Design with Natives – Mix It Up!

Before I started focusing on native plants, I had spent 20 years building up a landscape full of plants commonly sold in local nurseries, selected for being low-maintenance and for their colors and shapes.  Some were natives, by chance, but most are non-natives.  I’ve been asked what am I doing with all those plants now that I’m a certified Native Plant Geek?

While I have met gardeners who deliberately root out all their non-native plants, I am not at that point. The basic strategy is that wherever I am creating a new garden space, I predominantly choose native plants, with a goal of having 75% of the plants be natives, especially the woody plants.  The new phlox/tiarella shade garden is an example of this.  And if non-native plants are declining or I am refurbishing an existing bed, I incorporate more native plants wherever possible.   My goal for the older beds is that over the next few years I will build up to about 50% of the plants being natives.  The other 50% will be the non-natives that I especially love, like the iris, some of the daylilies, blue hydrangeas, etc.

From a design perspective, this opens up some interesting possibilities for combinations of native and non-native plants as I incorporate both into the same gardens.  Coming up with eye-catching combinations is the fun part of garden design. For me, this means interesting juxtapositions of form, texture, leaf shape, and bloom color.  Here are some that have caught my eye in the garden recently.


Variegated iris and Canadian anemone (Anemone canadensis)

This combination was a result of the Anemone running wild in the garden bed the year before.  I underestimated how aggressively it would spread, and last fall rooted out as much as I could.  Bits remained, like this plant that came up right in the middle of the iris.  A lovely green, white, and yellow combination that I will try to repeat by keeping the anemone mostly in check.


Beardtongue (Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’) and Lady’s mantle (Achemilla mollis)
Beardtongue (Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’) and Spirea (Spirea japonica ‘Goldflame’)

The Penstemon cultivar, with its dark purple foliage and white blossoms, is planted between two gold plants and provides great little vignettes of contrasting colors.  The penstemon does self-seed, so I am trying to herd the seedlings to cluster around the yellow-foliage plants at that end of the garden, and weed them out elsewhere.


Blue star (Amsonia tabernaculum), Salvia (Salvia ‘May Night’), surrounded by daylily foliage

This is one of my all-time favorite combinations, with two different blue colors and two different flower shapes, in a sea of foliage.  I had hoped they would bloom at the same time when I planted them, and it turned out perfectly.


Bee balm (Monarda didyma ‘Gardenview Scarlet’) with Montauk daisy (Nipponanthemum nipponicum)

Here the interesting combination is the textures of the Montauk daisy foliage with the spiky flower heads of the Monarda.  The Montauk daisy will bloom in September with lovely white flowers.  Although it is from Japan originally, it thrives in the coastal conditions on Cape Cod.


Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with Catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’) and boxwood (Buxus spp.)

Anything paired with orange makes me smile, and this combination of butterfly weed with catmint is no exception.


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