As I worked on the new island bed for my sister-in-law, I began thinking about the types of plants that are best suited for gardens here in the Mid-Atlantic area. To make a garden visually interesting, it’s important to incorporate a variety of plant heights, shapes and textures. A combination of small accent trees, shrubs, bulbs and perennials usually does the job. Once established, these kinds of mixed gardens require little maintenance.
It’s also useful to use elements that are attractive at different times of the year. Like all of us, our gardens need to work hard during every season! And although some gardeners have the advantage of plentiful sun, many do not. So I considered plants that can work in a variety of light conditions. And of course, I have a strong preference for East Coast natives that support local wildlife.
With all of these ideas in mind, I came up with this ‘top ten’ list for Mid-Atlantic gardens:
1. Flowering Dogwood (cornus florida): Nothing announces Spring better than the beautiful flowering dogwood. Native to the Eastern US, it is lovely as a small accent or understory tree at the woodland’s edge. And once the leaves have fallen, the graceful branch structure offers interest all winter.
2. Shadbush (amelanchier): Another North American native, Shadbush is a graceful small tree for sunny or partly shady areas. Some varieties grow as multi-stemmed large shrubs. They offer spring flowers, beautiful fall color and edible blueberry-like fruits. I recently planted a trio of the ‘Princess Diana’ variety at the edge of my yard, and they are already growing in nicely.
3. Inkberry Holly (ilex glabra): Every garden needs evergreens for structure and year-round color. Inkberry holly is my go-to evergreen for a number of reasons. First, as a native plant, it supports the local habitat. Second, it grows happily in sun or shade. Finally, inkberry serves as a reliable backdrop to more showy small shrubs and perennials in the garden.
4. Redtwig Dogwood (cornus sericea): Talk about a four-season plant! The dogwoods in my garden have graceful variegated leaves in spring, soft white flowers in early summer, and showy deep red stems in fall and winter. I love to cut branches for holiday decorations. Beyond adding structure and interest to the garden, redtwigs are also a native plant.
5. Knockout Rose (Rosa ‘knockout’): OK, so everybody plants them. But for good reason – they’re the easy to grow, resistant to pests, require no maintenance, and offer beautiful color from spring until fall. I use red knockouts in my back yard, soft pink to border the vegetable garden, and sunny yellow at the beach. If you’re new to roses or have been afraid to try them, Knock-outs are truly a great option.
6. Virginia Sweetspire (itea virginica): Another wonderful, easy-care native shrub, Sweetspire offers white bottle-brush flowers in the spring, glossy green leaves all sumer, and blazing fall color. I like ‘Henry’s Garnet’ for large gardens and ‘Little Henry’ for smaller areas. I planted Little Henry in my stream-side border, where it does just fine in partial shade.
7. Grecian Windflower (anemone blanda): I’ve just about given up on bulbs. Squirrels dig up the tulips. Daffodils are lovely in bloom, but then leave ugly foliage behind. Grecian windflower, however, may just change my mind. This graceful plant is among the first to emerge in the spring. It offers fern-like foliage and long-lasting small flowers of white and purple. Plant a few in partly shady areas, and they’ll grow in drifts. And by the time they start to fade, other perennials will have begun to take over.
8. Switchgrass (panicum virgatum): Ornamental grasses add vertical interest and movement to the garden. Many exotic varieties though, are invasive. These days, I’m ripping out the zebra grass and other exotics, and replacing them with native switchgrass. Numerous varieties offer a range of color choices and heights. At the beach, I’m using the bluish ‘Heavy Metal.’ At home, I’ve just purchased ‘Shenandoah,’ a red-tinged variety, to plant alongside my red knockouts.
9. ‘Autumn Joy’ Sedum (sedum ‘autumn joy’): In the ‘plant it and forget it’ category, sedums take first prize. In fact, they seem to actually thrive on neglect. But these hard-working plants offer wonderful shape and texture in sunny gardens. I like ‘Autumn Joy’ for its long-lasting, rust-colored flowers in late summer and fall.
10. Purple Catmint (nepeta-x-faasseni ‘walker’s low’): Catmint is a reliable perennial with a mounded shape that helps blend taller shrubs and upright plants together in a mixed garden. Its purple flowers attract helpful pollinators. I use the ‘Walker’s Low’ variety and it comes back stronger and bigger every year.
What is your top-10 list for local gardens? I’d love to hear!