St. Olaf College | News

Experts at St. Olaf: Bringing native plants to your yard

 Natural Lands Manager Wesley Braker and the St. Olaf Natural Lands.

As Minnesotans await the last frost, May can be prime time to start planting and growing plants in their yards and gardens.

St. Olaf College Natural Lands Manager Wesley Braker ’18 knows what it means to bring native plants to your yard. 

Braker has managed the St. Olaf Natural Lands — approximately 430 acres of woods, prairies, wetlands, and trails adjacent to campus that provide a unique space for learning and recreation — since 2021. The vast majority of the St. Olaf Natural Lands was restored from agricultural land, and it now serves as vital habitat to native flora and fauna.

Braker oversees the on-the-ground work of the St. Olaf Natural Lands. An important part of the job is managing invasive species and introducing new species in restored areas as needed in order to maintain and enhance biodiversity in the college’s forest, prairie, and wetland habitats. He also oversees student employees and works with faculty and staff to develop projects and enhance use of the Natural Lands. He is a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota Conservation Science Program, where he studies local adaptation in the native grass little bluestem and restoration ecology.

Below, Braker shares his knowledge about bringing native plants into your yard.

Why are native plants and grasses important to incorporate in your yard or garden?
Minnesota has lost 98 percent of the prairie it once had, leaving a largely fragmented landscape. Additionally, developed greenspace in Minnesota is often created using only a few non-native species. Incorporating native plants and grasses into both your lawn or garden is a fantastic way to provide a healthy and robust microhabitat to help our planet. While also supporting your local environment, most native species are well-suited to our growing conditions and take less energy input (such as water, compost, etc.) on your part. Our dwindling pollinator populations also greatly benefit from native plants and grasses. An aspect of using native species that I find so enjoyable is that you can easily incorporate more than 40 species into a small area, giving a full growing season of changing blooms to enjoy.

Is care different for native plants versus non-native plants?
Care for native plants can be less intensive than for non-native plants, although there will always be weeding to do! Just like any new planting, native plants will need care in establishing their roots, whether from seed or from transplanted plants. Many native plants are perennial — which means they come back year after year. Because they are perennial, gardeners may not need to reinvest their time and money in purchasing, planting, and establishing native plants year after year. Since native plants are adapted to their environment, they are naturally more disease-resistant. This means that pesticides are used less or flower bed rotations are less frequent. A native species complex in your lawn or garden has the ability to replenish the population by dropping its seed back into the soil. It’s a joy for me to find all the little spaces that native species such as butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) are able to fill in.

How do you know where to get native seeds?
Finding not just native, but ethically sourced native seed or plants can be a challenge. Fortunately, Minnesota has a high number of suppliers available for gardeners. A quick internet search for Minnesota native seeds and plants will yield many suggestions, but it is truly up to the consumer to verify that they are purchasing true Minnesota native species. I would recommend using a native plant guide, such as, to check what is native to your area and for information specific to how certain species will meet vegetation, aesthetic, and functional goals for your space. For larger native plantings, I strongly recommend that folks pay close attention to where the plants they are buying were specifically sourced from. New research is providing evidence that in some species, local seeds and plants have higher fitness than more distant sources. Doing your research on where your plants or seeds are coming from could influence how well your plantings succeed.

What common weeds in my yard are actually native to the area?
The most common native species that I hear folks complain about is wild blue violet (Viola sororia) in their lawn. This beautiful and important species provides a wonderful early nectar source for pollinators and also increases the biodiversity of your lawn. Some people might also be surprised to learn that there are several native species of thistles that are important for pollinators and provide a source of nest material for late-season nesting birds, like goldfinches. Some other native plants like wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) can be extremely aggressive in a garden setting, so researching growth and reproductive tendencies of plants should also be considered. In order to make an informed and economical decision on dealing with weeds, I would highly recommend trying to identify and learn more about the species in your yard or garden before attempting to remove them. If the species is undesirable, this knowledge will at the very least give you further information on how to more effectively and responsibly remove it.

How does your work at St. Olaf College support native habitat reclamation and restoration?
Since our first restoration in 1981, the St. Olaf Natural Lands has restored over 300 acres of former agricultural land to prairie, savannah, and deciduous forests. While more than 40 years have passed since that first installation, our management styles have and continue to change to meet new challenges. Climate change is already affecting our local climate through precipitation and temperature fluctuations. Waves of new invasive species will challenge our habitats. Each of these hurdles to conservation is big, but it allows us to think in new and creative ways to protect and manage our natural resources. While the majority of our initial restoration efforts are complete, we are and will continue to work on improving our existing habitats as they mature and provide better habitat for conservation, education, and recreation.