As springtime hit its stride in central Indiana, a stunning array of wildflowers, hearty grasses and other native plants swayed in an early-morning breeze.

Tufted hair grass and shoots of common milkweed poked out of the soil. The blossoms of the pink prairie alumroot and the golden Alexander, with its delicate yellow flowers, added an early burst of color to the verdant green.

In fields and forests throughout the area, all of the ingredients exist for a stunning all-native Indiana garden.

“We want to help create food and habitat for the wildlife that depends on these plants. As we continue to mow down our forests and pave over our fields, it’s important to get these back,” said Natalie Marinova, nursery manager and field botanist for Eco Logic, a native habitat restoration company.

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As more gardeners and homeowners have become more environmentally conscious, they’ve turned more and more to native plants for both ecological and aesthetic reasons.

Native plants require less water and care to stay alive, help attract healthy pollinators such as butterflies and bees and create a well-balanced landscape perfectly suited for Indiana.

Gardening experts are spreading the word about building your yard around milkweed, wild columbine and other native species — the focus of this year’s Johnson County Garden Celebration.

“Native plants and the pollinator issue is so timely. We’re all so concerned about pollinators, and how they’re affected by the environment. We want people to be aware of it,” said Lynne Schuetz, co-chair of the event.

Native plants are important to a healthy landscape, because they provide resources that support wildlife, counter habitat fragmentation and help stormwater percolate safely into the soil rather than running directly into rivers and streams.

Gardens with native plants require less watering and fertilizing, according to the Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society.

That has made natives more in demand among homeowners.

In the nursery of Eco Logic, plats of seedlings are ready for the garden. Workers prune and label each small plant, from maidenhair ferns to showy milkweed to the celandine poppy.

Silky dogwoods and buttonbush grow in small pots in their own section.

The company has established an oasis of native plants on its campus near Bloomington. The grounds feature a nursery and greenhouse, as well as a reconstructed Indiana prairie, wetlands and other natural features of the area.

“We’re trying to demonstrate and let people see how you use native plants in landscaping, up against a building and more manicured,” said Specer Goehl, executive director at Eco Logic. “We’re letting people with small people know what they can do, and also show people with an acre or two acres what’s possible.”

Eco Logic was founded in 1999 to establish and restore native plant communities throughout Indiana. Their experts help clear out invasive species such as kudzu and bush honeysuckle, allowing for more ecologically appropriate plants to take root.

One of their main focuses is collecting seed from southern and central Indiana to have a base of hyper-local seeds to grow, Marinova said.

“Native plants are adapted to our soils and our climate, so any condition you have in your yard, there’s a native plant that will work,” she said. “We feel like it’s important to restore our neighborhoods and backyards to the native environment as much as possible.”

They have worked in the Hoosier National Forest and other parks, and their clients include the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Central Indiana Land Trust and U.S. Forest Service. But the company is also focusing on helping individual homeowners establish their own native gardens.

With the establishment of a greenhouse, more than 100 types of plants can start growing in January. By April, Eco Logic hosts plant sales where people can pick up fox sedge, Indian grass and wild bergamot. The nursery is open on Saturdays through early June, Marinova said.

“So far, we’ve been trying to fill that niche of homeowners being able to get native plants for their gardens. There are wholesale providers, but it’s hard to have a place where you can go and buy a few plants here and there,” she said.

Creating a native habitat for a garden or yard requires a mix of flowering plants, grasses, shrubs and trees to establish a healthy ecosystem. A mix of plants that bloom at different times throughout the year will ensure that blossoms are available for pollinators from spring to fall.

“We always tell people to put in the backbone structure of your trees and shrubs, then get your perennial flowers and grasses in,” Marinova said. “Then a succession of blooms through the season is important. A lot of times, people really focus on summer beds, but having a lot of spring wildflowers are really for early pollinators.”

That’s why organizers of this year’s Garden Celebration wanted to focus on both native plants and the pollinators that rely so heavily on them, Schuetz said.

Eco Logic will give a presentation at the event showing how native plants can help honeybees, butterflies and other pollinating insects — which essentially support entire ecosystems — in gardens and yards.

Roger Graham, co-owner of Graham Bee Works in Morgantown, will share his perspective on the threats that bees face and why its imperative to help them thrive. Graham also will lead a “kids corner,” where families can learn about bees, work puzzles and receive free planting kits.

“We just don’t want kids to be fearful of bees, and the sooner they learn about the importance of bees, the better,” Schuetz said.

