Gardening with Native Plants: Plant Mixes for Your Garden

Virginia bluebells in Gallistel Woods

Virginia bluebells in Gallistel Woods

February can bring snow, ice, sleet, and wind, interspersed with sun, melting snowbanks, dripping, and a promise of spring to come. Garden tasks include pruning, checking for storm damage and drainage patterns, submitting plant and seed orders, stratifying seed, and ordering tools. In outreach, it is also the season for giving presentations filled with photos of gardens during the growing season.

The Friends of the Arboretum advance order sale  is in progress through Feb 14. In addition to a good selection of trees, shrubs, and ground covers, this sale includes full and half flats of single species, and native plant mixes for different conditions. When selecting your plants, be sure to consider all aspects of your site—size, views, exposure, and shade.

Many home gardens are already shady or have become shadier over time as landscaping and trees mature. The north side of a building will be shadier and moister than other exposures, even if no trees are present there. Shade loving herbaceous plants—such as those in the Forest Garden for Shade Mix, or single species from the woodland wildflowers list—will be best suited for these areas. Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), with large leaves and a cluster of bright red fruits in late summer, will do well in moist shady areas. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) blooms profusely in April and May on medium and moist soils but goes dormant shortly after blooming. Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) can grow on drier to medium soils. Both of these species maintain their leaves after blooming.

For areas that have light shade, the Savanna Garden Mix is a good choice. Species selected for this mix provide blooming throughout the season in medium to dry soils. If a large tree dies or is removed from the garden for other reasons, a savanna mix might be an option. Often, removing only one tree creates a larger area of semi-shade.

South facing sites, especially slopes, will tend to be the sunniest and driest sites. On these sites and in open areas where there is full sun all day, prairie wildflowers will grow best. For dry areas, tall New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae angliae), shorter butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and purple prairie-clover (Dalea purpurea) are suitable. For wetter areas, and even rain gardens, blazingstars (Liatris spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and red milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are recommended. The Bird, Bees, and Butterflies Garden Mix and the Rain Garden Mix include additional species for these sunny sites (on medium soils and wet soils, respectively).

Especially at the scale of home gardens, short native grasses provide texture, color, and wildlife value while leaving sight lines open. Bunch grasses like prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) will all thrive in full sun, and dropseed can also grow in semi-shaded areas.

With February and planting plans underway, the gardeners’ calendar turns toward spring.

–Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener