Native plant landscaping design tips
There are three major design considerations when working with native plants.
1. Designing for human function and aesthetics
The wildlife won’t care whether your garden looks like a page out of House Beautiful or more like a jungle, but the neighbors to whom you are trying to “sell” the native plant concept might.This is particularly important in an institutional setting such as a business, faith community or community association.
2. Designing to support the ecosystem
This need not be in conflict with #1 or #3.
3. Designing for low maintenance.
Not everyone is interested in weeding a garden.
Human function and aesthetics
Conventional garden design principles apply equally to native plant design.
Hardscape before softscape
Proximity to a faucet for watering
Overhead and underground lines and other facilities
Where do you need shade?
South and west side of buildings to reduce air conditioning costs
What is the space used for?
Meeting or entertaining
An open view for traffic or for security
Or for nothing at all except to look at it.
Where will people walk, and what will they walk on?
Unless you are playing sports on your lawn, you probably need paths more than open space. Turf grass is from Europe but is the only plant that withstands a lot of foot traffic (at least it will if planted in full sun. In the shade, other surfaces may work better.) See this page for advice on lawns.
If you are starting with a clean slate, think about the eye-catching elements first, just as if your were starting a painting and sketching in the people and building. If you already have a garden that lacks eye-catching elements, add some punctuation marks.
When making a grouping, odd numbers of plants look better in most situations.
Rhythm and repetition
The human brain gets confused by total randomness. It is helpful to provide some sense of order by repeating a color or shape throughout the garden.
Balance is not the same as exact symmetry, which is difficult to achieve with growing plants. You don't want your design to look lopsided when one plant grows more quickly or densely than its matching partner.
Lead the eye
The human eye will rove around forlornly until it finds somewhere to rest. You want it to rest on a place of your choosing, not on some patch of dead leaves or an air conditioning unit. You can control that by using lines to give a sense of movement and by providing a focal point, which can be a human-made object such as a bench or statue, or a particularly noticeable plant.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Where can you add native plants?
Front yards works just as well as back yards for native plantings.
For anyone who prefers to keep their shrubs and flowers up against the house, there are plenty of neat-and-tidy native plants that do well in that setting. Recommendations can be found on the foundation plantings page.
In the photo of the front yard with the picket fence, half the space has been filled with native plants (as opposed to turf grass, which is non-native and therefore does not support our local fauna.) A small number of species planted in large masses makes a strong impact while minimizing the expertise needed for maintenance. The tree has been protected from soil compaction and lawn mower damage that can harm trees surrounded by turf grass.
A planting bed along the sidewalk would have the advantage of capturing stormwater runoff before it hits the street. Runoff from impervious surfaces and lawns causes degradation of our streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
A planting bed in the middle of the yard can be easy to mow around and could consist of flowers for those who like to garden or a small grove of native trees and shrubs for those who don’t.
The entire yard could be replaced by native plants. The easiest design would consist of trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. Losing the lawn is seldom a problem, since most people don’t run around on their front lawn anyway.
Front yard landscapes (Click to enlarge and to view descriptions)
Many summer-blooming perennials for sun have similar foliage and will grow almost in lockstep to approximately the same height. This can be boring when they are not in bloom. They say that a good way to plan a garden is to design it for the foliage, not just for the flowers. There are several approaches.
Intersperse plants with strikingly different foliage or heights. Some examples:
Much taller plants
Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Black Cohosh (Actea racemosa)
Different foliage shape or texture
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Gayfeather (Liatris spicata)
Iris versicolor, virginica, cristata
Virginia Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginicus)
Spikenard (Aralia racemosa)
Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata)
Wild Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis)
Maidenhead Fern (Adiantum pedatum)
Trees and shrubs
Sasssafras (Sassafras albidum)
Paw Paw (Asimina trilobum)
Sumac (Rhus species)
Shrubby Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum)
False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa)
Include ferns, vines, clumps of grasses and shrubs.
A flower garden need not consist of perennials alone. Adding other plants can also give you more winter interest. Small shrubs such as Shrubby Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum) add needed structure to large flower beds and contribute their own blooms.
Add colorful pots or other human objects.
Edit existing plants to create the effect of variety
If you find yourself with an expanse of plants that all look alike, cut back some of them to achieve variety of height. For example, you could cut back by half the summer- and fall-blooming plants in the front half of the border in the late spring (this will also result in those plants blooming later than the ones behind. The plant will be shorter and more compact. The flowers may be more numerous but smaller. See the list for some example of plants that can be treated this way). Or you could create clumps by cutting the surrounding plants down to the ground
Paw Paw (Asimina triloba)
Spikenard (Aralia racemosa)
Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata)
Obscuring part of the view makes the space seem larger.
Accent the entrance
Using plants to create an entranceway allows for a graceful transition between street and building.
Cues to care
Random assortments of plants tend to look weedy, but an otherwise unintelligible planting can be made recognizable as an intentional design by adding “cues to care” such as
Frames - can be made of plants, a strip of mowed lawn, or fences or walls. Plant frames could consist of plants with vertical lines, such as Iris versicolor or Common Rush (Juncus effusus), or of much shorter plants, such as Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) or Crested Iris (Iris cristata).
