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Native Plant Garden 10 Years In: 5 Plant Lessons Learned

The plant details!

side garden and path mid-Atlantic garden
Side Garden in Year 5

2023 was the tenth year gardening in this 1/8 acre corner lot. I started with a mostly blank slate. A lot that, according to neighbors, was once a forest so thick it was hard to see the house. That was cleared with the exception of a few precious native trees when the house was renovated. A few slim beds of ornamentals --  azaleas (Rhododendron), brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla), cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), English ivy (Hedera helix) hellebores (Helleborus), nandina (Nandina domestica), privet (Ligustrum vulgare), solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum) and yews (Taxus baccata)-- were added. These are all hardy, well growing plants that seem to be the mainstays of traditional ornamental landscaping in our area. The first year, I removed the nandina, privet and ivy as those are invasive in the mid-Atlantic. A few of the yews, brunnera and solomon's seal remain. I have added many, many small native trees, shrubs and perennials. Many would say too many for such a small space! Fortunately, the garden is shaped like a seven with a wide space in the front and a long side garden. This 1/8th of an acre is stretched out!

As with any gardening effort there have been successes and failures. Both are such stellar learning opportunities.

Lesson 1: Eastern Red Cedars and Cedar Rust

Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) are magnificent native trees. The tall evergreens have fascinating peeling bark and female trees are loaded with blue cones which look like berries.They self seed in a very manageable way. They support loads of wildlife. This garden fortunately came with 4 eastern red cedars likely planted as a screen long ago. I was thrilled.

In the early years of this garden, I could not wait to plant lots of flower and berry producing trees. In the serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) and hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King') trees went! The young trees started blooming in their first year and white blooms on both were followed by red berries. It was in the second year I began to notice orange threads growing out of those red berries. It is a fungus, cedar-apple rust or cedar-hawthorn rust. I had read about it but really pushed it out of my mind. These rusts infect Eastern red cedar trees and it spreads by wind to trees in the apple family. You guessed it -- such as serviceberry and hawthorn trees. What does this mean? The serviceberries and hawthorns always have beautiful white blooms in late spring. The berries though are often covered in orange threads. They look like small sputniks. The foliage of these trees is also affected. Yellow to dark brown spots appear on leaves as the summer wears on. Some years are worse than others depending on rainfall. It does not, experts say, affect the health of the trees or the usefulness of the berries. It does affect the looks of the trees. I have no plans to remove the trees. it is just something to be aware of.

I researched how far away apple family trees should be planted from Eastern red cedars to avoid this. It sounds like if you can plant the trees in the apple family "several hundred yards" away, chances of cedar rust effects are minimized a great deal. The University of Minnesota also has a list of cultivars of Eastern red cedars that are resistant to cedar-apple and cedar-hawthorn rust. The low growing Juniper 'Grey Owl' is on that list and in our garden, very close to the Eastern red cedars, it has never had a rust.

Still love those cedars, serviceberries and hawthorns!

Lesson 2: Native Pachysandra Gets a Bad Rap

Pachysandra is a phenomenal groundcover or living mulch. If your landscape was planted in the 70s, 80s or 90s you may well have Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis). Native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) is much more interesting with variegated leaf color depending on time of year and those same white spring flowers you are used to with Japanese pachysandra. The bad rap? I have read many times about how slowly native pachysandra grows. I have planted it several times now and while I would say it is in the "first year it sleeps, second year it creeps, third year it leaps" category, it is not the slow plodding turtle it is often made out to be. If you have a shady spot, this is an excellent native groundcover!

Lesson 3: Scrawny, Gangly Plants That Are Worth It

Straight species of native plants have not been cultivated to grow stronger stems or more pleasing shapes. Many times this makes no difference. The straight species is a beautiful plant any gardener would covet. There are a few though that may look very suspect at first. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), hearts-a-burstin (Euonymus americanus) and coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) come to mind.

The thing is the first number of years, and it can be five or six years, the plant is not a stunner. Once they mature though, the berry or seed production really kicks in and that beauty overcomes spindly stems and gangly architecture. This can be hard to remember when you are looking at quart size pot with literally a few sticks at the nursery!

Lesson 4: Heucheras

Living Wall of Heuchera at the Sydney Botanical Garden
Living Wall Heuchera Cultivars: Sydney Botanical Garden

The number of cultivars of heucheras out there is astounding. Before I understood cultivars that change the color of native plant foliage are less likely to have good ecological value for insects, I planted a number of heuchera cultivars to add color: some with blue and some with caramel colored foliage along with heuchera 'Autumn Bride,' (Heuchera villosa 'Autumn Bride'), a cultivar that does not alter foliage color and the straight species, American alumroot (Heuchera americana) . What I have realized over the years is cultivars with changed foliage colors are fairly short lived. Some lasted a season or two and some three of four, but the ones that are still going strong are the Heuchera 'Autumn Bride' and American alumroot. A lot has been written about this and Mt. Cuba did a trial of various heucheras if you want to check for their results on your favorite cultivar. A couple of years back, I decided to only plant American alumroot or "Autumn Bride' moving forward. I have also come to greatly appreciate the naturally occurring variation in the leaves of American alumroot.

Lesson 5: Straight Species Native Honeysuckle is the Best

Straight Species Native Honeysuckle on a Topiary Form
Straight Species Native Honeysuckle on a Topiary

One of the first things I knew I wanted to do in this garden was to cover the extensive border fence with oodles of flowering vines. Native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) was my first choice. In my experience, it was easy to grow, a hummingbird magnet, blooms in sun or part shade and produces bright red berries in fall. Low and behold, I could not find the straight species anywhere that year. I did find a cultivar called 'Major Wheeler' (Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler'). Described as a cultivar of native honeysuckle with even more intense color of blooms. I planted a dozen quart sized plants and waited. With honeysuckle you don't have to wait too long and by the second year, the vines were flowering. The flowers came in March and had more intense red color. A couple of years in I came to learn the differences between Major Wheeler and the straight species in our garden.

Major Wheeler has an early, very dense flush of almost red red blooms. A very welcome thing after the winter. The repeat blooms during the summer are quite infrequent in our garden. This cultivar also rarely produces berries in our garden. I quickly planted straight species honeysuckle in the gaps. The straight species has a much paler color which seems to fit better with the native plant color palette in spring. It frequently re-blooms through summer and into late fall and produces the crimson berries I was used to with the straight species. All in all, the straight species seems like a much better fit for our garden.

Native Honeysuckle Berries straight species
Native Honeysuckle Berries

Do you have lessons learned from plants in your garden? Please do share!

Happy Wintering.


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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