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The Joy of Gardening

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Monarch on Aster

Fall Color with Natives

Posted by Kim Ellson - Gardening

We gardeners all long for one last burst of color to enjoy before winter arrives. Kim Ellson, a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension, suggests looking to native plants not only for color but for vital wildlife services.

"For fall we tend to reach for those cultivated favorites we have come to know and love: mums, pansies, asters, ornamental kales, cabbages, peppers, grasses," Ellson says. "Although ornamentals offer vibrant color, they do little to support our wildlife, which includes insects. Many ornamentals are not derived from native Illinois plants, and our local fauna cannot utilize them."

"Imagine a bee that is starving despite being surrounded by flowers, simply because they are the wrong kind," she adds.

Supporting Backyard Wildlife

What is the importance of this so-called "wildlife," and why should gardeners be concerned? Every creature has a role to play in our ecosystem; insects form the backbone of our entire natural world and the vital ecosystem services it provides to us.

Most of the original native habitat in Illinois has been modified or even destroyed. What was once prairie, savanna, and wetland is now agricultural fields and habitat for humans. With so few pockets of high-quality habitat remaining for wildlife, home yards have taken on a new importance in their support.

Typically our urban home environments are dominated by turf and a narrow selection of nonnative ornamentals. Both do little to provide the elements necessary for wildlife survival—shelter, food, water, and habitat.

Does supporting wildlife mean letting your yard run wild? Ellson assures otherwise. "Don't think you have to convert your entire yard into a 'natural' area. Small changes are equally important. Replace a few ornamentals with native plants.

"We have been conditioned to value groomed lawns and tightly clipped shrubs, which eliminate refuge or food for native bees, butterflies, insects, and birds," Ellson explains. "But you can have a neat lawn leading up to a bed with native plants, keeping the look tidy and showing your neighbors that you planned those native plants all along."

We may think of Illinois as full of natural lands, but keep in mind that land dedicated to food production often is not wildlife friendly, and forest preserves are currently challenged by invasive plants, reducing their botanical diversity. "We cannot rely solely on other lands to carry the burden of supporting our wildlife. We must also turn our attention to our very own yards," Ellson says.

Planting Native Benefits

Native plants have several advantages over their nonnative counterparts. One, they are adapted to the conditions and thus will require less care. This does not mean you'll never have to tend to them, but once these plants are established they will not need mollycoddling.

Two, extensive root systems mean native plants don't require constant watering in the heat of summer. Soil amendments or fertilizers are also unnecessary, though the plants' ultimate size will be influenced by the richness of the soil.

Another benefit is that native plants need not be repurchased every year; the perennials will regrow and the annuals will reseed, returning year after year. Keep in mind that perennials, unlike annuals, do not bloom continuously throughout the season, so select plants carefully to ensure a steady show of blossoms.

Another key to success is selecting suitable plants. Ellson warns that "some native plants, although beneficial, are quite aggressive in character and will ultimately take over your bed—or even worse, your yard!"

Many of the late-blooming natives are characterized by yellow, pink, and purple blooms. The wide variety of native asters ranges from white to pink, purple, and blue, and native goldenrods offer a spectrum of vibrant yellows.

Goldenrod has a negative connotation for many people, largely because of the tall and ubiquitous variety that grows along roadsides and in other disturbed areas. But about 15 different species of goldenrod are native to Illinois, including stiff, showy, and bluestem goldenrod.

Ellson actually advises against using tall goldenrod in your garden, as it can quickly become invasive. Its roots also release toxins that inhibit other plants from growing nearby.

Choosing Your Newcomers

If you are ready to enhance your fall garden with native Illinois plants, consider beginning with some of the plants here.

Colorful Fall Natives






Soil moisture

Wildlife value

Showy Goldenrod

(Solidago speciosa)


5 ft

Up to 5 ft

Full to part sun

Moist to dry

Honeybees, bumblebees, ants, beetles

Heath Aster

(Aster ericoides)


2 ft

Up to 2 ft

Full sun to part shade

Medium to dry

Bees, butterflies, insects

Smooth Aster

(Aster laevis)


2–4 ft

Up to 3 ft

Full sun to part shade

Medium to dry

Bees, butterflies, birds

Little Bluestem

(Schizachyrium scoparium)


3 ft

Up to 3 ft

Full sun

Medium to dry

Birds, bees, butterflies, small mammals

Brown-eyed Susan

(Rudbeckia triloba)


5 ft

Up to 3 ft

Full sun to part shade


Bees, butterflies, birds

All these species can be purchased as seeds, plugs, or potted plants, depending on availability. Seeds cost the least but require much more time to become established and a lot more maintenance in the form of weeding. Ellson recommends planting plugs or larger to avoid potential disappointment.

So what is the best place to purchase native plants? "Quality garden centers frequently offer an assortment of native plants," Ellson notes, "and local plant sales sponsored by various organizations may focus specifically on natives. If you're looking for a specific species, search online for specialty nurseries."

Be aware when purchasing native plants to stick with original species and avoid any cultivars. These are identifiable by non-Latin words following the Latin name, such as Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks'.

Once you've invested in adding native plants to your fall garden, you can sit back and enjoy the butterflies, hummingbirds, and other creatures who will visit your landscape as well.

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