People will be able to purchase native plants from the more than 40 garden vendors present at the event, and seed packets and tree saplings will be given away while supplies last.

For those taking part, the Garden Celebration is yet another opportunity to help people establish plots that are good for their yards and good for the environment.

“People are becoming more aware about it. We’re definitely trying to educate people, and talk to them about what native plants are and why to use them,” Marinova said.

At a glance

Why landscape with native plants?

Gardeners have a unique opportunity to address the biodiversity crisis. By adding even a few native plants to the landscape, they can:

  • Add to the resources that support wildlife
  • Build landscape corridors in our communities to counter habitat fragmentation
  • Help stormwater percolate safely into the soil rather than running superheated into rivers and streams
  • Garden more sustainably, with less watering and fertilizing
  • Create gardens that honor Indiana’s rich natural heritage
  • Make gardening easier, because native plants are not finicky

Getting started in the home landscape

What to consider as you get started landscaping with native plants:

  • What natural features already exist in your yard? In your neighborhood? In nearby natural areas? Your landscaping may be able to build upon what nature has already provided.
  • Does your yard include any native plants? It’s not unusual to find whole neighborhoods planted mostly with trees and shrubs that originated in Europe or Asia. Adding some native plants can begin to restore habitat to sustain a wider range of native fauna, supporting the food chain and the cycle of life.
  • What other plants do you have to work with? Gardening with native plants doesn’t mean tearing out all your non-native ornamentals. Many exotics are perfectly well-behaved and mingle well with native plantings.
  • What does your site analysis suggest about the type of plant communities that might suit your property: woodland, woods edge, wetland, or grassland? Each of these suggests natural plant associations that can help you choose what to plant where.
  • Can you identify any invasive plants? Some plants installed in landscapes have the potential to do harm to our natural areas and should be removed. If you have invasives on your land, controlling them will be step one in building a healthy ecosystem.

— Information from the Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society

If you go

Johnson County Garden Celebration

What: An annual gardening event featuring educational seminars, plant sales, vendors and other activities.

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today

Where: Scott Hall, Johnson County fairgrounds, Franklin

Activities

9:30 a.m.: “What’s the Buzz About Honeybees?”, a presentation by Roger Graham of Graham Bee Works

11 a.m.: “Native Plants for a Pollinator Paradise,” a workshop by Christena Taylor of Eco Logic native habitat restoration company

1 to 3 p.m.: Kids Corner, where families can learn about bees, work puzzles, take photos and receive free planting kits.

All day: More than 40 flower, plant and garden-art vendors; seed packets and tree sapling giveaways while supplies last; a Garden Cafe with breakfast and lunch items to purchase, with food prepared by Ron Kelsay Catering

Entrance fee: $2; children 12 and under are free

Examples of Native Plants for Landscaping

Perennials: Tidy, showy natives to mingle with other ornamentals in the perennial bed.

Flowers

  • Nodding onion
  • Blue star willow
  • Columbine
  • Marsh milkweed
  • Butterfly weed
  • Purple coneflower

Grasses

  • Sideoats gramma
  • Riverbank tussock sedge
  • Blue-eyed grass
  • Prairie dropseed

Trees and shrubs: Garden-worthy natives for solo display or to cluster in a hedge or foundation planting

  • Serviceberry
  • Redbud
  • Hawthorn
  • Smooth hydrangea
  • Winterberry holly
  • Grape honeysuckle
  • Ninebark
  • Fragrant sumac
  • Elderberry

Butterfly Food: Host plants for butterfly larvae and nectar plants to feed the adults

  • Marsh milkweed
  • Tall coreopsis
  • Hollow joe-pye weed
  • New England aster
  • Ironweed
  • Buttonbush
  • Spicebush
  • Bottlebrush grass
  • Woolly dutchman’s pipe
  • Crossvine

Bird Habitat: Dense cover and berries offering shelter and sustenance.

  • Roughleaf dogwood
  • Gray dogwood
  • Black chokeberry
  • Elderberry
  • Arrowwood viburnum
  • Nannyberry
  • American cranberrybush

Autumn Color: Natives whose leaves blaze with color in the fall.

  • Serviceberry
  • Roughleaf dogwood
  • Smooth hydrangea
  • Spicebush
  • Virginia creeper
  • Fragrant sumac
  • Winged sumac

Ground Covers

  • Clustered poppy mallow
  • Wild ginger
  • Jacob’s ladder
  • Wild stonecrop
  • White blue-eyed grass

— Information from the Indiana Native Plants & Wildflower Society

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.