I hear it again and again: folks think that natives are boring, that they have a short bloom season, that their foliage is dull; in short, that you’d have to be some kind of environmentalist zealot to want to garden with native plants.
We’ll set aside the arguments for supporting biodiversity and feeding local birds and bugs, and just argue from an aesthetic perspective for a moment. When you go on vacation to a place that touches your soul, is it the McBurger you remember? The Home Depot you passed?
The things that make a region different are what make our experience there special. Doesn’t it make sense to honor our lives in an area by gardening with plants that reflect that difference?
Gardening with natives deepens our connection to the surrounding area. As garden blogger Town Mouse points out, when you grow natives in your own garden, going out among plants in nature is like meeting friends! The “green blur” of the natural world is replaced with specific plants that you know and understand.
But all that doesn’t tackle the big reason we don’t plant natives, which is we think natives are ugly and boring.
Let’s tackle the ugly first:
If I see another person plant woodland natives in full sun and then neglect them, because “native plants don’t need any care in the wild”… Guys, they are native, not plastic, and your garden bears little resemblance to most plants’ original homes.
Just take a few minutes to learn about the needs of each plant and discern which would be the best choices for your garden and what kind of care they each prefer.
Some plants will go dormant in summer but come back fresh with the rains. Other plants will stay lush all year given regular garden conditions.
Healthy plants are rarely ugly, and good planning can ensure a garden full of year-round interest. In short, if your native plant garden is ugly, you’re doing it wrong.
Now, let’s tackle the boring:
My number one tip here?
Stop being such a dashed purist.
Many native plant enthusiasts give the impression that planting anything but natives is bad, even shunning selected varieties of natives that offer the same benefits to nature but have a more pleasing flower or foliage color.
I get that part of biodiversity is keeping the original strains of plants alive and well. That’s important.
But actually growing native plants is important too, and if we’re brutally honest, the majority of us don’t want an all-native garden. If it comes down to an all-or-nothing decision, the natives lose.
We want a garden that attracts birds and bugs, and respects the plants and themes that make our region special, but we also want to have our own personal touch and not just imitate nature. So how do we create a garden that balances both?
Use the attributes of natives as a starting point for your design themes.
When you’re pairing plants or choosing themes for your garden, you look at flower color and shape, the shape and color of leaves, and the form of a shrub or grass. Think about what is special about the natives from your region and amplify their traits by using plants from other regions that carry those themes through the garden.
For example, Cornus sericea is the lovely red-twig dogwood native to the Pacific Northwest. The glowing red twigs in winter can be carried through the garden with a Coral Bark Japanese Maple. Same glowing red branches in winter, but you also get the lime-green maple foliage in spring and the bright yellow color in fall.
On a similar note, many of the evergreen California and Pacific Northwest natives have deep green leaves and burgundy-red new stems, like Arctostaphylos uva-ursi/ Kinnikinnick, Vaccineum ovatum/ Evergreen Huckleberry, and Gaultheria shallon/ Salal.
You can either echo the same burgundy-red stems and foliage color with plants like Arbutus unedo/ Strawberry Tree, or you can choose one element to play off of – like planting something with reddish-purple foliage next to those burgundy stems to make the stem color stand out more strongly.
Flower color’s an easy way of echoing the beauty of a native. CA native Mimulus aurantiacus/ Sticky Monkey Flower has the exact orange tones found in Kniphofia ‘Bee’s Sunset’/ Bee’s Sunset Red Hot Poker, and the Kniphofia brings a nice contrast of verticality to the round shrubby shape of the Mimulus.
The form of a plant can also be echoed through the garden, bringing natives and non-natives together. A bold Dicksonia antarctica/ Tasmanian Tree Fern can help a grouping of native ferns in the foreground feel like an integral design element, rather than an afterthought. Try the natives Blechnum spicant/ Deer Fern and Polystichum munitum/ Western Sword Fern.
Maybe you’ve always been a sucker for the regal formality of boxwood hedges surrounding a riot of blooms? Well, who says you can’t use a gorgeous Ribes sanguineum ‘Album’/ White Flowering Currant as a centerpiece in the bed, and vibrant Penstemon heterophyllus/ Foothill Penstemon and Eschscholzia ‘Apricot Chiffon’/ Apricot Chiffon California Poppy with your rose display?
Don’t think of natives as having to be arranged just as they are in nature. Natives can lend themselves to all styles of gardening. Indeed, I read in a Japanese garden design book recently that the Japanese garden aesthetic would include elements special to the region in which the garden is growing – native plants, naturally-occurring rock from the area, structures and benches made from wood grown and worked in the area.
The time has come for a regional sensibility in garden design, and the cookie cutter landscapes promulgated by HGTV and the selections at the big box stores are losing their appeal in favor of gardens thoughtfully created to reflect the best of the region and their owner’s personality.
Thanks so much to Scott Hokunsen who coordinated this Garden Designer’s BlogLink. Want to read more? Check out what these talented designers have to say about regional diversity in design:
Jocelyn Chilvers (Wheat Ridge, CO) at The Art Garden
Susan Cohan/Susan Cohan Gardens (Chatham, NJ) at Miss Rumphius’ Rules
Michelle Derviss/Michelle Derviss Landscape Design (Novato, CA) at Garden Porn
Tara Dillard (Stone Mountain, GA) at Landscape Design Decorating Styling
Dan Eskelson/Clearwater Landscapes (Priest River, ID) at Clearwater Landscapes Garden Journal
Scott Hokunson/Blue Heron Landscape Design (Granby, CT) at Blue Heron Landscapes
Susan L. Morrison (San Francisco Bay Area) at Blue Planet Garden Blog
Pam Penick/Penick Landscape Design (Austin, TX) at Digging
Laura Schaub/Schaub Designs Fine Gardens (San Jose, CA) atInterleafings
Susan Schlenger/Susan Schlenger Landscape Design (Charlottesville, VA) at Landscape Design Advice
Ivette Soler/(Los Angeles, CA) at The Germinatrix
Rebecca Sweet/Harmony in the Garden (San Francisco, CA) at Gossip in the Garden