Wildflowers at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo: Erica Ballard

Native Landscape Care Calendar

This detailed calendar is intended for native landscape professionals, but it may be helpful to home gardeners as well. For more general information, please consult our native gardening overview and view our one-page care calendar

Note that growing conditions/plant phenology vary considerably throughout the lower Midwest, which is the region for which this care calendar is intended.

Jump to Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Seeded Landscapes, Woodland Management.

General Native Garden Maintenance:

General considerations before you begin your native landscaping projects and to keep in mind year-round:

  • Knowing the design intent of a designed native landscape will determine many maintenance factors, such as whether to “edit out” (weed) native plants that are heavy seeders, allow native ground covers to knit together, pinch back taller plants to control height, or limit the pruning on shrubs to maintain their natural shape. If available, consult the landscape plan/site manual/maintenance plan in order to determine the design intent before beginning a maintenance regimen. If these documents are not available, think about an overall strategy before diving into the maintenance.    
  • Native plants do not need continuous irrigation. Water new plantings and in periods of extreme drought to encourage strong, healthy plants to grow on their own without regular supplemental water. 
  • Learn how to identify when a native plant is dead or it is dormant. For example, many spring ephemerals emerge in late winter, bloom in the spring, and are dormant by the high heat of the summer. While these plants may look dead, their root systems are alive. Knowing which plants remain green through the growing season, which plants die back in winter, and when various native plants emerge are all important to maintaining a native landscape.
  • Be mindful of wildlife activity in the landscape. For example, if ground-nesting birds are present, burning, mowing, or disruption of planted areas of any kind during breeding months may injure or kill baby birds. Avoid blocking tunnels or other “wildlife crossings” with equipment or debris.
  • Be mindful of human activity in the landscape. If plants are falling over onto sidewalks or roadways, which could create a hazard, they should be pruned back immediately.
  • Evaluate the overall health of the planting year-round. If a plant or group of plants seem to be on the decline, look around for a possible source or reason. If 75% of the plant has declined or is dead (definitely not dormant), the plant can be considered dead and its placement and species should be noted. Once the plant(s) has been removed, the design intent can guide what is planted in its place.

Spring

  • “Edit” or “weed out” seedlings of desirable plants if too numerous. Remove undesirables such as weeds and invasives. Nutsedge, for example, becomes visible during April/May and is easy to pull. 
  • Mulch to conserve moisture, moderate soil temperature, and keep soil from crusting during drought and compacting from prolonged rain. Mulching is also a time and labor saver because it can greatly reduce the need for weeding. Mulch shades the soil, preventing many weed seeds from germinating. Weeds that do appear can be more easily pulled.


    However, for many weeds and seedlings, consider cutting, rather than pulling them, as pulling weeds may damage the roots of nearby young native plants. Pulling can also disturb the soil, encouraging weed growth. 
    However, many native plants can suffer if too much mulch is used. Do not smother natives with mulch. Also, keep in mind that mulch can prevent ground-nesting native bees from accessing soil to create nests. 

    Organic mulches are ideal because they break down over time to improve the soil structure. Materials such as compost, well rotted manure, shredded leaves, and pine needles are good choices. If you use bark or wood mulch, larger mulch pieces allow water and air to flow to soil. Very fine wood mulch can create a crust and also promote fungal growth, which may not be helpful to your plants. You can make your own mulch by composting or by using a power tool called a shredder-chipper that turns yard waste into mulch.

    If you use mulch, a 2-inch layer of mulch should be spread over weed-free beds after plants are installed and, if you use them, after soaker hoses have been laid in place. Be careful to keep mulch pulled away from the crowns of plants. Crowns that are covered with moisture-holding mulch tend to rot. Do not mulch areas that are being established by seeding. Organic mulches can be reapplied the first couple of springs as long as you aren’t suffocating plants. Your plants should be well enough established by the third year that you don’t have to mulch if you don’t want to.

    You can avoid mulch altogether by planting new plants close together to create a more dense planting and help to reduce weed germination. Additionally, using a fast-growing ground cover in between plants, such as Fragaria virginiana (wild strawberry), creates a “green mulch,” which replaces unwanted weeds with low-growing, dense plants.

