Garden Designers Roundtable ~ Designing with Native Plants

This month on Garden Designers Roundtable we’re exploring the topic of Designing with Native Plants, an issue that is near and dear to my heart. But, truth be told, one that I also find a bit baffling…why are we singling out native plants as in need of special design help?  They’re just plants, aren’t they?

When it comes to including native plants in a designed landscape, I have three simple words to say  – JUST DO IT!

Right Native Plant, Right Place

Native plants are just plants. They are not fool-proof or no-maintenance. They’re not all weedy-didn’t-I-just-see-that-growing-on-the-side-of-the-road plants. Native plants can be as lush, beautiful and colorful as non-native plants.

When using native plants in your garden you still need to consider your garden’s site conditions – sun, soil, water, wind, etc. – just like you would before planting any other plant. You can’t just plant any native plant in any garden condition and expect it to survive just because it happens to be native to your area.

It’s still a plant and you, the gardener, must meet its basic needs in order for it to live.

Designing with Native Plants

Native smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and non-native lacecap hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) are ideal garden bed mates.

One important thing to keep in mind is that using native plants in your garden doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.

Native plants play well with non-native plants and, personally, I believe both should have a place in a residential garden.

While there’s no magic ratio of native to non-native plants that will work for every gardener, the Planting Pyramid is a good place to start to figure out what might be best for your garden.

Whether you’re planting native or non-native plants, you still need to keep in mind some of the basic principles of garden design. Garden design concepts such as colorunity, movement, focal points, and texture, to name just a few, are the same regardless of whether or not you’re designing with native plants. Repeat after me…native plants are simply plants.

PR for Native Plants

A view of the demonstration garden at the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College.

Native plants seem to suffer from a general lack of good PR. I’ll be the first to admit that some native plants are difficult to incorporate into a typical residential landscape. And yes, some of them can indeed be found growing on the side of the road.

And let’s face it, sometimes native plant enthusiasts aren’t exactly helping the cause and showing how easy it is to find a place for native plants in your garden.

On a recent visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Demonstration Garden at the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College, I was greeted by an exuberant mass of 5′ tall late summer-blooming perennials separated by winding paths of grass. I thought it was lovely but could also see why Jane or Joe Gardener, who is thinking about adding some native plants to their home garden, might be overwhelmed by the idea of planting some of these native perennials.

Native Plants for New England Gardens

Incorporating native plants into your garden is easy. Remember, they’re just plants after all. If you’re not sure which plants are native to your region, check out sites like Plant Native or your local native plant society.

Here’s a look at a few native plants that will be right at home in gardens in Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island or any of the other New England states.

Cercis canadensis

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is an early spring bloomer that is also a colorful understory tree for woodland gardens.

Tiarella cordifolia

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is a welcome nectar source for many pollinators. I’m partial to the running tiarella cultivars that quickly form dense ground covers.

Chionanthus virginicus

White fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) is an underused native gem that can be used as a focal point or as part of a mixed planting.

Rhododendron maximum

The pale pink flowers of Rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), used here as a large, evergreen privacy screen, add a subtle elegance in mid-summer, long after other exotic rhododendrons have flowered.

Panicum  virgatum 'Huron Solstice'

Who needs invasive exotic ornamental grasses when ‘Huron Solstice’ switchgrass offers green-grey foliage that turns brilliant shades of wine red in the fall?

Clethra alnifolia - Summersweet

The intoxicating fragrance of summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) will stop you in your tracks in the late summer garden. And the local pollinators find it irresistible, too.

Pinus Strobus 'John's Find'

‘John’s Find’, a cultivar of our native white pine (Pinus strobus) is a quirky focal point.

More Ideas on Designing with Native Plants

For more tips and ideas for incorporating native plants into your designed garden, check out these posts from my fellow members of the Garden Designers Roundtable:

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

35 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable ~ Designing with Native Plants

  1. Pingback: Designing with Native Plants! « Garden Designers Roundtable

  2. Great point, Debbie. Natives are, after all, just plants. Like non-natives, some are easy, some are touchy. Gardeners, whether planting natives or non-natives, will save themselves a lot of time, trouble, and money by following the Right Plant, Right Place advice,

  3. Pingback: Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Designing With Native Plants –

  4. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing with Natives — Gossip in the Garden

  5. I’m always so relieved to hear people discussing the challenges of designing with natives. It is often hard to take some of the more sprawling plants and make them work in our smaller landscapes. A great post.

    • Thanks, Thomas, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have always been a bit uneasy when native plant demo gardens are full of plants that simply don’t translate well into typical home garden scenarios.I’m thrilled GDRT is showing that there are ‘regular’ native plants, too.

  6. Pingback: Digging » Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing with Native Plants

  7. Your approach to natives is refreshingly practical! You made a great point about some people feeling overwhelmed by many designed native landscapes. I think people believe that meadows with wildflowers are the only option. Great post, Debbie. I love the white pine cultivar!

