Native Planting Design: Sunny Slope, Low Maintenance & Big Punch of Fall Color

Bayberries, oak leaf hydrangeas, gro-low sumacs and a redbud. Simple.

oak leaf hydrangeas bayberries fall color

I was walking our dogs past a ball field near where I live and did a double take at this garden bed. The colors were powerful! And the simplicity of it.


Bayberry, oak leaf hydrangea, gro-low sumac and a redbud. All easy to grow natives. All usually available at garden centers. All low maintenance. There is nothing ordinary about this garden design come fall though.

native lo grow sumacs bayberries

Bayberries (Morella pensylvanica) at the back provide a dark green background for the colorful plants in front -- a great technique for highlighting flowers or foliage. The dark background makes the color of the plants in front pop!

Bayberries are shrubs that can grow to 15 feet tall but 10 feet is more the norm. They thrive in acidic soils but tolerate neutral soils as well. The farther south they are, the more likely they are to retain their leaves all winter. The shrubs are loosely shaped and their size and mass make a great screen or backdrop. Plus those white berries on female plants are very interesting! To get the berries, you will need a male and female plant.

The next layer to the front is oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). The range of fall color from purple to mahogany to orange is always a sight. Not to mention, these easy to grow shrubs have gently peeling bark in winter and panicle flowers in summer.

sunny slope garden for fall color

The lowest layer is a smaller cultivar of native fragrant sumac, Gro-Low sumac (Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low'). This low growing sumac will spread in width but does not grow taller. In spring, plants have small yellow catkins or clusters of flowers depending on whether male or female. They develop green foliage for summer and this deep orange foliage in fall. This easy to grow shrub is often recommended for stabilizing slopes. It does just quite well on flat ground too. I have one growing in part shade and it grows well though the fall color is not quite as intense.


These shrubs are currently available by mail from Direct Native Plants.

sunny slope full sun native plant garden with stunning fall color

The multi-trunked redbud is an orange punctuation point to this garden! This may be a cultivar of redbud but the straight species (Cercis canadensis) would also work. The small tree carries the orange color and your eye up and out. Autumn Brilliance service berry (Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance' ) which get great orange fall color would be another option.


There are many tips we can take from this garden. Low maintenance plants for one thing. The only maintenance I can foresee is that happy, well established Gro-Low sumacs will spread. Here, there is a bit of room to the front of the bed and the lawn should keep it contained. Other than watering during the first year of planting, this looks pretty low maintenance.


All of these plants have similar water requirements once established and should be good to go without supplemental watering.

Each plant in this bed has a different leaf shape -- from heart shaped leaves of the redbud to lobed leaves of oak leaf hydrangeas to small uniform oval leaves of the bayberry, each one is different. This creates textural contrast - an oft recommended design technique.


The heights of plants are graduated from high in the rear to low in the front. This is a classic planting design. Adding a dark green shrub in the back provides a canvas for the rest of the plants in front to show off their colors.


I was not able to figure out who designed this space so I don't know if the fall colors were intentional but wow. Nice work to whoever you may be! Simply stunning.

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.