Step-by-step practical guides to get you started with native plant gardening!
So you’ve got a space for a native pollinator garden, but you don’t know where to start. If you read this and still feel intimidated, we have ready-to-go Garden Plans too!
Contrary to traditional horticultural gardening, which mostly bends conditions to suit plants, native gardening chooses plants to suit conditions. Step 1 is figure out your conditions!
- How many hours of sun does this space get in the growing season? How heavy is the shade (the glittery shade of deciduous trees can be a lot easier to plant in than the deep shade of a spruce or a building)?
- When nobody is watering the garden, how moist does the soil stay? (There’s a beautiful native plant for every natural moisture and sun condition, so don’t be afraid of soggy spots or bone dry dusty zones)
- When the soil is moist, can you crush it into a ball? A ball that holds its shape would mean you’ve got clay, a handful that won’t clump to save its life is sandy, and in between is loamy; full of small rocks makes it gravelly. There are native plants that like all these conditions!
- What other environmental factors might be exerting themselves? Gardens near roadsides and paths have to deal with being salted, so they need salt tolerant plants. Gardens in proximity to walnut trees need to be juglone tolerant (don’t worry, most of our native plants are.). Gardens in some low-lying areas or near drainpipes need to be able to handle seasonal flooding. These are important to take into account so you can choose the plants that are going to thrive in these environments.
The next step is to take a census of what is already growing. If you’re replanting an existing bed, this is probably a speedy step! If you’re planting in a weedy area, this could take a really long time, and it’s really important! Using plant identification apps can speed the process, but use more than one, and try to rely on ones that are built for naturalists, not horticulturalists–iNaturalist is an alright one, and google lens does okay too. Cross-check your findings with VASCAN (the database of vascular plants of Canada) to see if things you don’t recognize are native plants.
If they’re native, consider rescuing them, working them into your plan, and transplanting them into your new garden! You already know they can thrive in these conditions!
If they’re invasive, you have to plan for their removal. (More about this in the next section)
Choose your plants
Now the fun part!
Your goal is a garden with:
- Native plants that evolved in sun, moisture and soil conditions that match your garden spot,
- With blooms and grasses from springtime through to fall,
- With host plants for lepidoptera and native bees, and seeds for birds.
- Look up what’s native to your area–either start with native plant retailers, seed providers if you want to go from scratch (feel free to check out our winter sowing page!), or the combination search function at the wildflower.org.
Look up what’s native to your area–either start with native plant retailers, seed providers if you want to go from scratch (feel free to check out our winter sowing page!), or the combination search function at the wildflower.org. Filter by sun conditions. Narrow by moisture conditions. Then look at soil. Then look at spread/how aggressive the plant is, and root type (tap or fibrous). Finally, look at bloom time and host species capacities.
Make yourself a list of things that you like, and look through retailers and seed providers to see what you can find. Heck, head to the Pollinate Barrie Facebook group and ask if someone wants to grow what you’re looking for!
Organize your species by height. Taller stuff goes in the back in gardens against a wall or fence, or towards the middle of the planting in island gardens. Medium height stuff goes next, then short things.
Try to mix up the layout so that the blooms are distributed through the year, BUT try to keep species together. It helps bees forage. Don’t forget patches of bare soil for nesting, mud puddles and water dishes for butterflies and bees!
Things look better in odd numbers; try to plant in odd-numbered clumps or drifts of the same species. (This specifically helps bees–they will frequently forage all plants of one species at once.)
Dense planting helps tall plants stay tall, cuts down on watering, cuts down on weeding, and helps provide cover for our bug friends. Aim for 5-8 inches between plants. I know that sounds tight, and it is, and that’s good.If you’re worried about definition in your finished garden, opt for more plants of the same species, clustered tightly, at contrasting heights.
Generally, green mulch is better than wood mulch. Native crawling groundcovers like native strawberry, pussytoes, and silverweed can shade the roots of your plants and prevent rogue weeds from seeding in. (They also tend to flower early, which is helpful!) If you have to use mulch, use a thin amount of undyed local hardwood or softwood, and don’t reapply every year–let it break down into new soil for you as your plants get larger.
A pollinator garden is an investment in the future, and it can take three years to really grow into its glory. The adage for native plants is “the first year, they sleep; the second, they creep; the third, they leap.” It might take three years for your garden to really get going, but once it does, WOW.
So now you’ve got a plan, but you need to prep the space to plant!
If invasive species need removal, you have a couple options:
Tarping: Place a large, thick black tarp over the garden area in the spring, secure with some rocks or weights, and keep it there until the next spring. The dark colour will help to fry what’s growing there with heat and the lack of sunlight can starve the roots. Next spring, cover with a layer of soaked cardboard, add more soil, and plant.