  • In early spring, instead of cutting back last year’s vegetation to the ground, cut back spent seed heads and grass stems to stubble of varying heights (8″ to 24″ tall) to provide nesting cavities in which stem-nesting native bees will lay eggs at different times during the growing season. The larvae will develop over a year and adults will emerge from the stems the following growing season. New plant growth will hide the stubble.
  • Resist the urge to “spring clean” your native beds too early. As in forests and woodlands, fallen leaves in garden beds provide year-round habitat for snails (their calcium-rich shells promote egg strength), insects, and salamanders (which need insects to eat), harbor moth cocoons, and many other animals. Your yard provides important habitat not only in summer, but year round, and fallen leaves and other spent vegetation are critically important to many creatures. “Leave the leaves” until spring to support the web of life in your native beds.
  • Selectively prune shrubs that are at least two years old. Be mindful of shrub bloom times— wait to prune spring-blooming shrubs until after they flower. Designers may have a specific design intent for shrubs, which should be taken into consideration when pruning. For example, pruning shapes include rounded, vase, upright, weeping, horizontal, spreading, and canopy.
  • Prune winter-damaged branches on shrubs or trees that are late to leaf out by April or early May (especially Callicarpa americana (beautyberry) or Magnolia sp.).
  • If desired, give “spring haircuts” in late April or the first week of May to wildflowers that bloom after mid-July, like asters and goldenrods, so they are more compact. Trim 25% to 75%, depending on how tall you want the plants to be later in the season.
  • Once the plants come out of dormancy (especially spring ephemerals), assess overall garden design and determine if additional plants are needed to fill in gaps to enhance aesthetic appeal and/or provide more native food sources for pollinators.
  • Dividing/transplanting perennials can be done at any time of year to fill in gaps/expand gardens, however, the best times are when the plants are not blooming and not during seasonal extremes in temperature. Divide ferns while fronds are short to minimize damage to new fronds. Make sure to water in the new transplants.
  • When the ground thaws and the air temperature warms, begin planting native perennials and grasses. A general rule of thumb is to begin planting after a region’s last frost date.

Summer

  • Weed, including editing out undesirable native seedlings.
  • Deeply water new plantings. If rain is not plentiful, consider augmenting with an extra 1 inch of water at least once a week. To determine the correct watering depth, use a soil knife or your finger to dig at least 4” below the surface.  If the soil is moist, you have adequately watered.
  • Deadhead to encourage more blooms and to remove spent flowers from aggressive re-seeders. Note: if you choose to deadhead, keep in mind that you will reduce seed sources for birds to eat.
  • Retain last year’s dead stubble as native bee larvae may still be developing in the stems.
  • Vigorous, unwanted limbs should be removed or shortened on new trees. Watch for forks in the main trunk and remove the least desirable leader as soon as it is noticed. This Arbor Day Foundation publication offers useful instructions for pruning trees.
  • Watch for summer heat stress especially in dogwoods Cornus spp. (dogwoods). Extra watering can help alleviate stress. Expect some leaf drop in certain species like red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), which is its normal reaction to summer drought and does not indicate poor health. 
  • Trim back any ground cover, grasses, or other vegetation overhanging curbs or sidewalks.
  • Inspect plants for disease, specifically aster yellow virus, which affects plants in the Asteraceae family including coneflowers, blazingstars, and black-eyed susans. If found, remove diseased plant material by digging the entire plant and disposing in trash, if disposing of vegetation in trash is permitted in your area. Composting such plant material can spread plant diseases. Plant mildews, which can occur on a number of native plants, such as Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot), are not necessarily fatal.
  • Early summer-blooming shrubs can be pruned, if necessary, after they bloom.

Fall

  • Weed as needed, although by this time of the year, as the landscape establishes itself, weeds should diminish.
  • Leave seeds and fruits on native plants such as blazingstar, coneflower, and beautyberry through the fall and into the winter as they are good food and shelter sources for birds and add visual interest for you throughout the winter. However, you may wish to remove seeds/fruits from plants if you are concerned with aggressive reseeding.
  • Leave spent vegetation standing for winter interest and to provide seeds/shelter for birds and other animals in winter. For aesthetic purposes, however, you may wish to strategically trim unattractive, flopping, or other vegetation. If you choose to trim a significant amount of spent vegetation, instead of cutting flush to the ground, trim to 8- to 22- inches high so that the following growing season, native bees that nest in stems can lay eggs in them. This graphic illustrates solitary native bee egg and larval development in dead stems.
  • Once the heat of summer has passed, mid-September through November is a good time to plant native perennials and grasses. Make sure to water them in well.
  • If desired, mulch to a depth of 2 to 3 inches, keeping in mind that it is important to keep mulch off the crowns of most native species (no mulch “volcanoes”). For trees and shrubs be sure to mulch to a depth of 3 to 4 inches, creating a “donut” around the trunk. This helps to reduce weed pressure, maintain moisture, and protect from winter freezing and drought.
  • September through October is a good time to divide and move perennials and grasses.
  • Clean out bluebird and other bird houses in fall or winter.
  • November 15 to March 15 is the best time to prune most trees and shrubs. Remove crossing and crowded branches, dead limbs, double-leaders, and unsightly branches. This Arbor Day Foundation publication offers useful instructions for pruning trees.
  • If burning grass clumps or prairie plantings, be mindful of local burning ordinances and the surroundings, especially buildings and overhead utility lines.

