Assembling a garden of plants that grow wild in your region – plants many consider “weeds” — is inexpensive for several reasons. Native plants are easy to propagate from free resources, and they tend to require much less water, relying on the natural cycles of rain. They also required little, if any, fertilizer.
Although establishing a wild garden requires a lot of effort in the first two or three years, maintenance will drop off dramatically once it matures.
Preparing The Garden
A well-established garden that works for domesticated plants does not necessarily work for an indigenous garden. Many species, such as amaranth (which is discussed later), do not perform well in soil which is too fertile, while others thrive in clay-rich soil.
Study your plot to begin determining which areas may be suitable for native plants. A higher area will drain more quickly for plants that don’t tolerate muddy conditions. A sandy area may be perfect for establishing a patch of succulents. Top soil may need to be either removed or treated in other areas to support a native garden.
The best way to find out how to prepare the garden is to directly observe regional plant life. What grows in full sun, and what grows in the shade? What is the soil like around the plants you are interested in growing? Is the area usually wet, dry or in-between? Has natural mulching or a fire occurred in the area where the plants are growing? Which pollinators are attracted to the plants?
Many species of flowers can be eaten whole or in part. Wild violets are among the most prolific, and require little care once established. They love to spread, so plant them where ground cover is needed, or contain them in a large pot. If allowed to self-seed, they will return each spring, but often in unexpected places.
The raw petals of violets are a vitamin-rich, if somewhat bland, addition to salads. To serve with a dessert, brush the petals with egg white, then sprinkle with sugar. Violets also add a mild, natural sweetness to sun tea.
Clover, a member of the pea family, grows in every part of the United States. The flowers can be eaten raw, roasted or dried. The leaves are a substitute for spinach in any recipe, but are more digestible to humans when they’ve been cooked thoroughly. Because it tolerates mowing, clover can be grown in place of turf grass.
In the United States, a species of amaranth, called pigweed, is making a comeback as a viable food source. It’s a fast-growing, highly nutritious plant, but be mindful of where pigweed is planted. It is poisonous to some species of domesticated animals, and should not be planted in over-fertile soil. Pigweed is intolerable to some people, but is a good source of gluten-free grain for others.
Wild onions grow almost everywhere, and are easily identified by their scent. Although some gardeners consider them an invasive plant, they can be controlled by planting in clusters (as opposed to rows), then by harvesting as many as possible in late spring. Any that remain will go dormant during the summer months, but multiply vigorously the following year.
Wild grass adds value to a garden by providing habitat for helpful creatures, like rodent-eating snakes, and by conserving soil. It can be transplanted into a garden by cutting it out of its natural place, with a shovel, in portable bricks. To discourage the spread of wild grass, clip off and discard the seed heads as soon as they appear.
Wild yarrow is not only an interesting addition to a garden, but attracts several species of pollinators. Strategically placed near a water source, such as a bird bath, yarrow will help establish a ladybug colony in your garden.
Long-flowering sage adds color to a garden from spring to fall. Bundled into smudge sticks, it is also an important part of a chemical-free housekeeping kit. Disarm smoke alarms before lighting the end of the smudge stick, then carry it from room to room. It eliminates strong odors like pet sweat, cigarette smoke and fried fish. The earthy, clean scent lasts for several days.
Be certain to place smudge sticks in a non-flammable dish after use. They stop smoldering and go out after a few minutes. Make sure that family members and regular visitors to your home are not allergic to sage before planting or using as an air filter.
Every state has an office of the Cooperative Extension Network at its land grant university. Extension agents provide free classes, written material, and one-on-one information specific to the region. Many have access to university libraries and scientists.
Extension agents are not, by definition, organic gardeners, but most will research specific questions, and may even provide free samples.
Many non-profit organizations also train “watchers” to record dates they see specific species of bees, butterflies and birds. Some training is free, but many programs charge a nominal fee to cover basic costs. Some organizations provide free plants to watchers.
Field guides from the local library are useful for planting a natural garden. Plants are usually grouped by appearance, and a detailed description and image of each species is included.
What tips would you add? Tell us in the comments section below.