Spring is an exciting time for all gardeners, but without years of experience, it can be intimidating for novices. Choosing from the dizzying array of annuals and perennials on the nursery shelves can be a daunting task. The staff at Mt. Cuba Center suggests a simple way to ease those fears—by adding to your garden incrementally throughout the season you’ll be able to try new varieties and see how things look and thrive before investing too much time and money.
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, and 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.
Know your garden.
Before you shop, take stock of your situation. 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.
Using an assortment of shapes and colors is a simple way to make your garden interesting to the eye. Try using a variety of foliage, bloom colors and textures. Before you begin planting, make a wish list of plants that will help you achieve your artistic vision.
Once the wish list is complete, head over to your local garden center. If you plan to include some native species, you may have better luck at smaller family-owned centers in your area, such as Gateway Garden Center. “We’ve been trying to create an awareness of natives for some time,” Castorani explains. “Recently, it seems as if the message is finally getting out. Our native plant sales are up over years past, and we think it’s due to the work done by botanic gardens and the media to raise awareness of the benefits of including natives in home landscapes.”
Another great place to look for native plants is at 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 May 2nd and 3rd at Coverdale Farm Preserve. Brandywine Conservancy holds their sale on May 9th and 10th at the Brandywine River Museum. Other organizations hold them in the fall when gardeners are gearing up for the shrub and perennial planting season.
Our native plant sales are up over years past, and we think it’s due to the work done by botanic gardens and the media to raise awareness of the benefits of including natives in home landscapes.
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. “Growers spend a lot of time and money developing nursery tags. It’s their way of communicating valuable plant information to the buyer,” explains Castorani.
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. “Improving the environmental value of your home landscape does not require a big, expensive, labor intensive commitment,” says Jeff Downing, Executive Director of Mt. Cuba Center. “Think incrementally. 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.’”
For more guidance, visit Mt. Cuba Center’s Wildflower Celebration on April 26th, where you can talk to the resident experts, stroll through our beautiful native plant gardens, and pick up a few helpful tips. Horticulturists and Mt. Cuba Center staff will be offering basic gardening demonstrations and hands-on activities throughout the day. They will be there to answer questions about how to choose plants and maintain your garden areas.
Mt. Cuba Center staff picks for great spring natives
Mt. Cuba Center horticulture staff suggests some great spring native plants that do well in the home landscape.
- Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) “Mertensia creates a big burst of blue color at an otherwise quiet time of the year. They spread easily and they are a great plant for wet areas.” – Travis Beck, 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
- Red Bud (Cercis canadensis) “Cercis is a great native tree. It’s beautiful and supports several species of butterflies and their caterpillars.” – Michele Gandy, Natural Lands Steward
- Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) “I like Spigelia for its firecracker red flower. It’s easy to grow and will thrive in a wide range of soils and light conditions.” – Dave Korbonits, Meadow Horticulturist
- 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, Trial Garden Research Horticulturist
- 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 & flower together.” – Renee Kemmerer, Dogwood Path Horticulturist