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Plant local: How to get started gardening with native species in Kansas and Missouri

The Conservation Title encourages farmers to protect natural resources. Here a monarch rests on a blazing star which is a native wildflower and also a favorite for monarch butterflies.
Carlos Moreno
Native plants have a symbiotic relationship with native wildlife and evolved within local environment. Here, a monarch rests on a blazing star, a native wildflower.

Native plant species are better adapted for our environment, great food for bees and butterflies, and available to purchase at nurseries and plant shops across the Kansas City region. Can you dig?

This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

Did you know KCUR is coming out with a new podcast? “Up From Dust” is a series about the environmental price of trying to shape the world around humans, and how we can fix our generational mistakes.

The first episode launches in the coming weeks, but you can listen to the trailer here and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Until then, we wanted to show off some ways you can make an immediate difference: native plants.

Interestingly enough, some of my friends both new and experienced at gardening expressed trepidation at planting native species.

But there’s no reason to fear: Native plant species are available to purchase and plant all across our region and can readily demonstrate their hardiness. Just ask Courtney Masterson, executive director and ecologist of Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, a nonprofit working to restore “resilient native ecosystems through community education.”

Masterson is also involved with seed harvesting for landscape restoration, featured in a 2024 article from the National Wildlife Federation.

Masterson helped me install a patch of prairie on my property this February, and has actively discouraged watering it so that the plants are encouraged to sink their roots deep in search of water. This is what prairie does — stretch as deep as 10 feet or more to ensure access to water during the intense droughts one can encounter on the plains.

If you want a garden that doesn’t require massive inputs of water, fertilizer and time, consider planting native species. Your budget, back (and birds and bees) will thank you.

How to get started planting native species

Small brown seeds of a native plant species are held in cupped hands with red painted nails.
Haines Eason
KCUR 89.3
Local resources can help gardeners new and experienced in their quest for native plants.

Most nurseries sell plants suited for your USDA hardiness zone, but that doesn’t mean they sell native plants.

According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a native plant is one that “has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction.” Native plants have also “formed symbiotic relationships with native wildlife over thousands of years, and therefore offer the most sustainable habitat.”

In fact, according to recent research published by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the average nursery is contributing to the spread of invasive species, which stand to thrive as our climate warms.

A 2021 “Smithsonian Magazine” article lists some of the worst species, which include cogongrass (a.k.a. one of “the world’s worst invasive weeds”), “Japanese barberry, Chinese privet, whitetop, Norway maple, Brazilian peppertree, Russian olive, garlic mustard, yellow star thistle, Canada thistle, kudzu and Johnsongrass, among others.”

So, where does a native plant-curious gardener go to get started?

“This is a big question,” Masterson says. “In short, seek out local native plant education organizations to plan your planting in advance.”

Masterson notes that native plantings should not be rushed as “they will be with you forever and will establish slowly.” She urges taking one’s time and seeking out knowledgeable professionals “to avoid common mistakes and a lot of hard work.”

She also suggests slowly establishing one’s garden — choosing a few species per year, truly learning them, and then adding to the menagerie over time.

What kinds of plants are native to the Kansas City region

A woman with blond hair, a green long sleeved tee shirt and blue pants kneels next to some grasses.
Haines Eason
KCUR 89.3
Courtney Masterson, executive director and ecologist with Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, shares insights and tips for planting native species.

Did you know that Kansas only has one native evergreen? That would be the eastern redcedar. That tree is also a Missouri native, as is the short-leaf pine.

Kansas’ dearth of evergreens may have something to do with its once-dominant ecosystems: mixed and tallgrass prairies. These ecosystems have largely been supplanted by grasslands and cropland, but the state is still very much a part of the plains region. As such, grasses, shrubs and wildflowers dominate the lists of native Kansas plants.

Missouri’s range of ecosystems, however, runs the gamut. The state can claim everything from thick hardwood forests to prairie and much else in between. Missouri’s lists of natives include grasses, wildflowers, and even trees that can grow very tall in a range of conditions.

For those looking for one robust guide that will help them get started, “Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden” is a great choice.

Masterson's general guidance:

  • Visit your local library to check out books about native plants and/or borrow from friends.
  • Join local native plant groups on social media for quick help and a lot of experienced advice from your community. 
  • Reach out to your local native plant education organizations and support their work. 
  • Buy from native plant nurseries as they only sell native plants! It seems obvious, but your dollars ensure these nurseries can afford to keep providing native species.

Kansas City-regional organizations:

Additional and web-based informational resources:

Native plant nurseries in the metro region

A close up view of plants with wide green leaves and small pink blossoms in a nursery greenhouse with a man in a blue jacket in the distance.
Haines Eason
KCUR 89.3
Native plant nurseries provide a variety of species native to the Kansas City metro region.

