Plants that are native to this region are especially valuable in landscaping projects, because they are adapted to the soil and climate. They need no chemicals and minimal care or water once established. Like any perennial, though, watering is necessary for the first year (or up to three years for trees during periods of drought).
Choose your plants
Pay attention to sun, soil, and moisture requirements. Northern Virginia contains many different environments, so pick the right plant for your site. When you do that, there is no need to “improve” the soil.
Think ahead to the ultimate size. To avoid the need for future pruning, choose a plant whose size matches the space. It is unwise to plant a 50 foot tree underneath a 20 foot utility line! And many vines that start out small may end up enormous.
Vary the leaf texture and color in garden borders. Until they bloom, most perennial plants are just green. Add interest by interspersing grasses and ferns or plants with maroon leaves, such as American alumroot and ninebark. Green-and-gold brightens any spot with its near-chartreuse color.
Vary the height. Shrubs and trees come in all sizes and provide a more natural habitat than flowers alone. Shorter plants usually look best in front of taller ones, but mixing it up a little can add charm.
Use flowers with long bloom times. Some plants will flower for many weeks. Examples include asters, butterfly weed, cardinal flower, coral honeysuckle, garden phlox, and sundrop.
Garden for four seasons. Pick flowers to provide color (and food for the bees and butterflies) from early spring to late fall. Grasses, bright fall foliage, and shrubs with colorful berries can extend the season well into winter, and trees with interesting bark can carry you over into spring. An easy and showy sequence if you have a mixture of sun and part shade might include Virginia bluebells and redbuds for early spring color, then progress to dogwood, moss phlox, eastern red columbine, green-and-gold, goatsbeard, butterfly weed, sundrop, bee balm, garden phlox, Turk’s cap lily, black-eyed Susan, Joe-pye weed, cardinal flower, bottle gentian, aster, switch grass, Virginia sweetspire (for fall foliage), winterberry (bright red berries), witch hazel (blooms after the leaves fall off in November), and ninebark (peeling bark).
Don’t forget the trees. If you were to do nothing else than to simply plant a shade tree in the middle of your lawn, you will have provided a tremendous amount of habitat for our non-human neighbors.
Check the Latin name. Different plants may share the same common name. For example, “beautyberry” could refer to the native Callicarpa americana or to the Asian (and invasive) Callicarpa dichotoma.
Know your limits. For a truly low-maintenance landscape, stick to tall grasses, ferns, shrubs, and short trees.
Design for interest
Consider mass plantings. Many plants that look insignificant by themselves will have pizzazz when grouped together.
Hide the knees. A few otherwise-useful species look sad in a mass and have a weedy appearance before they bloom. To avoid that, place asters behind other things to disguise them, for example, and mix gayfeather in with other plants.
Add the human touch. Any human-made object will indicate that your plantings are intentional. Even a few lined-up sticks marking a path will signal that this is a garden. A vase, statue, bench, or fence can also serve as a focal point to draw the eye.
For the professional look
Use plenty of wood or leaf mulch. In addition to creating a dressy appearance and silhouetting the individual plants, mulch retains moisture, keeps down weeds, and adds organic matter to the soil.
Provide a crisp edge for flower gardens. This can be accomplished with building materials, an edging spade, a row of short grasses such as purple love grass, or even simply by mowing.
Most perennial plants need about three years to come into their own.
Leave the insects alone. The whole point of planting native plants is to provide habitat. Insects will rarely do any serious damage to a native plant.
Plants mentioned in this handout:
Asters (Symphyotrichum species)
American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Bottle gentian (Gentiana clausa)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Gayfeather (Liatris spicata)
Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata)
Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus)
Green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)
Joe-pye weed (Euthrochium fistulosum)
Moss phlox (Phlox subulata)
Sundrop (Oenothera fruticosa)
Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum)
Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica)
Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirans)
Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)
Switch grass (Panicum virgatum)