Wondering what to plant in your yard or garden? Go native — as in native plants that grew wild in Minnesota before settlement by Europeans.
That’s the advice of Alan Branhagen, plant expert and director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Plants that originated here are adapted to thrive here and require less maintenance. They also benefit nature, attracting pollinators and supporting wildlife.
Branhagen’s new book “The Midwest Native Plant Primer: 225 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden” ($24.95, Timber Press) is an easy, breezy guide to garden-worthy trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials and vines for Midwestern landscapes.
We talked with Branhagen about the best plants for lazy gardeners, plants we’re in danger of losing and his pick for best tree. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: You write that Midwestern native plants have a PR problem. How so?
A: The Midwest in general has a PR problem. We’re kind of flyover country. You don’t often see the Midwest in TV commercials, and when you do, it’s a commercial for agriculture or for a pesticide, and it shows these perfectly clean fields — not one stitch of anything native. It’s too bad our indigenous landscapes aren’t respected the way they deserve to be.
Q: What’s your PR pitch for natives?
A: Celebrate our spirit of place. The tallgrass prairie and central hardwood forest have an amazing array of plants. They entice you with the beauty of their flowers, foliage and form. Let’s celebrate the uniqueness of the Midwest with these plants.
Q: What are some misconceptions about native plants?
A: That they’re weeds. We have it in our heads that a landscape should be trimmed and neat with a perfect edge. First, get over that aesthetic. I’ve seen that [evolve]. Even 20 years ago, there were almost no ornamental grasses in landscapes. Now they’re accepted. Prairie dropseed has become very popular, which is exciting. Native plants are perfectly adapted to the soils and climate we have.
Q: What prompted you to write this book?
A: My earlier book, “Native Plants of the Midwest,” published in 2016, is a hefty 500-plant book. This is really a downsized version of that. It’s less intimidating for beginners, more user-friendly. Hopefully this book is part of solution to that PR problem. The cost of this book is $24.95 instead of $40 [for his earlier book] so it’s more accessible. We need to reach as many people as we can. Using native plants is the most Earth-friendly thing you can do.
Q: How did you decide which 225 plants to include of the more than 6,000 plants that are native to the Midwest?
A: I based it on my experience gardening in several states — the plants people will have success with. I wanted to include a broad cross-section of plants, broken down into trees shrubs, perennials, vines and ground covers. The more layers of plants you have in your garden, the better for the environment. I tried to include ones that are more adapted to traditional landscapes.
Q: What are a few plants you’d recommend for lazy gardeners who don’t want to do much maintenance?
A: My Top 10 [Native Plant List] covers that. An oak, once it’s established, you’re good to go. Prairie dropseed as a grass — it’s an absolute no-brainer. They all need to be watered to establish but after that you’re pretty good to go. Just give it a trim in the spring before it starts to grow seed. You can even use a mulching mower. Set it on high, and you’re done for the year.
Butterfly milkweed is incredibly drought-tolerant. At my garden in Chaska, I have 100 seedlings. Yay, the more the merrier! It’s going to be spectacular! As a ground cover, I like Pennsylvania sedge. It looks like turf grass. But you only need to mow once in spring. It’s a much more sustainable plant than turf.
I also like Virginia bluebells. In the springtime, you get exquisite blue flowers. They do go dormant, but when they bloom, they’re an early nectar source for pollinators.
Q: What northern plants are we at risk of losing with climate change?
A: Balsam fir. And the Minnesota State Tree, the red pine.
Q: People have gotten the message that monarch butterflies need swamp milkweed. What are some other natives that benefit and attract butterflies?
A: That’s a complex question. Each butterfly has a different group of plants its caterpillars need as a host plant. To have butterflies in your garden, how you garden is important.
Most of them are there all year, in the winter; you’ve got to remember that. Some overwinter as caterpillars. They freeze and come back to life. Swallowtails are there as chrysalises. The monarch is the easiest one; it migrates away. These other ones, you have to provide habitat for them year-round.
Pesticide use [has an impact]. Are you impacting eggs, chrysalises, caterpillars you can’t see? Pick the butterfly you love and find out what plants its caterpillars need, what plants adult butterflies need, and what habitat it needs to survive the winter. The book has a section on butterfly gardening.
Q: Why are natives difficult to grow from seed?
A: Some are challenging. You can grow from seed but you’re obviously speeding up the process [when you buy plants]. Don’t dig them up from somewhere. Buy nursery-propagated plants so you’re not impacting native populations.
Q: What are some native trees that you wish were more widely planted in Minnesota?
A: White oak is my No. 1. It’s a very long-lived tree. It’s also No. 1 for wildlife. It provides more food. It’s one of best things you can do for the web of life.
Q: What native plants do you have at your home?
A: A lot — over 500 species of native plants. My front yard is like a prairie border. I am in a traditional neighborhood so it does stand out. I do not use any pesticides on my lawn. It’s not a bee lawn, but essentially it is a bee lawn. I do have federally endangered rusty patch bumblebees every day. Their favorite plant is anise hyssop. It’s a great native! I also see [them] on whorled mountain mint a lot. And swamp milkweed.
I also have woodland gardens; not just prairie. I took out a horrible Norway maple, a worthless tree, and planted a birch grove. Why not mix some birches together? I do like to challenge people to think of a grove of trees, not just a tree. I have red twig dogwood underneath. In winter, it’s stunning!