T’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: 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.
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.