Matrix Planting- Not as Scary as it Sounds

Here at North Branch Natives we promote a style of planting called matrix planting. While the name may sound technical, this planting style is really a beginner-friendly way of approaching new or existing plantings and ensuring their success over time. At its core, this approach is a way of placing plants that mimic patterns in nature resulting in a more resilient, dynamic planting. By grouping suitable native plants together and leaving room for them to do their thing, these plantings are able to adapt to their local site conditions over time while still maintaining a stylized, cohesive look.

Pictured: Native sun planting of Dodecatheon (shooting star), Carex (sedge), Viola (violet), and Monarda (beebalm).

What exactly is a matrix planting?

Matrix planting is a strategy of selecting and grouping compatible plants to grow together in a planting. The key is that the plant species work together to fill in a space and outcompete weeds yet individual plant species still have the ability to grow as they please. These plants occupy all levels of a planting- including the ground, middle and upper levels- and intertwine to form one, resilient unit. The native species can ebb and flow throughout the space, finding individual niches that best suit them. Over time, this results in a planting that can outcompete weeds, adjust to fluctuations in weather and climate, and offer year-round interest for the homeowner.

Plants have different ways of reproducing and spreading to fill in the ground space. Some have very fibrous root systems that form a tight mat; others have single, long tap roots that move straight down and deeply through the soil. Still others have horizontal roots called rhizomes that move near the soil surface or fill the space by producing seeds. A matrix planting combines plants with different strategies to ensure the space is filled quickly by desirable plants rather than weeds. Once the ground layer is locked down, additional plants can be added to make up the middle layer to add height and drama to the planting. 

Not only do these plantings shift and change over time, but they also develop throughout the season to have continual interest. Typically garden spring flowers are shorter and the planting becomes more dramatic as the season goes on with taller summer flowering species. A final flush of fall color punctuates the season before going dormant for winter, where subdued colors and seed heads of attractive texture still offer visual interest. 

What are the benefits of matrix planting?

Matrix plantings have a lot to offer to both homeowners looking for a long term, low-maintenance solution to their garden beds and to insects and birds that depend on native plants. Although initial work is needed to help establish the planting, including supplemental watering and weeding, once the plants have intertwined they form a thick mat of low-growing vegetation (think groundcovers or low-growing sedges/grasses) that outcompete and prevent weed seeds from germinating. The established plantings also have a full, “wildscaped” look that complements many different architectural styles and tastes. These plantings can also offer a reprieve from maintaining grass and add movement and character to a space. 

One major concern about our modern landscapes is how we can utilize them to support wildlife. Using native plants is the best way to offer food, habitat, and other resources to pollinators, other insects, and birds. Here we embrace a “plant it and they will come” mentality- native plants not only invigorate a space visually but can also welcome a wide variety of our native fauna and bring your space to life!

Want to learn more about the benefits of native plants? See this article by Audubon.

How can you achieve this in your garden?

It may seem difficult to envision a naturalistic meadow in your standard Chicago lot, but the techniques of matrix planting can be adapted to suit any size space. Here are some tips:

  1. Have a compatible palette of plants that occupy all levels of the planting.
    • Let the plants do the work! Having the right set of plants for your space ensures that the planting will grow cohesively and be able to outcompete weeds.
    • Choose 3-4 species with different reproduction strategies and similar vigor to hold the ground floor and then add vertical layers. 
  2. Keep your plant palette simple.
    • New to native plants? Limit your planting to only a few species at first so you can learn to recognize them. Knowing what plants are supposed to be in your planting can help determine what’s a weed and what is not. You can always add more plants later!
  3. Plant in groups of 3-5 or 5-10.
    • Planting groups of plants rather than scattering individuals allows for the plants to form a network and grow cooperatively rather than being left alone to fend for themselves.
  4. Plant densely.
    • Planting perennials (meaning wildflowers, grasses, and sedges) at about 12-15” apart allows them to fill the space much faster than if they are planted farther apart.
  5. Keep out weeds and water until the matrix has established.
    • A matrix planting will need help at the beginning to ensure it starts on the right foot. Mulch new plantings to help control weeds and remove weeds for the first several years to deplete the weed seed bank and eliminate competition for your new plants. New plantings will typically need additional water for the first season (general rule of thumb is 1” per week) to help them settle in.


Have questions or need help getting started? Contact us and consider one of our consultation options.

  • Full Consultation package- Garden Action Plan with 1 hr site visit + Garden Start-up Guide. This plan offers expert guidance from our NBN horticulturists for your yard. It includes a site map detailing your goals with advice on how to accomplish them, a curated plant list and access to our Garden Start-up Guide containing more information on the “how-to's” of native plant gardening. This package arms you with a plan and knowledge to DIY your space with native plants.
  • Garden Together Hourly Consultation- Need help weeding, planting, or answering garden questions? Have a NBN horticulturist work alongside you in your space to help tackle garden jobs!
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