Need help planning Native Borders

stramp crab

* Originally posted in Landscape Design, I thought it might be more appropriate here.*

I need some help filling out my border gardens. I aim to primarily use native plants, we are south of Buffalo, NY, Zone 5b/6a.

Quick tour starting at the bottom, a paver & cobble walkway leads in from between the house and the garage (bottom right square) The patio is 14'w X 20'l and is slightly higher than the yard. Grass slopes down away from it slightly and levels off behind the garage. My son's playset sits about the point it flattens out. The octagon is a veg. garden 7 raised edge beds and a pyramidal trellis in the center.

I primarily would like to treat this as a prairie garden, more grasses and taller perennials, though the back gets much more shade throughout the day and could fo more of a woodland garden. I'm in need of ideas.

LEFT EDGE - Bed is four feet deep, about 73 feet from front to back. Usually dry, late afternoon shade in front, heavier shade in the back. Mainly volunteers and leftovers from the previous owner. Not sure what to do with most the space. Would

TOP EDGE - 7 feet deep, 50 feet long, Semi-dry and gets morning/early afternoon sun. I planted 3 multistem Eastern Redbud trees last spring, so I need to account for their future growth. Currently, the area consists of the trees, lots of Columbine, Purple Coneflower, and Oenothera. A few slow growing Baptisia hiding here and there as well.

RIGHT EDGE - 3 feet deep, 53 feet long. Late afternoon sun for the mid section, top and bottom remain in much heavier shade from the garage and surrounding trees. There are three Spicebush along this wall, but haven't grown much in the 3 years they've been in. Tips for feeding them? Between the spicebush, there is primarily Prairie Coreopsis and Monarda fistulosa

BUTTERFLY GARDEN - The yard is roughly divided in half by our butterfly garden, primarily Anis Hyssop, Butterfly weed, Smooth Blue Aster, Prairie Coreopsis, Pale Purple Coneflower, Button Blazing Star, Monarda, Hairy Mountain Mint, Orange Coneflower, Little Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed. This is perfect how it is, would love for the rest of the borders to fill in as well as this has.

UPPER RIGHT - Here I spread a wildflower mix in front of a bird bath on an old apple tree stump, with a clump of Sawtooth Sunflowers behind.

UPPER LEFT - Former compost area, became too large, too weedy, so now it is scaped clear. Gets full sun in very early morning, then is shaded throughout the day. Thinking of making a seating area here, most secluded part of the yard. Maybe benches and some lights?

PATIO - Most convenient area for groups of people and grilling, but bakes throughout the day. May add a pergola or canopy this year. But garden wise, to the right is the wall of the garage, I would love to add some trellis and have some climbing vines here. Virginia creeper or trumpet honeysuckle perhaps? To the left, there is a rose/swamp mallow and some Solomon seal (in constant shade from the fencing around it) in the corner, and some purple Iris that I would like to do something more with. More of them? Something to compliment? Should I take out the narrow strip of grass on this side and bring the garden right up to the patio? What should I use to give this space some impact?

Comments (6)
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NHBabs z4b-5a NH

I am not entirely sure what you are looking for. A lot of gardening for me is researching plants, putting them in spots that fit their cultural needs, and then seeing how they do. If something doesn't work, I move it and try something different. I visit other private gardens, garden centers, and botanical gardens for inspiration and spend time looking at images on line, in magazines, and in garden books from the library. I do best at making suggestions with photos, though the plan view gives a good overview and will help place photos if you letter or number both the photos and where they are on the plan. Can you add some photos? Have them include something that indicates the type of shade if possible. For instance, overhanging trees provide deeper shade than the white wall of a one story house which has a lot of indirect light.

Natives are a nebulous concept. Do you mean native to the NE US? If so, New England and New York are almost entirely forested by nature if they aren't kept open. Or just native to the US? That will give your more options. If you are open to nonnative, you have an even wider set of possibilities. Many of the plants you mention (such as purple iris) could be any one of a number of species so I don't know what to suggest about them. I grow several kinds of purple iris: reticulated, Japanese, Siberian, native Iris versicolor/blue flag, and some purple bearded iris, both tall and short. There are several species of Oenothera and Baptisia, but the Baptisia all need a fair amount of sun, so that may explain the slow-growing aspect and the different Oenothera have differing behaviors.

Beware of your packet of wildflower seeds. Unless you checked species and are sure that they are actually natives, you may have sown a set of weedy non-natives. Often "wildflower" seeds are just easy self-sowers that aren't natives. I made that mistake a number of years ago and am still removing some volunteers of non-natives that are basically weeds with pretty flowers, but want to take over the whole garden via prolific seeding.

