How to Make Your Region’s Plants Pop

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.

Ceanothus and Cryptomeria
Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ and golden Cryptomeria

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

20 responses to “How to Make Your Region’s Plants Pop”

  1. I’m so glad to see you showed a photo of the gorgeous Ceanothus! And I love that you touched upon so many native plants that are so incredible in our area…you’re absolutely right about ‘they’re native – not plastic’! I must have to ‘steal’ that phrase one of these days….

    Beautiful job, Gen, and I’m sure you’ve inspired many to re-think the use of natives in their gardens!
    .-= rebecca sweet´s last blog ..Garden Designer’s Bloglink: Celebrating Regional Diversity – Silicon Valley style! =-.

  2. I don’t usually Blog about Garden Design however often clients insist we carry the inside design philosophy to the outside and either plan it to be consistent or work closely with a landscape designer (often one we bring to the mix) ~ In September 09 I wrote about designing a landscape specifically for the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, on my Inclined To Design Blog.

    It may be of interest to your readers:

  3. Genevieve, Great job. Excellent information on and suggestions of natives, and with just the right amount of attitude! Susan is right, you really captured the native fearing masses. With ambassadors such as yourself, its only a matter of time before the mainstream hop on board.

  4. “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?” Yes, yes, yes!

    I love this post, and I’m glad to know that incorporating natives into the garden (but never in a purist, all-or-nothing way) is becoming popular in the Pacific NW too. Using natives is hugely popular here in Austin, where drought and hot summers and water shortages have forced many regular folks to realize that big, thirsty lawns and shade-loving exotics are not going to be happy here without a lot of intervention and money. We’re fortunate to have many great independent nurseries that offer native and well-adapted plants, and a city program (Grow Green: ) that educates the public about water-wise planting.

    Now for designers to show how effectively natives can be mixed in with other plants in a residential garden setting. Posts like yours are showing the way.
    .-= Pam/Digging´s last blog ..Garden Designers Bloglink: Regional Diversity in Design =-.

  5. Gen,

    I enjoyed reading your post and hearing about your CA native plants. I especially liked your comments about not having to plant all natives, something that many people seem to feel is necessary. I have been using natives in my garden here in CT for years (way before it was fashionable) but I chose them because they thrived in the difficult growing conditions I have in some areas of my garden, not necessarily because they were natives. The fact that they’re natives is just a bonus!
    .-= Debbie´s last blog ..Red Majestic Corylus =-.

  6. Gen, you are singing a great song in a perfect key!(does that make sense?)

    I LOVED when you said “Stop Being Such A Danged Purist!” (okay you said dashed) – because I think the all or nothing native zealots do their cause such a disservice! You showed us exactly the fresh way to garden with natives – weave them in, use them as a starting point, enjoy them for the sense of place and continuity they give! Natives are a really important part of gardening, but they have such an unsexy reputation! Thank you showing us that they can be used with attitude… loved this post.

    That Ceonothus/Cryptomeria combo makes my mouth water!
    .-= Germi´s last blog ..Garden Designers BlogLink: Celebrating Regional Diversity, or – “If You’re Not In The Climate You Love, Love The Climate You’re In !!!” =-.

  7. Wow. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t kiss and tell with natives in my plans–for all of the reasons you suggest! If a client is interested, then YES I’ll rave about them, but if not I use them and just don’t say anything! I hope this is changing in my region…it seems so much more accepted in others. Thanks for an inspiring post.

  8. Rock on, girl! I agree with Germi that native-only purists can be a pain in the arbutus. A while back I was talking enthusiastically about my beautiful Cercis occidentalis ‘Forest Pansy’ and one such puritan asked what was wrong with our native C. canadensis? And I said nothing that huge purple heart-shaped leaves wouldn’t cure! Bravo, Gen, a very well-written and educational post. I tuck many of our lovely natives in gardens that I design, and feel quite virtuous doing so. Thanks for sharing!
    .-= Laura Livengood Schaub´s last blog ..Garden Designers BlogLink: Design Drawing Diversity =-.

  9. Great insight into why natives are looked down upon. What a wonderful post and advice as to how to include them in a landscape design successfully. Working in Virginia, I am not familiar with some of the plants you mentioned, but I can truly imagine how you create very exciting gardens!

  10. Hi Gen,
    I agree with your viewpoint of integrating native plants with other plants as an ideal way of attracting wildlife and admiration for your garden!

    It doesn’t have to be “all native” or nothing. My garden is a blend of natives and Mediterranean plants.

    I enjoyed your presentation.

    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report

  11. I use a mix of pass along plants & natives. Your post makes me realize I should use a higher percentage of natives. When someone is passionate & knowledgeable who can resist?

    Your pictures sell your words. Love it.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  12. Love your post! And I so agree it’s important to balance things. I’ve found that in my mostly native garden, there’s a native bloom hole in August, and a second in January. I’m always very happy when Agapathus (yes, it’s true…) steps in in August, and Correa and Hellebore brighten up the December/January days, just before the Manzanita steps up to the task of feeding the bees.

    When people ask me why I’m not 100% native, I just say “it’s a garden, not a wilderness”.