“Biological diversity is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it.”
~ E.O. Wilson, Biodiversity
As with any garden or landscape project, it’s important to maintain your planting(s) to keep them looking their best. The good news is that, after they are established, most native landscapes require less maintenance than their non-native counterparts.
Mulch is a material that is layered on top of the soil to conserve moisture, to moderate soil temperature, and to keep soil from crusting during drought and compacting from prolonged rain. It is also a tremendous time and labor saver because it greatly reduces the need for weeding. Mulch shades the soil, preventing many weed seeds from germinating. Weeds that do rise to the surface can be easily pulled.
Organic mulches are ideal because they break down over time to improve the soil structure. Materials such as compost, well-rotted manure, shredded leaves, pine needles, and fine textured bark chunks are good choices. You can make your own mulch by composting or by using a power tool called a shredder-chipper that turns yard waste into 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.
The key to long-term weed control is to be sure that your garden is free of weeds before you plant. After digging the soil in your planting area in early spring, wait a few weeks for weed seeds to germinate before planting. When unwanted seedlings arise, stir the top inch of soil and cut them down. Leave the lower soil, and the weed seeds imbedded there, undisturbed. Do this two or three times prior to planting and you will save yourself many hours of work later.
If your garden is weed free at planting time and you apply an organic mulch to keep new “weedlings” from germinating, you will be able to keep up with weeds easily by patrolling the garden once or twice a week. It’s easy to pull young weeds before they go to seed or start spreading. A sharp hoe and putty knife or fishtail weeder, sometimes called a dandelion fork, are great weeding tools. Use the hoe for shallow rooted annual weeds. Use the putty knife or fishtail weeder for deep rooted perennial weeds, being certain to dig and remove the entire root. If you don’t get all the root, it’s likely that the weed will regenerate from parts left in the soil. Grass and wildflower plantings that are a safe distance from houses and other structures can be burned in late winter to control weeds.
Spacing your plants closely also helps control weeds because the foliage of neighboring plants shades the ground and crowds out invaders. You need to be especially diligent about weeding in the spring when newly emerging natives have not yet had a chance to canopy over the ground.
DON’T! Our native wildflowers and grasses turn into “floppers” if they are force fed fertilizers.
Once natives are established, they require minimal maintenance. That’s one of their big advantages: The plants simply keep coming back each growing season. However, depending on how you want your plants to look you might want to use a few of the grooming techniques described here.
Deadheading is a fierce term for removing faded flowers. If left to their own devices, many natives bloom gloriously for a short period of time. Then they stop flowering and set seed. Deadheading interrupts this cycle. If faded flowers are removed before they set seed, many will send out another flush of blooms to try to complete the reproductive cycle. The blooms in the second display may not be as large or as numerous as the first, but they are certainly worth the effort. Other natives that bloom over an extended period of time benefit from deadheading because it increases the number of flowers that are produced and the length of time over which they are produced. Deadheading also gives you some control over flowers that can be invasive because they self-seed. Purple Coneflower, Missouri Black-eyed Susan, Coreopsis and Garden Phlox self-seed with abandon if they aren’t deadheaded.
Basically, there are two places to make deadheading cuts. With flowers that have leaves along the bloom stem, cut just above the point where you see a new shoot or bud emerging. This is usually in the axil of the set of leaves closest to the old flower. To deadhead flowering natives that don’t have leaves along their flower stems, make the cut at the bottom of a flowering stem near the base of the plant.
Cutting back is a technique used to keep leggy plants more compact, to promote new foliage growth, or to coerce plants to bloom repeatedly. Sometimes you can avoid staking tall plants that are prone to flopping like tall Asters and tall Goldenrods if you cut them back by about one-half in early summer. This keeps plants shorter than normal. Still other plants like Columbine and Yarrow should be cut back to the basal foliage (leaves that grow from the crown or base of the plant) after they finish flowering. This will promote lush new foliage growth and, sometimes, another round of flowers.
Shovel dividing is a maintenance practice that keeps vigorous perennials in their allotted space. As you stroll the garden looking for weeds and spent flowers, keep an eye out for natives that are encroaching on their neighbors. When you spot plants that are getting out of hand, insert a round-point digging shovel into the plant with the back of the shovel against what you want to keep and the front of the shovel next to what you want to remove. Pull back on the shovel and pop the unwanted portion of the plant out of the ground.
If you are growing natives that are winter hardy in your area, there’s really very little to do to get the garden ready for winter. Once frost hits, the top growth of most wildflowers turn brown and die back to the ground. When this occurs, use hand pruners to cut off the dead stems, leaving only the bottom 2 or 3 inches. Alternatively, you can leave the old flower stems standing for the many winter birds that will feed on the seed heads through winter.
Most large scale plantings are done with seed. Weed control is very important the first two or three growing seasons. Most native wildflowers and grasses grown from seed don’t get more than 6 inches tall their first year. Weeds, on the other hand, generally grow much faster than the desirable plants. During the first two growing seasons, mow your planting when the natives reach 6 inches in height and the weeds reach 8 to12 inches in height. Don’t let the weeds get taller than this. Weeds over 12 inches tall will shade out your seedlings and the mown weed material will smother smaller, desirable plants when you finally do mow.
You can expect to mow once per month during the first year. Mowing doesn’t harm native plants but it does prevent weeds from going to seed, thereby reducing weed problems in subsequent years. String trimmers work quite well on smaller areas while flail-type mowers, which chop weeds so they dry quickly, work best on large areas.
In the spring of the second year, mow the planting to the ground and remove the mown material by raking, if possible. This will give your native plants a good jump on weeds. Mow weeds in late spring or early summer. Biennial weeds may be especially troublesome in the second year. Mowing them back when they are 12 inches tall and in full bloom will usually kill them with little damage to the prairie plants.
From the third year on, annual mowing and removal of plant debris or burning will promote vigorous growth of your native plants and keep weeds under control. Because most prairie plants are warm season plants, they grow more quickly and produce more flowers and seed when the soil is bare and can warm quickly early in the season. You can mow or burn anytime between November and late February.