Winter

  • In late February to early March, trim dead sedge foliage before plants leaf out in early spring.
  • Continue watering newly planted trees and shrubs as necessary. Water general plantings during winter drought periods. This is especially important. While everything may look “dead,” most root systems continue growing until the ground freezes solid. Throughout the winter the ground may freeze and thaw multiple times and during these thaw cycles roots continue taking up moisture. If a week goes by without adequate moisture (less than 1 inch) or if the wind blows strongly for several days in a row, trees and shrubs can become desiccated and/or stressed, causing potential future issues or even premature death. If adequate precipitation (less than 1 inch) has not occurred for a week, use a hose (or watering can) and soak the soil around each newly planted shrub and tree, pausing over the roots for at least 10 to 20 seconds. This small contribution of moisture will yield a tenfold reward when the tree buds open in spring.
  • Continue pruning trees, shrubs, and woody vines through late March before they leaf out in order to maintain the overall aesthetic appearance of the plant, rejuvenate the plant’s growth, or remove dead, dying, or crossing branches. Prune any branches in parking lots and sidewalks that interfere with public safety, but never prune more than 25% of live growth, or it could prove fatal to the specimen. This Arbor Day Foundation publication offers useful instructions for pruning trees. 

  • Leaving grass and herbaceous perennials standing in winter provides cover, food, and nesting material for wildlife. If you choose to trim a significant amount of spent vegetation, instead of cutting flush to the ground, trim to 8 to 22 inches high so that the following growing season, native bees that nest in stems can lay eggs in them. Brush piles and stumps provide habitat for many overwintering creatures.
  • Most bare-rooted trees and shrubs should be planted in February or early March.
  • If burning grass clumps or prairie plantings, be mindful of local burning ordinances and the surroundings, especially buildings and overhead utility lines.
  • Winter sun, wind, and cold temperatures can bleach and dry out evergreen foliage, damage bark, injure or kill branches, flower buds, and roots. Snow and ice can break branches and topple entire trees. Salt used for deicing streets, sidewalks and parking lots is harmful to landscape plants. You may wish to consult this list of salt-tolerant natives for garden planning. Where possible, consider using sand instead of salt.
  • Winter food shortages force rodents and deer to feed on bark, twigs, flower buds, and leaves, injuring and sometimes killing trees and shrubs. Protect young trees and sensitive plants from herbivory.

Seeded Landscapes

Year One:

May  

  • As needed, mow or string trim planting to about 6”, not allowing growth to exceed 10” to 12” (specific height determined by management plan)
  • As needed, mow paths to maintain a desired height for walking, but no lower than 4” 

June  

  • As needed, mow or string trim planting to about 6”, not allowing growth to exceed 10” to 12” (specific height determined by management plan)
  • As needed, mow paths to maintain a desired height for walking, but no lower than 4” 
  • Monitor for/control problem weeds not controlled by monthly mowing
  • Perform an evaluation to determine if adjustments need to be made to management timing 

July

  • As needed, mow or string trim planting to about 6”, not allowing growth to exceed 10” to 12” (specific height determined by management plan) 
  • As needed, mow paths to maintain a desired height for walking, but no lower than 4” 
  • Monitor for/control problem weeds not controlled by monthly mowing

August

  • As needed, mow or string trim planting to about 6”, not allowing growth to exceed 10” to 12” (specific height determined by management plan)
  • As needed, mow paths to maintain a desired height for walking, but no lower than 4” 
  • Monitor for/control problem weeds not controlled by monthly mowing
  • Perform an evaluation to determine if adjustments need to be made to management timing 

