Every year I teach a few garden design classes at a local adult and continuing education program. Regardless of the topic of the class, I am invariably asked by a student why a particular plant just keeps dying in their garden. Like many newbie gardeners, they fall in love with a plant, bring it home and plant it in their garden. The plant in question slowly dies but they go out and buy another one of the same plant and, to their surprise, it dies again.
Last week, the plant in question was a boxwood (Buxus). Here in southwestern Connecticut, boxwoods are the ‘go-to’ shrub and many homeowners, and even some landscape professionals, seem to think you can plant one anywhere and it will survive.
When asked to help solve the mystery of the dying boxwood, I launch into a mini-lecture about how native plants are often great choices for difficult planting sites like this one. Because they’re adapted to our soil and climate conditions, a properly choosen native plant can be a key component to gardening success.
As a landscape designer, my first suggestion is not to plant any shrub in that location. Why not go with a native grass, like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)? The cultivar ‘Heavy Metal’ with its steely blue foliage or ‘Shenandoah’ with its red-tinged foliage would be a colorful accent in front of the stone column and would offer food and shelter to local wildlife, especially if left standing over the winter. Not to mention, switchgrass is suited for those extreme site conditions.
No, it seems an evergreen shrub is the only answer. So my next suggestion is another native plant, inkberry (Ilex glabra). An evergreen holly, inkberry can deal with all the adverse site conditions the boxwood could not and it offers some additional benefits. In addition to adding some much-needed bio-diversity to the garden, inkberry berries (plants are dioecious so you’ll need a male and female for berry production) are a favorite of birds like robins, blue jays, northern cardinals and woodpeckers, to name a few.
After a little silence comes a comment I often hear, ‘native plants, I thought they were just for meadows or, you know, the woods’. Now I’ll take ‘Native Plants for Designed Gardens’ for $200, Alex.
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