Native Plant Palettes
Creating a garden is not unlike painting. Working with a palette of plants to provide the needed colors, textures, and shapes, we gardeners paint the landscape with pleasing combinations in proper scale for the surroundings.
The greatest challenge comes when we’re presented with a blank canvas—the typical new housing development with not much more than a lawn and a few trees. Taking a cue from nature, we might select plant combinations that occur in nature and are suited to particular site conditions. Here in greatly simplified form, are some prototypical plant palettes.
An Indiana woodland, undisturbed by humans, is likely home to myriad spring ephemerals—plants that grow and flower before the forest trees leaf out. In April and May, out of the forest litter arise tiny salt-and-peppers, pale pink spring beauties, trillium, hepatica, pristine white bloodroot, Virginia bluebells, yellow celandine poppies, pale purple Jacob’s ladder, and many other delights, all in pastel shades, inviting a leisurely walk in the spring woods with many stops for a close-up look.
When this flush of flowers is over, woodlands return to a quiet emptiness of leaf litter and tall tree trunks, with an occasional understory shrub or small tree—spicebush, pawpaw, pagoda dogwood—and many ferns, grabbing the light from a gap in the tree canopy. The summer woodlands slumber thus until autumn weather brings the blaze of color that heralds the leaf fall that will replenish the forest floor.
►A woodland garden mimics nature’s rhythms, putting on a spring show but leaving sunnier areas of the garden to carry the summer and fall. Maintenance consists of keeping out the invasive honeysuckle, garlic mustard, periwinkle, and wintercreeper euonymus and otherwise leaving the forest be.
Where the light of an open field or lawn meets the shade of tall trees, shrubs and small trees come into their own, spanning the middle layer between low and high. Surviving on part sun and part shade, many native shrubs sport spring flowers, rich summer greens, and glowing fall color, with a bonus of berries and nesting sites for birds. Ninebark, dogwood, serviceberry, arrowwood viburnum, nannyberry are among the stalwarts of the woods edge.
►A woods edge garden creates vistas from a deck or porch all season long, and repays the planting and watering of its shrubs during their first few seasons with years of nearly maintenance-free enjoyment. Native perennials mingle happily at their feet to enhance vistas with masses of color.
What could be more native to Indiana than wetlands, those millions of acres that were drained in the last century to create our rich agricultural lands? Surviving natural wetlands are home to a rich diversity of avian and amphibian as well as plant species. Moist meadows of Queen-of-the-prairie, sedges, and cardinal flower, and water’s edge colonies of blue flag iris and swamp hibiscus offer waves of color in high summer and pleasing strappy or grasslike leaves through fall and winter.
►A water’s edge garden might be a rain garden to safely percolate rainwater back into the aquifer, or a pond habitat for native frogs and toads, or a higher destiny for a stormwater drainage ditch, or a retention pond border alive with dragonflies that deters Canada geese from becoming a nuisance. Neat boundaries between lawn and wetland plantings help this garden blend into a residential setting.
Only a small portion of Indiana was prairie before European settlement, but many people think of these grasslands first when they think of native plants. Short and tall grasses form the backbone for this plant palette, allowing room for and supporting flowering perennials (forbs) to create a sea of slim blades dotted with points of color that bend in the wind and buzz with pollinators. In natural areas, grasslands span acres, creating pleasing long views and, when enhanced with mown paths, offering close-ups of a wide variety of flowering plants and insects on the wing.
►A grassland garden incorporates the prairie aesthetic on a smaller scale. In a home landscape, it might be an area of lawn left unmowed and spot-planted with prairie plants and annuals as a pollinator pasture. In a neighborhood, church, or commercial site, a seeded prairie mix might serve as a cost-saving alternative to mowing acres of turfgrass. Regular weeding during establishment will be essential to the success of this garden.
INPAWS’ Annual Conference is a great resource for learning to landscape with Indiana natives. It’s a full day of talks, books, and conversation centered on native plants. From a team of expert speakers, you’ll learn lots that you can apply in your own garden.