Updated: Sep 14
It’s autumn, and many of us are thinking about fall planting. If you’re itching to bring home a boatload of new plants and get them in the ground this season, we love that! But we’re here to encourage you to slow down for just a breath, and consider the landscape with an EarthCare perspective.
What does that mean? First, we take the time we need to observe + interact. Ideally you’ve spent one full year simply observing the landscape where you want to plant. What is already present here? What are the conditions of the site? How are insects, pollinators and wildlife interacting with the land - or what do they need in order to have space here?
Once you’ve spent ample time making observations, ideally you would prep the site before planting, by building the soil. In the Mid-Atlantic bioregion, many of our native wildflowers and meadow plants don’t need super rich soil, and actually prefer lean clay soils - so depending on your goals and the needs of the land, you may not need to prep the site with lots of nutrient-rich compost.
During the fall season, we're mostly focusing on planting trees and shrubs, which do well with rich soil that their roots can reach into. If you're planting without much prep time, you may want to add organic leaf compost, like this 100% organic leaf compost from Dig My Earth - we love it!
For new gardens that will be home to trees and shrubs, or plants that need rich soil, fall is a wonderful time to prep for future plantings with sheet mulching! Learn more about building soil and sheet mulching in our blog post here.
Slowing down a bit? That’s Great!
If you realize you need more time to plan and prep before planting, that’s a wonderful observation! There’s plenty you can do this season to prepare for a landscape that will thrive, build biodiversity and provide essential habitat for pollinators.
We’ve created our Fall CleanUp Challenge to take you step by step through a simple, grounded EarthCare practice this season, and set your gardens up for success. Join the challenge here and get started with your Mindful Fall CleanUp!
Ready To Plant?
If your proverbial ducks are in a row, and you’re ready to plant this season, we’re excited for you! We’ll discuss a few ecologically mindful planting techniques you can explore. Then we’ll wrap up with a list of our Go-To Native Plant Growers in our community, here in South Central PA.
Ecologically Mindful Planning + Planting Techniques
Ecological gardening doesn’t look the same as conventional landscaping. We avoid planting in straight lines, tidy rows and islands. Instead, we focus on creating thriving, biodiverse plant communities, and getting the right plants into the right places, according to the landscape.
At LadyBug EarthCare, our mission is to empower you to practice EarthCare with your own hands. While planting new gardens can be intimidating, we’re here to encourage you. Planting doesn’t have to be complicated! Plants want to grow where they belong. When we observe our environment, and choose plants native to our bioregion that are present in conditions that match our site, our gardens are set up for success.
Traditional landscaping tends to use cookie-cutter prescriptions of non-native ornamentals, plopped down in the ground without any regard for the complex, dynamic, living ecosystem. You are in the best possible position to know what your land needs, and new plantings are much better off in your careful hands, rather than hands that are rushing to finish a job they have no deeper connection to.
So, we want to encourage you - yes, you CAN plant your own gardens and engage fully in the process of building habitat and supporting pollinators in your landscape. Or, you can direct that work confidently as you manage your own landscaping projects! Let’s talk about a few planting techniques we love to use in the pursuit of this goal.
1. Prioritize Keystone Plants
Keystone plants are the cornerstones that support ecosystems. While some plants are the singular support for certain native insects, others serve many ecosystem functions, and support many beneficial insects, pollinators and wildlife.
As human development and impact have continuously threatened the health of ecosystems, many keystone plants are more scarce, which further threatens the survival of the fauna who depend on them for survival. We can make a real difference by including keystone plants in our gardens.
Read more about keystone plants on NWF’s website here. In our region of South Central PA, we’re looking at the Eastern Temperate Forests ecoregion.
2. Consider Plant Families
In nature, certain plants are found thriving in proximity to each other. Why is that? In simple terms, biodiversity creates resiliency. Plants of the same species are usually susceptible to the same pests and diseases. The fewer species of plants present, the more vulnerable the ecosystem is to severe destruction and death when such a threat arrives.
Biodiversity is Nature’s strategy for resilience. Compatible plant species evolve to compliment each others’ needs, and are available to fill gaps when certain members are suffering. That allows pollinators, insects and wildlife to better survive, even during adverse times.
In cultivated gardens and farms, plant families are used as a way to manage pests and soil fertility. Here’s a great article about plant rotation in the garden based on plant families, from PSU Extension.
3. Right Plant, Right Place
This is a foundational concept in ecological gardening. Our EarthCare practice leads us to observe + interact before planting, so that we can choose the plants that will thrive in the conditions present on the landscape, and serve multiple functions in the ecosystem we’re stewarding.
The Native Plant Herald describes it well:
“Especially relevant to choosing native plants, this common gardening wisdom opens the door to their many ecological benefits. The right native plant in the right place is key to:
— A yard that can easily survive on local rainfall, once plants are established.
— No need for soil amendment, fertilizers or additional resources.
