Not long ago I had one of those “aha” moments. I was stressed out trying to figure out how to approach designing with native plants – what process to go through, how to bring in the myriad ecological and design factors, etc. Then I realized it was way simpler than I had thought – I didn’t need a methodology, I just needed to sit down and actually design some garden spaces, and I would figure out what approach worked for me by just doing it. So this post begins a series of design exercises, where I have picked out a real-life garden space, like this neighbor’s front entryway. In each post I will go through my thought process as I come up with at least one design using mostly/all native plants, show a mock-up of the design, and try to summarize any lessons learned.
To me, this front entryway has a lot of potential. It is seen from the street, so when fully planted can add to the street-scape, and it can provide a welcoming element to the otherwise plain front of the house. Normally you’d expect this space to be full of hostas, but in this exercise the goal is to use exclusively native plants. The aesthetic goals of the design would be: make this an all-year area of interest, especially from spring to fall; soften the space with lots of green and textural plantings. Color would be a bonus.
Ecologically, this is clearly a shady space, but the house faces southwest so there is good light. The space more than likely has sandy, acidic soil, probably well-drained, but there are also going to be tree roots to contend with. I would add a couple of inches soil (a sandy loam) to help plants get established without competing too much with the tree roots for moisture.
This space is reminiscent of a woodland edge – sure there is just one tree and a shrub, but it has good light from the open driveway. Woodlands and woodland edges on the Cape are often trees with a very low herbaceous layer (often blueberries and black huckleberries). We can echo that by an overall design concept of low-growing herbaceous plants between the tree and the stone border.
This leads to the plant list. I’d be looking for plants that are low, relatively shallow-rooted and tolerant dry shade and thin soils. Plants that require rich woodland soil would not work here, but plants that could tolerate an occasional soaking from that downspout would be good. From various lists of plants*, I culled down to the following as potential candidates:
- Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
- Barren strawberry (Geum fragarioides)
- Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadensis)
- Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata)
- White wood aster (Euribia divaricata)
- Low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
- Lady fern (Anthyrium angustum)
- False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum)
Design Option 1
I have been captivated recently by spaces that involve masses of three different plants of contrasting textures, shape, and color. These plantings are dramatic and because of the contrast can highlight the features of the plants. Here are a couple of professionally designed examples**:
To create this kind of design in this space, I would need three plants of contrasting texture, each of which would closely fill up its space and would not be too aggressive with the other plants. Going through the list, I would eliminate Canada mayflower, white wood aster and False Solomon’s seal because they are not reliably dense in their growth patterns. The phlox and blueberry might work, but the three whose texture I like the best in combination are the barren strawberry, Pennsylvania sedge, and lady fern.
They would be arranged in the space with the barren strawberry up front, as the lowest, then the sedge, with the lady fern around the back. The planting will be relatively low, 12-18”. Barren strawberry is evergreen, and the sedge will have a presence all year (although brown in winter). Here’s what it might look like:
I like this a lot, especially since the lines of the plantings follow the lines of the stone border. Also, it uses two plants not often seen in home landscapes, the sedge and the barren strawberry. It would be simple to care for – cut down the ferns in the spring, make sure it is mulched until the plants fill in, water for the first year and in droughts, and this planting should provide lots of interest. Over time, the sedge may expand and put pressure on the other plants, so dividing and thinning the sedge periodically will keep the composition balanced and allow the other plants to survive.
Design Option 2
What if you wanted a design that would have a lot more variety in it? That would mean using at least 6 of the plants, and maybe all 8 of them. Such a design could look cluttered; people generally like their designs to be easy to grasp, so this needs some internal plant organization.
I would start by anchoring the corners with key plants – say the barren strawberry in the front corner and the blueberry in the back next to the house. Between the two would go one more type, say the phlox, alternating with more barren strawberry for visual continuity.
Behind this front row would go different shaped groups of Pennsylvania sedge, white wood aster, and False Solomon’s seal. Ferns could go at the back, and the Canada mayflower would be a ground layer running throughout. It might look like this:
I like this a lot, too. It feels like a bit of exuberance within a well-defined stone edge. The barren strawberry and the phlox both bloom in spring, which would be lovely, while the white wood aster blooms in late summer. Everything here will die off in winter except for the barren strawberry, the brown blades of the sedge, and the stems of the blueberry. As in the other design, this will require mulch and watering until the plants fill in, a fall or spring cut-back, and ongoing watering in droughts. Over time, the sedge, False Solomon’s seal, Canada mayflower and sedge may expand and move around. I would welcome that but watch out for the sedge starting to crowd out other plants.
This design has a different feel than the first option – looser, more naturalistic like a woodland floor, lusher with many different textures, less drama, less obviously designed. Both designs capture the feel of a woodland edge with low herbaceous perennials and while both work, it’s a matter of your aesthetic.
The sequence of steps that I used to write up these designs was pretty much the same as I used in creating them, except that I did a lot of iterating especially on the design goals. I suspect that will always happen since you always have more insight as you go deeper into the design, but I would try to fully articulate the goals as early in the process as you can.
Design goals are critical. For native plantings, it’s required to have both a well-defined set of aesthetic goals, but also a well-defined set of ecological goals. Native plants are mostly not generalists, but specialists, so the characteristics of the habitat need to be carefully observed and incorporated into the ecological goals.
You definitely can achieve different aesthetic goals using the same small palette of native plants. Arrangement is key, as is considering the lines created by the arrangement, the contrast of textures and differing bloom times.
Well-defined edges are your friends, perhaps even required in a planting that has a lot of variation and contrast in it. People like edges – I noticed this in my own yard that when I lay down some thin logs to define the pathway through my woodland garden, it became much more inviting.
I use multiple sources to create plant lists and am always looking for more sources. For this exercise, I used:
- Native Plants for New England Gardens by Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe
- Missouri Plant Finder
- Plant lists from various classes
I have seen the ferns, sedge, phlox and barren strawberry at nurseries on Cape Cod, and would expect that Garden in the Woods in Framingham MA to stock most of these plants in the spring.
The left and upper right photos were taken at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden in Boothbay ME, and the lower right photo was taken at the Heritage Gardens in Sandwich, MA.