Choosing Plants for Your Location

A major factor in choosing native plants is their compatibility with your soil. Each plant species has a range of soil types in which it will flourish. It is important to choose your plants to match your soil conditions. Some species are able to grow in a wide range of soil types, while others may only grow in specific soils. For instance, Yellow Coneflower, Black Eyed Susan, Bergamot, Ox Eye Sunflower, and Smooth Aster, along with the tall prairie grasses, grow in a wide range of soils and moisture conditions. However, species such as Lupine and Rough Blazingstar will only thrive in dry, well-drained sandy soils.

Soil Type

Soils can be divided into three basic types, based upon their mineral (non-organic) content: sands, loams, and clays. There is variation within these basic groups, but these basic types will suffice for the purpose of describing where a plant will or will not grow.

Clay Soils
Clay soils are fertile soils, composed of small, tightly packed particles. Clay soils absorb water more slowly, and retain it for a longer period. When wet, the soil becomes slick and will form sticky clumps. When it dries out, clay soil becomes hard and solid. Plants that thrive in clay are extremely hardy and versatile. Their roots are strong enough to break through heavy soils and handle the compaction that can occur.

Loam soils are also very fertile but instead of high clay content, they have roughly equal proportions of sand, silt, and clay. Loamy soil is ideal because it holds plenty of moisture but also drains well enough for sufficient air to reach the roots. Most plants are able to grow in loam soils.

Sandy soils are made up of larger particles and so they tend to be very well aerated and very fast-draining; they do not hold much water or contain much in the way of soil nutrients. Many gorgeous native plants have evolved to grow in these conditions, so if you live in an area with sandy soil, don’t despair!

Soil Moisture

Dry Soils
Extremely well-drained, dry soils rarely have standing water, and rainfall drains rapidly through them. Sandy, gravelly or rocky soils do not hold water and tend to dry out rapidly after a rainfall event. A surprising variety of native plants will thrive in dry soils without any soil amendment or irrigation. Many low-growing plants do best on dry soils. They maintain a shorter stature due to reduced availability of moisture and nutrients on dry soils.

Medium Soils
Medium soils (mesic soils) sometimes experience standing water, but only for short periods, such as after a heavy rain. These are typically loamy and clay-based soils with good drainage. A wide variety of both short and tall native plants thrive in medium soils.

Moist Soils
Moist soils tend to be regularly damp and may experience periods of standing water for a few days in spring or fall. The surface soil will usually dry out by late spring or early summer, but the subsoil will be moist at a depth of one to two feet. Rain gardens are designed to grow in moist soil conditions, where rainwater is captured in shallow depressions to encourage on-site infiltration and groundwater recharge.

Wet Soils
Wet soils stay damp nearly year round, and moisture is generally available within one foot of the soil surface, even in mid-summer. Wet soils are often flooded in spring. They can experience standing water for a week or longer in early spring, and for a few days after a summer downpour. Only the most moisture tolerant plants will thrive in wet soils.

Sun Exposure

Full Sun
A site with 'full sun' will receive full, direct sunlight for more than 6 hours a day. In nature, full sun is analogous to meadows, prairies and other open country.

Partial Sun or Partial Shade
Partial sun and partial shade are fairly inter-changeable. Areas that receive between 4 and 6 hours of sunlight per day are 'partial shade'. Oak Savanna and woodland edges are the natural home of native plants that prefer partial sun/shade. Spring ephemerals prefer partial sunlight because in early spring the forest trees are not fully leafed-out, and sun easily penetrates to the forest floor.

In terms of native plants, full shade = woodland plant. Full shade plants prefer very little direct sun. They like less than 4 hours of direct sun a day and prefer morning and evening sun to mid-day sun. ‘Full shade’ plants also do well in dappled shade conditions.


Nitty gritty details about soil types: Understanding Your Soil

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