Native Plant Mania

Elizabeth Nelson stands in front of a new planting at her home that incorporates native plants and a raingarden. Brown's Creek Watershed District in Stilwater.

The first couple of sparks start in mid-February. A woman I run into at an event comments, “Yeah, I was thinking of planting a new garden this year.” A dozen or so people show up at the Blue Thumb workshop the next week. They check out photos of past projects, like what they see, and are interested in doing something like that themselves. Of course, their yards are buried under three feet of snow, so there’s no use wasting too much time dreaming. As the snow melts and the trees start to bud, thought, the sparks start flying in earnest. People turn out in droves for the workshops that month and my in-box starts filling with requests for more information.

By the time mid-May rolls around, an all-out mania has set in, threatening to engulf our office in a raging forest fire. The e-mails and calls arrive in rapid succession, along with a whirlwind of churches, garden clubs and community groups interested in learning more about native plants, raingardens and shoreline landscaping. The natural resource specialists working for the Washington Conservation District and local Watershed Districts drive around frantically from home to home throughout the county, advising homeowners on planting projects and identifying priority locations for cost-share grants to keep local lakes and streams clean.

If our state were not so cold, our winters not so long, perhaps the garden mania wouldn’t be so wild. When you live in a place with snow arriving from October until April, however, it’s only natural that people will embrace the spring with fervor once it finally arrives. Seven months is a long time to dream about flowers and birds.

In recent years, our local garden mania has picked up a new flavor. People are no longer content to just plant a pretty garden in their yard. Now they want a garden that stops polluted runoff, attract butterflies and birds, or improves wildlife habitat. After receiving a constant barrage of information about the declining state of some of our favorite lakes and rivers, people are looking for a way to pitch in and help solve the problem. The word is spreading that regular folks can help to keep sediment from clogging the Mississippi River, and algae from choking the St. Croix and our local lakes, simply by taking part in a favorite American pastime – gardening.

One of the easiest ways for people to improve wildlife habitat and reduce runoff water pollution is to replace sections of lawn with native plant gardens. Easy to please, native plants are popular because they demand no sprinklers, watering cans or hoses. They are adapted for the region in which they live, having developed resistances to many common diseases, grown spines or poison sap to keep animals from eating them, and the uncanny ability to survive and thrive through even the coldest Minnesota winters and hottest Minnesota summers. Native prairie plants, as well as shrubs and trees, have deep root systems that help to soak rainwater back into the ground and prevent soil from eroding away. As an added benefit, they provide food for beneficial insects like pollinators, as well as the 240 species of birds that call our region home.

With June approaching and the gardening and native plant mania striking a feverish pitch, local community groups are working to make it easier than ever for people to find native plants and raingarden plants for their yards. At the Blue Thumb website – – a plant selector tool helps people to select the right kind of native plants for their yards’ conditions. The website also lists local retailers and landscaping companies that specialize in native plants and raingardens. A dozen of the Blue Thumb partner nurseries are teaming up with Audubon Minnesota to put on the Landscape Revival – Native Plant Expo and Market on June 4, 9am-3pm, at the Roseville Rainbow Foods Community Pavilion (One block west of Lexington Avenue at 1201 Larpenteur Avenue West). The event will feature several varieties of native plants for sale, as well as presentations and information about how to begin incorporating natives into your landscape. The very next day, the Master Gardeners in Washington County will be hosting a plant sale and diagnostic clinic at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Lake Elmo. The sale will feature natives and perennials for sun or shade, raingarden plants, and plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds, as well as a wide variety of vegetables, herbs and annuals. The sale will run 11am-3pm with Master Gardeners on hand to answer your questions about plant and insect pests in your garden 10am-2pm.

Winter is over and summer is just around the corner. Grab your shovels and join the native plant mania!