Master gardener Carolyn Harstad has been a fan of native plants since she first fell in love with wildflowers a few decades ago. She has a lot more company now.
When she published her first book, “Go Native!” in 1999, native plants and resources on the subject were relatively hard to find, she said. But in recent years, interest has exploded as more home gardeners have become aware of the ecological benefits and low-maintenance attributes of native plants.
Harstad’s latest book, “Got Sun? 200 Best Native Plants for Your Garden” (Indiana University Press, $28), offers a guidebook to help gardeners select the right natives for various spots in their landscape, whether they’re looking for a shrub, a vine or a low-growing perennial for a border. We caught up with the author and nature photographer at home in Lakeville.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about native plants?
A: One of the biggest is that they look horrible and messy, that they’re weed-like. Some of them are. But there are beautiful natives that you can use in a perennial border. A lot of native grasses are really fun, like Indian grass and little bluestem and switchgrass. The really tall plants, like silphium, cup plant, I don’t recommend. It gets too tall. It catches water, which is great for little birds and insects, but it’s a prairie plant and probably not a plant for a suburban front yard.
Q: There’s a lot of debate in gardening circles about what is truly a native plant — how do you define it?
A: I’m not a purist. I did include cultivars and hybrids in the book. Some purists will take issue with that. But it’s a book about gardening, not restoring a prairie. People think of native plants as weeds, and cultivars are plants that hybridizers worked really hard on, to get bigger flowers, for example. My big premise is to go ahead and include some natives, for butterflies and birds. Native plants are just more friendly for the environment and restore some of the ecosystem we’ve lost.
The biggest problem here [in the United States] is turf grass. It’s wall to wall. Not a lot of people have gardens.
Q: How did you first get interested in native plants?
A: When we lived in Iowa City in the ’70s, a friend of mine lived in the country and had a lot of wildflowers. I started transplanting them, rescuing them from construction sites. Then I started photographing them and lecturing to garden clubs.
Q: Do you feel validated, now that more people seem to be appreciating native plants?
A: I’m absolutely delighted! It’s wonderful to walk into a nursery and see a whole section of native plants. When I first came here in 2003, I tried to find a shrub, New Jersey tea. It’s a really nifty plant, only about 3 feet tall, with pretty little white flowers. I went to a major nursery, and they didn’t have it. They said they used to have it, but nobody bought it. The problem with natives is that people are not familiar with them. People thought buckthorn was going to be this great hedge plant, and look what happened. That’s the problem with so many of the exotic plants. They get carried away and displace native plants. I’m gratified to see a shift back. There are lots of seminars and meetings and talks about it. Ten years ago, that was not the case.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: This is my third book, after “Go Native!” and “Got Shade?” My editor said, “We really need a sun book.” I did shade first because that’s really the toughest challenge most gardens face. My shade book included hostas, which are not native, they come from Japan. But back to “Got Sun?” I said, “There are hundreds of books on growing plants in sun.” I wanted to concentrate on natives.
Q: What’s your favorite native shrub for Minnesota?
A: Vibernum. It will do well in sun or shade. It has the most beautiful spring flowers, as well as berries, and fantastic fall color. It’s a very orderly plant.
Q: What are some good native plants for those who don’t have much time or know-how?
A: Phlox, wild lupine, black-eyed Susans. I absolutely love milkweed and butterfly weed. Butterfly weed has flowers that are bright orange, and swamp milkweed is pretty pink. Those will attract monarchs to your yard. Their populations are dwindling.
Coneflowers are pretty easy to grow, and bee balm. Sneezeweed is fun. It’s really pretty, and one type, Mardi Gras, has bright orange-red flowers. There are any number of cool things. Maidenhead ferns are gorgeous, if you have shade.
Q: What percentage of your landscape is native?
A: The front yard is about two-thirds garden and one-third grass. Not all the plants in the garden are natives. There are some hostas and some yews, but also many natives. I edged one of the front gardens with parsley to attract swallowtails, planted a variety of herbs and some rainbow Swiss chard here and there, and in the middle of my very front island garden, I am growing five heirloom tomato plants tucked in amongst the natives.
The back yard is shady, with hundreds of wildflowers. When the ephemerals disappear, my hostas take over the world, aided by a wide variety of ferns.
Q: How much time do you spend in an average week, tending your garden?
A: I find, with my garden, if I do a really thorough weeding, there’s not a whole lot more to do. I don’t spend a ton of time. I plant densely. If the plants are there, the weeds don’t have much room. And I mulch pretty heavily, in the fall. It keeps plants from dying over the winter, if you don’t have good snow cover. I do need to water, at least an inch of water a week. But if they get that, the natives take care of themselves.