3' and 4' deep is quite shallow for a bed that long, especially with prairie plants that don't always stand upright. I would add enough extra depth to make it a minimum of 5'-6' deep. That will give you enough depth to have more than a single line of plants (or two) for more interest and longer bloom times. Also, be aware that prairie plants really need full sun, and it sounds like several of your areas have too much shade.

Look into natives that do well in your area such as some of the asters (US natives are now in the genus Symphyotrichum though not all nurseries have caught up), milkweeds, etc. Check out Lupine, Amsonia cilliata or Amsonia hubrichtii and Rudbeckia. If you are looking for natives for shade, be sure to find ethically sourced plants, not dug wild plants, so they should say nursery propogated, not just nursery raised. These would include Tiarella, coral bells/Heuchera, ginger/Asarum canadense, Trilliums, bloodroot/Sanguinaria canadensis, spring beauty/Claytonia viriginica, Jack-in-the-pulpit, a few of kinds of Maianthemum (false Solomon's seal/M. racemosa, M. stellata, and Canada mayflower/M. canadense), partridge berry/Mitchella repens, wintergreen/Gaultheria procumbens, and Phlox divaricata and P. maculata.

Don't forget native shrubs, many of which will do well in your partly shaded areas. Hydrangea arborescens (Annabelle is one cultivar), spicebush/Lindera benzoin, native deciduous azaleas and their cultivars, several Viburnums, all of which have nice flowers, berries if you have different cultivars or wild type of the same species, and and lovely autumn color. Sambucus/elderberry likes sun and is much enjoyed by pollinators and birds, though they tend to sucker and spread. Look at Fothergilla which has honey-scented, bottle brush spring flowers and stunning fall color, especially when it gets at least a half day of good light.

Consider having some plants with winter interest since winter in your area, like in mine, can be long and gray. Evergreen perennials look good in late fall until the snow falls, and then woody plants with nice structure or bark or evergreen leaves (either broadleafed or needled) look good. Put the winter interest plants where they will be visible from windows that overlook the yard. Look at cultivars of native red-twigged dogwoods/Cornus, striped AKA moose maple/Acer pensylvanicum, and Cornus alternifolia/pagoda dogwood for winter bark or shape, and rhododendrons (many of the natives are quite large) and mountain laurel/Kalmia latifolia for broadleafed evergreen foliage. Most of these will do fine in part shade. Evergreen conifers such as some of the smaller cultivars of Thuja occidentalis/white cedar or any smaller selections of the native firs and spruces will provide not only green, blue, or gold foliage all year, but winter shelter and nesting for birds along with the rhodies.

I much prefer Lonicera sempervirens, the native coral or trumpet honeysuckle, to Virginia creeper in a yard like this since VC/Parthenocissus quinquefolia tends to spread where not wanted with underground stems/suckers. I grow both, but VC is restricted to wooded areas because of its aggressive spreading while the honeysuckle is well-behaved, though large. I have the cultivar Major Wheeler, which has a really heavy bloom in late spring followed by continuous bloom all summer on new growth. The hummingbirds love it.

I don't understand the area around the patio and garage. Are those paths along the side and back of the garage, and where is the back door? How will you fit in the trellised honeysuckle? I would remove the thin strips of sod on both sides of the patio.

IME most folks don't use a sitting area as far from the house as the far corner of your yard since shlepping a beverage, reading matter, etc. out there can be a bit of a hassle. If you would use it, then fine, but I would be more likely to shade the patio near the house since it is more likely to be used, and put some of the larger shrubs such as some of the native Rhododendron maximum cultivars there.

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As NHBabssaid, technically prairie isn't native to your area. For some reason "prairie garden" and native have become synonymous in many peopl's mind What is native depends on where you are...what region's native is anothers invasive species. In practice when you talk about "native" the question is how large a region you are willing to pull from. If you are willing to pull from all of North America it is easier. If you are going to go only for plants native to your state it is harder. The

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website is very useful.

As far as lanscape's generally a good idea to put taller plants in the back, so they don't hide the smaller plants. Is this an area that can be seen from the windows? For evergreens with "winter interest" to be useful, they have to be tall. I might be tempted to put some Mountain Laurel in the back for accents and Winter Interest. Also some Baptista Australis and Liatris spicata...easy to find and grow North American Natives. My favorite of the local native grasses is Northern Sea Oats.

