IT’S PROBABLY the question I’m asked most: Gardeners want to go wilder and use more native plants to create habitat, but how do they figure out which plants, since it’s not one-size-fits-all regions or even different locations within a region, and choosing, as we mostly do, by hardiness zone isn’t going to get the ecological job done, so help?
Benjamin Vogt has just published a new book that takes us through prescriptive steps to get started in natural garden design. He is the owner of Monarch Designs LLC, a prairie-based design firm specializing in natural landscapes. His latest book is “Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design.”
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “Prairie Up” (affiliate link) by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the February 20, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
natural garden design, with benjamin vogt
Margaret Roach: Congratulations, Benjamin, on the book.
Benjamin Vogt: Thank you, Margaret. As you know, books are little miracles.
Margaret: Big miracles [laughter]. A lot of work, a lot of work. Just as a little background context, I always like to ask people, your own garden: You’re in Nebraska, so your own garden, tell us what it would look at out the window if it weren’t winter right now.
Benjamin: Oh, I love the winter garden. It’s the best time of year. It’s my favorite time of year [laughter].
Margaret: Well, then tell us what it looks like right now.
Benjamin: I am literally looking out of an office window right now and there’s a small gravel path with about 150 square foot of lawn, so we can have a little bit of a picnic space, but most of the backyard I’m looking at is meadow. Wild meadow here, but to the left is a little bit more semi-designed wildness, and then out front is probably middle-of-the-road designed wildness.
Margaret: “Middle-of-the-road designed wildness,” O.K. [Laughter].
Benjamin: The spectrum is very broad.
Margaret: The book is called “Prairie Up,” and you’re in the prairie region of the country, I guess. But even with that in the title and you’re being there and doing a lot of work in that region for clients and so forth, I was really delighted to find that so much of the prescriptive how-to guidance that we need from an expert such as yourself, who’s tackled this so many times, the heart of the book really has all this advice that suits gardeners anywhere. Because it’s a way of thinking, especially the part about how to determine your plant palette, and then also the methods of site preparation that I want to ask you about later.
But what really struck me is there’s this sentence that’s just so obvious, there’s something that says something like, “Don’t choose your plants by the hardiness zones [laughter] because Zone 5 in Colorado is different from Zone 5 in New York,” or something like that.
Benjamin: Exactly. We want to be thinking about ecoregions. We’re going to be thinking about plant communities that are local to us.
Margaret: Ecoregion is a word that I don’t think people know as well, gardeners don’t necessarily know as well. Tell us a little bit about that system from the EPA of ecoregion maps and so forth. [Below, a sample map from the EPA website.]
Benjamin: Yes. The EPA basically has maps out that… Well, they have four different ecoregion levels. The first level’s these very broad, huge, sprawling ecoregions that cover massive portions of the country, states and states and states together. I always tell gardeners, “Let’s look at ecoregion Level III, which is a lot more specific, or ecoregion Level IV.”
So out here in eastern Nebraska, where I have found myself for 23 years, oddly enough, we have this tallgrass prairie region that stretches from basically Kansas up into the Dakotas. It’s this thin strip, but that’s my ecoregion, and that will tell me so much more than about the cold tolerance of plants. It will tell me all about wildlife support, about hydrology, about soils, so I can make much more educated guesses on plants that will thrive where I live.
Margaret: Those maps are one asset that we can use. And I have to confess, I’ve known about them for a number of years, and they’re not as easy to consult unless you’re a little bit more expert, because as you just pointed out, there’s several different tiers of maps. And wow, by the time you get to three and four, there’s hundreds of ecoregions that the country’s divided up to into and color-coded and so forth. You have to be patient if you want to do this, or you can do some homework there and then also do homework in some other sources, I think, as well, right, to really learn about your hyper-local information?
Benjamin: Yeah. You can’t just rely on the ecoregion maps. I say this in the book, I try to empower them to say, “There’s a source here, there’s a source there.” There’s all kinds of sources that I don’t know about because I don’t live where you are. When you start to spend time researching plants before you ever plant anything, and this research aspect is so incredibly important, but when you spend time doing that, you become so empowered and so much more confident. For me, I think the joy levels just increase exponentially as I learn about the plants and get excited. It’s like garden-planting foreplay or something.
Margaret: Yes. One thing that I did years ago, and I don’t even remember initially how it happened, how the introduction was made, but I learned about a nonprofit in my area that was a consultant service that helped entities that were doing conservation work. I’m in a rural area up in New York State, and they were helping if something like a Nature Conservancy or a less famous group wanted to conserve land, they did the biodiversity survey of the land as part of the report and so forth. And they were keeping records.
