Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing with Native Plants!

Ask a dozen homeowners, or 20 or even 50, if they would like a garden of native plants, and you get a vast array of answers; “Yes I love having pollinators visit!” “Oh, I don’t have the right setting for that…” “My neighbors would never approve.” “What do you mean, like weeds?” It seems that when talking native, plants are automatically relegated to certain predispositions, too bad, because there’s more to native plants than meets the stereotype!

Here to shatter the myth that native plants are just a bunch of weeds loved only by tree huggers and liberal fruitcakes, are some beautiful stars of the garden. Plants that work well in many settings, doing the double duty of feeding the native pollinators, and winning over even the primmest of taste buds.

You may recognize many of these, but did you know they are native plants?

Very few trees can rival the amazing bark of Heritage River Birch. Able to tolerate wet soils, but widely adaptable, this moderate tree will garner many stares when placed near a walk or patio. Fall brings a wonderful yellow glow to the foliage, and the winter silhouette it very striking.

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

Heritage River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Cully’)

Does anybody not like the cheery aura of Black-eyed Susan. One of the most recognizable flowers of late summer, this native works well in both formal and informal settings, and is a long bloomer!

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

Black-eyed Susan (Rubeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’)

Another very recognizable native, is White Flowering Dogwood. It’s clean white bracts will brighten up a shadowy woodland edge, or star in the frame created by window pane. Later in the season bright red berries appear, enticing robins to bring their rhythmic call to the garden.

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

White Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Can you imagine a lovelier face staring at you from the middle of the perennial border? Rose Mallow, standing near five feet tall, does just that. At five inches across, the blossoms are visible from great distances in the garden, and are often filled with pollinators.

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

There isn’t much color in the garden as autumn turns to winter, unless of course you have a plant that berries like Winterberry Holly. As leaves fall from tree and shrub, it’s just beginning it colorful display. Prized by both birds and floral arrangers alike, Winterberry Holly will put a smile on your face, when the rest of the garden has turned brown.

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)

The next three photos, are from the parking lot of Cabella’s Outfitters in East Hartford, Connecticut. Outdoor stores, have long been the place to find native plants. Seems natural to use native plants to recreate the atmosphere their customers prize most, the wild back country.  I wonder how many explorers see the great beauty in these plants and include them in their gardens.

Little Bluestem is a grass found throughout the country. It’s upright habit and bluish-green blades add a wonderful architectural element to the garden. In fall the foliage turns red-orange, echoing the color high in the canopy.

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

Little Bluestem Grass (Schyizachyrium sscoparium cv.)

You might recognize Eastern Redcedar, from the highway median, or from a hike through a meadow transitioning to forest, but have you ever considered it as a specimen in the garden. These cultivars rival the most handsome specimens of Hinoki Cypress, but will tolerate a wider range of conditions. Not bad for a plant whose berries are used to make Gin!

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana cv.)

Here you can see three of our plants in the same shot.

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

Little Bluestem Grass (foreground), Eastern Redcedar and Heritage River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Cully”), in the background.

The picture was taken at “The Holy Land”… Dunkin Doughnuts. Switch Grass is another species found throughout the U.S., and lately has been rising in popularity thanks to new cultivars that produce beautiful foliage. This specimen, which I think is ‘Ruby Ribbons’, is the reddest of the Panicums. It seems to pull the red right from the ordering kiosk, doesn’t it?

"Scott Hokunson" "Blue Heron Landscape Design"

Red Switchgrass (Panicum virginianum cv.)

So, there you have it. Several examples of native plants, and not a weedy sot in the whole bunch. It’s time to consider native pants in your garden, yes for their value to pollinators, yes to preserve native species as global economies bring in more and more exotics, but perhaps more importantly, because they are beautiful!

What do you think, have I convinced you to try more native plants in your garden?

After leaving a comment to tell me your thoughts on native plants, please visit my fellow Roundtable members, to see what they think of “Designing with Native Plants”.

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

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

24 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing with Native Plants!

  1. Scott, As a proud ‘tree hugger’ I must admit I almost spit out my coffee when I read the holy land comment! But seriously, your examples of native plants for Connecticut (and NE) gardens are all so easy to incorporate into home gardens. I do like the way new retail establishments are embracing native plants I’m noticing the same thing down here in Stamford.

  2. You’ve highlighted some of my favorite plants here — I adore the Winterberry Holly. Right now the berries on mine are just starting to blush red and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to look at it.

