Designing with Native Plants

Kalmia latifolia flower buds

Mountain Laurel © Scott Hokunson

At a recent gathering of professional landscape designers, the topic of designing gardens with native plants came up. Frankly, I was surprised by some of the comments I heard during the discussion.

Several designers shied away from using native plants because they felt their “clients would never go for go for that kind of look”. One landscape designer, who admitted to using native plants in her garden designs, qualified her answer by saying, “but my designs are really natural looking”.

Rather than launching into rhetoric about the many benefits of using native plants in designed gardens, I instead asked the group what they felt was the cornerstone of a well-designed garden. The answer? Structure. It was agreed that the foundation of every garden, regardless of whether it’s style is formal, naturalistic or somewhere in between, is the balance, proportion and symmetry provided by the use of strong geometric shapes to provide year round interest and structure.

Hmm…the perfect opening. You see, there are plenty of native plants with distinct geometric shapes to add structure to your garden, regardless of your design style. Gardeners who prefer a more formal look will often take their pruners to the same plants that, left to ‘do their thing’, are also quite at home in more naturalistic gardens.

So here are  a few suggestions for evergreens, most native to the eastern United States, that you may not have considered for adding structure to your garden:

Vertical Accents

Gold Cone juniper

Gold Cone juniper

Gold cone juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Gold Cone’), a slow grower to about 8′ tall and 2′ wide, is a good choice for adding some height to a narrow spot, even one with poor soil. Because it is naturally so narrow, it is easy to incorporate into almost any garden.

With its chartreuse-colored new foliage, Gold Cone adds a pop of color to mixed beds, rock gardens, containers or any other spot in your garden where a colorful exclamation mark can be appreciated.


Hillspire eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana ‘Cupressifolia’) is another good option when you need a tall, narrow accent plant. Growing to about 20′ tall and half as wide, Hillspire won’t outgrow its welcome. Hillspire can be used to flank an entry door, soften the corner of your house or to create a tall privacy screen.

Gold Cone and Hillspire are worthy native substitutes for a whole host of non-natives, including many of the upright Chinese junipers and hollies.

Abstract Shapes

Pinus strobus 'John's Find'

Pinus strobus ‘John’s Find’

With its weeping, contorted branches, John’s Find white pine (Pinus strobus ‘John’s Find’) is a unique, funky accent plant for small gardens.

Not every garden has room for a full size eastern white pine, which can grow to upwards of 50′ tall, but this dwarf cultivar doesn’t need too much room to make a statement. John’s Find is a good alternative to Harry Lauder’s walking stick, the go-to contorted specimen plant for many gardeners.


Golden Virginia pine

Golden Virginia pine Photo © Stanley and Sons Nursery

Golden Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana ‘Wate’s Golden’)  is a garden chameleon. It’s foliage changes from pale green to lime green and then to bright yellow during the winter.

It’s irregular shape can be pruned into a living sculpture that is just as at home in a formal Asian garden as it is in an eclectic natural one.

Golden Virginia pine can be a substitute for Japanese black pine and Japanese white pine.


Mounding & Globe Shapes

Ilex glabra


Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is an ideal backdrop plant. It’s small evergreen leaves and natural dome-shape makes it easy to incorporate into an array of garden situations. It also responds well to pruning, making it a good choice as a foundation plant or even as a hedge.

Another native evergreen that is often overlooked in favor of non-native ornamental shrubs is mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). With its glossy deep green leaves and showy buds and flowers, mountain laurel is a quintessential foundation plant thriving in both sun and shade.

While the species has a tendency to become large and leggy with age, breeders have developed a dizzying array of mountain laurel cultivars that are much better suited for smaller gardens.

Both inkberry and mountain laurel can be suitable native alternatives to boxwood, non-native rhododendrons and Japanese holly.

What’s the style of your garden? And what native plants are you using to add some structure to it?