It turned out they were almost creating what I would call a flora of my county, a document of the plant diversity in my county. They had it on their website, and I could look at it and I could see where they’d seen this or that or the other thing, it was really interesting. I started going to lectures…sorry, long story, dot, dot, dot… They would have talks and I would go, because they were the most knowledgeable local resource. As you point out, you wouldn’t know to send me there, but I found that because I did the homework and it really paid off.
Benjamin: I am jealous of that resource you have there. That sounds fantastic.
Margaret: Sometimes local native plant societies know about it, if you can get one that’s more local than regional, sometimes they can turn you on to someone like that, I think. What other sources? In the book, you talk about various plant databases where we can even search by zip code and learn about plant palettes and so forth, so what about that?
Benjamin: Sure. For people new to natural garden design, and specifically using native plants, there are some very basic beginner first step places, and those include Xerces Society, or Pollinator Partnership, or Audubon Society. Those will just give you some basic starter lists you can start researching. Once you start researching those plant lists, then you’re going to start finding other plants that match the growing conditions and site conditions that those plants thrive in, and then before you know it, you’re really off to the races,
Margaret: That Pollinator Partnership, I was glad to see that recommended in your book, it’s Pollinator.org, I believe. They have a whole zip code-based search for… There’s dozens of reference guides that you can download; you put in your zip code.
Margaret: Have you used some of those with clients and so forth and yourself?
Benjamin: Well, for myself, a long time ago, those regional PDF guides that they have are very extensive and very helpful, so they take you to the next level. And that next level will probably lead you to BONAP, Biota of North America Program. I think I got the acronym right [laughter].
Margaret: Yes. I love the BONAP maps.
Benjamin: The maps. And then you can also go to the USDA, and at least for some of the plant species, they’ll have PDF documents to tell you more about the plants and their growing conditions and wildlife support and all that good stuff.
Margaret: We’re not trying to make everyone feel like, “Oh my gosh, this is so much work, I can’t do this.” We’re trying to say what you said, “This is going to bring joy. This is going to bring ‘aha,’ and you’re going to feel confident and it’s going to empower you to do a good job and have good results, so this is worth it.”
Benjamin: We hear that garden adage, “To dig a $10 hole for a $1 plant.” Well, I want you to spend 10 minutes researching one plant before you ever consider purchasing it, to make sure it’s going to work on your site and make sure that it’s going to work with the other plants that you already have in your garden. That way, you won’t feel like you have brown-thumbism down the road.
Margaret: [Laughter.] I’ve never killed a plant, Benjamin, never.
Benjamin: Oh, never, never.
Benjamin: Well, I actually kill a lot of plants on purpose, because sometimes you have to kill your darlings for the greater good.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. You just said plants working together and so forth. In the book, you talk about plant communities and advise us to learn to think about plant communities, not just individual choices. That’s antithetical to, “I want that rosebush,” that ornamental horticulture approach to, “And I’m going to put it right over here next to the thing that has the same color, blah, blah,” and that’s not what we’re talking about. What are plant communities? How do we think that way?
Benjamin: I do want to say that aesthetic concerns, especially in a front yard where we’re converting lawn to a more natural landscape, we still have a lot of traditional aesthetic concerns. It’s just that we’re letting plants guide the way, guide the management, show us where they want to be and how they want to be, and even if they want to vanish completely and that’s totally O.K. We like that dynamic in the landscape, we want to see things changing.
The most basic definition of plant community, let me see if I can do this, it’s basically a group of plants that grow in the same site conditions and ecoregion and climate, and they produce this dynamism where they are, I don’t know if balanced is the right word, because they’re also fighting for all the same resources, well, soil and light, so it’s almost…
In the book, I talk about it, it’s good that we have plants struggling, we want them to struggle, we want it to grow into a prairie. We have plants like stiff goldenrod, which is, I’m not even going to do the Latin, I can’t do that [laughter]. But we have stiff goldenrod that’s 2 feet tall out in the prairie, you bring it into the home landscape, where it has more room to breathe and far less competition, and it gets upwards of 4 feet tall, and then flops over because it gets too tall. If it has that root stress and that competition, it’s actually a healthier plant and will aesthetically look better in your landscape because it’s not tall, flopping over, hitting people as they walk their dogs on the sidewalk.
Margaret: I remember, a million years ago, going to see the famous prairie restoration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and being struck, being a Northeasterner and not really knowing that type of landscape as well, struck by how much the grasses did, not just visually, but to literally support everybody else, the forbs and so forth.
Benjamin: Well, in a lot of ways. They’re supporting in the physical sense in some cases, acting as buttresses, but they’re also supporting by having all of that competition. Grasses have very fibrous root zones, so they are taking over the soil [laughter], so they are competing for resources and in some cases, reducing what certain forb species can do. Now, there are forb species that compete very well with grasses, and please don’t ask me to list them right now.
Margaret: Not off the top of your head. Good. But that’s why homework is important, because even as expert as you are, before you engage with a new client and design something new or whatever, or even probably take on a new portion of your own home landscape that you were designing for, you go back to the books, you go back to the online, you do more homework, right?
Benjamin: I have so many lists and tables that I’ve put together. Even though on many of my projects, I’m using the same plants and the same plant groupings and communities, I am always remaking my lists for each project.
Margaret: Plant communities is something else, when we’re doing this homework and learning about individual plants, that would be appropriate, as you were talking about before. We might want to also find out what they are commonly found with in a natural setting, is that the clue?
Benjamin: Yes, that’s absolutely the clue. I want to say, too, here in suburban and urban landscapes, we’re not really restoring a prairie because we can’t; that’s gone forever. All the soil life, the microbiome is gone forever, and you just can’t have that habitat connectivity as you can out on thousands of square acres of prairie. We’re just trying to bring that echo, and get people engaged in a larger conversation about conservation, and just embracing the home where you find yourself being right now.
Margaret: Right. And to understand its characteristics and what’s possible, what it can possibly support and become.
Benjamin: Every lawn is a prairie screaming to come out of the ground [laughter].
Margaret: Yes. Or at least a meadow, if not a prairie, if we’re not-
Benjamin: Prairie, meadow, savanna, these ecosystems are in every state across the country.
Margaret: Getting started, and so you talked a few times about lawn and that’s been the big thing, is the consciousness has shifted. People are aware that lawn lacks diversity and isn’t doing any work in the ecology of the place, and they want to give back some lawn. But it’s like, “Uh-oh, what do I do?” They want the instant answer, and there isn’t one.
I’m a longtime organic gardener and I don’t want to use chemicals, but over and again, I’ve had it explained to me by leaders in restoration, in native plant habitat restoration and so forth, that sometimes for the greater good, we have to use different methods that we wouldn’t normally use.
What are some of the methods that we could use to start to shift that piece of lawn or whatever into something new? What are the possibilities?
Benjamin: You just want me to create controversy and stoke the embers [laughter].
Margaret: Well, I just did. I just did. Again, I acknowledge I’m against it, but I understand.
Benjamin: Oh, me too.
Margaret: I understand why getting to the punchline ,where we can plant the needed plants having eradicated the dangerous ones, the invasives often, is what we’re … With lawn, it’s not an invasive exactly, but whatever.
Benjamin: Sure. The ends justify the means here. When I talk with landscape restorationists, people working on prairies and woodlands, they would be up a creek without glyphosate, it’s a useful tool. They’re not slathering it across millions of acres of corn and soybean fields many times a year, and they’re not slathering it on top of vegetables, number one. I took this approach very gingerly in the book, because I know this is going to be one of the top three backlashes I get; backlash maybe isn’t the right word.
But if we’re looking, especially at converting lawn to a meadow type garden, we’re going to use glyphosate. We’re going to do one application, the lawn is dead, and then we plant straight into it. The wonderful benefit of that is we are not disturbing the soil. Whenever you go in and disturb the soil, well, you bring weed seeds to the surface or you allow them to get sunlight, and the crabgrass and the foxtails, especially, I know those are just annuals and not a huge problem, but they can just make the place look awful the first year. We don’t want that extra need of work if we don’t have to.
If you have a place, a hillside, a site that’s prone to erosion, you don’t want to be disturbing the soil, because you’re going to create a ton more problems, so we are using the glyphosate that one time.
Margaret: It’s really tricky. But as I said, I’ve had many very respected people explain to me why, like what you just said, that they couldn’t accomplish their end goal without that help, and not every day, every month, every year over and over and over, but to get started. There’s one firm not far from me that does a lot of native installations and so forth and they use a sod stripper, they bring in a sod stripper and what you just said. What about that cleaning the palate, clean slate, the sod stripper?
Benjamin: That sod stripper, sod cutter, it’s perfect if you’re doing that installation that day of, your crew shows up at 6:00, remove the lawn by 8:00, and you’re planting and you’re done by the end of the day. But again, that’s massive soil disturbance, and you’re exposing weeds to sunlight, even if you put down mulch layer, that disturbance is not great.
Now, if you have 100 square feet and you want to use the cardboard lasagna method, go for it, but when I’m working on projects of 500, 1,000, 10,000 square feet, there’s not enough cardboard in the city to do this and we don’t have time to wait for that process.
You could also solarize with plastic, but then you’re creating plastic waste and you’re baking the soil and the soil life and killing all of the microbes in the soil. I really go with the method that causes the most controversy.
Margaret: But in some ways, maybe it causes the least disturbance, as you were pointing out. If we just want to do the 100 square feet or whatever and we do want to do the cardboard, how long is it going to be before we’re going to plant into that?
Benjamin: Well, I think the main method is you put your cardboard down, you soak it really well, you throw some wood mulch on top, and then you plant. I think that’s the main way to do it.
