I was on a garden tour recently and most of the attendees were really into native plants. Some, maybe even most, seemed to want to plant natives exclusively. So while they were glad to see that I have many native plants in my gardens, they had a lot of ideas for where I could add more. I’m up for that. But I have to say that I’ve grown a lot of natives over the last decade, and I’d like to steer clear of those that tend to take over the place, like early meadow rue (Thalictrum dioicum).
Sometimes — and very accurately — called quicksilver weed, early meadow
is a beautiful shade plant with tall stalks and delicate, lobed leaves. It’s the flowers you have to worry about: tiny, frizzy and white, they’re never going to inspire any songs or poems. Worse yet, let those dry seed heads do their thing and soon your garden will become a sea of early meadow rue. I’ve been pulling
it out for years. Still, since I do love early meadow rue’s form and leaves, I’ve kept a few plants and taken to cutting off the flowers in early spring to keep them from spreading. That seems to be working fairly well so far.
If you’re looking for a few well- behaved natives for shade, some of the groundcovers and flowers I’d recom- mend are: Jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema species), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), May apple (Podophyllum peltatum), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Solomon’s seal, trillium, trout lilies, zigzag gold- enrod (Solidago flexicaulis), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), maidenhair fern (Adiatum pedatum) and lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina).
If you look up some of these plants, you’ll notice that they are the sorts that bloom early in the spring and then go dormant, leaving you with bare spots for much of the season. To cover those up I like to plant nonnatives that do well in the shade and mature a little later, such as lady’s mantle (Alchamilla mollis), astilbes, brunnera (Brunnera macro- pylla), primroses (Primula species), lungworts (Pulmonaria species), Japa- nese painted ferns and hostas.
Looking for reasonably well-behaved native flowers and groundcovers for sunny locales? Some of my favorites are prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta), wild blue indigo (Baptisia australis), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), gray-headed cone- flower (Ratibida pinnata), pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), turtlehead (Chelone glabra), gayfeather prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), bunched ironweed (Vernonica fasciculata), bee balm (Monarda) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia).
I’ll write more about native shrubs and trees in future columns. Here, though, I just want to say that there are a lot of good reasons for adding native plants to your gardens. That said, you’re not ruining the world or failing to create a positive environment for pollinators and wildlife if you prefer to stick with cultivated plants. There’s enough bullying in the world without gardeners going about making people feel bad about not growing one thing or another. Grow what you want to. Your garden is your garden. That’s what I say.
If you would like to try adding some natives to your gardens, here are some things to know. Commonly defined as plants that were growing naturally in a specific area before European settlement (about the mid-1800s in the Midwest), native plants that were growing locally should do well in our climate and be better able to resist diseases and prob- lems caused by native insects.
The key is to plant them in areas that match as closely as possible where they would grow naturally, meaning don’t plant a native prairie plant in a shady, wet spot and expect it to thrive. Well- sited and cared for, particularly in the first couple of years, natives should adapt to their environment and require less water and maintenance. To learn more about what specific native plants need in terms of sunlight, soil and water, check out Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota by Lynn Steiner.
Check out Meleah’s blog, everydaygardener.com, for more gardening tips or to email her a question or comment.