Review: Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota


July in the garden can be hard. The eager rush of spring is long past, the early summer beauties have just finished their pageant, and the rewards of the vegetable patch are still a few weeks off. Once the dog days set in for real, the garden takes on that bedraggled but determined look that says: _I will survive, I will survive, I will… Hey, don’t you people have a hose?_

Nursing along fussy divas and other high-maintenance residents of the garden can make a difficult month even harder, and gardeners who are ready to stop butting heads with Minnesota’s climate will find inspiration in Lynn Steiner’s book, _Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota_.

Steiner, a much-published horticulturist and former _Northern Gardener_ editor, has written the first book dedicated to home landscaping with Minnesota’s native plants. Her aim is to show that gardening with native plants need not be solely the province of master gardeners and prairie restoration experts. Working with natives makes sense for anyone interested in low maintenance gardening and landscaping.

Like most gardening guides, _Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota_ is something of a crash course in horticulture, but it has its own angle: Don’t try to fight Mother Nature. Steiner stresses that because native plants have evolved and adapted in order to make the best use of the various growing cultures in Minnesota, gardeners must start by getting to know their garden spaces on a fundamental level. Which biomes are you likely to be able to imitate in your yard? Do you have a spot with woodland characteristics or prairie tendencies? Is it naturally dry or a little on the soggy side?

Going beyond the basics, Steiner’s clear explanations and specific biome information take experienced gardeners to another level, giving greater consideration to the macro issues involved in gardening with native plants. Because she focuses on using native plants in ways that will look appropriate in home landscapes, she stops short of full-blown prairie restoration and authentic renewal gardening but includes resource information for gardeners and naturalists who want to take native plants beyond the home landscape.

Minnesota’s terrain, in addition to being dotted with lakes, is a junction of three major North American biomes: tall-grass prairie, deciduous forest and northern coniferous forest. This is good news for home landscapers, who can choose from a huge array of plants that will translate into almost any style of garden. Steiner gives suggestions (including helpful plant lists) for creating mixed borders and working with all levels of sun and shade. She also makes recommendations for native plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and discusses rock gardens, wetland gardens and water-efficient rain gardens.

For better or worse, _Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota_ is unlikely to win over the _Better Homes and Gardens_ crowd. Native plants have a reputation for looking messy, and while Steiner does her best to deflate that characterization, she acknowledges that native-oriented landscaping works best when it imitates a natural look and doesn’t aspire to formality. The photo gallery is filled with terrific examples of colorful flower drifts and woodland havens; unfortunately, it’s short on examples for urban gardeners to emulate in their smaller yards.

Probably the most useful portion of the book, and the part that readers will refer to most, is its collection of native plant profiles. This book isn’t meant to be a comprehensive look at all of Minnesota’s native flora, but rather those plants that are best suited to yard-scale (and neighbor-friendly) use. More than half of the book is made up of alphabetical listings (by Latin name, of course) of garden-friendly native plants, including flowers, groundcovers, grasses, shrubs, and trees, both deciduous and coniferous.

In spite of some inconsistent and potentially confusing editing, _Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota_ is a goldmine of information. It is suitable for gardeners of any experience level, but readers who already know a little bit about natives and have an appreciation for their subtle beauty and adaptability will get the most out of the volume.

_Anne Lies is a freelance writer who lives and works in Minneapolis._