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Easy Strategies for Adding Native Plants to Your Garden

Getting a plan to plant.

blue mistflower with butterfly close-up
Blue Mistflower

Whether you are new to gardening, a pro with an ornamental garden or nuts for natives it can help to have a strategy for your gardening season. You might want to go all in for ecological benefit this year or be motivated more by aesthetics. Or perhaps this is the year to be pragmatic based on time, budget or life. With any luck, one of these easy strategies for adding native plants to your garden will fit your native plant plans!

Keystone Plants

smooth aster in bloom along sidewalk
Smooth Aster

If you are in the category of wanting to do all you can do for the planet with your garden, keystone plants are the ones for you. Native plant guru Dr. Doug Tallamy has identified a group of special plants. They make up just 14% of all native plants yet support 90% of our caterpillars and specialist bees. These are the superstars of native plants. Dr. Tallamy says "they drive the terrestial food system." In our area, this group includes white oak trees (Quercus alba), river birches (Betula nigra), blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum), woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus), blue wood aster (Symphiotrichum cordifolium) and goldenrods (Solidago), all native plants that are widely available. Here is a detailed list of keystone plants for our eco-region.


Side Garden Showing Layers of Plants from ground covers to tall trees
Layered Garden

If your garden already is mature or has basics like foundation plantings, shrubs and a tree or two, you may wonder what more it can take. This is a question that often arises for homeowners who inherited an ornamental garden. Adding layers is the thing to do. If you want to encourage more birds to your garden without the need for filling bird feeders, adding multiple layers of plants at varying heights is one of the best things you can do.

If you have a tree surrounded by a circle of mulch, perhaps layer in Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) or other shade loving perennials like wild ginger (Asarum canadense), allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), or heuchera (Heuchera americana). If you have a hedge, might you plant a row of perennials flowers in front. If you have a large tree, could you plant one of the fabulous native understory trees like a redbud (Cercis canadensis) or dogwood (Benthamidea florida) nearby. Adding shrubs is also key.

Convert a Patch of Lawn

If you have a lawn, one of the easiest things you can do is convert a part of it to a garden bed. Standard turf lawns are high maintenance and have very low ecological value. No need to dig it up. Cardboard, some ground staples and mulch are all that's needed. Depending on rainfall, you can have a nice area for planting in as little as 30 days. Please go here for more info.

Grow a New Flower Patch

fall blooming native plants purples and white
Blue Mistflower, Boneset & Asters

Select a sunny spot and plant a group of perennial flowers that speak to you. You might focus on choosing a spring, summer and fall blooming perennial to get a long season of blooms. Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis), skullcap (Scutellaria incana), blue hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and smooth asters (Symphyotrichum leavis) make a good combo. Or maybe you want to focus on one season in particular as above?

Plant One Tree or Shrub

Newly Planted River Birch Tree in Spring
River Birch in Spring

If this is your season to be pragmatic, planting one tree or shrub makes a difference! Maybe you have always wanted a dogwood or redbud or something more unusual like a fringe tree. Or perhaps you want to maximize the eco-benefit of your one tree or shrub? If so, the following list from Dr. Tallamy of the top trees for species of caterpillars supported is for yo. Please note trees not recommended for residential use have been omitted.

Oaks (Quercus alba) (supporting over 500 species)

Willow (Salix nigra) (supporting over 450 species)

Cherry, plum or wild plum (Prunus Americana) (supporting over 450 species)

River Birch (Betula nigra) (supporting over 400 species)

Crabapple (Malus coronaria) (supporting over 300 species)

Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) (supporting over 280 species)

Pine (Pinus strobus) (supporting over 200 species)

Another note about planting trees. A number of experts recommend planting small size trees because the root systems establish much more strongly and the tree will be much healthier from the start. A labor and budget saver too!

Choose a Statement Plant

native perennial indian pink in bloom
Indian Pinks

Maybe this is the year to choose one plant that really wows you? Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) or Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica)? You can read more about maypops here and Indian pink here.

Add a Container

simple container of blooming bluebird smooth asters
Asters at Mt. Cuba Center

Containers count. A single container with a single plant can make a difference. Make it a container with a keystone plant, like the smooth asters above, and you have really done something!

If you have a strategy that worked well for you, please do share it. We will all appreciate it. Of course, not everyone wants to garden with a strategy. Freestyle is a lot of fun too!

Happy 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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