The latest thinking on ecological landscapes. Useful tips to improve our environment

Kim Eierman

Kim Eierman

Founder of EcoBeneficial!

Available for virtual and in-person landscape consulting, talks and classes.

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Extending the Garden With Great Native Plants in Pots

If you are like many gardeners, you are scouring your landscape to figure out where else you can squeeze in another plant.  No empty spots in your garden?  No problem.  Containers are the answer!  While many gardeners plant in pots, few realize that there are many native plants which will do very well in containers.  Not only are native perennials and smaller shrubs less expensive than exotic annuals as container plants, they provide many ecological benefits.

I particularly like to use what I term “multiple-duty native plants” which offer several ecological and aesthetic benefits. One example is Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium).  This is a plant which provides nectar and pollen for native bumble bees, followed by berries which are relished by songbirds and small mammals, and even by humans, if we are lucky enough to get a few.

Lowbush Blueberry offers the additional benefit of beautiful red fall color. If your native soil is not acidic enough to grow blueberries, container planting gives you the opportunity to create that acidic condition. As with any blueberries, plant three genetically different plants for best flower and fruit production, in the same or multiple containers.

Whether you plant native flowering perennials, grasses, sedges, ferns, or sub-shrubs in containers, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Plant for visual appeal and ecological function.
  2. Container design also applies to native plants: thriller, spiller and filler.
  3. Avoid double-flowered plants that often have little or no nectar, pollen or seed.
  4. Stick with the natural forms of native plants for best ecosystem support (avoid those orange-colored coneflowers!).
  5. Use a container that will accommodate the mature size of the plant(s), including the roots.
  6. Some native plants are quite adaptable to various sun/moisture levels like Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia).
  7. Some native plants want what they want! Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) will not tolerate poor drainage, shady conditions, or very fertile soil.
  8. Plant for multiple season bloom (ex: Dwarf Beardtongue for spring; Purple Coneflower for summer, cascading Heath Aster for fall).
  9. Use ferns, sedges and grasses for foliage texture and color – especially useful when nothing is in bloom.
  10. No fertilizers are needed with native plants. Add compost and shredded leaves to keep the soil biology going.
  11. Think “ecological themes” with native containers.  A hummingbird container might include: a dwarf selection of Canada Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).   A great way to get kids outdoors!
  12. Use containers to plant native vines against walls or fences where there is no soil. Native Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is one good candidate. It is one of our longest blooming native plants, and offers nectar to hummingbirds, and then berries to birds in the fall.

Native plants can overwinter in pots, but select frost-proof containers; terracotta won’t work over the winter in cold climates. “Heeling-in” pots with mulch can protect pots to some extent against frost-heave.

Make sure to leave your potted plants plants standing through the winter to provide seed for birds and habitat for overwintering insects.  Cut them back in early spring.

Sit back and enjoy the butterflies, bees, beneficial insects and birds that you have attracted by planting great native plants in containers!

From Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!

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