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:
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.
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 (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
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?
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