Many people are attracted to the color and variation provided by native plants. Not only do they offer beautiful scenery, native plants also promote a healthy environment by reducing erosion, filtering stormwater, and providing habitat for native fauna. But why do natural plantings so often become fields of weeds instead of the beautiful flowers and animals we anticipated?

There are many reasons that a planting might fail, but any project can succeed with the right solutions and tools in hand. The keys to successful natural planting include planting the right plants in the right place and at the right time, promoting natural relationships, knowing when to plant, consistent stewardship, and much more.

Planting the Right Plants

Different plants have different needs. Plants that need lots of water won't do very well at the top of a dry hill. Before planting, assess your site, including sunlight and water availability, and plan accordingly.

Use Sufficient Seed

Not every seed you sow is going to become a plant. Even if all your seeds germinate, they will not succeed if they cannot out-compete weeds and invasive species growing alongside them. To set your planting up for success, consider at least 25 lbs. of native seed per acre (prairies).

Planting Too Deep

Sunlight is a necessary ingredient for germination. If seeds are buried too deeply, they will not germinate. Many restoration companies use no-till drills to install seed just under the surface. For those who don’t have no-till drills sitting in your sheds, distribute the seed over the area to be planted by hand and lightly rake it into the soil to be slightly covered. Then, roll the area to assure soil to seed contact.

Promoting Natural Relationships

In a functioning natural area, there are many interdependent relationships that aren't readily visible. One such relationship is that between the roots of the native plants and soil fungus. Fungi provide plants with water and nutrients in a form they can use. In return, fungi receive nutrients from the plant. If an area has not held native plants for some time, appropriate fungi may not be present, and plants will benefit from the addition of a mycorrhizal inoculant.

Planting in the Spring or Fall

Pink flowers planted in a natural area in Chicago, IL.

Many plants drop their seeds in fall, at which point they sit in the soil and stratify until spring. Come spring, precipitation rates go up and temperatures are modest, setting the stage for germination. Following this natural cycle, plantings should be performed either two weeks post-thaw in the spring or two weeks before the average first frost in the fall. If planted in the middle of summer, you risk high temperatures and low precipitation that may desiccate your seeds.

Promoting Stewardship

The most common problem in natural areas restoration is ignoring stewardship or maintenance. The first few years after planting are critical to success. Follow the following tips for the first three years:

  • A newly seeded area may require mowing for the first season or two.
  • Use herbicides to kill certain weeds or invasive species in and around the area. Physical controls should be used wherever necessary and where herbicides are not appropriate.
  • Any bare areas should receive supplemental plantings of seed or plugs so that invasive species and weeds do not become established in those areas.
  • Gaps in stewardship can cause major setbacks, plan for consistency!

In the third year after planting, and on a customized schedule thereafter, a controlled burn should be conducted by qualified professionals. This will reduce above-ground vegetation and allow more sunlight to reach the ground for seed germination. Additionally, the process enables the previously locked nutrients in the burned material to be recycled back into the soil and helps control some invasive species.

Periodic controlled fires will help maintain the continued health of the area.

Provide a healthy environment with native plantings. Hire our experts today!

Following the above guidelines should help secure the success of native plantings. Once the site is established, it will require much less work to maintain, and it will provide color and life year after year.

At Pizzo & Associates, Ltd., our team of experts can assist with natural areas management and natural areas restoration in and around Lake Forest, Barrington, Naperville, and surrounding areas in Illinois. Our services maintain, restore, and enhance natural and healthy environments. We offer long-term solutions that follow a three-step process to keep your plantings in control and make your spaces more beautiful and sustainable. Call (815) 495-2300 to schedule a consultation.