Native plants, tamed for the small garden

    For all the right reasons, natives have exploded in popularity over the last ten years. Seeking environmentally sustainable lifestyles gardeners have been rediscovering species that we’ve spent a century ignoring in favor of more exotic plants. Assuming they’re used in the right location, many natives are excellent choices for low maintenance, panic-free gardens.

    Last week, a reader asked about native plant recommendations for a small-scale Philadelphia garden she wants to renovate. It was a good winter exercise to make a list of native plants that would work in Yvonne’s garden, which I’m imagining as mostly sunny, with a few shady corners. The list below includes six native perennials that range from 15 inches to 3 feet in height. As a collection, they will give color and interest in the garden from May to October (but particularly in the later half of the season) and these plants would look great massed all together, one placed about every 18 inches to two feet, shorter plants in the front. All the plants listed are easy to find, not expensive, and tend to either reseed or spread enough to be divided and shared every few years.

    Sporobolus heterolepsis– As a flower person, I have had a hard time warming up to ornamental grasses, but this is my favorite because of its delicate texture. Like a fashion model next to a wind machine, the tufts move on the slightest breeze, tossing its foliage back and forth saucily. And like really good hair, it’s impossible not to run your fingers through it. Great in a sunny, dry location.

    Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride’– For a semi-shady location, this is one of my favorite plants. The large, velvety foliage stays apple-green all season, and can be effective as a groundcover. In September white flower wands emerge above the leaves. ‘Autumn Bride’ is tougher than it looks, and it’s reseeded itself in interesting places in my garden, including a rock wall where it looked great growing out of the cracks.

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    Ascelpias tuberosa– As long as you’re a fan of bright orange, the long blooming flowers or Butterfly Weed are this plant’s main attraction. Hundreds of small flowers appear in midsummer, set against dark green foliage. Planted in a sunny location, this handsome plant looks better every year, and is one of the preferred larval foods of the monarch butterfly- a caterpillar can almost always be found on the plant in late summer.

    Aquilegia Canadensis– Our native columbine has its fifteen minutes of fame in late spring, when it sends up its complicated spurred red and yellow flowers. By mid-July it melts away until it returns the following year. Best in a little shade, columbine can be planted in and around other perennials, and will usually reseed itself into available nooks of the garden.

    Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’– The species is massive, and it’s not referred to as Joe Pye weed without reason; it’s a little on the coarse side. But ‘Little Joe’ is a more dainty variety, with large leaves and big mauve flower heads that start blooming in August and don’t stop until October. Besides providing structure, the most interesting feature of this plant is that it attracts pollinating insects like the porch light does at night. Butterflies love it.

    Aster novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’– to finish out the season, this fall-blooming perennial blazes royal purple in October and November. It doesn’t get mildew and the blossoms blanket the entire plant. On warm days in Indian summer the last bumblebees will be found clinging to the flowers, waiting for the autumn sun to dry the heavy dew off their wings before they can move again.

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