Gardening with Native Plants: Subdued Landscapes

Late fall native plant garden landscape with dried plants and seedheads in foreground and birch trees in the distance.

Wisconsin Native Plant Garden (Photo: Susan Day)

This month brings shorter days, low sun angles, frost, cold rain, wind, and low cloud cover. The vivid colors of October are replaced by the tans and browns of November. The timing of this change varies widely year-to-year, illustrated by my surprisingly scant collection of garden photos taken in November.

Garden tasks include weeding, trimming trails for snowblower access, seed harvesting during dry weather, measuring areas to be planted next year, summarizing volunteer and planting data, garden research, and scheduling and presenting talks.

Colorful autumn leaves in a native plant garden bed alongside a paved path.
Autumn leaves left in native plant garden (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

In the Native Plant Garden, we don’t remove standing vegetation or fallen autumn leaves. Seeds, overwintering habitat, nutrients, and organic matter remain in place. In a home garden, this is a good time of year to create “soft landings” under mature trees or along shaded edges. We recommend these native planting areas, especially under native trees like oak, birch, willow, cherry, and others because they mimic natural conditions where insects feeding on those trees complete their life cycle as pupae or other overwintering forms. To create a soft landing, add fallen leaves to the area under the dripline of the trees. If this is an initial planting, you can put down a degradable layer (cardboard or painter’s paper) first, then cover that with leaves and hold them in place with small branches. By next season, the area will be ready to plant.

If plants are already growing around the base of the tree, you can rake leaves into the area to enlarge and prepare it for additional planting out to the dripline. Plants that work well under trees include spring ephemerals, woodland plants for light shade, and savanna species. Prairie species might be grown in southern exposure at the edge of the canopy. Planting or seeding into the area are both effective ways of starting the soft landing. Species suitable for Wisconsin gardens are listed toward the bottom of the page at the soft landings link above. When plants are established, they will self-seed or spread by rhizome, depending on the growth form of the plant. You may need to do some supplementary watering in the first season if rain doesn’t reach the ground under mature trees. If you have a surplus of fallen leaves, you can use a similar smothering technique to prepare beds in full sun. Use a thick layer of leaves or mulch to weaken or kill dense turfgrass.

You can enhance your plantings by overseeding appropriate species late this month or in early winter. Spread seed on bare soil patches and press to get good seed-soil contact. Freeze-thaw cycles will help draw seeds into the soil. In the winter months ahead, seeds that require stratification (cold treatment) will break dormancy by the time warmer temperatures arrive. Increasing the number of plants and the diversity of native species is the goal. To increase diversity, try adding species that grow in the same plant communities as plants that are already successful in your garden. You can also seed into labeled trays or pots, and place those outside to be exposed to winter conditions. In the spring, watch for germination and growth and transplant or share new plants.

This is a good time of year to measure new garden areas and calculate your plant and seed needs for next season. We plan for one small plant per square foot, keeping in mind that the plants near the edges will spill over the border when they are full-grown. We are already compiling our native plant and seed orders for winter sales.

November marks the end of a gardening season but, subtly, it can hold the beginning of the next.

—Susan Carpenter, native plant garden curator