Natural garden design is growing in popularity, and many more gardeners would like to get on board if only they had a better idea of how to get started. If you’re curious about starting a natural garden with native plants, then you’re in luck, because my guest this week is author and garden designer Benjamin Vogt of Monarch Gardens.
Benjamin was a poet and memoirist before he became a garden writer and garden designer. He dubbed his prairie-inspired design firm Monarch Gardens. For the last 20 years, he’s lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, on the edge of the Great Plains. On his quarter-acre lot, he has only 500 square feet of lawn left. He has transformed the remainder of his landscape into naturalistic gardens and wildlife habitat.
Benjamin’s new book is “Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design.” In it, he shares his approach to garden design and gives the readers the tools they need to conceive of their own designs according to natural garden design principles, such as using plant communities to reduce resource use, increasing wildlife habitat and creating climate resiliency. He also shares tips on how to assuage the concerns of neighbors and homeowners associations that don’t like any garden that is anything but tidy at all times.
Benjamin joined me on the podcast last year to discuss his previous book “A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future,” which I really loved. While the earlier book explained the “why” behind native and naturalistic gardening, “Prarie Up” explains the “how.”
In “Prairie Up,” Benjamin does a great job of helping us think about how to lay out native plants in a naturalistic garden — how to arrange them, where to put them, how many of each to use — to make it look more intentional than wild.
“We are surrounded by the typical suburban lawn monoculture and very thin foundation beds, if any foundation beds, with most of our neighbors. So we definitely stick out like a sore thumb,” Benjamin says of his garden. “But I think sore thumbs can be very nice looking too, if you think about it.”
Benjamin’s neighbors are not always on board with his choices, but some embrace them. Just a couple of weeks ago, he was taking photos of his front yard gardens when a car came zooming by, then screeched on the brakes and backed up.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go. Here we go,’” Benjamin recalls. “And in this day and age, you don’t know what people are going to do and how scary it can be. So, guy leaned over his open window, he looked, smiled and said, ‘I just love what you’re doing. I follow you on Instagram.’”
The driver lived just up the road, and he told Benjamin he added native plants to his own backyard.
A New Garden Ethic
“A New Garden Ethic” came about because I was just angry,” Benjamin says. “I’m the kind of person who derives a lot of energy, a lot of focus, a lot of motivation from being angry, and I was angry at what I was seeing in the horticulture world.”
He says that for years he was ranting about why people aren’t using more native plants.
“We got this mass extinction going on,” he says. “We have climate change. We are such a privileged species, just stampeding over the environment and colonizing it without really understanding what’s here and the ramifications of all the linkages that animals have with plants and soil.”
What started with blog posts, articles and native plant advocacy led to “A New Garden Ethic.” He shared a post he wrote about garden ethics and native plants with a publisher’s Facebook page. The editor called him, and they agreed on a book.
“A New Garden Ethic” was designed to fire readers up and move them to action — beyond hope.
“Hope to me is this very passive idea,” Benjamin says. “So to me, when I hear the word ‘hope,’ I think it’s just sitting back and crossing your fingers, and I’m not that kind of person. I’m going to get out there, get dirty and make something happen. And if it upsets people, good, because then maybe they’ll awaken and realize the issues. A because it’s good to be confronted, even though it makes us feel bad 99% of the time.”
As he worked on “A New Garden Ethic,” published in 2017, he was still starting up his design company and trying to understand how to put gardens together. By the time he wrote “Prairie Up,” introducing readers to natural garden design, he had the experience he needed to write such a book.
The books are tonally different. Benjamin’s frustration comes through in “A New Garden Ethic,” while “Prairie Up” has more of a guiding tone. Benjamin became less of a ranter and more of an educator.
“‘Prairie Up’ is meant to be totally different,” he says. “It has a totally different vibe to it. It’s a helpful guide.”
“A New Garden Ethic” offered the why and a kick in the pants, he says, while “Prairie Up” is the how.
What’s the Big Deal About Prairies?
Back in the day, prairies were everywhere, and now there are just pockets here and there. Benjamin helps readers understand the value of prairies and how we as stewards of land have the opportunity to restore some of what makes prairies valuable.
“There’s prairie and grassland and savannah and meadow,” Benjamin says. “There’s so many different words for, I think, the same thing we all have in our minds. These ecosystems exist in every state.”
Converting lawn into something that is more ecologically valuable and less resource intensive has been gaining popularity lately, Benjamin points out. Even if the goal is to eventually establish trees in an area, he says repairing a former lawn and healing the environment starts with adding a meadow with native grasses, sedges, flowers and other plants.
