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DC, Maryland and Virginia Native Perennials: Natives on a Budget

More plants for less!

potting bench with native seedling trays

Gardening costs can add up, particularly if you lack patience -- a trait I often find elusive! There are several strategies to make your dollar go farther and, alas, they all require some patience but not an inordinate amount.

native plant plugs
Trays of Plugs for Sale at Redbud Native Plant Nursery in Media, PA

Strategy One: Planting Plugs

There is an often quoted gardening adage: in year one, plants sleep. In year two, they creep and in year three they leap! If you plant plugs, you will literally see this in action. I read a study a couple of years back that I unfortunately can no longer locate. It compared the growth rate of perennials planted as plugs to the growth rate of perennials planted from 1 quart containers. By year three, all the plants were the same size. However, the root system of the perennials planted as plugs were more robust than those of the perennials planted as quarts. I have had great success with plugs as have many friends. The plants do seem to establish really well.

The good news is cost effective plugs are becoming more and more widely available. Here is a current list of plug sources, also noted on the "Where to Buy" page. And, while Nuts for Natives does not cover Pennsylvania, if you find yourself up that way, Redbud Native Plant Nursery sells plugs too.

Izel Nursery (mail order)

Prairie Nursery (mail order)

The Pollen Nation (mail order)

Unity Churchill Nursery (Churchill, Maryland)

Strategy Two: Seed Starting with the Easy to Sow and Grow Natives

I am a seed starting novice. Up until very recently, I could not even have imagined trying to grow perennials from seed. It seemed way too complicated and needing patience beyond anything I could muster. Inspired by a reader who sent me the name of her favorite native seed source, I gave it a try.

Many native perennials require cold stratification, meaning to germinate, the seeds need to be exposed to wet or dry cold temperatures for a specific period of time. I focused on three perennials that do not require cold stratification: coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). I also tried one tray of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) which does require stratification.

Back in January, I filled empty plug trays with seed starting mix and planted two seeds in each space; one tray each of coneflower, spotted bee balm, wild bergamot and anise hyssop. Because the anise hyssop needed exposure to cold, I placed all of the trays outside in an area protected from wind but exposed to precipitation. By March, each tray was beginning to show germination. I began watering them once a week until the weather warmed and then began watering daily. A few cells had two seedlings so I removed the weaker one. Once the seedlings developed true leaves, I watered them with an organic liquid seaweed fertilizer once a week for a month but I am not sure fertilizer is necessary.

Mt. Cuba says you can also sow purple coneflower seeds directly in the ground in early spring and that seeds will germinate within several weeks of the soil temperature reaching 60 degrees. It was not necessary to sow the coneflower, bee balm and wild bergamot early in January or to expose them to cold weather, but for simplicity and wanting to avoid having to gauge soil temperatures, I decided to put them all outside in January and let nature take its course.

These trays of seedlings are now ready to plant into the ground. I will plant them in the evening when a couple of days of milder temperatures are forecast to give them a cooler start.

These coneflowers were also started by seed in January but moved from the plug tray to the ground June 1st. That seems to have been a good move as these are now much larger than the plants remaining in trays and can easily be transplanted.

Two months ago, in late April, I planted another round of coneflower seeds. Here is what they look like now. I will keep these in the tray until they grow a bit larger.

All of these plants will likely not bloom in their first year but should bloom next year. I still have more coneflower, spotted bee balm and wild bergamot seeds so I am going to try starting another round of seeds to see if they will grow large enough to plant in the ground before winter sets in. I am not going to plant any more of the anise hyssop until late fall since it needs stratification or cold exposure. I'll update you on progress come fall.

Idelle Fisher, of Pickle-Wix Design and the fabulously talented designer of websites including Nuts for Natives, started her anise hyssop seeds in an Aero Garden and had great results. If you happen to have one of these, it certainly seems a good option.

All in all, about two thirds of my seeds grew into useable plants. The bee balm and anise hyssop did the best and about half of the coneflowers grew into plants. Not bad for the cost of a couple of packets of seeds and what was really a minimal effort. You may want to give this a go! For an authoritative guide to starting native perennials from seed, please check out this from Prairie Nursery.

Strategy Three: Self Spreading Perennials

There are a number of native plants that spread quite well on their own yet are not in the category of impossible to control. Using these plants is a great way to fill your garden. Perennials in this category include spring blooming celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), late spring blooming golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), summer blooming black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida), fall blooming blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and the ground cover three leaf stonecrop (Sedum ternatum).

Of course, when plants find their happy place, they tend to thrive. For me, these plants all spread in a way that is easy to manage: if you don't like their new location, it's easy to move or pull them. In your garden, conditions may be different and plants may be extremely happy and cross into thug territory. Best to keep a close eye on them the first couple of years.

Do you have other perennials you would put in the self sowing category? If so, please share in the comments below.

Patience: it really is one of the most welcome and rewarding lessons of gardening!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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