Gardening with Native Plants: Gardener’s Bookshelf

Purple giant hyssop seedheads

Purple giant hyssop seedheads

Holding the winter solstice, December is a dark and quiet month. It is the first month of meteorological winter, when average daily high temperatures fall below freezing in southern Wisconsin. Typically, substantial snow begins. Garden tasks include some outdoor work, but mainly indoor activities: data entry and summaries, researching garden issues, reviewing garden designs, compiling plant lists, giving presentations, planning for next season’s gardening and outreach, and reading.

Several new books, published in 2023, provide a wide range of information and advice for native plant gardeners. Benjamin Vogt’s new book, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, includes an overview of the reasons and goals of gardening with native plants as well as inspiring garden photos. Chapters on plant selection, garden design, and management are clear and useful. He suggests garden lists and plans for different soil and light conditions, complete with modular planting diagrams and a list of insects using each of the plants in each mix. The initial planting plans group plants of each species, but for each design he points out that the garden is dynamic, will change over time, and will be managed differently than ornamental plantings (for example, no fall trimming, no supplemental watering, and no pesticide use). He addresses methods and management for smaller and larger scale projects and emphasizes that plants will respond to particular site characteristics. New insight about individual species is gained through observation over seasons and years.

For detailed information about plants and methods for prairie gardening and prairie restoration, I recommend The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants by Niel Diboll and Hilary Cox. This book grew out of the authors’ deep experience with prairie plant propagation as well as designing and managing native plant gardens with clients. Chapter 5, “Prairie Species Field Guide,” is nearly 300 pages long and especially valuable. Each species has a page spread that relates detailed information, including habitat requirements, propagation, geographic distribution map, and photos showing seedling, whole plant, leaf, and stages of flowering and fruit. Chapters 11 and 12 include nearly 200 pages of tables listing seed mixes and plants for different conditions and goals – for example, “easy-to-divide prairie plants” or lists by flower color for different site conditions. This book is a valuable new resource for gardening and restoration, though I found it needed more editing here and there.

A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants and Pollinators: Creating Habitat in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Upper Midwest, by Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla, is a highly readable guide mainly for home and community gardeners. Many topics such as pollinator habitat needs, garden practices, ways to influence policies about native plantings, and how to have an impact if you don’t have your own garden are presented concisely but thoroughly. The authors provide specifics about specialized plant-pollinator relationships and a range of sample garden designs from container gardening to larger public spaces. The profiles of native plants (chapter 4) include native species suitable for the full range of light conditions in home gardens – from full sun to shady sites. This book will answer many of your questions about supporting pollinator populations.

On a lighter note, I recommend The Gardener’s Year by Karl Capek. (I’d given away my copy but recently found the book again at a local independent bookstore and have been chuckling ever since.) This small book, originally published in 1929, traces a year in the garden through all-too-familiar experiences. Hose wrestling, wishing for rain – but only between midnight and 3 a.m., and only on certain plants –  overestimating how many new plants will squeeze into limited space yet buying all of them, garden care instructions during vacation, distractions while gardening, and more.

Two additional recently-published books might interest those looking for more details on garden wildlife: Wildscape by Nancy Lawson and Flower Bugs: A Guide to Flower-Associated True Bugs of the Midwest by Angella Moorehouse.

As the year ends cold and dark, these new gardening books, valuable resources, and lighter tales will enlighten and entertain. Let’s read!

—Susan Carpenter, native plant garden curator