There are approximately 40 million acres, or 60,000 square miles, of lawn in the United States, equivalent in size to the state of Georgia.
Entomologist, author and native plants advocate Doug Tallamy has a nonprofit initiative called Homegrown National Park that encourages anyone with a front yard, backyard, farm, corporate park etc. to grow more native plants that will promote biodiversity and to remove invasive plants.
Connecting all of these habitats will form a huge national park, Benjamin says. “It makes total sense. It’s still a drop in the bucket, but it’s this awakening. It’s this massive awakening.”
This is work that anyone can take on, and collectively, we can make a difference for wildlife.
Benjamin points out that 99% of the tall grass that used to grow in the United States is gone and savannah in the Southeast is almost entirely gone.
“We can help species adapt if we provide them the habitat they need,” he says.
How to Remove Turf to Convert a Lawn
Once you have selected the plants you wish to use, based on an understanding of how plant communities will work together, it’s time to start removing turf.
You could rent a sod cutter, but that comes with several challenges, Benjamin points out. The sod cutter creates exhaust, and you may need to rent a trailer to get it home. Removing the sod will also expose the weed seeds in the soil to light and water, and they will start germinating like crazy, he says.
A popular method is to smother the turf with cardboard topped with mulch, though Benjamin says this is impractical for a lot of the work he does, as he converts thousands of square feet at one job site. He adds that some studies have found that the cardboard layer impedes water and air transfer between the soil and the atmosphere.
Cardboard does break down after several months, so any impediments to the soil underneath will be temporary. Your biggest issue may be sourcing all of that cardboard, but when you begin to keep your eyes peeled for it, you’ll be surprised how much you can find. A few years back, my wife and I had a Peloton delivered, and it came in a big, big box. The delivery men were at the end of their route for the day, and their truck was loaded with these empty boxes — 25 or so. I asked if I could have the cardboard, and they were delighted to unload it then and there, rather than deal with disposing of it at the end of the day.
Solarization involves covering the turf in sheets of plastic to cook the grass and any weed seeds until they are no longer viable. It can take the better part of a year to be effective, and who has that kind of patience? Benjamin doesn’t like using plastic sheets because they will degrade in the sun and contribute to microplastic pollution, plus solarization sterilizes the soil by killing the microbes, including beneficial microbes.
Benjamin’s chosen method is to spray the lawn with glyphosate — the herbicide used in Roundup. This method will kill the lawn in just seven to 10 days. Benjamin follows up with an inch or two later of wood mulch, which he says helps show that this is an intentional space planned by a professional. The mulch helps somewhat with weed control, and then Benjamin plants straight into the mulch on top of the dead grass.
“The wonderful thing is that it’s less disturbance. Hopefully, less weed seeds being brought to the surface,” Benjamin says. “The dead grass acts as erosion control, another mulching layer. And the glyphosate just targets the foliage. It’s just one application. It’s not like a corn field or a soybean field where you’re doing it time and time again year after year, decade after decade.”
Repeated glyphosate use has been linked to cancer, so if you decide to use it, take every precaution to not get it on your skin, not breathe in it and not track it into the house.
The Benefits of Using Plugs Rather Than Seeds
Benjamin puts a lot of thought into what native plants to design with and which to leave out. This rubs some native plant advocates the wrong way, but he is mindful of how certain species will behave.
“If you have a hundred square feet, you don’t want to put Canadian goldenrod or common milkweed in there,” he says. “It’s just going to totally take over, be tall, flop over, and it’s going to look weedy and be weedy because you have this aggressive, tall species in there. Yes, those are native, yes, those are beneficial, but it’s not going to help carry the cause. It’s not going to help convince your neighbors that this is a beautiful, viable space that perhaps they want to emulate or can at least accept, even if they don’t like looking at it.”
One drawback of using seeds, Benjamin says, is you don’t know what will germinate this year. Just this year, he had some massive failures when trying to establish prairies due to a spring drought. The only seeds that germinated were annual weed seeds.
“You don’t know how viable that seed is,” he says. “You don’t know what the weather’s going to do for you with the seed coming up. And then it takes just longer — it takes 50% longer to get those plants to mature size.”
He advises investing the money in growing from plugs.
“Don’t do one-gallon containers that are 10, 20 bucks each,” he says. “Go out and get a tray of 32 or 50 plugs that are $100 to $150. And they’re easier to plant in clay soil too because they’re smaller and younger, and they’ll establish a lot faster because their roots are going to be touching the soil on site a lot sooner than in a gallon container. You don’t have to water as long.
“Those gallon containers are just very dependent on you, on life support from you, for a much longer time.”