Digging: You can try to dig out your invasives. Do some research about which species you have and how they spread–some of them reproduce clonally from tiny bits of roots, some of them leave significant seed banks that you will have to manage going forward. There’s a reason they’re called invasive species–they spread and they’re hard to kill! If you remove via digging, you will likely have to keep removing resurgences of the invasive plants for several years after you plant your garden. Knowing your enemy is useful in this–some tactics work better than others for specific species.
Nothing is stopping you from doing a combination of both of these tactics.
INVASIVE SPECIES CANNOT BE PROCESSED AS YARD WASTE. Don’t compost them. Don’t put them in yard waste bags. Don’t put them in brushpiles. BLACK GARBAGE BAG them. Otherwise you’re facilitating spread.
A note on herbicides and invasive species: Some invasive species are so aggressive and so impossible that targeted herbicides are the only way to effectively eradicate them from a site. Japanese knotweed, barberry, phragmites, buckthorn and dog strangling vine are good examples of species that are almost impossible to eradicate without targeted herbicides. Speaking to a native nursery that does invasive species removal, or to our local conservation authority, can all help you decide how to best remove these invasive species. And dear god, please, never ever plant them on purpose!
If you’re not dealing with invasives, or have a relatively clean garden bed, you can remove old plants and plant your natives there instead, easy peasy! Don’t fertilize or amend the soil–if you’ve planned for the soil you have, making it richer than the plants need will make the plants floppy and confused.
If you’re making a fresh garden in a place that’s been hosting turf sod, there’s a cool trick: Cut the sod in large pieces, flip them upside down, cover with a small bit of soil, and plant straight into the layers. Turf grass is so shallow-rooted that it can be removed entirely in thin layers like this, and putting the layers leaf-side-down returns the nutrients and microorganisms to the soil where they can be useful.
If you’re making a fresh garden in a weedy area, we use the cardboard method: place a layer of uncoated cardboard onto the garden space, soak the cardboard until it begins to lose structural integrity, and cover it with 5-7inches of topsoil. To plant, use a sharp spade to cut through both the soil AND the cardboard. This helps suppress the seed bank of weeds by denying them sunlight to germinate.
Immediately after you plant, a very light mulching with undyed mulch or leaf mold can help retain moisture. Only for the first year – following years, leaves and stems will do the work for you.
Garden maintenance tips:
Year 1: Water very deeply once a week (twice a week in droughts), and remove weeds around your young plants 3-4 times during the growing season. In the fall, consider letting seeds fall instead of collecting any to share; it can help fill in your garden spaces.
Year 2: Water only trees or shrubs, and occasionally during droughts. Remove weeds maybe 2 times a year, or as they get so large they shade things out.
Year 3: Remove weeds if you see them in passing, and water in a drought, but your garden has grown up now, and can make it on its own. The less you walk in the soil, the better–70% of our bees nest in the ground.
The golden rule of native garden maintenance is: the less you do, the better.
Don’t “clean up” or cut down old growth. Your taller plants will grow up and around them and obscure the old material, and it will help keep them from flopping over–but most of all, it’s important to leave them because the stems from last year and the year before are frequently filled with solitary bee larva.Those babies will emerge periodically the entire growing season; there isn’t any magic temperature or time that they’ll be empty. It’s better to leave them to be used by the creatures living in them.
Don’t remove leaves. If you must rake, gently rake deciduous leaves INTO your garden beds, not out of them. They help the soil, insulate through the winter, and most importantly, they hold butterflies and moths at all life stages. If you throw those leaves out, you’re throwing out pollinators.
Don’t be afraid to pile the garden with snow. It helps keep the roots warm in the winter, and helps kick start the garden with meltwater in the spring.
Don’t be worried if the garden seems late to come back. Lots of our species are used to winter lasting f o r e v e r, and sometimes they’ll sleep in until mid June. Don’t start worrying about them until you haven’t seen them by mid-July. If your garden is feeling drab in the spring, consider working some spring ephemerals into your plan! They come up early and then go dormant in the soil by the summer.
Don’t freak out if something is eating your plants. You planted them to be eaten.(The possible exception is if you know the thing that’s eating them is nonnative–Japanese scarabs, for example, are not good prey food for most birds, and are voracious plant eaters. Knock them into a bowl of soapy water and leave them overnight, but don’t squish them–it calls their friends.)
Barrie allows boulevard strips to be planted with plants if you adhere to some simple rules:
- Plants need to be 60cm tall or less (30cm tall if you’re at an intersection)
- Plants used cannot be noxious weeds or on the invasive species list (no daylillies or periwinkle, please!)
