Native Spaces – Planning, Planting and Maintaining


Here are some simple guidelines and links to resources to help you plan and plant your sanctuary, answer some of your questions, and guide you through your journey.

Plan Your Sanctuary
Acquire Plant Material and Seeds
Long Term Maintenance
Citizen Science Projects
Books for Further Reading

Plan Your Sanctuary

Simple Step-by-Step Planning:

  • With a clip-board, pen, and graph paper, make a rough sketch of your yard. Make notes on which areas are sunny or shady, wet or dry, sloped or level. Note soil conditions: loam, sand, clay, or gravel. Choose plants accordingly.
  • Note overhead wires and underground septic systems, sidewalks, and other obstacles.
  • Day dream possibilities.
  • Consult with family members, taking into account their dreams.
  • Think about how humans will use the space, outdoor living areas, playgrounds, meditative areas, seating, etc. Add these to your sketch.
  • Think about how animals will use the space, nesting, feeding, hiding, bathing, etc. Add ideas to the sketch.
  • Make a plant list that includes native flowers, shrubs and trees.
  • Think about layers: short and tall prairie, understory, shrubs, short and tall trees.
  • Think about bloom cycles. Choose plants that bloom early spring, summer and late fall, so there is always something blooming.
  • Add a water feature.

The Wild Ones website has several great videos that walk you through the planning process with dozens of sample designs to inspire you.

View a Wild Ones garden design from West Cook County here.

Our friends at Chicago Audubon have a helpful page with good advice for getting started.

The University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners program provides training and their network can provide a consultant to help you plan and plant your sanctuary. Reach out to your local Master Gardeners program. Check here for more pollinator-friendly garden designs.

For further information on butterfly and bee-friendly gardens, butterfly host plants and constructing bee nests, check out the fact sheets available from the Xerces Society.

Trees Forever promotes a useful concept of the right tree for the right place with garden designs, lists of pollinator friendly trees and shrubs, and grants for larger pollinator plantings. They can offer consulting for city wide and rural pollinator projects. And if you dive deep into their website you will find the following brochures and webinars.

Pollinator Primer
Plant This Not That
Trees and Shrubs for Pollinators

There are also several reputable landscaping companies that specialize in native landscape designing, planting and maintenance. Please let them know you found them through the Illinois Audubon Society website and you are seeking certification

(Will be added as we build these relationships.)

Acquire Plant Material and Seeds

To have your site certified the majority of your plants must be native. Native plants attract native birds and butterflies. Make the effort to acquire local genotypes, plants that are adapted to your specific region of the state, plants that are sourced from within 50-100 miles of your garden. Always ask the nursery if their plants are grown from local sources. Local genotypes are adapted to your weather, making them more likely to thrive.

The Illinois Natural History Survey has a list of all plants native to Illinois. If you dig in, you can research whether or not they are native to your county.

The Illinois Native Plant Society website has a list of annual native plant sales across the state.

The Illinois Native Plant Society also has a current list of native plant nurseries.

Wild Ones also lists native plant nurseries by state. (A native plant nursery just across the state line might be closer to you and sell local genotypes that fit your local climate. Ask them if they collect seed locally.)

And the West Cook County Chapter of Wild Ones has a list of native plant nurseries and landscape designers in the Chicago area.


First remove all grass, sod, and invasive plants from the site. Spending time removing invasive plants now will save time and heart-ache later.

As you are preparing to plant, reconsider your design. Are you wanting a more organized European style garden with plants in groups or rows? Or, are you seeking a ‘re-wilding’ with a hodgepodge of leaf shapes, textures, blooming schedules, colors and heights? In an organized garden shorter and earlier blooming plants tend to go in the front rows with taller and later blooming flowers going in the back rows. Either way, proper spacing is important. That small seed or plug, even a large plant is a one gallon pot will eventually grow to be a few feet high and round. Plan and plant accordingly.

And the old cliche is true, a million dollar hole for a five dollar plant is worth the time. Preparing the soil, digging a hole twice as big as the pot and making sure the root/stem line is even with the soil line will help ensure that your investment thrives.

Planting is also something to do in phases, one garden bed at a time. Just after frost, before spring rains, is the best time. But for many trees, shrubs and native prairie plants, fall is also prime planting season. Plan to add diversity over time. Starting with a few spring, summer and fall flower plants will give you three seasons of color and a constant food supply for pollinators. As you learn more you can add more diversity to your gardens.

Long-Term Maintenance

Think of the restoration process as a journey of discovery with several phases that include planning, planting and long term maintenance. No garden is maintenance free, but once a native landscape is established it is much lower maintenance than the weekly mowing, weeding, watering and fertilizing required for a monoculture of invasive grass.

One of the most intriguing aspects of managing a native landscape is noting how plants adapt to their habitat over time. Some species might flourish in one part of the yard while others might migrate up or down slope, or surprisingly pop up in a new location better fitted for their needs.

It is also important to plan to replant occasionally. The first few years you will note which species thrive; they might even need to be thinned out to allow other species more room to grow. You might also add new species from year to year as you learn more about the incredible diversity of plants native to your area &/or you wish to add more host plants for butterflies.

Removing invasive species can be the most challenging part of the job. Knowing which plants are invasive and removing the small sprouts is much easier than beating back a full on invasion. Physically pulling them out is easy when they are young. Pruning and cutting them to the ground might mean the roots are still there to re-sprout. A small dab of herbicide on the stump will prevent this. If you are managing a large property, fire is a useful tool. If you volunteer to assist with a few controlled burns at an IAS sanctuary or local forest preserve you can get free training. Though we discourage the use of chemicals, in some instances the careful use of an herbicide is most efficient for large scale removal of invasive plants.

For the identification and removal of invasive plants the Midwest Invasive Plant Network has an informative website.

The University of Illinois Extension Services, working with Morton Arboretum and others, produced a book on the management of invasive species that you can download for free here.

There is an outdated custom of removing all dead stalks and raking leaves in the fall, cleaning up your flower bed for the winter. Don’t do it. Those dead stalks and that leaf litter is where a lot of beneficial insects over winter. It is now recommended that garden beds are not cleaned up until spring when you have had at least five days of no frost and daily temperatures are above 50 degrees. If the prairie bed is unsightly for neighbors, cut the tall stalks to about 18 inches and leave the stalks in the garden bed as mulch.

The Xerces Society’s blog gives you both the scientific reasons why and how to better manage a pollinator plot.

Citizen Science Projects

If you like photography and want to become involved in citizen scientist bee research, become a BeeSpotter.

The University of Illinois has initiated a citizen science project in which participants spend just 1.5 hours a month monitoring their pollinator gardens,


Trees Forever offers grants of both small and large scale pollinator plantings, community and school tree planting projects.

Native Plant Society

Books for Further Reading

100 Plants to Feed the Birds by Laura Erickson (2022)

We Are the ARK: Returning Our Gardens to Their True Nature Through Acts of Restorative Kindness Hardcover by Mary Reynolds (2022)

Illinois Wild Flowers by Don Kurz (2014)

Midwestern Native Shrubs and Trees by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard Schwartz (2016)

The Midwestern Native Garden by Charlotte Adelman & Bernard L. Schwartz (2011)

The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees by Douglas W. Tallamy (2021)

Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy (2020)

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy (2009)

Birdscaping for the Midwest by Mariette Nowak (2007)