Gardening with Native Plants: Short Gardens

Arboretum Visitor Center in July with blooming native plants

February falls in the middle of winter but often brings early hints of seasonal change – softening ice and snow, more daylight, and warmer winter days. We still have time for garden planning, imagining changes and additions to our gardens, and making plant orders.

This month we explore a common topic for home gardeners: short-stature gardens and gardens for small spaces. Short native plants are easy to grow, allow good sightlines for safety and aesthetics, fill in small areas, and provide habitat. Areas in full sun (more than six hours of direct sun per day) will support short prairie plants. Appropriate areas include south-facing sites around buildings. Southeast and southwest exposures may also be possible – check to see if trees shade the area, including trees in adjoining yards.

Last summer, city foresters removed a neighbor’s large street tree that was growing south of my garden. This created a large area of full sun near my driveway and sidewalk, which will be an ideal place to add short prairie plants around and within an existing bed of larger species that tolerate some shade. It will be interesting to see how (or if) the garden responds to more sun this season. You may have similar opportunities or could convert an area along the street, sidewalk, or driveway that is already in full sun. Consult any city or town guidance for vegetation height for driving or pedestrian sightlines.

Native grasses growing in dry prairie garden.
Dry prairie garden (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

Plant recommendations depend on soil type and drainage in the area. In sites with dry and medium soil moisture, dry prairie bunch grasses like purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), little bluestem (Schizochyrium scoparium), side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) will hold space, remain compact, and bloom in mid- to late summer.

Spring-blooming species include (in order of bloom time) prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens).

Pollinator flowering resources during summer to fall include white and purple prairie clovers (Dalea candida and D. purpurea), stiff coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata), wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), old field goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), and silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum). These species are suitable for sand or gravel gardens and will do well in rock gardens as well.

At the Arboretum native plant garden, visit the dry prairie garden, lime prairie garden, sand prairie garden, and the parking circle garden for inspiration on short stature plantings for full sun. You’ll find further inspiration for a dry prairie garden on the West Knoll in the Arboretum’s Grady Tract, south of the Beltline.

Friends of the Arboretum is offering a dry prairie garden mix in their online plant sale (many other species and mixes can also be ordered). You can place orders now through March 31. Native plant nurseries offer tailored plant mixes and seed mixes to different growing conditions, soils, and other factors (“short and showy,” “street” mix, etc.) or you can order single species as plants or seeds.

Enjoy mid-winter garden planning. In just two or three months (weather permitting), your plans will start coming to life.

—Susan Carpenter, native plant garden curator