Stymied about Native Plant Gardens?

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Lately we have been getting a lot of requests for help in selecting native plants for school gardens. I love this; it is exciting to see the surging interest in our beautiful native species. Georgia has 4,000 naturally occurring native plant species.

Appalachian Turtlehead, Chelone cuthbertii, a species that wants a moist to wet area in the garden.

Appalachian Turtlehead, Chelone cuthbertii, a species that wants a moist to wet area in the garden.

Not four, not forty, but four thousand species. Shazaam!

So many options to choose from! The more native plants we put back into our landscape, the more pollinators, butterflies and birds we welcome back into our lives. Our children may even come to understand that their food is often dependent on the actions of tiny pollinators, which directly connects them (and us) to nature. In my book that is a very good thing.

Consistently, when someone asks me for help with their project, the same questions come up time after time. This article deals with those first questions you need to answer to plan the garden. To have a thriving native plant garden of any type, we have to put the right plant in the right place. Answer these questions and you have more information to help you choose plant species appropriate for your site.

First things first: Let us focus on what you need or want. This helps determine the range of plant species you will install, and how you will install them. What is the mission, or purpose, of your project? Is it educational? Do you want to study insects and other pollinators and have caterpillars hatch, thrive and morph into butterflies? Do you want a certifiable habitat garden for wildlife? Do you have beehives and want a bee meadow for honeybees? Is it a bog garden? Is it a xeriscape? Is it a decorative landscape element? Is it an ecological restoration? Or?? Whew! That’s a lot of choices. A note: We will not be looking at ecological restorations here, this article is about garden sites.

Second, what are the qualities of your chosen garden site?
There are a few things that we need to take into consideration:
1.) The moisture regime and slope of the site, 2.) the soil characteristics, 3.) available light, 4.) and finally, how many square feet you want to plant.

1.) The moisture regime of the site: Is it a ridge or high point in the landscape, draining water quickly? There are plenty of native plants that prefer dry, well drained sites.

Small head liatris, or Liatris microcephala, a shorter but tough as nails plant that can handle the brutal summers on Stone Mountain in Georgia.  A great plant for dry sunny areas.

Small head liatris, or Liatris microcephala, a shorter but tough as nails plant that can handle the brutal summers on Stone Mountain in Georgia. A great plant for dry sunny areas.

Or is it low and slow to drain water? Is there a drainage or swale, HVAC drain or gutter spout nearby, creating the possibility of a rain garden, or bog situation? We have native plants for that.

Are you lucky? Do you have a moderate moisture regime on a gentle slope or mid slope, that maintains an even moisture level? Easy peasy, you’ve got a whole mess of plants that like that situation.

Last, but never least, of the moisture regimes is the lack of moisture. Do you have an eroded slope that loses moisture and soil with every rain? Don’t despair; there are ways and native plant means to deal with that issue.

Or is there a lot of hot asphalt nearby creating a heat sink? Might be a xeriscape you are looking for. Yes, there are xeriscape-friendly plants native to Georgia.

2.) The characteristics of the soil onsite:
Is the soil hard packed clay and not able to hold moisture? If it is all clay, it will be unworkable for most plants without some organic material and sand added in. Organic material is rich in nutrients; it also breaks up clay and holds moisture during dry seasons. Sand improves drainage, keeps everything from getting too saturated with water during wet seasons. Gradually, added sand works it’s way through the clay, keeping it from becoming too heavy and hard for roots to penetrate during the summer heat.

These additives are an attempt to recreate an ideal loam soil situation. Naturally occurring loam has historically been one of the most sought after soils for any garden or agriculture. If you don’t have loam, balancing clay with sand and organic matter is how you compensate. Of course, bog plants and desert plants don’t appreciate balanced soils or moisture regimes.

Is the soil rich, moist and full of organic material? You can have too much organic material, but this doesn’t happen very often. Is it a mix of the above conditions?

3.) The available light:
Is there constant open shade from a building? If your garden is on the north side of a building, you may be able to plant species that tend to grow on north facing bluffs in the Piedmont.

Are there closely planted trees with very dark, deep shade? Is there open shade, with the trees anywhere from 25-40 feet or so apart, with an even soft or spangled light? Deep shade is difficult for a successful garden with flowering plants. Ferns are great for deep shade, but they do not flower. Open shade offers a lot of forest species and part shade species as options.

Red Columbine a beautiful shade blooming species.  Photographed in North Georgia at the Pocket.

Red Columbine a beautiful shade blooming species. Photographed in North Georgia at the Pocket.

Is there partial shade; sun during part of the day, shade during the balance? Does the partial sun occur in the morning or the afternoon? Morning sun is cooler, with shade during the hottest part of the day. Afternoon sun can be fairly brutal, despite morning shade. There are quite a few plants that will handle either option.

Does the preferred garden site take on a full, blast furnace, Georgia sun? Time to think xeriscape! Don’t worry; we have native plants for that situation.

4.) How many square feet do you have to plant? This will help you figure out how many plants you can successfully install.

OK, you have your homework. Answer the questions above and you have general descriptions of the situation your garden site offers. You can finish your research by doing any one of three things: One, look up plants in the Ladybird wildflower website via Mr. Smartyplants. Two email me (Pandra) your questions (my email is listed on the contact form.) Or get in touch with me through Beech Hollow Wildflower Farm on Facebook. Yeah, I’m a sucker for a native plant garden. Especially if there are kids involved.

Above all, get wild about wildflowers!