Native Garden Design

Once gardeners get interested in native plants, the first question that comes up is “How do I design my garden?” What a good question. Here are some ways to start.

Let the pros do the work: buy a pre-planned garden

Designs by Nature U.P. Native Plants—This Marquette-based nursery has 15 nifty pre-planned gardens (for monarchs, pollinators, sun, shade, dry, wet, etc. . . . you get the idea) at very reasonable prices. Bonus: the owners collect their own seeds, so many of the plants really are local genotypes. You can order online and pick up at the nursery.

Prairie Moon Nursery (Minnesota)—Find “Garden Kits” on their website or in the catalog. Suggested planting plans are downloadable from their website.

Prairie Nursery (Wisconsin)—Has LOTS of pre-planned gardens geared toward site conditions and wildlife. Plans are available on their website.

Minnesota Native LandscapesA selection of gardens, including some for the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee, and the uber-cute “My Pocket Prairie.”

Free plans, BYO plants

Wild Ones’ “Native Garden Designs” provides several fabulous landscape-scale designs for homes in Minneapolis, Toledo, Milwaukee, Chicago, and other cities. Plus, the designs drill down to the plant level, so you can not only check out great ideas for the overall look of your property, you can inspect the many gardens and use them as templates for your own property.

Grow Native!—This Missouri Prairie Foundation site has several garden designs. Though for the central Midwest, many species are native to the Great Lakes, so these designs provide a good starting point.

If you want to garden for birds, this is the place. The Michigan chapter of Audubon has published this 16-page booklet chock full of garden designs with birds in mind. Wish I’d known about this a long time ago.

Butterfly GardenPresented at the 2015 North Stars Garden Conference in Florence, Wis.

Minnesota DNR butterfly, moth, and bee designs

Native Plants for the Small Yard—Authored by Kate Brandes and published by Lehigh Gap Nature Center, in Pennsylvania, this 60-page book has several designs for small gardens. Her plans are also posted here.

Minnesota’s weirdly named Lawns to Legumes project pays residents to grow native plants with an eye toward pollinators. Yay! Along with a primer on Planting for Pollinators, it has several garden designs for shade, rain, and tough, sunny spots like hellstrips.

Blazing Star Gardens, in Owatonna, Minn., not only sells plants but also provides a bunch of free garden designs.

Michigan Native Design for the Birds – from the Michigan Audubon Society, see the design for a shrub border with Upper Peninsula plants.

Wild Ones Garden Designs – The national Wild Ones organization partnered with landscape designers around the country to come up with usable design plans for many ecoregions. Check them out!

Dig deeper into design principles

Ten Elements of Natural Design, by Larry Weaner—First published in 1996, this article by the award-winning landscaper advises on landscaping with nature in mind.

Planting: A New Perspective—Piet Oudolf designed gardens in Chicago’s Millennium Park and the world-famous High Line in New York, shattering norms and establishing himself as the planting prophet for the twenty-first century. Lots of good direction, but the photos alone are worth the price of admission.

Designing with Colorful Native Plants handout—This pdf lists lots of midwestern natives by color and bloom time. Ania Wiar, senior horticulturalist at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla., shows how she plans a native garden: first with a chart showing the bloom times and colors of each plant, second by applying those colors to a four-season design, so you can visualize how the garden will look throughout the year.