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Worland – “Why grow native plants?” asked Jenny Thompson, small acreage coordinator with University of Wyoming Extension, during WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 20.

“It’s easier to maintain a garden with plants that are already adapted to our climate rather than trying to fix everything so that it works for us,” she continued.

Native plants usually require fewer inputs, support local pollinators and can be blended into the landscape for a natural beauty in the garden.

Wyoming conditions

“In our area, some of the conditions our plants need to be adapted to include cold temperatures, soils without a lot of organic matter that tend to be alkaline, dry air and the wind, which dries plants out. A lot of our native plants also tend to have a silvery color or mechanisms to bounce off light,” she continued, explaining that ultraviolet rays from the sun can be hard on plants at high altitudes.

Compared to other places in the United States, plants native to Wyoming are typically more short-lived with the ability to reseed themselves.

“As a result, things change, and plants don’t stay where we put them. The landscape is pretty dynamic. That’s something to keep in mind so our expectations are in the right spot,” Thompson said.

Wyoming plants also often have taproots, which can be harder to transplant than those with fibrous root systems. They are also often more resistant to drought, storing water and nutrients within the taproot to survive hard seasons.

Considerations

“Some of our plants don’t play well with others. Even though they are great in many ways, some of them are fairly aggressive. We don’t want them in our garden landscapes because when they are taken out of a tough environment and put in a garden with extra water, they can really go nuts,” Thompson warned.

Many Wyoming plants are also sensitive to overly enriched soils because they are not adapted to dense organic matter.

“When we are reading gardening books from England, they talk about amending the soil and adding organic matter, but our native plants aren’t used to all of that nitrogen,” she commented.

Because they are adapted to our arid environment, native plants may also require very little watering, although Thompson recommends some extra care when plants are first put in the ground.

“Most plants need some extra care, at least for the first year, to make it through,” she mentioned.

Landscape design

Thompson also recommended a number of steps when creating a garden landscape, stressing that individual taste is the ultimate driving factor of design.

“The principles of garden design are the same, whether we are working with plants from the East or the West. We should group plants together that need similar amounts of water. We want to make sure plants are hardy enough for our site, and we want to choose plants that are happy with the conditions we have,” she suggested.

Thompson uses a variety of plants in her garden to maintain year-round interest.

“Our seasons are so short, and I want to enjoy the whole thing before winter comes,” she explained.

She also noted, “We want to consider how much maintenance we want to do because that will influence what kind of garden we want to have.”

Basic principles

Sharing some basic design principles, Thompson explained that growers might want to consider different plant heights and seeding patterns.

“If we see our garden from the front, we can put the short plants in the front and the tall plants in the back, so we can see everything,” she commented. “If we’re interested in having patterns with a natural look, we should clump plants instead of planting them in rows, which will help the ornamentals look more natural.”

Creating uneven borders and transition zones between different plants will also add to a more natural looking garden.

“The first thing I do for a landscape project is look at what’s out there. What buildings are there? What soils do I have? I want to measure the site and be sure to get the utilities marked,” Thompson said.

Purpose

Considering the purpose of the garden can also influence the design and help homeowners implement elements that fit the desired outcome.

“We may want a place to sit and barbecue with the family, a place for the kids to play or a vegetable garden. We might also want paths or a way to get through the landscape we are creating,” Thompson added.

Thompson uses rough sketches to design her landscapes before she purchases materials to have a visual plan for her layout.

“I look at how big plants get and how hardy they are. Then in the spring, I go out, mark off the entire area and kill any existing weed plants,” she explained.

The next step is to work the soil and add any necessary amendments.

“We want to install all of the hardscaping, edges and permanent stuff first,” she suggested.

Native plants

Then, the interior of the design can be filled in with desired plants, such as Pasque flowers, columbines, purple prairie clover or narrow-leaf coneflowers.

“Pasque flowers are the first thing to come up in the spring,” noted Thompson. “Columbines reseed and cross with each other.”

Purple prairie flower attracts pollinators, and narrow-leaf coneflowers are drought resistant.

Growers who want to create natural gardens in Wyoming may also discover other native species in the University of Wyoming document B-1255, Plants with Altitude – Regionally Native Plants for Wyoming Gardens.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“This is the time of year we start flipping through seed catalogues or wandering around the hardware store, dreaming about the beautiful gardens we will have this year,” notes University of Wyoming Extension Educator Mae Smith.

Although some seeds can be planted directly into the soil outside, others perform better if they are started inside and moved out into the garden once they have begun to grow.

“Cool season plants like Swiss chard, peas, garden beans, broccoli or lettuce like to germinate when it’s cold, so those will be plants we sow directly into the soil,” she comments.

However, warm season plants such as squash, tomatoes and peppers are likely to do better if they are started indoors.

To determine a seed starting timeline, growers can go online to plantmaps.com to determine the average date of the last seasonal frost in their region.

“On our seed packets, there is usually a number of days for germination or how long it takes for the seedlings to emerge,” Smith adds, explaining that the last average frost date and germination period will help determine when seeds will be ready to move outdoors. “We can count back and see how far in advance we need to start our seeds.”

Starting out

Bearing in mind how many seeds come in each package is another consideration, as a whole packet usually has enough seeds to produce a large number of plants.

“If we think we can sustain our family on four cucumber plants, we might think about planting four to six cucumber seeds, instead of the whole package,” Smith suggests.

Starting plants for other people, large family sizes or preserving vegetables may be factors that growers consider if they plan on starting larger numbers of seeds.

“Next, we want to decide what we’re going to be planting our seeds in. There are a whole variety of things we can do. For example, many garden stores have handy seed starting kits,” she says.

Protecting seedlings

Seed starting kits include small packets of soil specifically designed for new seeds, making it easy to start different plants indoors.

“We want to start our seeds in a seed starting soil mix. This will be a little more expensive, but it’s crucial because it is sterile soil, and there won’t be diseases,” Smith adds.

She also recommends washing out old containers to prevent diseases that may hinder new plants as they grow. A mixture of one part bleach to nine parts water can be used to sterilize pots or containers that have been used before.

“The new plants are really susceptible to freezes, wind and drying out,” Smith continues, adding that keeping them covered will help protect them until they have grown stronger.

Lighting

Once seeds are planted, they should be placed under lights that are placed closely over the soil. As the plants begin to emerge, the lights can be raised slowly to allow room for growth.

“If we put them on the windowsill, chances are our plants are going to get really tall, spindly and then eventually fall over, or they will really lean toward the light,” she explains.

Once plants have grown large enough, generally when they exhibit at least two true leaves, they can be gently transplanted into larger containers.

“We need to be very careful with the roots because they are tender and small at that point,” Smith warns.

Once the plants are large enough and the last hard frost of the season has likely passed, they can be moved outside.

Moving outside

“We want to go through a process called hardening off,” Smith notes. “The plants have lived in this beautiful microenvironment for maybe two months, and when we introduce them to the real Wyoming, the UV light can be too much for them.”

By placing the plants outside in a shady spot during the day, they can become accustomed to the outdoor weather gradually as they grow hardier.

“We want to pull the plants inside during the night and do that for a week or so until they get more time outside,” she continues.

Eventually the plants can be planted into the soil and monitored closely for the first few weeks to ensure they are not killed by frost or other extreme events.

“We want to be sure to protect them for a little while,” she says. “We can baby them for a little while until they are established.”

Smith spoke at WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 20.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..