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Landscaping with Native Plants

by on May 13, 2012 12:23 PM

Home gardeners can substitute natives for exotics in any type of landscape design: a single specimen, perennial border, ground cover, grass substitute, hedge, water feature, rock garden, or shade garden, just to name a few.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has published a wonderful book titled “Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants,” which can help gardeners choose appropriate substitutes for the more familiar but problematic standbys. It has categories for trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants and grasses.

In this article we'll take a look at a “ready packaged” scheme for a perennial bed based entirely on natives. I follow traditional precepts of garden design, but using natives instead.

This bed would measure about 25 feet by 8 feet, and the plantings are appropriate for full sun and average soil. It features colors in the red, purple and white range. The total bloom time for the ensemble extends from mid spring to late fall. All of these plants are relatively well-behaved and commercially available.

Any perennial bed needs “bones.” These are the basic plants that provide visual and literal structure to a garden.Usually, these are the large, tall, shrubby species or even small trees, which anchor the garden and often remain above ground all winter to provide four-season interest.

For my hypothetical bed, I chose Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), also known as “tassel-white.”  This shrub can grow to about eight feet and bears long tassel-like nodding white flowers in the spring.

My own plants also have attractive bright green twigs that offer wintertime brightness. Sweetspires look best planted in clumps. A complement foundation plant is Viburnum dentatum, a member of the arrow wood family. For home gardens, a cultivar called “blue muffin” is popular.

It grows to just around four feet. In spring, it bears flat clusters of white flowers. These are followed by intense blue berries in the fall, attractive to native and migrant birds.

Since repetition is another good garden design practice, we’ll place clumps of Itea at either end of the bed, with a pair of Viburnum in the middle.

The body of the garden consists of medium height (2 to 4 feet) perennials whose bright blooms and interesting textures supply the “wow” factor in high summer. Monarda didyma (bergamot, bee balm) now is available in many sizes and colors.  It can’t be beat for its fragrant leaves, summer-blooming red to pink flowers, and attraction for hummingbirds and butterflies.

A single clump will provide a focal point in the middle of the garden. Penstemon tubiflorus (White wand penstemon) has performed beautifully in my sunny border, sending up long-lasting spikes of white flowers in mid-summer.  A clump of three would do nicely on either side of the bee balm. Give the bee balm a little room to expand, though.

Finally, no native garden should be without Phlox paniculata, garden phlox. This two- to three-foot plant blooms late in the season and bears clusters of white to pale lavendar flowers. Put a clump at either end of your garden and maybe one in between somewhere to tie the whole thing together.

If your garden is an “island” bed, use the “backbone” plants along a center lengthwise line, and deploy the smaller plants to either side.

You can make the “backbone” curvy if you want, and place the shorter plants inside the curves.   If your garden borders a fence or hedge, then it is easiest to put the tall plants in the rear and the shorter ones in front. A wavy front edge can add visual variety.

Once established, this garden will need little care and reward you with a long bloom period. Birds and butterflies will find it, too. 

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.
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