Human-made objects - benches, pieces of art
Signs such as wildlife habitat certification signs or interpretive signs
Tiny plants next to a huge building, or vice versa, will look out of balance.
Consider the vantage point of the viewer. If the garden will mostly be seen from a distance, large plants with bold foliage will stand out better, as will yellow, orange and pink. Blue and purple recede. Red also tends to recede, surprisingly. To appreciate small plants, it helps to put them near where you walk. Spring ephemerals in particular will be enjoyed most if they are along your usual walkway so they can be seen even in bad weather, or outside a window. Can you arrange the plantings in a way to create the effect of a garden room when viewed from a window where people sit? This is likely to be more enjoyable than a distant vista.
Four season interest
The color of fall foliage is well worth considering, as is the structure and texture of trunks and stems. Grasses and the stalks of many perennials are much more interesting to look at than bare mulch beds - how much editing is needed is a matter of taste. Nothing beats the sight of red berries against the snow, of course.
Having planting areas on both sides of a path, especially when the same plant appears to cross the path in a drift, can add a lot of charm.
Gardens and conventional landscapes are not the only choices, nor necessarily the best. Do you have room for a naturalized area? The key processes here are restoring the plants that would have grown in your neighborhood before it was built up, and getting rid of non-native plants. Most common garden weeds, for example, are non-native. (You can see lists of native and non-native weeds here.)
Consider hiring a native plant landscape designer, if not to install, at least to create the design. https://www.plantnovanatives.org/landscaping-help
Supporting the ecosystem
Extended bloom time
Bees need to eat all year, so include a variety of plants to ensure flowers from early spring to late fall. See the bloom time table for some examples.
WIldlife depend on plants that fill the spaces between the tops of canopy trees and the ground. Different bird species, for instance, nest at different levels.
Ground layer, not “ground cover”
Caterpillars and numerous other wildlife depend on the leaf litter and low growing plants.
Feed the birds
Adult birds need the seeds and berries of native plants, which are timed and have the nutritional content they need, as well as insects. Baby birds eat only insects, primarily caterpillars, and caterpillars feed primarily on native trees. See the songbird page for details.
Feed the specialist insects
Most plant eating insects (including butterflies and many bees) can only eat the particular plants with which they evolved. If you plant food for the specialists, you will also be supporting the generalists. Provide lots of diversity. This, however, does not mean plant just one of everything, since a single plant may not be enough to support those particular insects.
Plant the keystone species
A few classes of plants provide the bulk of the eocsystem support. If you only plant rare plants, your habitat will be missing key components
Sunny areas: Goldenrods, Asters, Sunflowers (Helianthus species), Mountain Mints, Rudbeckia species, Bonesets, and - very importantly - various warm season grasses such as Schizachyrium scoparium, Andropogon virginicus, Sorghastrum nutans, Tridens flavus.
Shady areas: Oaks, Hickories, Black Cherries - plus understory trees and shrubs to fill in the middle layer.
Plant groves of trees
Trees are not meant to be alone. Plant several with 10 foot spacing. This may seem close together, but if you look in the woods, this is how trees grow. See this page to learn how to create a mini-forest.
Use straight species and local ecotypes
Whenever they are available, straight species (as opposed to cultivars) will provide more genetic diversity and in some cases may provide more wildlife value. Plants that have been selected for purple or red leaves, for instance, are less edible to insects, and flowers that have been altered in shape or color may not work for the pollinators. Also if possible, using local ecotypes is ideal, as there are significant differences a plant that evolved in Florida, for instance, and one that evolved in Virginia.
Don't spurn the poor male plants
Some shrubs and trees are dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers are on different plants. If all you have is the females, they won't get any berries on them, which is sad for you as a gardener and for the birds who won't get to eat them. Examples include any of the hollies, chokeberries, wax myrtles, wiillows, sumacs, Box Elder, Spicebush, Fringetree, Persimmon, American Hornbeam, and Eastern Red Cedar. Some plants are not strictly dioiceous but will fruit better if you have more than one plant (not clones of each other). Examples include PawPaw, viburnums and blueberries.
Plant in groups
Bees forage most efficiently if they can go from plant to nearby plant. Caterpillars may need several plants to provide enough leaves, and butterflies may have trouble finding plants that are scattered around.
Provide a water source
Animals need to drink, of course, and amphibians and dragonflies need water for breeding.
Leave some bare soil
70% of native bees nest in the ground. Where can they nest on your property? They prefer sunny locations and do not nest in mulch! The rest nest in cavities such as holes in wood, stone walls and old mouse holes.
Leave the leaves
Dead leaves are the food and shelter for innumerable beings. They look fine in a garden bed over the winter, and in the spring the plants will grow right up through them.
