Plant Smart

Native Plants:  Plant Natives

Congratulations! You recognize that natives are valuable additions to your landscape and are ready to watch them spread their natural beauty. These sample garden templates, to the right, show you how natives could work together in a specific environment. At least one is in your backyard!

Plant the right plants in the right environment. Never introduce invasive plants into your landscape that will aggressively spread off your property and invade native plant communities. Invasive plants can drastically alter ecosystems and give you and your neighbors maintenance headaches for years to come.

Choose plants that will grow well at the site. Moist or dry, shady or sunny, acidic or neutral soil. A good trick to guide your plant selection is to observe which native plants are thriving nearby. Visit here for lists, but more is available from plant nurseries, catalogs, books, or the Internet.

Mulch and compost. Your leaves and grass clippings to provide a slow release of nutrients to improve your soil fertility. Chemical fertilizers often provide too many nutrients too quickly for native plants, and this flush of nutrients gives weeds a competitive edge. Proper site preparation begins with a soil test before applying fertilizer.

Use organic pest control. Keep the soil covered to prevent weeds. Remove invasive plants nearby. Take out severely diseased plants, or ones with insect infestations. Many native plants attract beneficial insects which help control pests, so try creating habitat for “good bugs.”

Protect your property against invasive plants. The best insurance against future problems is to avoid the use of known invasive plants and educate others about the problems of invasives. Invasive plants should be avoided because they can escape cultivation and aggressively move into surrounding areas. For more information on invasive plants, visit here.

Minimize landscape disturbance. Invasive plants thrive on bare soil and disturbed ground where the native plant community has been displaced. The key to controlling invasives is to protect healthy native plant communities. Replace invasive plants with native species.

Create a land management plan for maintenance over time. Lawns, gardens, meadows and woodlands are maintained using vastly different techniques, but they all will need to be monitored and have invasive plants removed. Land management plans provide guidelines on monitoring, assist in prioritizing removal and prevention goals and help track the progress of control work.

Do not remove native plants from the wild. Taking native plants from the wild depletes native populations. Also, many wild-collected plants do not survive transplanting. Prevent poaching of plants by making sure that plants you buy are propagated at a nursery, or by starting plants yourself from a local seed supply (Collect seed only with the property owner’s permission). Ask a DCNR forestry expert for a list of native plant and seed sources in Pennsylvania. For contact information, visit here.  

Protect native plant communities and minimize habitat destruction. Finally, and most importantly, conserve already existing areas of native vegetation as a whole, functioning unit. The easiest, least expensive, and best way to conserve Pennsylvania’s plant heritage is to protect existing native plant communities from earth moving, trampling, and other disturbances. If disturbance is necessary, strive for minimum habitat destruction. In some cases, ecological restoration may be necessary, which can include planting native species, removing invasive or introduced species, controlling erosion, and loosening soil compaction.

Planting native species is just one of many steps you can take to practice backyard conservation. Try these other practices that nurture wildlife, reduce carbon emissions, conserve water, and protect air and water quality:

* Minimize lawn area – to reduce runoff (lawn is less permeable than planted beds), the need for mowing, and to replace monoculture with a diversity of plantings.

* Use rain barrels and rain gardens – to save water and promote infiltration and decrease runoff

* Compost - to reduce waste and create organic soil amendments that naturally enrich the soil

* Reduce or eliminate use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers - to protect wildlife, human health, and water quality

* Plant to maximize the natural heating and cooling of your home – to save energy and reduce carbon emissions. Planting evergreens on the north and west side of the home (to screen cold winter winds) is an example.


Letting Nature Grow. Landowners can establish natural areas on their property by simply allowing nature to take its course. If left alone, most lawn areas will eventually grow into a shrub or forest community. Often, species such as goldenrod, asters and milkweed will appear, as well as blackberries, staghorn sumac, chokecherry, white pine and sassafras. The advantage of this approach is that it can be relatively low input. You’re letting nature do most of the work. However, you have less control over the types of plants and trees that occupy the site. And, if you’re not careful, invasive species can quickly take over. However, with a watchful eye and a little patience, you can create a healthy natural area on your property.
Here are some tips:

1. Start small. Before letting nature take its course over a large area, start with small corner of your property and see what types of species appear.

2. Learn to identify plants. This is especially true for invasives. Learn how to identify and control invasive species as they appear. You don’t want your natural area to become a refuge for undesirable species.

3. Mow the edges. Some people, including your neighbors, may find these natural areas visually offensive. Keeping a nicely mowed edge, however, can greatly reduce this perception. Be sure your natural area complies with your neighborhood ordinances.

4. Create pathways. Mow pathways into your natural areas. This allows both kids and adults the opportunity to explore the site and identify the various plants and trees. It also makes the area look more intentional rather than neglected.

5. Be patient. Natural succession can sometimes be slow. Be patient in watching nature unfold on your property.
More information is available at


Establishing a Small Forest on Your Property. If you have enough land, you may want to consider establishing small forested areas or woodlots on your property. The space for your new forest could range from just a corner of your property to several acres. Establishing a small forest reduces the size of your lawn and provides valuable habitat for a variety of wildlife. Forested areas also help protect streams and intercept rainwater, reducing run-off. Conifer trees planted closely together can form a visual screen and also help block winter winds, reducing home heating costs.
Establishing these patches of forest on your property requires different practices from traditional landscaping. Here are a few tips for establishing a healthy, vibrant forest near your home.

1. Start small. Establishing trees takes effort and time. If you own a lot of land you may want to only do a small section at a time. Bare-root tree seedlings are the most cost-effective for establishing forested areas; however, they do require some special care to establish.

2. Use tree shelters. Tree tubes are often necessary to protect seedlings from animals such as deer and rabbits. Tubes are available in different sizes through many county conservation districts and nursery catalogs.

3. Plant a variety of species. A diverse planting will ensure a healthy forest and help protect it from insects and diseases. Also, it will provide habitat for a greater variety of wildlife. Consider planting native, berry-producing shrubs along the edges, such as elderberry or dogwood.

4. Plant like nature. To mimic a natural forest, plant your seedlings in a random pattern, close together (seedlings approximately 5 to 15 feet apart.) You can always thin your forest as it ages, if necessary.

 5. Control weeds. To ensure the health and survival of your planting, it’s imperative that you control the weed competition around your seedlings. You can do this by using mulch or a herbicide in the immediate area around the seedlings. (Be sure to follow the label, and do not spray the actual seedling.) You’ll also need to mow in between your planting for several years until your forest is established.