A native plant is one that existed in a particular area prior to European settlement. The geographic region chosen as a reference point can be very specific. For example, there are gardeners who plant only those natives that were known to grow locally prior to settlement. Or the definition can be more broad, such as those native to the particular bioregion or even province. Keep in mind, though, that just because a plant is native to your province doesn't mean it will do well in your area; in British Columbia, for example, a Rocky Mountain native probably won't thrive in a coastal rain forest garden.
As gardeners, we've been taught by decades of good marketing to expect big, colourful blooms from our plants—the bigger, the better. The best-sellers of the horticultural trade tend to be the showiest, boldest, most exuberantly flowering species; they've been bred for precisely those qualities. But while there are native plants that certainly qualify as flashy beauties, generally their charms are more subtle. This means that in designing a combination garden, you have to make sure you're not overpowering the natives with cultivated varieties that will visually overwhelm them. This is particularly important with spring-blooming natives. In my original woodland garden, I made the mistake of planting the wildflowers spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and hepatica (Hepatica americana) too close to some fire-engine-red tulips. The only way to see the delicate (and prolific) blooms of the spring beauty and hepatica was to get down on your hands and knees. Likewise, the nodding bells of my trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) were hidden by my daffodils. The natives' beauty was lost; whereas if I'd placed them where they wouldn't be overshadowed by the more colourful non-native bulbs, they'd have been attention-grabbers in their own right.
Coddling versus carefree
The challenge in a combination garden is not only to balance the subtle with the showy, but to combine the coddled with the carefree. Many native plants do not require much in the way of maintenance, such as supplementary watering and fertilizing; meadow and prairie plants actually do better in low-nutrient conditions. One way around this is to site plants with similar requirements together, much the way plants are zoned in xeriscape gardens, for example, with heavy feeders or moisture-loving plants together and light feeders or drought-tolerant species in a different place.