How to Enliven Your Entrance with a Vibrant Palette of 9 Native Plants
Tech hacks for garden color design; plus, why native plants make a small garden cohesive naturally
Dear Avant Gardener, What plantings — perennials, native, and non-invasive — would work in a small, sunny patch near our front door? Preferably deer, rabbit, groundhog resistant? Thinking of centering a small bush surrounded by plantings. Thank you for any advice! — Anne, Rhode Island
What an energetic blue house! (See reader photo below.) With that color as inspiration, let’s use a mix of art and science — and several apps — to create an equally vibrant native plant palette for your entry garden. Maybe something along the lines of your exotic annual chrysanthemums, but a cohesive plant community that evolved in the northeast in similar conditions.
I recommend a meadow garden of flowering perennials under four feet tall for your small, sunny space. (I don’t see the function of a shrub in the middle.) You can start now by piling fallen leaves eight inches high on the grass; come spring, you’ll be able to plant right into them. Either now or in the spring, also remove the invasive butterfly bush (Buddleia) and whatever that is next to it (lavender?).
The existing evergreen holly and azalea shrubs will provide greenery in the winter when the perennials die back. And the lamb’s ear and any native Indian blanket (probably annual) that reseeds may also work in the new garden.
Picking a palette
For your palette, I started with the blue of your house, using the Benjamin Moore app and a color converter to find its hex color code. Then I used Coolors.co to generate harmonizing color combinations. Coolors applies color theory relationships — complementary colors, split complementary colors, analogous colors, triadic harmonies, tetradic harmonies, and monochromatic harmonies — at the touch of a space bar. These are like musical harmonies, but with light waves instead of sound waves.
One palette Coolors came up with to go with your blue house is various shades of purple, like the purple border at Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst. This would be easy to “paint” with northeast natives, many of which have purple blooms.
However, I really, really want to include cardinal flower in your plant palette to give you the joy of seeing hummingbirds as you enter and leave your house. So I kept pushing the space bar. . . . And came up with a three-color flower palette — what Coolors calls mustard, glossy grape, and ruby red. The yellow and red recall your chrysanthemums.
Painting with flowers
To reproduce this palette in flowers, you’ll need all three colors blooming at once in spring, summer, and fall. You’ll also want sun-loving plants that aren’t too tall to work in the small space and in front of your shrubs. The nine northeast native perennials in the chart below, plus any reseeding Indian blankets, meet these criteria, and all are food of last resort for deer, rabbits and — as far as I can find — groundhogs.
One wild card is your European alpenrose azalea. This species varies from lipstick pink to red. If the color jars with the three-color palette, complement it with an all-purple garden instead or consider replacing it with a native rhododendron (purple).
In a small meadow garden with plants of various heights, put taller plants in back and shorter ones closer to the path. Plant several square feet of a species together. One wild indigo, three of most plants, and five red columbine fill this much space. And then plan to have at least three drifts of each species, interspersed with species that will bloom at different times.
Your final plant order might look something like three wild indigo, 15 red columbine (three clumps of five), and 9 of all the others (three clumps of three). That comes to 81 plants, enough for a 250 square foot space. For a larger garden, add additional species in the same palette or more or larger drifts of the original species.
If this is giving you uncomfortable flashbacks to word problems in math class, relax and make your best guess. Gardens are forgiving. Some plants will spread, others may languish (or succumb to the groundhog). You’ll thin, add, and move plants over time.
In Rhode Island, Prickly Ed’s will get you plugs or small plants of all these species. Or save money by starting some now from seed; buy and learn how to grow them at Wild Seed Project.
Please send “after” pictures!
— The Avant Gardener
P.S. Questions about methodology? About your own garden? Leave me a comment.
Why, How, Wow!
Anne from Rhode Island’s current garden reflects traditional American horticulture; as Thomas Rainier and Claudia West write in their important guide to ecological garden design, Planting in a Post-Wild World,
For too long, planting design has treated plants as individual objects placed in the garden for decoration.
Picking from the selection of exotic plants sold at most nurseries, she and most others end up with a mish-mash of plant species that evolved far away from each other. Her garden has plants from China, England, alpine Europe, Turkey, and elsewhere.
Note: “Some scientists say fear of invasive species is nativist,” according to a recent article in The Atlantic. Favoring native plant species over exotic ones is not at all analogous to favoring one nation or ethnic group over another, although the language can sound similar. We people are all the same species, wherever we’re from.
Choosing plants that evolved together — native to the ecoregion or nearby — is an easy way for home gardeners to design cohesive plantings. It is also possible to create novel plant communities from species that evolved in similar conditions in far-flung locations. To what end? Native plants provide reliable food and habitat for native insects, which are declining at an alarming rate.
The nine plants below collectively nurture bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other wildlife while being unpalatable to deer. Many are native throughout much of North America; see native range maps at the links provided.
Common names and height x spread above. Species (left to right) with links to Native Plant Trust descriptions: Top: Baptisia tinctoria, Asclepias incarnata, Lobelia cardinalis; middle: Iris versicolor, Monarda didyma, Agastache foeniculum; bottom: Aquilegia canadensis, Rudbeckia fulgida, Solidago caesia.
These images illustrate beautifully the all-purple and red, purple, yellow palettes that complement my reader’s blue house.
Interested in hummingbirds? Read my column here.
Want to find more reliably deer-resistant plants in the northeast? Buy Deer Resistant Native Plants of the Northeast, one of my favorite references, or use the advanced search at Native Plant Trust’s Garden Plant Finder.
Live elsewhere? Find local native plant nurseries at the Audubon Native Plant Database. (Near Milwaukee? Buy the pictured plants at Heritage Flower Farm.)
Thanks for this comprehensive article.
This is so cool. Love that Coolor app and how you seemingly magically turned a color palette into a plant palette. Inspiring!