- You must plant according to your own property line, locate your own buried service lines to keep them safe, and leave a 30cm gap around sidewalks, curbs and driveway edges
- You register your boulevard garden (it’s free) by filling out this form.
See our list of winter-hardy, salt-tolerant, low-growing Ontario native perennials that you can grow on your boulevard to help expand the ecosystem for our pollinators!
Native plants have different blooming times, which means they have different seed times. For a seed to be viable and sprout, it needs to be:
- Stored properly, and
- Treated properly (see Germination Codes).
Different plants have different ways that these conditions get met. Many spring-ephemeral plants require moist storage of ripe seed, and several years before they sprout/flower. Many plants with fleshy fruits require special treatment and cleaning. But every single one of them needs to be done flowering before you collect seed, so the first step is to wait until the show is over.
While you wait, you can look up the plant at this incredible resource, that shows what ripe seeds look like, what sort of storage requirements they have, and what tactics can help to separate the seed from chaff that poses a fungus risk.
- NEVER COLLECT FROM WILD POPULATIONS. They need those seed banks full to keep the plants blooming, and Barrie has a lot to share in gardens! Doubly so in species with population constraints.
- Try not to collect more than 10-20% of available seed. You need some to fall to reseed your beds, some to be food for birds and ants, and have lots left over.
- Wait until the flowers have dried and no new ones are blooming.
- Wait until the seed head is almost ready to spill seeds without your intervention. (Depending on the seed head, sometimes fixing small organza drawstring bags around the seedhead can be helpful to collect seeds without impeding the drying out process)
- Store them in cool, dry, dark conditions. Paper bags can work well; I like to use cleaned pill bottles labelled with painter’s tape.
- When you’re sharing or long-term storing, paper envelopes are way better than plastic bags!
- Some seeds have long-ish shelf lives, some seeds have virtually no shelf life. Look ‘em up!
Native plants have evolved to cope with the intense pressures of Canadian Winters. Seeds grow and form in the warm seasons, but then they don’t germinate until springtime – how do they handle five months of frozen nonsense? Understanding this is how we get them to grow.
Seeds native to cold climates evolved a tactic called Dormancy – essentially, they sleep until they feel that the winter has passed, and THEN they start the growing process. If they don’t feel the winter passing, they don’t break dormancy.
In the wild, seeds fall to the ground; they get wet in autumn rain, then frozen with frost, then thawed out and wet again; eventually they freeze, and get buried under snow; then they just hang out frigid for several months, until spring approaches, does a bunch more freezing and thawing, melts the snow into more water, and then brings out the sun. The three most important parts of this process to the seeds are:
- That it’s cold
- That it’s moist
- That it takes time.
Botanists call this Cold Moist Stratification, and it’s the way seeds break their dormancy.
So how do we actually do winter sowing? The Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library has made this handy set of short videos that makes this really easy! I’ll link the pertinent vids at each point in the process, but the channel is linked here.
Step 0: Gather your Junk.
- Potting soil
- Containers to plant in
- Seeds, obviously
- Some sort of labelling apparatus
Container Prep Step 1: Holes
Each container for winter sowing needs lots and lots of drainage, rain holes and airflow holes. Drainage is important because water collecting too much means solid blocks of ice or drowning seeds, and that’ll kill them. Rain holes are important because if the seeds dry out too much, they won’t germinate. Airflow holes are important because not enough airflow will make mold grow, and that will kill the seeds too. BUT: be careful not to make the holes so big that pests can get in, and soil can flow out. Aim for a hole between ½ cm and ¾ cm wide every 3-5inches in every direction. If you’re using recycled jugs, the lids can be recycled, we don’t need ‘em. Nursery pots don’t need additional holes, as long as they’ve got drainage. Plastic totes definitely do, though!
Things I’ve used to punch holes:
- The family drill
- A paring knife
- A metal pen
- A wood burner
- A screwdriver
- An upholstery needle, followed by a hammer and nail
Really, just follow your heart.
If your containers don’t have wide access lids, you need to make some. Make a horizontal incision in the upper third of your container (the bottom 2/3rds of it will be for soil and roots, the upper 1/3rd will be for shoots and leaves). Cut almost all the way around your container, leaving a hinge so you don’t lose the lid.
Container Prep Step 2: Soil
Fill your containers loosely with soil until there’s only a cm or so of free space left at the top edge. Don’t pack it down, you want some airy root space.
- Plant seeds no deeper than the depth of the seed. Tiny seed? Just scatter on top of the soil and press them in a little.
- Don’t overseed–give each seed some space to fill in.
- Give the seeds a gentle push into the soil to ensure contact.