Plugs give you more control over what plants are in your meadow and the design — at least in the beginning, Benjamin says. They also help you distinguish between what’s a weed and what isn’t a weed.
“Eventually, the plants are going to self-organize a little bit more, and you have to trust that process as they move around and show you what they want,” Benjamin says. “And then as you manage the space, you can tweak things and remove things that are too aggressive or add things in layers or seasons where you don’t have enough blooms. But you got to start somewhere, and that’s with plugs and some mulch on some dead lawn.”
You won’t find plugs at big box store nurseries, so unless you have a local native plant nursery that sells directly to the public, the way to go is mail-order. Benjamin’s favorite mail-order website is Izel Native Plants, which is an intermediary between wholesale growers and gardeners. Izel serves the Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
Benjamin says 50 is a good number of plugs to buy when planting lots of native grasses to serve as the base layer of green mulch that flowers are planted into.
To make the holes to put plugs into, Benjamin uses a cordless mixing drill with a 36-inch auger bit. A standard household drill just won’t cut it, especially in clay soil. He used to use a gas-powered auger, but it was so many RPMs that soil flew everywhere and, he added, he stunk for days.
I’ve learned over time that you don’t want a drill or auger on high speed for digging through heavy clay soil. Slow is the way to go.
“That’s why I like the mixing drills, and because it’s got low RPM, high torque,” Benjamin says. “That’s what you want.”
Site Analysis and Plant Selection
To determine which plants will thrive in your prairie, a site analysis is needed. Benjamin recommends asking: What is the soil type? What is the drainage like? How much sunlight does the area get? What are the existing plants that will remain there, if any? How will existing plants compete with new plants in terms of how much shade will they cast and how much moisture will they take up?
There are a number of online tools available to identify what plants are native to your specific area. You can enter your state or ZIP code on the websites of the Audubon Society, Xerces Society or Pollinator Partnership.
Once you have identified the plants that are native to your area and will fit your site’s soil and sun, you also should consider how tall the plants will get and if they will flop over onto the sidewalk or block sightlines for cars. Also consider their “sociability index,” Benjamin advises. Are they so aggressive that they will take over and create a monoculture?
You may be looking for a garden full of plants that are a one or two on the sociability index, that will be happy to stay where they were planted. If you are planting on a weedy site that is prone to erosion, you may want to level three and four on the index that will spread readily. And consider if they spread by seed or runners.
A plant that spreads aggressively in moist loam will behave differently in moderate or drier clay soil, especially if it is planted in a dense plant community where plants are just 12 inches apart, Benjamin says.
“We want plants fighting and bumping into each other ASAP,” he says. “So that’s good. Competition is good.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines ecoregions as areas where ecosystems and the type, quality and quantity of environmental resources are generally similar.
“Ecoregion is basically knowing your local region,” Benjamin says. “What plants grow there, the soil conditions, the light conditions, the climatic conditions.”
Familiarizing yourself with your ecoregion will help you be a successful native gardener. The information is much more in-depth and specific to your area than USDA hardiness zones.
Benjamin says USDA hardiness zones are great for looking at winter hardiness when you plan to use exotic species, but there is so much more to know about native plants than their zone.
“A zone 5 plant down the East Coast is not going to be the same as the zone 5 plant on the West Coast, right?” Benjamin points out. “Those are totally different ball fields there.”
The EPA has four levels of ecoregion maps that range in specificity:
- Level I – 12 ecoregions in the continental U.S.
- Level II – 25 ecoregions in the continental U.S.
- Level III -105 ecoregions in the continental U.S.
- Level IV – 967 ecoregions in the conterminous U.S.
Benjamin prefers to drill down to the Level III ecoregions.
Making Naturalistic Gardens Accessible
“I don’t want people to feel overwhelmed,” Benjamin says. “The whole point of this book and everything I do is to empower you, to make this more accessible to people who only have time to do these sorts of gardens on the weekends.”
Though doing the prerequisite research for making a native garden is time-consuming, Benjamin says it will make you confident that you’ll be able to manage this space more effectively and help it thrive. When you have put in the time to research the plants, the ecoregions, plant succession, bloom succession and what plants are good at providing seeds and cover for wildlife in the winter.
“This is a practice and being empowered, and it’s liberating and it’s important,” he says. “And I don’t want anybody to feel overwhelmed. I want people to feel excited.”
I feel inspired when I think about my options. There are a lot of beautiful native plants out there, and when you learn about the ecosystem services that they provide, the more impressed you’ll be.
It’s not enough for gardens to be pretty to us, Benjamin says. To combat mass extinction, they need to be pretty to other species around us.
He also points out that while it is great to attract pretty adult butterflies to our gardens, we also have to be thinking about what the butterfly larvae need to eat.
For example, eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies may get nectar from any number of flowers, but they only lay eggs on a narrow selection of host plants, such as tulip trees, wild black cherry and sweet bay Magnolia.
Native insects and native plants have their special relationships because they co-evolved. Exotic plants did not evolve with the native insects where you live so they can’t provide the same ecosystem services.
Butterfly and moth larvae (caterpillars) need their specific host plants to survive, and in turn, baby birds eat caterpillars fed to them by their parents. If your landscape isn’t supporting your native insects, your native birds can’t rear their young there.
“It always all comes down to the plants — and plants are useful,” Benjamin says. “They’re not just decoration. They’re not collector plates on a shelf. They’re useful.”
He says you can go to a nursery right now and buy Asclepias tuberosa, known as orange butterfly weed, and make a difference. It’s a host plant for monarch butterfly larvae. You can buy Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, known as aromatic aster, one of the best asters for supporting insects.
“We all have the power, and it’s not just in gardening,” Benjamin says. “It’s across a bunch of different socioeconomic cultural realms. So we can do this.”
Dealing With Homeowners Associations
In his book, Benjamin offers advice for dealing with homeowners associations that oppose naturalistic gardens. It can be hard to get HOA boards to change their thinking, so he shares some convincing arguments.
“The good thing is there are more and more HOAs and cities across the country who are changing course, and there is a lot of good progress on the legal side, even though there’s still a huge mountain to climb,” Benjamin says.
When you have done your plant research and can say when a plant blooms and the wildlife it supports, and prove that it is not aggressive, HOA boards will have to sit up and listen rather than ignore your requests.
Talking to your neighbors, using a designer, staying tidy, neat and professional, and having intentional cues such as benches, paths and water fountains all help the cause.
“These battles need to be fought in HOAs and restrictive cities,” Benjamin says.
Any systemic cultural change takes time to get going, he notes.
“In some cases, the easiest part of doing this work is doing the research, selecting the plants, creating the design,” he says. “You are not done. Once those plants are watered in and established, the real gardening comes when you have to advocate for it. Because you are going against the stream, and that stream hasn’t really been flowing for very long so it’s amazing how powerful it is.”
The Questionable Wisdom of No Mow May
Now Mow May is a movement that started in the United Kingdom by Plantlife to encourage anyone with a lawn to refrain from mowing it during the month of May so flowers can grow and provide resources for pollinators.
Benjamin wrote an article for Better Homes & Gardens recently that calls the benefits of No Mow May into question. For one thing, though No Mow May is gaining traction in the United States, it originated in Great Britain, where the landscapes, plants and habitats are much different.
“When you stop mowing your lawn, it is going to look weedy and scraggly fast, ” Benjamin says. “You also don’t know what’s in the seed bank in that soil, what’s going to start germinating. I will bet my brand new cellphone that it’s going to be a lot of exotic invasive species that are going to be coming up, and you’re not going to want those. Also, there’s no design intention to it, which is really, really, again, gonna turn off your neighbors.”
Letting those exotic weeds go to seed will exacerbate your weed problem and may also spread seeds to the lawns of your neighbors, who really won’t appreciate that.
When doing a natural landscape, especially in a front yard, you have to consider design, especially if you are the only one doing a natural landscape in a lawn-dominated neighborhood, he says.
“You have to consider design and intentionally use plants and curate the plants in the landscape,” he continues.
White clover is a plant found in many lawns that is beloved by many for supporting pollinators. But Benjamin points out that white clover coevolved with European honeybees. “It is not helpful to the larger ecosystem, to all the other insects,” he says. “That’s not a host plant for anything.”
Benjamin notes he has spoken about white clover with another friend of “The joe gardener Show,’ pollinator conservationist Heather Holm, and she does not like white clover either.
When a lawn is white clover as opposed to fescue or bluegrass, it is still a monoculture, Benjamin says. “Even if you seed it in with the lawn, then you’ve only got two species. That’s still not enough from wildlife support to all the different ecosystem services we have.”
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Benjamin Vogt on natural garden design, you can scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title to do so now.
Have you incorporated natural garden design in your garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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“A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future” by Benjamin Vogt
“Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design” by Benjamin Vogt
“After No Mow May, Should You Do a Slow Mow Summer?” by Benjamin Vogt | Better Homes & Gardens
Monarch Gardens on Instagram: @monarchgardensbenjaminvogt
Audubon Society native plant finder
Xerces Society native plant finder
Pollinator Partnership native plant finder
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