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Cues to Care

Do you want to use native plants but are afraid of what the neighbors will think?

Fear not—your yard can be as neat and tidy as you like and still provide habitat for birds and insects. And if you want to keep the property mostly “natural,” there are many design tricks that can make that look acceptable even in manicured neighborhoods.


It is helpful to decide up front what look you are going for and to choose plants accordingly. If you want to recreate the typical suburban aesthetic, stick with plants that maintain a relatively compact form as they mature and that have easily visible flowers, as people often associate tiny flowers with weeds. Space them widely enough to avoid a tangled look. Choose plants with distinctive foliage and that do not self-seed prolifically.


Formal gardens

A mixture of neat-and-tidy perennials for sun and shade that will give you a succession of blooms all season:

  • Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) Spring bloom, nice foliage the rest of the time. It is short-lived but will come up again from seed (although not if you use too much mulch).

  • Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) Deer resistant.

  • Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) Deer resistant.

  • Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata or Phlox stolonifera, depending on how many hours of sun)

  • Wild geranium (Geranium maculata) Late spring bloom, makes a nice mound.

  • Beardtongue (Penstemom digitalis) – Late spring/early summer.

  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) Deer resistant.

  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Everyone’s favorite – blooms all summer! Deer resistant.

  • Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) – Wonderful foliage, nice June bloom. Deer resistant.

  • Yellow Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) Deer resistant.

  • Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) Deer resistant.

  • Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) – Also extremely popular, very prolonged bloom time. Deer resistant.

  • Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) Deer resistant.

  • Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) – Fantastic for butterflies. Deer resistant.

  • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) - This does spread sideways but can be controlled and is worth having because of its amazing ability to attract butterflies. Because of the powdery mildew issue, it is good to plant it behind something. Deer resistant.

  • Rudbeckia fulgida (Black eyed Susan) - a pretty long bloom time. Somewhat deer resistant.

  • Symphyotrichum novi-belgii (New York Aster) - This is quite beautiful with its purple flowers in the fall. The foliage, though, is nothing special, so it also is a good choice to be behind other plants that hide its “knees.”  Deer resistant.


Click here for more lists of popular plants in a semi-formal garden center.

eastern columbine_ creeping phlox_ woodl

Less formal gardens

If you want a more natural appearance, help your neighbors out by supplying signals that your property is being well tended. After all, they can’t tell just by looking that your plants are providing habitat, and messiness is often interpreted as anti-social. If we want to sell everyone on the native plants concept, we need to make it easy for them. Here are some suggestions for how you could clue them in.


Provide a frame

A tangle of plants will look less messy if edged with a frame. Choices include:

  • Decorative fences

  • A mowed strip of lawn

  • An edge of short, repeated plants such as Phlox subulata, Iris cristata, Coreopsis verticillata, or Asclepias tuberosa. The latter two have the added advantage of hiding the unattractive “knees” of taller plants. Sedges and grasses provide another option but are not successful next to turf grass, as the foliage is too similar.

  • Sidewalks. Don’t let your plants flop over the walkway.


Use good garden design principles

  • Add color. Enriching your landscape with a higher proportion of colorful flowers can not only provide a succession of blooms for pollinators but will also indicate to passersby that humans were involved in the planning. This is the difference between a meadow and a meadow garden.

  • Vary the height. A sea of three foot plants can be pretty dull.

  • Clump plants together. Massing species together provides a wow factor that is missing when the same plants are scattered randomly.

  • Create clumps out of spreaders. Some plants such as Woodland Sunflower create natural masses that are way too big and monotonous. Edit out some of them to create gaps.

  • Provide focal points. The human eye needs something to grab onto. You can also use focal points to draw the eye away from unsightly parts of the garden. Choices include objects (such as a bird bath, bird house, chair, or art piece) or accent plants. Nicely made pathways also declare this as a human creation and draw along the eye.

  • Use foundation plantings. A house without shrubs around the foundation may look out of place if every other house on the street has them. Great designs can be achieved without them but would take thoughtful planning.

Put up signs

Remove weeds

Native plant gardens need just as much weeding as any garden. Be aware that most garden weeds are non-native plants that crowd out the natives.


Check out the demonstration gardens

There are many lovingly tended native plant demonstration gardens in Northern Virginia that you can visit for ideas. You could also make a day trip to the ultimate gorgeous example: Mount Cuba Center in Delaware.

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