Gardening Tips from a Local Ecologist

Spring is approaching! Well, it might already be here, but the ground is too wet to work and our weather has careened from sun to snow too wildly to really get started in the garden. By the time you read this, though, we’ll probably have transitioned more solidly into summer, and it’ll be the perfect time to think about what will grow in our yards and gardens this year. How will our gardens support butterflies, bees, and other pollinators this year? How will we incorporate native, pollinator-friendly plants into even the shadiest spots of our yards? 

Luckily, local ecologist and owner of Native Lands LLC Courtney Masterson agreed to share with us her wisdom on these very topics. Read on for Courtney’s recommendations for pollinator gardens, shady gardens, and local resources to learn more about native landscapes. 

Courtney, which native plants can I plant to attract butterflies and bees in my backyard? // I want to create a butterfly garden. What should I include?

There are so many ways to answer this question! To attract butterflies and pollinators, like native bees, to your garden, start by planting species native to your region. Think about what ecosystem your yard represents - is it mostly shady, like standing within a woodland? Or is it sunny and dry, like standing in a prairie? Maybe you've got wet areas that are more similar to a wetland? Once you know what your ecosystem is, turn to those landscapes for inspiration. Plant a milkweed species or two for the monarchs! Plant a diversity of wildflowers that will bloom at different times of the year to provide resources for wildlife throughout the growing season. Nearly every native plant supports pollinators in its own way. Be careful to choose the right plants for your space rather than picking something that won't be happy in your yard or will create a maintenance issue later. Diversity is the key to success!

Do you have pictures of natural landscapes? Yards you have designed? What is the difference between a weed and a natural landscape?

Of course I have photos! You can find many nice photos of native landscapes on our social media pages. I would also recommend following Happy Apple's Farm and Sow Wild Natives, as they're often posting native plant photos, as well. If you'd like to drive by specific examples of my work, reach out to me via Facebook or Instagram and I'll tell you where to look. 

The word "weed" means very little - essentially, it means the plant isn't desired where it's growing. Many native plants are called weeds by folks who don't understand them or observe them throughout the year. In a developed space, like a yard or city park, a native landscape will look like it's being managed and should be designed to suit the site (appropriate height, won't create problems for neighboring landowners, etc.). 

Our social media pages:

Happy Apples Farm:

Sow Wild Natives:

I’d love to get some recommendations on shade loving native plants. I’d prefer to plant native species in our yard and landscaping vs all hostas. Old West Lawrence is very shady with all these big, old trees and I’ve struggled to find appropriate species and also find where to procure said species. Thanks! Extra perk if these are low maintenance.

So many great choices! It would be good to assess the moisture of the site, prior to picking plants but here are some of my favorite native species for shady spots: wild ginger (Asarum canadense), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), golden groundsel (Packera obovata), and native sedges like eastern star sedge (Carex radiata). Don't skimp on the grassy elements. Native sedges provide great structure and habitat in woodland gardens!

Check out the video series created by native plant experts hosted on the Deep Roots website and YouTube account. Here's a nice example about native plant gardening in shade:

Want to hear more from Courtney? (I don't blame you!) Check out this recent podcast episode and its show notes for lots of discussion and resource-sharing. You could also explore the wealth of books on native plants and landscapes in the library's collection.

Happy last frost!

-Hazlett Henderson is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.