Gardening with Native Plants: Winter Planning

Native plant garden colonnade in snow

Native plant garden colonnade in snow

January is, on average, our coldest month of the year. It may bring significant snow and several days of extreme cold. Gardens are dormant, save for winter resident birds and some animals, including those active under layers of snow and plant material. Plant buds and crowns, seeds, insect life stages, and hibernators await warmer temperatures, increased light levels, or other cues to begin activity and growth. January garden tasks include pruning, checking for storm damage, and planning for changes and additions to plantings.

Spring wildflowers, trees that bloom early in the season, and flowering ground covers will provide signs of spring, color, and floral resources as our gardens and landscapes green up in a few months. Selecting and ordering these perennial plants now will bring early blooms to your garden for years. Native plant nurseries and the Friends of the Arboretum online plant sale are sources for many attractive and easy-to-grow plants. Before selecting new plants, compare your garden’s shade and soil moisture conditions with the recommendations for each species. If you aren’t sure, try a plant that has a wide range of suitable conditions.


For example, prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) will grow well in mesic (medium moisture) to dry soils, but it requires full sun and low competition from larger plants. With its small size, rosette form, and rhizomatous growth, it can become a ground cover in open spaces. Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) grows best in moist to dry-mesic soils, in full sun or light partial shade, forming a groundcover. Blooming and fruit set is most successful in sunnier spots. After flowering, the plants produce runners bearing small plants, forming a colony. Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is suitable for light shade or full sun in moist to dry conditions, and reproduces mainly by seeding in edges and places with some soil disturbance. Without disturbance, this species does not compete well with taller established plants. All three of these species grow well in the cool seasons (early spring and fall) and could be grown together, considering their overlap in growing conditions. These and others are important for pollinators active in early spring.

Wild columbine in bloom
Wild columbine

American hazelnut (Corylus americana) blooms in early spring before leaf-out. It has inconspicuous female flowers on the second-year twigs, and pendulous catkins holding the male flowers. The small wind-pollinated (female) flowers will develop into edible nuts in summer. This shrub is densely branched and 4–15 feet tall. Its leaves and nuts provide good value for wildlife—insects, birds, and small mammals. It can grow in full sun or light shade, moist to dry soil conditions, and loamy to sandy soils, so it is suitable for many sites. American plum (Prunus americana) bears showy fragrant flowers that open before it leafs out. Later in the summer, the ripening fruits turn golden and red. This small tree can be 20–25 feet tall and branches horizontally. It grows well in full to partial sun and mesic soils. Both of these woody species produce suckers around the base of the plant, forming a thicket of stems over time.

The plants described in this article and many more are available through the FOA online plant sale which is open now through mid-March, with curbside pickup in May. Enjoy planning while winter continues in your garden.

—Susan Carpenter, native plant garden curator