There is little else as satisfying in the garden as watching wildlife use the space: cardinals dashing in and out of oaks, skipper butterflies and sweat bees methodically circling coneflower blooms. What is a garden without the critical ecological function that makes the world work and brings us closer to nature? When we cultivate native plant communities at home that are inspired by nearby meadows or woods, we invariably pique the interest of neighbors as well as wildlife. Sometimes, the neighbors report us to weed control. I’ve had it happen.
Any garden—no matter how wild its origins—is still a garden; what this means is that it must negotiate two worlds: that of what wildlife expect to see and what our culture expects to see. If we simply toss out a bagful of wildflower seed, we’re not going to be as successful at bridging a society of expansive lawns and mulched foundation beds with a diverse and resilient garden for nature. But as a designer creating native landscapes, I’ve also found that our initial plant choices can make all the difference and help mitigate the “weedy” interpretation some may have.
Pick Plants Intentionally
In an urban or suburban garden, especially one that is reducing or replacing areas of lawn, the plants shouldn’t be tall; it’s likely they will flop over or impede sight lines, which won’t allow people to see over the landscape or feel comfortable. Likewise, choosing plants that are overly aggressive by root or seed, particularly in a small space, will eventually create a bed that looks messy and soon becomes a monoculture. Below is a list of native perennials that tend to clump or spread slowly underground, generally maintain a height under 3 feet, have an extended season of interest, and are adaptable to a variety of soil and light conditions. An added benefit is that you can use them all together in the same bed to create a layered, ecologically thriving, low-management space with a bloom progression from spring to fall.
White-Tinged Sedge (Carex albicans)
While considered a woodland sedge for dry to medium-moist sites, C. albicans does well in full-sun locations if soil moisture is a little more consistent or it’s being partially shaded by taller neighbors (such as many of the perennials on this list). Its wavy, undulating form greens up early in spring and regrows in fall, while providing a lovely groundcover about 12 inches tall that helps conserve soil moisture and shades out weed seedlings. An alternative might be curly wood sedge (Carex rosea); for hotter sites try a bunchgrass like sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) or prairie dropseed (Sporobolus
Prairie Alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii)
We’re all familiar with the abundant selection of Heuchera cultivars, but did you know we have a robust prairie and meadow native? Prairie alumroot’s large, maplelike leaves look outstanding massed in a bed of sedge or bunchgrass, and in fall and winter its leaves can take on hues of bright red and copper that catch the light well. In spring, narrow columns about 2 feet tall of brownish-yellow flowers grace hairy stems. These flowers are almost imperceptible on a lone plant, but in a group of five to seven plants, they present something more for us and small carpenter bees who come for the accessible pollen. Try this drought-tolerant perennial in a variety of soils from rocky and sandy to loam and clay, in full to half sun.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
It’s probably the best-known plant here, and there’s a reason. It’s dependable, has a compact form suitable for designed wildness, and offers a different bloom color and flower structure for pollinators. While A. tuberosa will do best in a well-drained soil such as loamy clay, sand or rocky soils, a looser clay or clay hillside should keep things dry enough to make this plant happy. The bonus is certainly the autumn seed pods, which provide interest well into winter as well as food for the large milkweed bugs that eat the seeds.
Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)
There’s nothing like a weaving drift of A. cernuum rising through a foundation of sedge or bunchgrasses. Each slowly spreading clump will reach 12 to 18 inches tall with a—you guessed it—nodding head of pinkish-white flowers at the top. Like every plant on this list, it’s nearly impervious to herbivore damage, too. Site conditions are wide open as far as soil type, but more sun than shade will provide the largest number of blooms. In late summer, the jet black seeds begin to appear. If you have a 200-square-foot bed, try two meandering drifts of 10 to 15 plants, then enjoy the bumblebee workers that come to dangle upside down as they gather pollen.
Rough Blazingstar (Liatris aspera)
We had a tie here between L. aspera and L. punctata—and while the latter blazingstar species is shorter (18 inches or so) and may provide more flower stalks, rough blazingstar gives us some interesting height in the garden (24 to 36 inches) while not being imposing or floppy. After a few years of growth, the underground corm will have grown enough to provide three to seven stalks of stout, violet blooms for late summer or early fall butterflies and moths. Autumn seed heads are puffy while the winter bracts left behind are artistic in their own right all up and down the narrow stem, but my favorite show are the white buds just before bloom. Try rough blazingstar in any medium to dry site with as much sun as possible.
Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)
Native to dry, shady areas, this early-fall goldenrod also can do quite well in sunnier locations if the soil is medium to slightly moist. In a looser soil like loam or sandy loam, it will run more aggressively than in clay, but it will always maintain a clumped mass. That latter point also speaks to another pick for midsummer, Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), whose white blooms and fragrant foliage are of similar height to the goldenrod—18 to 30 inches tall—and which has a similar spreading habit. Both are mind-blowingly supportive to adult pollinators when in bloom.
Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)
Any garden will benefit from a variety of form and shape in plant structures, and S. oblongifolium certainly fits the bill with a more shrublike habit. Blooming in mid to late autumn, it’s a boon to migrating or soon-to-hibernate insects, not to mention the spiders and bugs that hunt them. With its mounding shape reaching 18 to 24 inches tall and 2 to 3 feet in diameter after several years, this perennial will slowly spread by rhizome. Give it full to afternoon sun in most any soil type but wet. Often, blooms will survive a freeze or two while the leaves can turn bright orange to plum. In winter, the dark brown mound contrasts nicely with the lighter tan hues of sedges and grasses—because remember, brown is a color, too.
A Final Note
To avoid a weedy look, remember placement and design is everything. Mass and drift the native plants: three Asclepias here, seven Heuchera there, which will go a long way in showing intent and order. Use the sedge as an underlying green mulch that ties the space together. And leave the garden standing in winter so birds have seeds, insects have places to hibernate, and to help snow gather around stems to hydrate and insulate.
And don’t forget garden cues that neighbors will see as intentional and welcoming—a wide walking path, a bench or sculpture, and even a water fountain. When you choose the right native plants for your site, fitting them to soil and light and one another, you’re halfway home in creating a landscape that successfully bridges the expectations of both nature and weed control.
This article by Benjamin Vogt first appeared in the March/April 2021 edition of Northern Gardener. He manages garden design firm Monarch Gardens and is the author of the forthcoming guide to using native plants in home gardens, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design.
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