September

  • As needed, mow or string trim planting to about 6”, not allowing growth to exceed 10” to 12” (specific height determined by management plan)
  • As needed, mow paths to maintain a desired height for walking, but no lower than 4” 
  • Monitor for/control problem weeds not controlled by monthly mowing

October 

  • As needed, mow or string trim planting to about 6”, not allowing growth to exceed 10” to 12” (specific height determined by management plan)
  • As needed, mow paths to keep a desired height for walking but no lower than 4” 

November

  • Monitor for/control problem weeds not controlled by monthly mowing, especially evergreen weeds
  • Rake or blow off especially thick deposits of fall leaves. However, be mindful that leaf litter should remain to provide cover for many small creatures, from salamanders to moth cocoons and adults of some butterflies. 
Year Two: 

Seeded plantings will benefit from a prescribed burn as soon as there is enough fuel to carry a fire. Burning may be possible in year two, or if not, in year three. Burning creates the most favorable growing conditions the following year. Appropriate training and equipment are necessary for prescribed burning. There are contractors throughout the lower Midwest that can perform prescribed burning. Consult the Grow Native! Resource Guide, Wildlife Habitat & Ecological Contractors to find professionals who may be able to do this work for you. 

February

  • Mow or string trim prior year’s growth to 4” to 6” in height

March

  • Mow or string trim prior year’s growth to 4 to 6” in height

May

  • Mow paths as needed, but do not cut lower than 4”

June

  • Monitor for and control problem weeds
  • As needed, mow paths as needed, but do not cut lower than 4”
  • Consider mowing or string trimming edges (12” to 18” from path) along walking paths to a height of 12” to 18”

June

  • As needed, monitor for and control problem weeds
  • As needed, mow paths, but do not cut lower than 4”

July

  • Monitor for and control problem weeds.
  • Mow paths as needed, but do not cut lower than 4”

August

  • As needed, monitor for and control problem weeds
  • As needed, mow paths, but do not cut lower than 4”

September

  • Monitor for and control problem weeds
  • Mow paths as needed, but do not cut lower than 4”

November

  • Monitor for/control problem weeds not controlled by monthly mowing, especially evergreen weeds.
  • Rake or blow off especially thick deposits of fall leaves. However, be mindful that leaf cover should remain to provide cover for many small creatures, from salamanders to moth cocoons and adults of some butterflies. 

For more information on establishing seeded landscapes with prairie plants, you may wish to consult this article in the Missouri Prairie Journal and this Missouri Prairie Foundation recorded webinar on establishing prairie plantings.

Woodland Management

“Woodland” is a specific natural community and not the same thing as forested natural communities. Learn the distinguishing characteristics of woodlands and forests here

If you are managing/restoring a native woodland as per the definition in the link above, developing a management plan is the first step. Having an idea of the desired density of the tree stand will dictate plans moving forward. In the lower Midwest, typically oak and hickory species are the favored woodland trees. 

If undesirable tree species need thinning, avoid cutting trees down in winter months, as that is when some bat species may be overwintering under loose bark. Early fall is an ideal time to thin trees, which can be completely cut down or girdled and left standing. Girdling has the advantage of keeping the woodland floor clear to access and treat invasive plants, if present. Either way, paint cut stumps or girdled ring with triclopyr or glyphosate at labeled rates, or it will resprout. Consult this table on woody/invasive plant treatment methods. Note: Eastern red cedar does not respout and herbicide need not be applied to cut stumps. 

Prescribed burning every 3 to 5 years is necessary to reduce leaf litter and allow woodland herbaceous species to thrive. This is true especially if an open woodland or even savanna is the desired end result. Tree canopy density will determine the  diversity and abundance of herbaceous plants that can thrive on the ground level. Fewer overstory trees results in more growth at the ground level.

If you are managing a wooded garden or planting, which may contain a mix of woodland and forest canopy and understory trees, as well as shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, and sedges, prescribed burning every few years can be an effective management tool, although these burns can kill small understory trees. To control invasive plants, you may want to consult this table.

References

grownative.org

Erin Goss notes from New Directions in the American Landscape’s Natural Design: An Intensive Two-Day Workshop at Shaw Nature Reserve 8/5-6/2019.

A Guide to Native Landscaping Manual in Missouri — MDC + Shaw Nature Reserve

Transformation of a Library Landscape by Janice Wiese-Fales in the Missouri Prairie Journal Vol. 41 No. 2

The development of the Grow Native! Native Landscape Care Calendar was supported via funding from the Missouri Department of Conservation in FY2021.