Leave the stalks
Pithy or hollow dead stalks are where some native bees lay their eggs. Try to leave them up over the winter. Cut them back to 18 inches in early spring. Over the next few months, bees will find them and lay their eggs.Meanwhile the new growth has come up and hidden them. The following spring, the new bees will emerge. By then, the stalks are usually fallen over on the ground. You can leave them there to decompose, or carefully move them somewhere else out of the way to make sure the bees have time to emerge.
Leave dead trees
Decaying trees are the homes and food for woodpeckers and many other critters. If the tree is still upright, you can cut it to about 20 feet and leave the snag standing. Fallen logs and stumps can be used as natural art.
Can you recreate what was here before?
You are likely to provide the most ecological benefit if you allow some of your property to reforest, by providing the plants that should occupy all the layers (canopy, understory trees, shrubs, ground layer, dead leaves). Which brings us to the last point.
Protect your plants from the deer Most of our woods are missing most of the plants that constitute a healthy ecosystem, because the deer leave little behind except the full grown trees (the tender seedlings that should be there to eventually replace them get eaten) and the invasive introduced plants that deer don’t like. It is wonderful what can regenerate if the deer stop can no longer inflict this damage. If you are unable to provide deer protection, choose species that are relatively deer resistant. You can use the filter to search for them on our online plant finder app.
Can you leave room somewhere on your property for wildness? How about letting the native plants take over and just removing the non-natives?
Making gardens interactive
Most gardens are designed like a work of art: people will glance at them, and a few will study the details, but most people just move on past. Butterflies alone do not fascinate as many people as you might hope. Making any garden interactive and attractive to kids will also make it more attractive to adults, since it turns out that almost all humans require more than the plants to want to linger in a space. A nearby example is Gaithersburg’s Constitution Gardens Park, with its Bird’s Nest Hill, stump scramble, hand carved animals, etc. Watch this video for inspiration.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Nature Conservancy headquarters
Nest site of Abrupt Digger Bees
Tsuga canadensis (Eastern Hemlock)
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Using native plants need not entail any more work than a conventional landscape - and might even require less. Here are some ways to minimize it.
Swap out non-natives for natives (starting with invasive non-natives)
You can keep the exact same design that you have already, if you choose. Many native plants work well in conventional setting. Consult this list for suggestions.
Shade is easier
Weeds grow much slower in the shade, and assertive native plants don’t spread as fast. Shade gardens can be just as beautiful and a lot cooler than those in the sun, so make more shade by planting trees.
Forget the flowers
Using perennials will mean weeding. Shrubs and trees are super easy and have great environmental value. Choose shrubs that will grow only to the height you want so you don’t have to do any pruning.
Clumps of ornamental grasses are easy for landscape crews to deal with.
Thick stands of ferns in the shade are tall enough to suppress weeds well and create a cooling, calming atmosphere.
If you want flowers…
Plant a very limited number of species and group plants of the same species together to simplify weed identification.
Choose species that will not self-seed and that do not spread rapidly by runners. Check for these characteristics in the plant finder app.
Choose easy plants
Consult this list of species that are favored by professionals.
Plants that tend to dominate by spreading sideways and being hard to remove include Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum and Helianthus species), Maryland Senna (Senna marilandica), Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana), Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), and Devil's Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa).
Plants with a tendency toward prolific reseeding that may be too much in a garden setting (but which could be controlled by rigorous deadheading) include asters (Symphyotrichum, Eupatorium and Solidago species), Lyre-leaf Sage (Salvia lyrata), and Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea).
Having said this, the asters and goldenrods are keystone species for bees, butterflies and other wildlife. Safe choices in terms of reseeding include Symphyotrichum oblongifolium and Solidago caesia, odora and flexicaulis.
Keep it manageable
Work with small areas at any given time and add gradually over the years. New plantings require more attention and watering. It is easier if you can set up a hose to one area and not have to move it around.
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
How much time should you expect to spend caring for your landscaping? This chart may help.
Type of Landscaping
Plant ID interest/skill needed
Gardening interest/skill needed
Other maintenance needs
Lawns where you let other plants come in and you don’t sweat the details
Mowing every 1-2 weeks
Lawns where you want only turf grass to grow
Mowing every 1-2 weeks
Soil tests, adding compost yearly, core aeration once or twice a year, lime as needed, reseeding, watering seedlings, Milky Spore every few years
Perennial gardens where plants are allowed to grow together freely and looks are less important
Cut back stalks in early spring.
Perennial gardens including plants that spread easily but you keep spaced apart
Weekly for "House Beautiful" look, otherwise monthly
Cut back stalks in early spring. Cut back certain plants in late spring. Move or remove unwanted plants twice a year.
Perennial gardens using only "neat and tidy" plants that spread only slowly, with space in between plants
Weekly for "House Beautiful" look, otherwise monthly
Cut back stalks in early spring.
Ground cover kept as monoculture
Shrub beds, no mulching
Monthly until deep shade then twice a year
Naturalized areas in places that won't bother the neighbors, with non-natives excluded
3-5 times per year
Shrubs beds with mulch underneath
Maybe four times per year