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Native Plant Gardens: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Returning after two weeks away.

monarda and scutellaria lateriflora in bloom
Bee Balm and Blue Skullcap flowers

I often think of the balance between the reality of gardens and the close-up photos of the dreamy plants I hope will inspire. I have three nieces who each use social media in different ways. They often talk about being real as opposed to staged, filtered and perfect. To encourage us all to plant more native plants, I always want to show photos of how beautiful the plants are, typically when they are blooming, robust and thriving. While I never use any filters on photos, I do want things to look good.

Just as my nieces remind me, the reality is plants don’t always look their best. They have peaks and valleys. I was starkly reminded of this upon returning home after two weeks away. Since native plants are adapted to our region and climate, I did not ask our awesome neighbors to water anything other than a few tomatoes when we left.

While gone, the cool rainy spring gave way to heat, high humidity and threatening but seldom materializing thunderstorms. The garden was pretty crispy. This gave me pause as I consider most of our garden to be low maintenance (with a few exceptions). There was nothing happening that a good soaking rain wouldn’t fix but it was also a learning opportunity. Which plants fared well and which looked mightily sad? These clues tell us whether a plant is in the right place or, sometimes, whether it belongs in the garden at all. I'm sharing some of the good, the bad and the ugly in case these clues help with your garden.

First the good! Sun loving perennials like blue star amsonia (Amsonia hubrichtii), bee balm (Monarda), coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), mountain mints (Pycnanthemum virginianum and Pycnanthemum muticum), phlox (Phlox paniculata), blue skullcaps (Scutellaria incana) and white obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) and perennials and ground covers for shade such as culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum), dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata), blue wood sedge (Carex flaccosperma), Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) and seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea) were thriving. Established inkberries (Ilex glabra), elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis), oak leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) and winterberries (Ilex verticillata) were also just fine.

The bad:

Newly planted possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum), wild hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) and winterberries were all suffering. Even those in shade. Newly planted plants need weekly watering. The conventional advice is to water weekly for the first year. I find that when planting beneath or near mature trees, it's really two years of watering that's needed. New plants are competing with already well established trees and other plants. They need the help to get their root systems established.

Our Virginia creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) ran away. If you grow this along a wall or as a ground cover, two weeks would likely not be a problem. However, my maintenance heavy plan to grow it along a fence needs weekly pruning during the growing season, not for everyone!

And the ugly:

allegheny spurge

Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), oh my. The tree above the pachysandra lost a huge branch over the winter and the extra sun is too much for this pachysandra. Even though it only gets a few hours of sun a day, it needs to be moved to a shadier location.

The ugliest of the ugly – the beautiful wild passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata) I must move to a container to, well, contain went absolutely crazy. Numerous underground runners pop up and climb about two feet a day it seems. They are really easy to pull out but, wow, did they take advantage of those two weeks. It took ten minutes to pull the twenty(!) or so new sprouts but please, please plant this fabulous flowering vine in a container. You will not regret that decision!

As for the two weeks away and the need for a soaking rain, I gave in the day after I got home and got out the hose, giving a deep watering to the newly planted. And then, three hours later, an all night soaking rain arrived ...

This reminded me of advice from native plant gardener Ashley in Towson. When I toured her garden, she said if it starts getting dry, she always waits two weeks before watering, and that she rarely has to water and the plants do fine. I counted. I watered on the 13th day. From now on, I am following Ashley's advice!

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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