— A garden that will flourish with minimal maintenance or intervention.
— A planting that helps build soil health and is capable of repairing degraded situations.
— A landscape that is networked with the indigenous wildlife community.”
During this fall season while we’re focusing on tree and shrub planting, consider how large they will eventually grow, but also that some ground covers may compliment the tree or shrub well, and quickly provide food and shelter for pollinators for years while trees and shrubs grow more slowly.
4. Plant Densely + Diversely
Ecological gardening best practices recommend planting one plant per square foot of garden space, and as many different species as you can, based on what will thrive in the area. These plants are small plugs. You can get similar size plants in 4” pots.
We typically like to plant them in odd numbers (this is purely aesthetic but so satisfying!) and strive for a minimum of three plants per species in a cluster. They like to have friends around!
Planting densely is not only more like what we observe in Nature, but it also leaves less gaps in the soil for unwanted weeds to grow. Dense plantings require less maintenance over time, provide more habitat for pollinators, and help plants thrive in community with each other.
To see an example of a planting plan that follows these guidelines, check out these garden templates we made for the Audubon Society, in collaboration with Waxwing EcoWorks.
5. Plant for Bloom Succession + Variety
Pollinators depend on blooms for nectar and nutrients throughout the year. When choosing plants, look at their bloom times, and incorporate plants that will bloom in succession. For example, spring bulbs and ephemerals give way to summer coneflower blooms, and then the garden transitions into fall wildflowers, such as asters and goldenrods.
Not only does succession planning add amazing seasonal interest to your garden, but it also makes a meaningful difference for pollinators throughout their life cycle.
How To Plant Mindfully
Ecologically mindful planting requires a few things for success:
A working plan, based on observations + interaction, with enough flexibility to honor what emerges and flow with nature.
Mindful presence to continue observing as you work.
Proper tools to work efficiently and effectively, without causing damage.
Essential Planting Tool: Hori Hori
Okay, you can plant without a hori hori, but you won’t catch a LadyBug without one! This multifunctional tool is perfect for digging a plug-sized hole to pop a baby plant into, super efficiently. You can find this and other recommended tools in our blog about what we keep in our tool buckets.
Here in the Mid-Atlantic bioregion, we’re currently in the fall season. That means we’re mostly focusing on trees and shrubs for new plantings.
Here are some tips for getting plants in the ground as you create your future thriving pollinator gardens and food forests.
The hole should be dug twice as wide and slightly deeper than the size of the pot.
Use your hori hori to loosen the sides of the hole, to allow roots to grow and stretch.
If it’s a tree or shrub, and the ground is very compact, use a garden fork or broad fork to loosen the soil (don’t turn it) around the planting hole.
Gently loosen the root ball of the new plant, with your hands, especially when roots are circling around the pot they’ve been growing in.
Set the plant into the hole.
Fill the removed soil back into the hole with the plant in place.
Make sure the plant is sitting slightly above grade (ground level), and mound a bit of soil around it to prevent water from pooling around it and drowning new roots.
Be sure not to cover any bark with soil, as that will kill the tree or shrub.
Pack soil firmly, so that when you gently tug on the plant, it wiggles slightly but doesn’t easily pull out from the ground.
Water in new plants for around 60 seconds each (more if it’s a tree or shrub), by holding the hose down near the base of the plant, on a low column setting, so water gently soaks into roots. Avoid high pressure settings on hose nozzles while watering in new plants.
LadyBug’s Trusted Native Plant Growers
It’s essential to source plants from ethical growers who are practicing excellent stewardship. We avoid purchasing plants that are grown with neonicotinoids or any other chemicals, as those toxins severely compromise the health of pollinators, wildlife and humans, too.
In our part of South Central PA, we’re lucky to have local growers who hold high standards for ethics and sustainability. Here are some of our go-to sources for native plants, who have supplied hundreds of plants that are now thriving in dozens of landscapes across our region.
Hungry Hook Farm Native Plant Nursery Bainbridge, PA.
Stoney Creek Valley Farm Dauphin, PA.
Fernwey Native Nursery Manheim, PA
Future Forest Plants Southeastern + South Central PA
Diakon Wilderness Greenhouse + Native Plant Nursery Boiling Springs, PA
Calyx Native Nursery York County, PA
Go Native Trees and Shrubs Manheim, PA
Do you know of another? Please send us an email at email@example.com and tell us about your favorite native nurseries!
Mindful Fall CleanUp Challenge
Do you want to build habitat and take good care of your landscape this season, while avoiding the damage caused by conventional landscaping?
Take our Mindful Fall CleanUp Challenge!
With one short + sweet email per week, you’ll learn the most impactful actions to take at the right times, to protect pollinators, ready your gardens for winter and set them up to be successful, thriving habitats next year.
We’ll be here to support you through our private EarthCare Community Facebook group throughout the challenge, which runs through Thanksgiving.