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Natural Habitats: Gardening with Native Plants: Home

Yellow celandine poppies (<em>Stylophorum diphyllum</em>) appear amidst pale blue <em>Polemonium reptans</em> and creamy <em>Tiarella cordifolia</em> in the Native Plant Garden at NYBG; photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen
Yellow celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) appear amidst pale blue Polemonium reptans and creamy Tiarella cordifolia in the Native Plant Garden at NYBG; photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen

Planning Your Native Garden

Growing native plants is easy. First decide what kind of habitat or growing conditions you have and then select the appropriate plants. When designing a native plant garden the rules are the same as in basic garden design, including:

  1. Plant in large drifts for larger impact.
  2. Pay attention to foliage when combining native plants; they offer a vast array of textures and forms to experiment with in your garden.
  3. Use ground covers broken up by plants that add heights to create a green tapestry across a woodland area; it is much more successful and exciting than a shady lawn and a great way to suppress weeds.
  4. Experiment with floral forms. In a sunny garden, try combining ray flowers (daisy-like shapes) with spires and translucent, wispy grasses.

But there is a popular misconception that gardening with native plants is a messy business. Many people suffer from the erroneous notion that natives are not particularly ornamental and tend to be an unruly choice for the home garden. The happy reality is that when properly sited, maintained and combined they offer magnificent options for the avid gardener.

Native plants and natural communities comprise an important part of our healthy ecosystem. Native plants have evolved longstanding, symbiotic relationships with other native fauna and flora providing important shelter and food for local wildlife. As well as encouraging diversity, one of the many benefits for attracting wildlife into your garden is that you will create a balanced environment where birds and beneficial insects will reduce pest problems.

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) are visited by a bee.; photo by Jon Peter
Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebell); photo by Jon Peter

Spring Ephemerals

Some of the earliest additions to the garden are the spring ephemerals. They explode from the forest floor in the early spring before the trees have a chance to leaf out. By the time the overhead canopy has formed a shady cover, they have already flowered and gone dormant for the season. They are a wonderful way to decorate barren wooded spots in the early spring.

One of the finest spring ephemerals is Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). They can be freely interplanted with other natives such as yellow celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), showy trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) and a host of native ferns or alternatively, for an early display, pair them with daffodils (Narcissus sp.). Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are two other ephemerals that carpet the forest floor with cheerful white flowers early in the season.

Natural Choices

As the season progresses, natives continue to brighten up the garden. A favorite is the ground cover golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum). It has cheerful yellow, daisy-like flowers that last from May until July. It is a versatile plant that will grow in part sun to shade. Wood phlox (Phlox divaricata) and creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) flower in April/May. They look their best when they weave through American wild ginger (Asarum canadense) that is punctuated with trilliums (Trillum sp.) and yellow lady's slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum).

There are many choices to creatively cover a woodland floor. Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia), with their small, pinkish-white, flowering plumes and tinted, maple-shaped leaves, combine beautifully with Christmas lady and maidenhair ferns. Baneberries (Actaea) and bugbane (Actaea or Cimicifuga) add height and color to the border with berries, fragrant flowers and lacey foliage.

Solomon's seal (Polygonatum spp.), false Solomon's seal (Smilacina racemosa) and bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) all have graceful arching foliage and flowers in white or yellow that cascade downwards. They can be combined with mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) and Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) to form a rich tapestry of textures and form.

An outstanding, low-growing, ground cover for full sun is bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). It covers sandy slopes in Cape Cod and will be at home in any sunny spot with good drainage. Its pink, bell-shaped flowers turn into bright, red berries. Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) and heart-leaved and golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera and Zizia aurea) are three ground covers with interesting foliage and graceful, small, yellow flowers that thrive in full-sun to part-shade and tolerate moist to dry conditions.

Amsonia 'Blue Ice' provides early season color; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Amsonia 'Blue Ice' provides early season color; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Ornamental native grasses and floriferous, prairie plants make colorful additions to a sunny border. False indigo (Baptisia australis) and blue star (Amsonia) provide early-season color, while coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), blazing star (Liatris) and goldenrods (Solidago) add color and provide food for migratory birds.

Viburnums are another family of native shrubs that have interesting foliage, excellent floral displays in late spring and wonderful berries in the fall. The American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum), witherod (Viburnum nudum) and arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) are three examples. They thrive in moist to moderate garden soils and tolerate sun to part shade.

New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) can be cut back in early summer
New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) can be cut back in early summer

Caring for Your Native Plants

Native plants need similar care to that of their non-native counterparts. Fertilize plantings in early spring with an organic fertilizer (low numbers are best, e.g., 5-3-4) to produce vigorous, healthy plants. Compost is always a welcome addition to any planting bed (1/4 to 1 inch is fine). Mulch beds with any type of organic material; shredded leaves work well, as do fine, pine bark chips.  The mulch will keep moisture in, weeds down and the ground cool in the heat of the summer.

Some tall perennials that require staking can be pinched or cut back in half in May-June. This will force the plants to branch, resulting in more flowers and shorter stems. Some of the candidates for this treatment are New England asters (Aster novae-angliae), goldenrod (Solidago), New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum).

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