Gardening with Native Plants: Winter Reading

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)

December is a quiet month of cold, short days with blowing and drifting snow possible, even likely. Outdoor garden tasks are usually limited by weather, but indoor tasks include data entry and summaries, compiling plant orders, reading resources, and planning garden work. Here are some books and resources for gardeners during this month’s long evenings and indoor times.

Beauty of the Wild by Darrel Morrison (Library of American Landscape History, 2021) weaves together memoir and illustrated garden design principles and results. This fascinating book traces the influence of the Arboretum and southern Wisconsin natural areas early in Morrison’s career and describes the development and artistry in his large-scale urban and rural projects. We learn of the intellectual influences (Jensen, Roberts, Rehmann, the Kaplans), colleagues, institutions, and diverse landscapes that inspire him and inform his design process. His designs are based on, and reflect, ecological communities, botanical details, human experience, and beauty.

Morrison designed the Arboretum’s Wisconsin Native Plant Garden more than 20 years ago. Fortunately, he has been active in its development ever since, visiting the garden, recommending adjustments to the plantings, giving tours and presentations, and designing our new short grass prairie garden last spring. His book is illustrated with many photos from our garden and adjacent Curtis Prairie, which is an inspiration. As a gardener in one of Morrison’s designed spaces, I enjoyed reading this “big picture” story of his design process and gaining fresh perspectives on a place that is so familiar.

If you would like to maximize the ways your garden supports life, every space in your landscape counts. It can be overwhelming to know where to start when adding native plants or replacing non-native species. For practical advice on which native plants will add wildlife value, I recommend these two books by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard L. Schwartz: Midwestern Native Shrubs and Trees: Gardening Alternatives to Nonnative Species: An Illustrated Guide (Ohio University Press, 2017) and The Midwestern Native Garden: Native Alternatives to Nonnative Flowers and Plants: An Illustrated Guide (Ohio University Press, 2011). The books are organized seasonally. Native alternatives are similar to the non-natives in bloom time, size, and form. For example, in the spring section, the authors discourage growing narrow-leaved lupine (Lupinus angustifolius), which can escape cultivation and become invasive in some habitats. Instead, they suggest planting indigo (Baptisia sp.), native irises, spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), and wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). In the fall section, they also provide lists of native alternatives that have colorful fall foliage or features that are attractive and persistent through winter.

These books are useful for a gradual approach to native plant gardening in established gardens but could also be used in designing plantings for new sites. Gardeners may find them useful in planning and compiling plant orders this winter. Not all the suggested plants are native to Wisconsin, although some are hardy here. Wisconsin gardeners can check the Wisflora website to determine if a species is native to your region.

Great black wasp on showy goldenrod
Great black wasp on showy goldenrod

Wasps: Their Biology, Diversity, and Role as Beneficial Insects and Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm (Pollination Press, LLC, 2021) is a comprehensive textbook-sized resource with detailed descriptions of common flower-visiting wasp species of eastern North America (including the Midwest). Holm lists the insect prey that wasps use to provision their young. It was interesting to learn about the sand wasps (ground nesters observed in our sand prairie garden, who dig out tunnels, flicking out sand grains in the same way a dog digs) and the grass-carrying wasps that sometimes use the demonstration boxes for cavity-nesting bees. She describes life cycles, geographic ranges, nesting/provisioning behavior, and overwintering stages. As in her other books, Holm emphasizes the links between insects and native plants and provides lists of nectar plants that each wasp species uses. She also includes a summary regional list of Great Lakes plants, noting which are most suitable for gardens. Most of those species are also on plant lists recommended for bees. Your “bee” garden may already provide good habitat for wasps. Because people are quite wary of stinging insects, Holm gives suggestions about gardening around solitary wasps (they are not aggressive) and colonial species (observe and do not disturb nests; stay a good distance from the entrance hole when the colony is active). The first five chapters of this book are a valuable overview about nesting, habitat, life cycle, wasp enemies, anatomy, diet, and ecosystem services (wasps as pollinators and as predators on insect pests). I am returning to the detailed species descriptions after observing wasps and wasp behavior while gardening or reviewing wasp photos from pollinator surveys.

In this quiet yet promising time when our gardens and landscapes overwinter, let’s read!

—Susan Carpenter, native plant garden curator