Prairie Moon has an annual sale on Geranium Maculatim, which is an easy to grow plant for the shady spots.

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Kaillean (zone 8, Vancouver)(8b)

Lots of good ideas above. For inspiration, check out Nancy J Ondra’s photos of her gardens at

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stramp crab

Thanks for all of the great info. I'll need print out and dive deeper into some of the suggestions.

I don't think that I made myself very clear at the start. Basically, I'm not very good at visualizing how to group and clump plants. I've tried looking through images to replicate and made spreadsheets of color, height, spread, bloom time, and it all seems sensible at the time, but when I go out to place and plant, things don't seem to make sense, so I get patches of good developed layouts, then other areas with evenly spaced rows that don't look that great.

To me, the best looking area of my yard is the butterfly garden set of plants that I got from Prairie Moon Nursery. This is from two years ago, but give you a pretty good idea. The best part was that it came with a suggested planting grid.

I understand that the "native" label is broad and is specific to its place. As my botanist friend has explained to me, Western New York was once part of the "prairie peninsula". After being thoroughly scoured clear by the last of the glaciers, our region along Lake Erie came to support many of the same plants that grow in the Midwest, carried here by wind and animals as everything slowly worked its way back into this region. The beech-maple forests worked their way back in as well, but this area was much less wooded at the time of settling than much of the North East (being closer to the Midwest than the Atlantic Coast).

One of the local Restoration/Conservation groups has put together this handy guide. But like with a lot of recipes, I know the ingredients, I just don't know what to do with them! :)

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper Native Plant Guide

Also, I go by the range maps that Prairie Moon Nursery and few others have for many of their plants. My very stringent (haha) method is to see if they consider it present and native to my county (Erie).

A few more photos for context from earlier today. This is the bottom center of the drawing. The path leads from the driveway to the fence and out into the yard.

The next two photos give a good view of the path, patio, and back of the garage. There hasn't yet been any spring yet to attempt a spring cleanup.

Not sure what kind of grass is behind the garage, looks like this through the winter but greens up within the next month and stays lush and green even when the rest of the grass has started to brown from summer drought, stays green late into the Fall too. Though it is also a pretty good tell of the shadows in the yard, it doesn't tolerate shade well. The green area behind the garage only gets sun in the late afternoon and the grasses runner's never root there.

There is no shade in this area, apart from the house and garage. I've thought about adding some trellis structure to the garage wall for years, but maybe I will finally tackle it this year. Lonerica sempervirens has been high on the list of options, would need to work out what to add to the bed along the wall as well. There is a drainage pipe below grade here, so I can't dig too deep, but adding some evergreen interest would be great for some year round interest.

This area contains nothing of real note. There is some Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) that has crept under the fence from the neighbor, but if it can be moved, it would be nice to give its little creamy hanging flowers a bit more prominence. Next to it is a Russian sage that I keep around because the bees love it, and I trim it hard in the summer to dry and freshen the smell of the basement. It too can move. The purple iris are in here, but as mentioned by one of you, I don't truly know what kind and where they are from.

It would be great to take better advantage of this area and extend the garden all the way to the patio.

From that corner, you can see the back of the yard and the onely trees that provide shade to the yard. Leafless, it is hard to tell, but these overhang the fence quite a bit blocking the sun for that back area for most of the summer.

The small table is really the only shade in the yard and is the most private as well, so in the summer, I do occasionally set up a chair side table to relax in after working out there for a while.

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I think planting some Baptista Australis, echinacea and Liatris along the fences might work.

Planting things in clusters of three tends to work.

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NHBabs z4b-5a NH

Thanks for the photos. I will spend some time considering combos for you. Repetition is useful, either using several plants in a clump or drift for smaller perennials, or using them repeatedly along a bed for larger perennials and shrubs.

Amsonia hubrichtii, Baptisia australis, and Physocarpus 'Coppertina'/ninebark is a combo of natives and their cultivars that is a long term favorite in my garden. If you want a smaller ninebark, look at 'Tiny Wine' which though it isn't tiny, is far smaller than 'Coppertina' and most of the other average sized ones. This was the first spring after planting, but I still like the combo, even when not blooming because of the nice foliage contrast. I initially had a hosta as well, but the voles ate it. All of these are in full sun and you can see that the Baptisia has finished blooming, the Amsonia is just finishing bloom, and the ninebark is getting ready to bloom and the flowers will be followed by bright seed capsules. Amsonia has gorgeous gold fall foliage, so between the nice foliage texture and color contrast and specific attractive aspects of each, the plants have a long season of interest.

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