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Talking Native Plants

Talking Native Plants

Interview edited by Therese Ciesinski, In The Dirt Newsletter editor
Photos courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Andrea DeLong Amaya has a job any gardener would envy. She is the Director of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. She manages the gardens at the center. Down to earth and passionate about what she does, she’s especially enthusiastic about showing people how to use native plants in the planned landscape. We talked about how to choose the right natives, the flowering plant group that grows anywhere in the country, and we kicked to the curb the biggest misconception about native plants.

TC:  What is the first thing to consider when deciding to add natives to your garden?

ADA:  Before you decide on any plants, ask yourself: What do I want to achieve by using native plants? Why am I using them? Is it for food, to support pollinators, create a diverse habitat for wildlife, restore your site’s environment, to have a beautiful garden? There are plants that fit every one of those purposes.

The next thing is to analyze your landscape. Be sure you know where the sunny places and the shady places are, and the makeup of your soil. And what the temperatures and weather patterns are in the different seasons. Knowing as much as possible about your site will help you choose the plants that will thrive there.

TC:  What comes next?

ADA:  The fun part – deciding on the plants. I recommend that before buying, people go out and look at plants and learn about the ones that do well in their area.  Walk around the natural areas where you live and see what’s growing. And look at what is growing naturally together. What are the patterns that nature makes? 

And learn about them. Remember, you are asking: what do I need these native plants to do? Read books, go to local garden centers and ask questions, check our Native Plants Database, even hire a horticulturist if you’re planning a big project and your budget allows it.  

Start with a plan on paper, or make a list. Finally, get the plants. Move them around before planting them. Play with scale, size, and shape.

And remember, just because you’re using native plants doesn’t mean you have to have a naturalistic garden. You can use natives in any style of garden, formal, relaxed, symmetrical, asymmetrical, whatever.

TC:  What about the complaint that native plants are weedy and messy?

ADA:  Just because native plants are tough doesn’t mean they don’t require some maintenance. You can’t plant them and walk away. Like any other plant, they need to be maintained.

TC:  With GardenSMART newsletter readers all over the country, can you recommend a native plant that will grow pretty much anywhere?

ADA:  The Helianthus genus – the sunflowers – is found all over the country. No matter where you live, you can find one or more that will likely work in your garden. As long as there’s sun, of course!

The mission of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is to conserve, restore and create healthy landscapes. Learn more at

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