- Water the seeds until the entire soil block is moist, but not soaking. If you water too much, let it drain out well. Don’t ONLY under-water, or germination will suffer.
- Labelling is one of the hardest parts of winter sowing. Labels will spend an entire Canadian winter in the miserable wet and cold; usually these conditions bleach and disintegrate paper labels, remove the ink on popsicle sticks, and peel paint.
- People swear by Grease Pencils. I’m trying them this year. But the other thing I’m going to do is immediately take photos of planted pots and label them digitally, too.
Container Prep Step 3: Installation
Bring your stuff to an outdoor space that is:
- Flat and level
- Exposed to the elements but otherwise unbothered by activity
- Not liable to pool water, and
- Not liable to be pooped on by pets.
I use my back porch, because nobody goes out there all winter.
Place containers low to the ground, but try not to crowd them so much they impede air circulation (like this).
Close the lids. Tape them lightly with duct tape if they’re not staying closed by themselves.
Then LEAVE THEM ALONE. FOR SEVERAL MONTHS.
You can peek inside, but don’t open them. They’re not even going to do anything interesting until like April, at the absolute earliest.
If two weeks pass without rain OR SNOW, water the tops of your containers if you like, but don’t fuss over them. If they get covered in snow, great! If they freeze to the bottom of your porch and you can’t move them, okay! If they’re temporarily lost in the snowbanks and you don’t see them from December to late February, cool! You wouldn’t be seeing them in the ground either.
Once the snow melts enough to expose the tops of the containers, you can check and see if the soil is dry; if it is, give it a light watering, or put some snow in the container–then LEAVE IT ALONE SOME MORE.
Start checking on the containers in early April, when things warm up enough that the majority of the snow is gone. Watch for dry soil, and sprouts.
When you find sprouts, give them some water with liquid fertilizer if you like.
Transplant when there are two or three sets of true leaves on your sprouts. Invert the container and ease out the hunk of seedlings, and transfer the whole block into a hole in your garden bed where you want it to live.
Growth generally follows the old adage:
First year they sleep–growth in the first year is primarily in the roots, which is why it’s good to get them transplanted when small–especially with taproot species.
Second year they creep–year two is spent getting bigger, flowering for the first time, and setting seeds.
Third year, they leap–third year plants get larger, lusher, stronger, brighter, and fully established.
GOT QUESTIONS? Don’t be shy, ASK THE GROUP!
Different species need different durations of wet and cold to break dormancy and germinate. If you’re winter sowing, this is the minimum amount of time they need to be cold and moist to germinate in the spring.
Some species have multiple germ codes; they don’t cancel each other out, they stack.
“But Ash!”, you cry, “Where do I find the germination code of a species?”
The best database for this I’ve found isn’t a database, it’s Prairie Moon Nursery. If you look up your species in their shop, it’ll give you the full rundown.
Common Germination Codes:
Germ Code A: No pretreatment necessary–you can sow these any time, and they’ll grow. Cold Stratification won’t hurt them, but you can also plant them in the spring!
Germ Code B: Boil some water and pour it over the seeds; soak them in that water for 24hrs, and then sow. Usually for legumes, or seeds that have extra-hard coatings.
Germ Code C: Cold-moist stratification is needed to break dormancy and germinate. The number of days needed in stratification is in (parentheses). You can artificially stratify seeds by placing them in moist sand in a ziploc bag and keeping them in your fridge, but if you are winter-sowing, you -do not need to artificially stratify your seed-. Winter will do it for you.
Germ Code D: Seeds are teeny, and need to be surface-sown instead of covered in soil. Mist them and keep them moist, and let the sun kiss ‘em after the snow melts, or they won’t germinate.
Germ Code E: Seeds need a WARM moist stratification, followed by a cold moist stratification.
Germ Code F: Seeds need a cold moist stratification, followed by a warm moist period, followed by another cold moist stratification. These seeds take multiple years to germinate in natural conditions, and are frequently tricky to grow.
Germ Code G: Seeds need cool soil; sow them after a hard frost or in early spring before the thaw.
Germ Code H: These need scarification–the process of weakening the seed coating to let water in. Get two sheets of medium-grit sandpaper and gently scrub the seeds between them. Scarify BEFORE artificially Stratifying. Scarify VERY LIGHTLY if you’re winter-sowing!
Germ Code I: This is a legume! That means they need the help of beneficial soil bacteria to germinate. Most soil has it already, but if you’re using sterile soil, you’ll have less success.
Germ Code L: Plant it fresh or keep it moist! Keep it in the fridge before you treat it.
Germ Code M: Artificially stratifying might not work as well; you’re better off to plant outside in the fall.