Margaret: No, it is, just that I’ve always had stuff pop through when I do that. If I wait a while, it’s more effective.
Benjamin: Absolutely. I think it would be good to wait a couple weeks or a couple months. I know if you’re solarizing with plastic, you have to leave it on for a month, and then you take it off two weeks and then you let weed seeds germinate, and then you put it back on, and then you take it off and let more weed seeds germinate, because you want to exhaust the weed seed bank.
Margaret: When we are getting started, not so many years ago, it was really hard to find the raw materials to use, either the seed or the small plants, the plugs, so to speak. Now, those have become more of a item that even a home gardener can find. I think in more regions I’m seeing them available, either locally or by mail order. Are you typically starting clean slate and then from seed or from a combination of plugs of seed? What’s the raw materials?
Benjamin: Yes to all of that [laughter].
Margaret: All of it?s
Benjamin: It depends on the site, the size of the site, the client’s budget, a lot of factors. We’re using primarily seeds and plugs. Plugs are a younger form of the plant, they’re not huge, potted up one-gallon plants. We’re using plugs and seed, so there will be put projects where we are doing the flowers as plugs and doing the masses and drifts and then we sow in the matrix, or groundcover, usually warm season bunchgrasses, like sideoats grama or blue grama or little bluestem.
And then there are projects where we are just doing plugs every 12 inches or every 10 inches or every 8 inches on center, just covering the whole landscape, and it’s a long day.
Margaret: Wow. That’s a long day, you’re not kidding. When you’re saying you’re sowing in the matrix, so the grass, for instance, so you’re doing the plugs of some of the forbs, the perennial flowering things or whatever, as plugs, and then you’re sowing in grasses around it? Are you sowing that again?
Benjamin: Yeah, we’re sowing it. If we go in and spray-kill a lawn, I will go ahead and sow grasses into that after we’ve planted all of the forbs. When you’re sowing into dead lawn, you want to increase your sowing rate of those grasses by 50 percent, 100 percent, or something like that. But I found that dead lawn makes a wonderful growing medium. It keeps the soil surface more moist and shades those young grass seedlings so they get off to a really good start, I think in some cases, even more so than if it was just a bare soil site.
Now, of course, you cannot sow into wood mulch. People always ask that, so I want to make sure to say that, you can’t sow into wood mulch, because there’s no seed-to-soil contact.
Margaret: There was one other thing that I loved in the book, and again, the book is “Prairie Up,” and it’s just loaded with information and is really practical. Besides the inspiration and the philosophical and the science of why we want to do this, you also give so much practical help to get started. But I love that you say that you get every client to sign an, “Expectation agreement.” What is an expectation agreement that I would have to sign? Tell us about that, because I think we need to sign it with ourselves if we tackle one of these projects, right?
Benjamin: [Laughter.] Yeah. It’s just a simple, one-page document. I don’t even know how many clients read it, but it’s basically saying, “This is how long the garden is going to take to establish. This is what the plants are going to do; they’re going to move around. We’re probably going to have some initial wee, pressure the first year. It’s not going to be a huge deal. If we have invasive plants, we’ll deal with it, but it’s usually just annuals.” It talks about watering and maintenance and management, things like, “Please do not fertilize this space, that is totally unnecessary and can actually harm the plants and the plant communities.” And then also embracing wildlife, things like, “If you see leaf damage, that is awesome, you should do a mega-happy dance. We want to see our plants being eaten.”
Margaret: So time-wise, my expectation is that, is three years later, I’m going to see more of it filled out? What’s the time when people ask you, “Well, when is this going to look like something?” [Laughter.]
Benjamin: Well, if we’re doing it from all plugs, two to three years, if we’re doing seed and plugs, four years, if we’re doing all seed, four to six years, generally. Every site is different. It always amazes me how every site is so different from one another.
Margaret: But as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?
Margaret: And transforming the mess we’ve made in many places into something that’s abundant and diverse and thriving: to invest a few years, it’s really, considering that the decades that we’ve been beating it up, right?
Benjamin: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s really a small timeframe when you think about it. I could say something scary and say probably, even it would be more like 10 or 20 years if you want to think about [laughter]–
Margaret: To come into its full glory.
Benjamin: Yeah. It does, of course, require management. You’re not out there mowing and watering every week, but you are responding to plants. Maybe you have to cut to curtail the grass growth, or there’s one species of forb of that’s taking over and you need to get rid of it, so there is still management.
Margaret: Well, Benjamin, I’m really glad to speak to you, and congratulations again on the book. I hope we’ll speak again soon. Thank you.
Benjamin: Thank you, Margaret. It’s been a supreme pleasure.
(Photos from Benjamin Vogt/Monarch Designs LLC, except EPA map.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the February 20, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).