    • Mary, That white pine is one of my favorite plants. It’s so quirky and screwy! I totally agree with your meadow comment…we need to let gardeners know native plants doesn’t necessarily mean you have to plant a meadow.

  8. You’re so right about some people feeling overwhelmed by native plants. Thanks for reminding us that they are, indeed, just plants! And with a little research you can easily find the right native plant to fit your space. That photo of the Redbud, btw, is just gorgeous!!!

    • Hi Rebecca, Redbud is really a wonderful native tree that is just starting to get planted more in this area. You’re so right that with a little research it’s possible to find a native for any garden situation.

  9. In visiting the native plant section of a local nursery, I was surprised to find some of the plants that have been invading our yard for sale there. It was a mind-altering experience. Now, instead of laboring to eradicate them, I’ll be urging them on.
    While your plants lists don’t apply here, your philosophical musings most certainly do.

    • Ricki, That is interesting. But keep in mind that some native plants can spread very quickly and become a nightmare for gardeners. Not all natives are ready to be in a designed garden setting. Good luck with yours.

    • Robert, I have to admit that my personal gardening style is very hands off/tough love. If a plant is too needy then it typically dies or I give it to a friend who likes to coddle their plants! So, I guess, my native plants are easy and fit right into the way I like to garden.

  10. Thank you for pointing out that using native plants doesn’t mean you have to be exclusive. Even just a couple native trees or shrubs in the landscape makes a difference to the ecology and they look great combined with ornamentals.

    • Marguerite, I do feel that when it comes to native plants, more is better but I can’t imagine having a garden without a few non-natives, too. I know I’d miss my Japanese forest grass for sure!

  11. We have similar approaches. Although I try to incorporate new plants into my palette all the time, over time, I’ve also identified a core group of natives that mingle well (both aesthetically and culturally) with the Mediterranean plants so commonly used in California. Good reminder that the “all or nothing” approach isn’t the only option.

    • Susan, That’s a good point that finding a core group of natives that work in your region is important. Like you, I’d be lost without some of the non-natives that really do look at home here in CT.

  12. I didn’t realize I used so many native plants in my garden until I started visiting the New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods, and their propagation wing Nasami Farm which is right near me. I like native plants because they usually don’t need any babying, but I have non-natives, too. Can’t help myself.

    • commonweeder, I think many of us are surprised by how many natives we do have in our gardens. A few years ago I made of list of all my native plants and was surprised, and pleased, to find that some plants – like smooth hydrangea – are native.

  13. well you know I love my natives and I still have many non-natives int he garden…I have taken out almost all the invasives…I don’t find natives a challenge as long as you find the right plant for the right place as you would any plant…they are just lovely plants after all…

    • Donna, You’ve touched on the other side of the native plant issue – invasives. Probably as important as encouraging native plant use is the idea of promoting the removal of invasives. At this time of the year, it’s a common site to see stands of Japanese knotweed, actually pruned to look like hedges, in many gardens in this area. They go unnoticed until they start to flower and then you see the nightmare just waiting to take over.

  14. You and I made some of the same points this time, the main one being, “Native plants are just plants. They are not fool-proof or no-maintenance.” Great minds…! You are right on about how some native plant gardens could actually scare people off of using natives — too big, too floppy, messy, etc. So I like that you give examples of natives that work particularly well in garden settings in your region.

    • Pam, Great minds, indeed. While native plants are becoming more mainstream, I do think it’s up to those of us who embrace them to point out that they are not all weedy plants that don’t mix well in a regular garden setting.As Rebecca pointed out, with a little research, it’s easy to find the perfect native for any garden.

  15. I especially like how you do not diminish the roles of native plants to one area, while noting how they are a most useful tool to create habitat for all. The sub-topic of PR for native species…yowza!!! Because of the terrible PR of xeriscape, natives, and all based on a total disregard of where I live, I hardly ever use “xeriscape” or “native plant”…and I quickly turn down working with anyone who refuses to get it. Life is way too short beating a dead horse…that’s time better spent turning on those who want to be with using natives with skill!

  16. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing with Native Plants! « Blue Heron Landscapes

  17. Native plants are simply plants… There, now that I’ve repeated, I can say that you’ve summed up the native plant debate quite nicely, with your PR comment. And yes, the purists (who mean well) sometimes get in the way of gardeners exploring the possibilities with native plants. “We” are such a strange species our selves, when we preach, aren’t we?

    Nice to see some of my favorites and the workhorses of our projects here. Tiarella, Panicum, Clethra, all great stuff!!

  18. Pingback: Designing For a Difference: Using Native Plants Effectively | North Coast Gardening

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  23. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing with Natives | Harmony in the Garden

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