We humans, including myself, were taught to maintain our gardens unnaturally by growing plants spaced apart with each plant surrounded by wood mulch.  If we want a nature friendly garden we must allow plants to spread and fill in all the bare areas of a garden as a living mulch.  This is the way nature gardens!  A living mulch will provide more wildlife habitat, improve the soil, infiltrate more run-off and suppress more weeds.

I often hear some gardeners don’t use native plants because they spread too much. Yes, many native plants are spreaders, some spread more than others, and a few are “clumpers”, i.e. don’t spread at all or very much.  Some native plants appear to grow slow the first few years after planting or seeding mainly because they’re focusing their energy growing their root systems below ground.  Other native plants, called pioneer plants, spread and bloom profusely the first few years, then begin to decrease in numbers as other slower growing native plants develop. Some native plants, spread profusely and bloom, then go dormant later in the season. 

So here are some basic guidelines I hope will encourage you to use native plants, both spreaders and clumpers, as a living mulch.

  1. Learn which plants are pioneers and use a few to your advantage to keep weeds down when initially planting your garden. Example: Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).
    Rudbeckia hirta

    Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a pioneer species. There are other native rudbeckias which are not pioneers.

     

  2. Some natives spread more than others. Learn which plants are aggressive spreaders and don’t use them in smaller gardens and use sparingly in larger gardens. Example: Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum). BTW: I teach a class November-March called “Favorite Native Plants through the Seasons”  giving tips about about how to use spreaders and non-spreaders that can also take a wide range of conditions in small-medium gardens. Contact me for more information.
  3. Remember, native plants are dynamic. They spread more when conditions match what they’re used to,  and less when conditions are not, with some plants going dormant.  For example, a native perennial which  typically grows in moist conditions may go dormant or not bloom much during a drought.
  4. Learn which plants go dormant naturally (ephemerals) or in extreme weather conditions. Mix in plants that emerge later or don’t go dormant.  When you visit a natural area, a bare spot doesn’t necessarily mean a plant is not there, it just may be dormant.
  5. Plant in layers.  Strategically add some taller focal points  (plants which stand out and look good multiple seasons), fillers to occupy voids in between, and low groundcovers.  Example: Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) spreads and is a good filler, but it still allows clumpers and crawlers to grow.
  6. Learn which native plants grow together in the wild. These are called companion plants or plant associates. These provide competition for each other naturally, and will more likely balance eachother out.  A sustainable garden is not only about growing plants that look well together but  grow well together in the right conditions.
  7. Initially you may use wood mulch, leaf mulch or leaf compost to fill in the voids when planting live plants.  Eventually let the plants will fill in over time and don’t add any additional mulch, except for naturally falling leaves,  especially in a woodland garden. It’s also good to leave some bare areas of soil for ground nesting native bees. 
  8.  Wildlife , wind,  humans, roots and rhizomes spread weeds and native seeds and plants into other areas of our garden.  Because of this  – you still will have to do a little weeding or artful editing, even with a living mulch. Just remember before you edit out a native plant that’s spreading too much, a bare spot can lead to more weeds or decrease critical food supply for those wildlife who are plant specialists. 

I hope nature will inspire you to garden with a  living mulch. If you still want to learn more, please visit and study natural areas, parks arboretums, yards where native plants successfully grow. Also read our notebook article Rethinking Native Plant Maintenance.

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