Design with Natives: Updates on Recent Plantings

Over the last couple of years I’ve designed and installed several different native-plant garden beds.  As I’ve shared before, sometimes native plants don’t always behave the way you expect when they are in your particular microclimate and soil conditions.  And the designs don’t always work out as nicely in the ground as they do on paper.  In this post I want to re-visit those designs, and share some successes, failures, and lessons learned based on prior Design with Natives posts.

Mini-Meadow on Main

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), July 2020

Can I start with the most spectacular, successful garden?  In 2018 I had the opportunity to design and help install a mini-meadow at the Chatham Conservation Foundation headquarters in downtown Chatham, and posted about the initial installation here.  It has been settling in and growing nicely, but well, this year is amazing.The biggest success is the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).  We planted about 40 1-gallon plants in 2018, and that first year the seedheads scattered all over the meadow.  The second year, we had more plants and lots of monarch butterflies.  This year there were still more plants, and the color is explosively bright.

Mini-Meadow on Main, July 2020

We are also pleased with the wild strawberry (Fragaroides virginiana).  This has spread out to become a great groundcover, suppressing weeds once the leaves come out in May.  It is not taking hold in the areas where people have walked too much and compressed the soil, but otherwise it seems to be co-existing well with the other plants.  We have even had a few strawberries to taste this year!

Among the butterfly weed and wild strawberry are planted a number of billowy grasses, prairie dropseed (Sporobolus hererolepsis).  I’ve heard some people say they can’t get this grass to grow in their yard, but it is working well here and in my own yard. Also there are other plants popping up – spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata), blunt mountain mint (Pycnanthomum mutatum), beardstongue (Penstemon digitalis), Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium), and a couple of volunteers, blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and an unknown reed (Juncus sp.).  We did have one failure – the yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria).  After planting it just seemed to die out within a few weeks.  I’ve since learned that this particular Baptisia dislikes too much water, so we undoubtedly overwatered it.

This meadow is in full sun for almost all of the day, and has ordinary garden soil that used to support typical lawn grass.  It gets relatively low levels of care and maintenance. We mulched the entire meadow in the first year only and have not mulched since.  The lawn grasses still try to grow and there are weeds that need to be pulled, especially in the spring before the rest of the meadow emerges.  We do have irrigation in the ground, which is on periodically in the dry months of July and August; we have added new plants this year so we are still using the irrigation to help them become established.  We should need very little irrigation once the meadow is fully established.  In the fall, we do a partial cut-back, but leave the grasses and some flower stems for interest and overwintering insects, and then complete the cleanup in mid spring once the insects have emerged from their winter habitat.


Woodland Plant Colony

At the other end of the spectrum, a real disappointment, was the phlox garden.  In spring 2019 I cleared out a wild corner of the woodland garden and installed a plant colony of foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and two kinds of phlox (Phlox subulata and Phlox divaricata), backed up by some native shrubs, fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii ‘Mt. Airy’).  See the original post here.

Woodland phlox community just after planting, June 2019

How much has changed in just a year!  At first, the phlox bloomed well, but then kind of disappeared.  I wasn’t sure whether rabbits ate them, they went dormant in the summer heat, or if they actually failed.  This spring I knew – all of the phlox failed.  I’m still not sure why, as the conditions should have been appropriate, but I have heard that this woodland phlox can be very particular about the soil and therefore hard to establish. Most of the foamflower came back up and even expanded a bit.

Also, the large Norway spruce on the left of the photo started leaning dangerously, so we had it taken down.  Now, what was a shady garden under a conifer is a space that gets a lot of morning sun, at least for a few years until a nearby oak tree gets larger and shades out this area again.

Same area of the woodland garden in July 2020, with nary a phlox in sight

In this photo taken in mid-July, you can see all the bare ground where the phlox was planted, the foamflower in various spots, and the stump of the spruce.  On a good note, the shrubs in the background (upper left in the photo) have done well, as have some some ferns planted at their feet,

Some new plants are seen, too.  The plant in the center right with broad triangular leaves is goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus).  I didn’t plant this, it seeded from some goatsbeard about 15 feet away.  Yay!  Also, there are several new shrubs, which are black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata).  My hope is that this shrub will colonize and fill out the space, although I’ve been told it is very slow to spread.  In the meanwhile, I still need to find some groundcovers that will work in the sun – maybe the wild strawberry will migrate into this space.

Side Entry

This design is one that has generally succeeded, but needed some tweaks.  Here, I saw an opportunity to use native plants in a foundation planting, not a  traditional garden bed.  Right by our side entrance is a large pruned yew shrub, and it looked pretty sad sitting there all by itself.  So in the spring of 2019 I decided to put in a multi-textured layer of low plants around its base.

Very sad-looking side entry arrangement, November 2018

The design left the variegated sedge in place and added native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) and bluets (Houstonia caerulea) around it.

New plant ideas superimposed on the baseline photo

In the spring 2019 I trimmed the yew a bit and installed the plants as designed.  A year later, the sedge has expanded and the pachysandra is coming along nicely. Maybe next year they will fill in that front corner between them, but maybe not as that corner is right in the pathway from car to side door.

July 2020, one year after installation

The prairie dropseed and the bluets, however, were both eaten by rabbits – this was frustrating because those exact plants were growing rabbit-free elsewhere in the garden until I transplanted them here. Sigh.  What is now planted in that corner is a barren strawberry.  This is a wonderful ground cover that seems to grow anywhere.  It has a nice yellow bloom in May and the low-growing leafy texture offsets the sedge well.  I will keep maintaining this area, which is easy as all it gets is some supplemental watering in droughts – and see how it expands next year.  There may be room to tuck in a few more plants here, or I may add some flagstone and make it a round bed with a neater edge.  For now, I am happy the goal of more textured interest under the yew has been met.






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