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Back to News Learnings – March 31, 2021


Planning for a Beautiful Spring Garden

Spring is an exciting time for all gardeners. It’s a time to reconnect with the earth, and a time to start thinking about new garden plants and planning your garden design. Choosing from the array of annuals and perennials on nursery shelves doesn’t have to be a daunting task. By adding to your garden incrementally throughout the season you’ll be able to try new varieties and see how things look and thrive.

“This spring, find one or two native plants that you like and add them to your garden. Later this summer, or next year, add a couple more. With each native plant you add, you’re sustaining a broad array of insects, birds, and other wildlife. At Mt. Cuba Center, we’ve started calling this approach ‘conservation by addition.’ says Jeff Downing, executive director of Mt. Cuba Center.

View of the South Garden at Mt. Cuba Center in Spring.

Garden centers’ inventory changes throughout the season. Start off by concentrating on plants for spring and early summer. “As soon as the plants are out of their dormant stage and actively showing growth, we put them out for sale,” says Peg Castorani, owner of Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin. “Because each type of plant ‘awakens’ at different time,” she adds, “new plants will become available throughout the spring and into the summer.”


While many plants will be successful in a mid-Atlantic garden, native species are among the best choices. Natives have co-evolved with other local plants and wildlife throughout the region. They are naturally well-suited for growing conditions in that area so they don’t need as much added water and maintenance as non-native species. They also support pollinators including bees and butterflies, and provide food for wildlife. The benefits of native plants are so important that April has been designated as “National Native Plant Month.”

Know your garden.

The key to planning a successful garden is considering what will grow well on the site you’ve chosen. Think carefully about the conditions in your yard—do you have shade or full sun? Is your soil dry or is it low-lying and soggy when it rains? Understanding your site’s growing conditions will help you choose the right plant for the right place.

Make a list.

Using an assortment of foliage, bloom colors, and textures is a simple way to make your garden interesting to the eye. Before you begin planting, make a wish list of plants that will help you achieve your artistic vision.

Mertensia virginica, or Virginia bluebells

Mertensia virginica, or Virginia bluebells, herald spring and, because of their large numbers, are an important source of early-season nectar and pollen for emerging pollinators.

Go shopping.

Once the wish list is complete, head over to your local garden center. If you plan to include some native species, check out smaller family-owned centers in your area, such as Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin. Plus, Mt. Cuba members enjoy a discount on plant material at Gateway Garden Center when they show their membership card at check-out.

Visit to explore other local retailers offering native options.

A limited number of high-quality native plants are also for sale at Mt. Cuba Center. Selections vary by season and are generally available May through October. These plants are available to purchase when the Gardens are open to the public (Wednesday through Sunday, 10 AM – 6 PM), while supplies last. The cost is $6 per plant.

Another place to find native plants is local native plant sales. These one- or two-day events provide a valuable resource for native plant enthusiasts and often help raise funds for conservation organizations. The Delaware Nature Society will hold its annual native plant sale online on May 2 & 3. Enjoy a wide variety of beautiful native species for all growing conditions.

As you shop, read each plant’s nursery tag carefully. These tags will indicate the conditions the plants need to thrive and are the key to choosing the right plants for a particular area of the yard.

Dig in!

Once you’ve made your selections, it’s time to go home, don the gardening gloves and get to work. Start with the basic tools, follow the nursery tags, enjoy learning about your plants and garden as you grow. Check out Mt. Cuba’s Native Plant Finder to learn even more about your selections.

Phlox divaricata, or woodland phlox.

Woodland phlox is an herbaceous perennial that is among the most reliable and carefree plants, producing large clusters of fragrant lavender blue flowers on 6-10″ tall stems.

Mt. Cuba Center Staff Picks

Mt. Cuba Center horticulture staff suggest some great spring native plants that do well in the home landscape.

  • Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica): Stunning early spring perennial. Use in woodland gardens or under trees & shrubs that bloom later in the season.
  • Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata): Phlox divaricata is a great plant for the shady spot in your garden. I like this perennial because of its spectacular display of spring flowers. Numerous varieties have been selected for interesting flower colors as well as fragrance.” – George Coombs, director of horticulture
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): Lindera is one of the first woodland shrubs to bloom. It is a tough, easy to grow shrub for the shade garden. – Sue Boss, entrance and landscape horticulturist
  • Canyon Vista Columbine (Aquilegia candensis ‘canyon vista’): A virtual powerhouse of spring blooms with bright orange-red and yellow bicolor flowers held above attractive blue-green foliage. Use in woodland gardens, naturalized areas, cottage gardens, rocky outcrops, and open shade gardens.
  • Red Bud (Cercis canadensis): Small ornamental tree. Use in the landscape as a specimen or place in naturalistic groups at the edge of the woodland.
  • Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum): “This is one tough plant! Love it for its ability to tolerate clay soil and shady areas. I also love it for its ‘weaving ability.’ This easy plant will spread via seed or rhizome in amongst other plants, thus knitting the landscape of foliage and flower together.” – Renee Kemmerer, dogwood path horticulturist