    I do have one VERY important question, though…. WHY DON’T WE HAVE DUNKIN DONUT DRIVE THRUs HERE IN VIRGINIA??? Clearly we are still living in the middle ages down here if we are expected to park and WALK in order to purchase our pastries.

  3. ha – holy land! I’m sure the designer was thinking “now, how can I emphasize that kiosk focal point. Hmmmm…I know! Red Switchgrass!” But seriously – great post, as usual. I’m so jealous of your beautiful native River Birch – what a beauty!!

  4. All nice plants & there are many more. A caveat from a southern Maine gardener re River Birch. As with virtually all birches, they collapse under heavy snow or ice load – more so than oaks, maples, etc. I had a beautiful single trunk RB about 15′ tall ( 7″ caliper) that completely bent over with the tip frozen in the snow. I straightened it and cabled it to the ground. The following year it pulled the anchor out of the ground and bent over again. I cut it down. BTW, I don’t like the triple-trunk RBs. To me they have become a cliche. I also question the three-trunk’s attractiveness in advanced age when they lose their exfoliating bark.
    Love natives – try Gillenia trifoliata as a massing perennial. Google it.

    • Thanks Bob! Snow damage is a bummer with these birch, I agree, and you are right triple stems have become cliche, but sometimes that happens for a reason. I still love the the clump form. I’ll give Gillenia a looksee!

  5. But you were just at Dunkin Donuts to take the picture, right?

    Nice selection! Your post is also a good reminder that planting at least some native species is one of the best ways to give a garden some regional character. Dogwoods mostly suffer from the heat and lack of humidity here, but people plant them anyway. I’d much rather visit them in a place where they WANT to be.

  6. We really are lucky to have so many amazing natives…I always find it amusing that the English/Europeans seemed to figure it out before we did ;-)

  7. Ha, I’ve been admiring the native landscaping at a local McDonald’s — I should take pictures. I can just say, Scott would! You’ve highlighted some beautiful natives for your region. I wouldn’t mind having a few of those in my garden. Happily I can grow little bluestem!

  8. I love all native plants, especially those from Australian, South African , the U.S. and South America !
    I’ve been asked to design a ‘California coastal integrated’ landscape out at the beach and try as I might, I couldn’t help popping in some succulents from Mexico, a few leucadendrons from South Africa and some ground covers from Spain. For me its just too hard to be a purist. We are installing quite a few California natives too, but to keep the ‘weedy’ look down , a fair amount of horticultural treats are needed for the other 9 months of interest.
    A California native garden by mid summer can be rather depressing unless you like the color of straw and the texture of dessicated twigs , that’s why I like to mix it up a little with a bit of both native and non-native.
    I guess I have a open immigration policy.
    Horticulturists without Borders.

    • HA! I love it!! Spoken like a true lover of aesthetics! I was a little worried that the title this month might imply purism, but truth be told, most gardens are best served with an “open immigration policy”, the right time and place for everything.

      Thanks for comments Michelle, and BTW, I’m stealing some of your phrasing here! :-)

  9. Your initial questions need to be restated every interaction, notably by us designers! My region is so unsophisticated as to where they are, that the resultant knowledge of their natives, would have them looking at your natives…and most are foreign (river birch)…that’s the main part of customizing this topic. One’s local (and low-water-use) natives are the foundation. Your imagery of the New England donut temple area, and the use of such plants, nails this down well. Right to the varied heights and contrasts / forms. (most of the native-phobes in practice or general public would not know what hit them!)

    Michelle D’s thoughts are mine, tho I still maintain local sense of place first, then regional, then others. It’s all good, if it likes it and is used well.

  10. I too look at the natives being planted in CT parking lots! I have photographed many of them, luckily being there at the right time for the light to be coming through the grasses. I saw the most beautiful Itea specimens last year in a strip of dry, awful parking lot border soil and they were thriving. Unfortunately this year the landscape trimming crew came in and sheared them into round balls in spring, completely ruining the natural shape and cutting off the June flowers. One step at a time-at least the plants are native, now we need pruning classes!

    • Yes, step by step the public is being introduced to native plants, and some they already know. I’m afraid we won’t ever conquer the “meatball” pruning technique. It’s been entrenched in the landscape industry to long. but we can hope can’t we?

      Thanks for the comments Diane!

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