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Native Plant Garden 10 Years In: 5 Lessons Learned

The Big Picture.

As this growing season wound down, I realized it was indeed my tenth growing season in this garden. Hard to believe when I have a wish list for next year that is growing by the day! This realization did lead me to step back and reflect, always a fun thing with your garden. Here are five things I have learned.

winterberry shrub with leaves and berries

Plants Need to Settle In

The frequent adage "the first year they sleep; the second year they creep; and the third year they leap" is certainly true for all newly planted perennials, vines, shrubs and trees. More than that though, you really have to wait for plants to settle in before they strut their stuff and every plant is different. Sometimes it's in three years; but often times it might be a bit longer. Sure, newly planted one and two gallon winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) were bulking up and producing berries in their third year but the annual bumper crop of berries didn't happen regularly until the 6th year. Likewise, a 1" caliper fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is just starting to produce a handful of olive size dark blue fruits. In a couple of years, I'll bet that number will grow exponentially. Now that perennial Indian pinks (Spigela marilandica) are five years in, they can easily be moved and or divided with seemingly no impact to their blooms. Amsonia (Amsonia tabernaemontana) are large and blousy and holding fall yellow color in abundance now that they are in their 6th growing season here. I have moved my fair share of plants to different locations thinking that they should be doing better than this but for many, I probably didn't give them enough of a chance.

The Best Screen is a Hedgerow

This garden sits on a busy corner with a four way stop and lots of pedestrians and cyclists. While neighbors cheerfully chattering through creates just the lively atmosphere I desire, I also wanted to screen out the car traffic. In one area, I planted a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. In another, I moved already existing thick ornamental yews to form a naturally shaped hedge. Years in, the hedgerow mix is a delightful kaleidoscope of foliage, flowers and winter interest. The variety of heights allows perennials to be planted in between and the views of the intersection from our first floor windows are long obscured.

The yew hedge is a good 8' tall and completely screens out the street. The effect though is less than desirable. The hedge, even in a natural shape, creates a stark face both inside the garden and for passersby along the sidewalk.

Though both approaches are very effective screens, the hedge is no where near as interesting. This is before you even get to all of the ecological benefits multiple types of plants can provide over just one type of plant.

heuchera 'Autumn Bride' in bloom

The Value of Repeating Plants

Early on, it was quite apparent that Heuchera 'Autumn Bride' did quite well in our soil and light conditions. The low growing perennials grew rapidly and could easily be divided. To begin filling in blank spaces in newly created beds from lawn I divided and planted. Today, those groups of heuchera basically knot the different parts of our small garden together creating a cohesive effect, They also turn out to be evergreen here and bloom in the dryness of late summer when fewer plants do. Not planned but fortuitous. If you have a plant that is doing well, go with it!

coneflowers in bloom

The Easiest Bird Feeders are Plants

In the first five years in this garden, I enthusiastically filled three bird feeders with niger, sunflower and safflower seed in summer and suet in winter. The birds definitely came. And then one summer, I noticed gold finches flitting from one patch of coneflower to another and then out to the street for a third patch and back. It was a side yard runway! I stopped filling the finch feeder that summer and the other bird feeders the following year. At first, I missed the easy and frequent bird sightings at the feeders. Slowly though, I realized those birds are still there; they are just not 'on demand.' I also enjoyed using the time washing and filling the feeders for other things. This spring, I'll free cycle the bird feeders once and for all. Now, I have no expertise on bird feeders and I do read from time to time about the need to help birds over the winter. I just plan to do it with plants: winterberry, hollies, viburnum and the like.

The Best Info Comes From Native Plant Nursery Staff

We have so many, and an ever growing number, of phenomenal sources of native plant information from the Mt. Cuba Center to Dr. Doug Tallamy to Extension Services and Master Gardener Groups and so many more. We have more information about native plants at our finger tips than ever before. To me, hands down, the best source of advice is from the staff at our local native nurseries. This is because they are typically growing from seed or growing on plants themselves and most are also gardeners experienced in our same growing conditions, soils and weather. They are also heavily invested in our success because our success is their success. If you have questions, local native plant nurseries are the best places to get answers!

Happy Winter Solstice.


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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