Best Practices for Establishing & Maintaining Colorado Native Plants

Primary authors: Jen Smith & John Murgel

Keep it Lean

Native plants prefer native soils.  Adding compost and other organic matter may lead to short-lived, leggy, or floppy native plants.

Let them Drain

Many drought-tolerant native plants prefer well-draining soil conditions. If you have experienced root or crown rot or suspect you have soggy soil, you can:

  • Build garden mounds or berms to elevate plants, thereby improving the water flow.
  • Reduce soil compaction by adding aggregate such as pea gravel, squeegee or expanded shale.  Hand mix in the aggregate to preserve the soil biome.
  • Consider selecting prairie plants or other natives known to thrive in clay. 

Plant them Bare Root

Colorado native plants typically come from nurseries in potting mix. Removing this mix encourages the plants to grow into the lean soil where they will perform best.  Using this approach, called bare root planting, helps natives survive and thrive:

  • Gently remove the potting mix by hand and swish the plant roots in a tub of water to remove more of the smaller particles.
  • Dig a hole just as deep as the roots are long and wide enough to accommodate the roots’ relaxed downward spread. 
  • Place the roots in the hole so that the crown is just above the ground and roots can fully extend straight down. Add water and some of the backfill to the hole, mix water and soil to make mud, and bring all of the roots in contact with the muddy mixture. Continue backfilling the hole, making sure there are no air pockets.
  • Water well to settle the soil.
  • Watch the video for more information.
Ayn Schmit Demonstrates Bare Root Planting

Mulch for Moisture and Weed Control

Mulch suppresses weeds and can help retain water, so long as it is applied thickly. Weed barrier is not necessary. There are two types:

  • Inorganic mulch, such as squeegee or gravel:  Inorganic mulch supports drainage, keeps the growing environment lean, and retains soil moisture. A 3-4” layer of 1/2” or 3/8” size gravel is ideal. Crushed (sharp) gravel will roll less than pea gravel.  Larger rock may be scattered on top of smaller pieces for a more natural look, but is not an effective mulch since the spaces between rocks let in sunlight and allow for evaporation.
  • Organic mulch, like wood chips or bark:  Organic mulch can be successful provided that it is not placed close to the plant crown. Apply a 3-4” thick layer of organic mulch for weed suppression. Organic mulch provides less moisture to plants than inorganic options, since some water soaks into the mulch and evaporates before getting to the plants. It also breaks down over time and needs to be replenished. 
  • Green mulch:  Planting densely will make your garden weed-resistant.  Native ground covers or cover crops may be planted between trees, shrubs and grasses to provide weed suppression over time.

However, our native bees are ground nesting and need access to bare ground.  You may consider providing some areas of bare ground or thin mulch (an inch or less) for the bees.

Water, Watch and Wean

Most Colorado native plants are adapted to low water conditions.  However, they need help, particularly in their first growing season, to allow their roots to grow deep into the native soil.

Water deeply at the time of planting.  Watering schedules depend on rainfall and temperatures but in general, water weekly for the first month and then gradually pull back to bi-monthly the rest of the first growing season. After the first or second season of growth, many natives may be grown without irrigation, or just with occasional deep soaks during extended dry spells.

Native plants with higher water needs may be situated near downspouts, in swales (low areas) or near other parts of the landscape that receive some irrigation to meet their irrigation needs.

After the first growing season, shrinking plants, marginal leaf scorch, and sunburn are signs of inadequate watering.  Trees and shrubs are more likely to need supplementation in their second season and beyond until they are well established.  Most woody plants display a noticeable increase in growth rate once establishment occurs.

Growing Down Under

After the first growing season, your native plant may look nearly the same as the day you planted it.  This is not a failure!  Our natives prioritize growing their root system in preparation for survival in our low water climate.  Be patient and know that the plant will likely show more above ground growth in the next season.

Thanks for growing Colorado native plants to support our birds and pollinators!

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