Ready to shop and plant? The region is dotted with great options.

Botanical Belonging — Happy Apple’s Farm, 17524 178th St., Tonganoxie, KS 66086

Botanical Belonging, which opens for the season in April, sells native plants and typically offers 1 quart pots for $6 and some 2″ pots for $3.50. Standard nursery gallons are typically $10.

The list of plants they usually offer includes seven varieties of milkweed and at least as many sunflowers, with dozens and dozens of other species besides.

As plant availability is not guaranteed, they urge you to contact them before visiting. Until April, this nursery is open by appointment only. Regular business hours are not currently posted.

City Roots Nursery — 3037 Woodland Ave., Kansas City, MO 64110

City Roots advertises that they collect local seeds and source from regional native seed producers annually in an effort to ensure “high genetic diversity” in their offerings. Then they stratify the seeds mimicking the natural conditions they require to germinate.

Their 2024 catalog is now available online and includes over 200 entries. One of the more exciting facets of the catalog is its inclusion of the expected date and color of flowers (if the plant does in fact flower).

City Roots’ sale hours resume March 6 and are Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

CritSite — 16245 S. US Hwy. 71, Belton, MO 64012

A clear contrast to the mom-and-pop nurseries out there, CritSite is a massive establishment on the south side of the Kansas City metro specializing in selling plants for large-scale restoration projects. However, it is open to the public and is a great place to purchase entire flats of native plant plugs and/or native tree saplings at a cheaper per-unit price than retail nurseries.

This nursery’s site dedicates 16 pages to native plants alone and also sells a wide array of site restoration products, including barrier fences, fertilizers, seed mixes and more.

Critsite is open to retail and contractor customers Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Sow Wild Natives — 6201 Noland Rd., Kansas City, MO 64133

Sow Wild Natives opens in April, and opens Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This nursery sells wildflowers, grasses (and rushes and sedges), shrubs, trees, and vines. And they offer a handy selection tool that allows shoppers to select plants by sun and water needs, color and more.

A regional mail order option: Missouri Wildflowers Nursery 

In business for 40 years, Missouri Wildflowers Nursery advertises that they sell “over 300 species native to Missouri.” They offer wildflowers, naturally, but also trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, sedges and ferns.

For those who are a little confused about purchasing plants by mail, this nursery’s site offers an explainer page. Essentially, live plants are carefully packed in boxes and gently secured with loose paper to ensure there’s a balance between air circulation and protection.

Also, the nursery only ships when conditions permit, so they may delay shipment when temperatures are too high. Need more info? Reach out to them via their website.

Missouri Wildflowers Nursery is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m.

Masterson’s native nursery shopping tips:

Want to know if a nursery is worthy of your business? Masterson says just ask the staff some questions.

First, ask if what you’re seeing is a truly native plant or a cultivar or nativar. A cultivar is a highly cultivated plant — one bred for desired properties such as appearance, flavor or medicinal properties. Some are even hybrids — the combination of two plants.

A nativar? These are native plants that may retain much of their original look and other properties but have been bred for aesthetics — attributes like height, color, double blooms, etc.

She also urges shoppers to avoid nurseries that sell plants treated with pesticides, like neonicotinoids, to ensure you're providing wildlife with safe forage.

Remember: lawns aren't natural

White coneflowers in a meadow.
Mary Hammel
Flowers, shrubs, trees, and grasses contribute to restoration native landscapes.

One last thing to remember: The classic American lawn has no counterpart in nature. And a thick, green mat of turf requires a lot of chemical inputs, water and work.

Perhaps most importantly, and sadly: A lot of species had to be cleared out to make way for those sterile emerald blades of fescue.

Native plantings can help on all fronts. They can save you significant work and money, and they can also save struggling bug and bird populations. Plus, they make a front or back yard look cool!

So, how should you proceed?

“I think the best way to envision the landscape you want to see in your yard is to visit remnant native landscapes or help build new native landscapes with your local environmental nonprofit organizations or community gardens,” Masterson says.

“Working and learning in those spaces will help with everything from species selection to experience in ecologically sound garden maintenance. Let nature be your teacher and have patience with the process (and yourself)!”

There are many organizations offering free guided tours through native landscapes, Masterson says, including Native Lands Restoration Collaborative. She urges you to reach out, ask questions and rediscover your native ecosystem.

Haines Eason is the owner of startup media agency Freelance Kansas. He went into business for himself after a stint as a managing editor on the content marketing team at A Place for Mom. He has worked as a communications professional at KU, as a journalist with bylines in places like The Guardian, The Pitch, KANSAS! Magazine, and as a teacher, guidance counselor, and more. Learn about him and Freelance Kansas on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Threads.
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