© 2011 – 2013, Debbie Roberts. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Great choices Debbie and an excellent post. I am not surprised to hear that designers would shy away from natives. I think many clients want plant choices for low maintenance and so why wouldn’t you choose natives…offer them the native choices and all the reasons not to plant the others…of course you don’t even have to say they are natives…that can be a comment later…just mentioning that you cannot plant a certain plant because it is invasive certainly deters most clients…
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Visiting Mountain Natives

    • says

      Donna, When I’m designing a garden for a new client, I always talk about native plants. If I don’t get a positive response (and quite frankly many non-gardeners just want their garden to make their house look good, they don’t really care about the impact their garden can have on the local ecosystem) then I typically stop talking about the value of native plants for a little while. Once the garden is installed and thriving, then I bring up the native plant issue again. After the client has fallen in love with a particular plant and they are ‘reminded’ that the plant is native, they seem more receptive to learning about the dual purpose natives serve.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Designing with Native Plants: Structure

  2. says

    When I created a garden around our new pea gravel sitting area last summer, I used six inkberry hollies instead of boxwoods to flank the entrance, since I had just read your article then about substituting natives. I’m happy I did. I still love the look of boxwoods, and I do have them in my garden, but the inkberries were a perfect native solution!
    Laurrie recently posted..How Tall Are Your Deer?

  3. says

    Unfortunately there appears to be an anti-native plants segment of the landscaping industry because they perceive them to be too messy and unorganized looking. Also the natural look is in violation of some city ordinances, weed laws, and home owners associations. We need to educate these people that natives can easily be substituted for traditional ornamental plants in a structured, well designed landscape. Native plants don’t have to be planted in a style that mimics an overgrown prairie. Just look at Oehme and van Sweden’s New American Landscape model for an example of how you can blend “natural” with structure and design.
    Julie Stone recently posted..Last Minute Christmas Ideas for the Wildlife Gardener

  4. says

    Fabulous Post Debbie! We need all landscape designers to take a page from your enlightened views! Some people just don’t want to take a plunge to learn something new and out of the mainstream.

    Love, love, love the inkberry choice. It just shows up at my place naturally, but I encourage those with the typical home garden to look for it so as to provide nice shrubbery along with excellent wildlife benefits.
    Loret recently posted..Bug Gangs

  5. says

    I just recently began designing gardens and my first choices are almost always natives. I haven’t met any resistance so far. My latest client in fact says he wants a garden like mine! Whenever I bring people through my garden, it is the native plants they ask about, not because most of them are native, but because they are interested in the plant. I think a mix of mostly natives with just a couple of “traditional” (but not invasive) plants works. I like to create Pinterest boards so my clients can see the plants together visually as I do – I think it helps. I was also encouraged during my first Master Gardener class that one of the classmates said she wants to learn all about native plants. These selections are so wonderful Debbie! Thank you.

    • says

      Kathy, How wonderful that you’re showing by doing! I do think that if we let native plants stand on their own merits most gardeners will love them. But for some of those same gardeners,if we preface a plant intro with, “this plant is native to…”, the bias shows up almost immediately.

  6. says

    Good post Debbie. It is frustrating that so many garden designers are placing themselves in the path of resistance towards more widespread use of native plants. I agree with Kathy that when well-chosen, native plants are themselves the draw…I have so many clients who want “something different” and they are in rapture with the native beauties that we introduce into their gardens. And when those plants bring in a multitude of butterflies and beneficial insects and birds, they are even happier, and it opens up a new world for their families in their backyards. Of course, I am in New England where we have an enormous variety of native plants, many of which are totally suited to use in formal or natural-style landscapes alike.
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Bale Beds

    • says

      Ellen, I couldn’t agree more. I still remember the first class I taught on garden design and when I mentioned native plants and the regional benefits I could see people’s eyes start to glaze over. When I stopped and asked who was interested in seeing more birds and butterflies in their gardens, everyone’s hand shot up. So I changed course and talked about those benefits of natives. It was an eye-opening experience for me and I quickly learned how to frame a discussion of natives.
      Debbie recently posted..Spicebush ~ A Treat for Early Pollinators


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