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Natural Gardening in Nebraska

Updated on June 6, 2008

Natural gardening means different things to different people. For purposes of this page, I'm going to define it as gardening that meets some or all of the following goals:

1. Uses organic techniques

2. Uses primarily native plants, or hardy, low maintenance, and non-invasive naturalized plants

3. Takes design inspiration from natural habitats native to the region the garden is located in

4. Provides food, water, and shelter to a variety of wildlife

5. Provides organic and sustainably grown food for humans

Nebraska is lucky enough to have a variety of beautiful native plants and natural ecosystems for gardeners to use and enjoy, from the rich soils of tallgrass country in the Eastern part of the state, to the arid West.

(Image is the author's prairie restoration project, taken by her.)

Prairie Restoration

Nebraska is one of the few states that incorporates all three basic forms of the native prairies that once covered much of the Midwest and Plains states. Eastern Nebraska was once covered in the magnificent and fertile tallgrass prairie, one of the most diverse and one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Western Nebraska included areas of both mid and shortgrass prairies.

In recent years, there has been a great revival of interest in native prairie plants due to their beauty, hardiness, and drought tolerance. Once established, a stand of native prairie plants is extremely low maintenance, whether is a small border of wildflowers and ornamental grasses or a multi-acre restoration project. Not only that, many prairie forbs (wildflowers) are extremely popular with birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, while grasses provide excellent forage for livestock and deer in the growing season and good cover for game birds and many other species in the winter.

(Image is a prairie restoration project taken by tlindenbaum.)

Native Shrubs and Trees

Although trees and shrubs were relatively rare in Nebraska before the arrival of white settlers, they were plentiful in river valleys and near other bodies of water, and Nebraska has a surprising variety of beautiful native trees and shrubs, including majestic oaks, fast-growing cottonwoods, flowering redbuds, crabapples, and dogwoods, and many edible shrubs such as raspberries, currants, serviceberries, and plums that are popular with humans and wildlife alike.

For a list of woody plants native to Nebraska, I highly recommend visiting the website of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, which includes lists both of native woody plants and native/naturalized trees and shrubs (PDF file).

(Image is a cottonwood taken by Mike Pedroncelli)

Xeriscaping

In most of the Western part of the state, xeriscaping, or dryland gardening, is recommended. In fact, it is a good idea to follow basic xeriscaping principles throughout the state, because even the wetter East is prone to drought.

Xeriscaping encourages the use of drought-tolerant plants, preferably native, in areas that have low annual rainfall or that are prone to drought. Xeriscaping is becoming hugely possible in places such as the desert Southwest and the alpine regions of Colorado, because it conserves valuable water. Once established, most xeriscape landscapes need no additional water, or require extra watering only during the most severe of droughts. In dry climates such as Western Nebraska, or even hot, muggy climates like the Eastern part of the state, xeriscapes can save thousands of gallons of water every single year when compared to a traditional lawn. That's good for your pocketbook and good for the environment.

(Image is an Arizona xeriscape, by mlinksva)

Attracting Wildlife To Your Garden

Nebraska is blessed with a tremendous variety of native wildlife, and many people enjoy watching birds, butterflies and other wild creatures visit their gardens. In recent years, there has also been growing interest in creating winter food and cover plots for game species such as deer, ducks, and pheasants.

The basics of attracting wildlife to your garden are extremely simple. Animals are looking for food, shelter, and a source of fresh water. If you provide these three things, they will come.

It is also important to practice organic gardening principles if you wish to attract wild creatures. Chemical fertilizers and herbicides can poison them, and pesticides are specifically intended to kill insects and other animal species. Few differentiate between aphids and butterflies, grasshoppers and ladybugs, so if you use them, you will kill the very creatures you are trying to invite in. A properly managed organic garden will often have fewer pests than conventional gardens, because insect pests develop resistance over time to pesticides, while organic gardens support thriving communities of beneficial creatures like ladybugs, lacewings, and praying mantises.

(Image is Tiger Swallowtail on Purple Coneflower, taken by audreyjm529)

Organic Food for You

We've mentioned organic gardening principles several times now in passing, and now it's time to concentrate on them. Not all natural gardeners are interested in growing their own food. Some are primarily interested in a landscape that is inspired by nature: beautiful and low-maintenance. Others want to be able to watch wildlife without having to worry about the extra work and effort of dealing with a vegetable garden. However, I think an organic vegetable garden is an important part of any garden. The taste difference between home-grown and store-bought tomatoes by itself would be enough to convince me, and there are also many benefits to your health and the environment in eating food grown locally and organically.

The natural gardener's devotion to native plants breaks down a little, by necessity, when confronted with the problem of planning a vegetable garden. However, even though there are few native North American vegetable crops, you can still apply the same principles in crop selection that you apply to choosing landscaping plants.

Pick hardy varieties that require less water and are insect and disease resistant. I particularly recommend you browse seed catalogs carrying or specializing in heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs, such as Seed Savers Exchange, Native Seeds/Search, and Seeds of Change. Many heirloom varieties were developed specifically hardiness (and flavor!) in difficult climates like Nebraska's.

Other organic practices, including composting, mulching, companion planting, and double-digging, can also help make your vegetable garden a low maintenance haven for plants, beneficial insects, and people.

(Image by gregor_y)

More Organic Food For You

In addition to vegetable gardens, many of the same native plants used to attract wildlife can also provide food or medicinal value for humans, including mulberry, serviceberry (juneberry), wild plum, chokecherry, currant, gooseberry, prairie rose, and elderberry. The principles of permaculture encourage planting species like these that can provide both landscaping interest and food for people and wildlife.

A British gardener has also developed a form of gardening called edible forest gardening that relies on permaculture principles and natural patterns of growth in order to create a backyard with seven layers of organically grown food and shelter for animals and humans alike. Though European in origin, the idea could easily be adapted to any areas of Nebraska where trees can naturally be found.

(Images is elderberries, taken by Keith Ritchie)

Can't Quite Give Up That Lawn?

Consider checking out some alternative lawn ideas. Many people are turning to Asian and Australasian Zoysia grass, because of its superior drought tolerance and other benefits. Zoysia is extremely hardy, densely growing, and resstant to disease and insect pests. It also stands up well under wear and grows more slowly than bluegrass, requiring less frequent mowing.

A native American grass growing in popularity as a lawn grass is the native shortgrass prairie species Buffalograss. Though earlier cultivars suffered from painful, spiky seedheads, newer cultivars planted from sod or plugs do not. Extremely tolerant of heat and drought, buffalograss is also cold hardy and slow-growing. However, it should never be cut lower than three inches.

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      RinchenChodron 8 years ago

      We all need to learn to Xeroscape and save water. This year we have actually had RAIN in Colorado - did I say Rain? Yes I did, but usually we are semi-arid. Great lens!

    • SPF profile image

      SPF 8 years ago

      Very nice lens! Great job. Glad to have you join my Backyard Habitat group!