shrubs and foliage.

But to Steiner, her landscape is much more than just a pretty plot that complements her restored 1898 farmhouse.

"There should be more to gardening than just, ‘Does this make our eyes happy?’?" said the horticulturist and author of several books on native plants, including her latest, "Grow Native: Bringing Natural Beauty to Your Garden." In it, she advocates "responsible gardening," which she defines as "giving some thought to everything you do in your garden" — from plant choice to use of chemicals.

"It’s cruel to lure insects to the garden, then use insecticides to kill them," she said.

As for "responsible" plant choices, native plants are high on the list because they have evolved to thrive in local growing conditions — and to support pollinators and other wildlife.

"When you plant a native, you can sleep well at night knowing it’s not going to cause detrimental effects," she said.

Native plants tend to require less water and less fussing than non-natives, making them easier on the gardener, as well. And they also can help replace the natural habitat that has been lost to development, agriculture and invasive plants.

"We’re losing natives in so many native areas, it’s important for our gardens to provide nectar and pollen sources," she said. "Roadsides used to be a huge habitat; now they’re destroyed. So many invasives have replaced the native plants. When we first moved here, I could find prairie remnants. Not anymore."

Steiner has been tending gardens on this old farmstead for more than three decades. In addition to the cottage-style garden that surrounds her house, the 18-acre site also includes a restored prairie, savanna and oak woodland.

"Part of the appeal of this place was there was a lot of opportunity for gardening," she said. "At the start, I was very into vegetable gardening."

Then about 15 years ago, Voyageur Press contacted her about writing a book on native plants. Steiner, the longtime editor of Minnesota Horticulture magazine (now Northern Gardener) was eager to tackle long-form garden writing.

"I loved the idea of a book. Magazine articles are too short," she said. So she immersed herself in the study of natives.

At the time, there were few books available, and native plants themselves were held in dim regard as too weedy and unsightly. "Native plants were not considered good garden choices," she said.

But as Steiner learned more about native plants, she came to appreciate them. "I think they’re pretty, and they offer gardeners a whole new palette of plants."

She became especially interested in which plants could make the transition into residential landscapes.

"Not all are well-suited for home gardens," she said. "Some are aggressive and heavy reseeders. I want people to enjoy them like I do and not get frustrated."

Steiner’s first book, "Landscaping With Native Plants of Minnesota" published in 2002, led to others, including "Native Plants of Wisconsin," "Native Plants of Michigan" and "Rain Gardens: Sustainable Landscaping for a Beautiful Yard and a Healthy World."

Her new book is "heavy on design principles," she said, and "heavy on attracting pollinators and other native fauna. Plants were selected for those criteria."

Not maintenance-free

In "Go Native," Steiner also tackles some misconceptions about native plants.

"A lot of people think natives are boring, that there are not enough colors," she said. "They do tend to have shorter flowering periods than highly bred cultivars."

But she has no objection to using cultivars to add color and punch up a garden of mostly native plants. Her garden beds, for example, include heuchera, a popular cultivar that comes in many foliage colors, and Tiger Eyes sumac as an accent shrub.

She’s also "not a purist" when it comes to chemical intervention in the garden. "I do use Roundup as a way to control big problems," she said, calling it "a tool when used correctly" on invasives, including the garlic mustard in her woods.

Another misconception about native plants: Because they tend to be lower maintenance than many traditional garden plants, some people think they require no maintenance at all. "You have to be on top of things," Steiner said. "They can get weedy and messy-looking."

If native plants look a little wilder than garden-variety plants, that’s a good thing, she said. "They are more informal looking." And more variable. "A native plant tends to look different at different times," she said, as opposed to, say, hosta, which always look the same. "The native garden evolves and changes. If you can appreciate that and go with it, that’s a benefit."

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These days, Steiner grows mostly natives and very few vegetables. "You can get so much more at the farmers markets," she said. "And we love to travel and are sometimes gone for long periods. The vegetable garden can’t tolerate that. But my natives do just fine."

Now when she talks to garden groups, she finds them much more knowledgeable and receptive to native plants than they were at the time she wrote her first book on the subject.

"We can thank the insects," she said, citing the recent explosion of interest in reversing declining populations of bees, Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

"When I started gardening, it was ‘How can we get rid of every insect?’ We’re starting to understand the importance of creatures beyond just us."

 

 


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