Beautiful Native Plants

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Adventures in Creating a Native Garden

Stage one: Lawn removal & three bunching grasses

Three Elliot’s love grass bunches glow in the early morning sun.
Last September I began this set of garden adventures with the purchase of some Elliot’s love grass (Eragrostis elliottii) at a native plant sale. I knew I was going to reduce the tongue of lawn out into the front meadow and wanted to have the grasses to set the area off.

A well-managed edge hides or distracts from a weedy interior.

It was recommended that the grasses be placed three feet apart so they’d have room to grow. So I began, yet again, to remove a large chunk of lawn. I started by clearing the space for the grasses and then creating a nice gently curved line for the lawn’s edge so the lawnmower could easily make one single turn to get it all. I removed the St. Augustine grass over the next couple of weeks and then I covered the bare areas with a thin covering of pine needles. See my post “Changes” for more details on this part of the project and further information on why our lawn is classified as a “freedom lawn.”

Looking toward the lawn, you can see the extent of this project–about twelve by
fourteen feet of lawn removal.
The holidays came and went before the next stage of this project.

The perennial rayless sunflower plants
have good healthy-looking roots systems.

Stage two: Filling in the meadow

I bought a bunch of native plants from Kari Ruder of Naturewise in January with the this part of the yard in mind. See my post “Supporting the Native Plant Industry” for details on that foray. I bought more grasses including some smaller Elliot’s love grasses, some coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.), and some rayless sunflowers (Helianthus radula).  I planted them in groupings so there would be drifts of flowers.

The rayless sunflower grows in the deep south and doesn’t have the florets around the edge like a classic sunflower. It looks like someone played, “He loves me. He loves me not” and left only the centers in place. I planted these about six inches apart and I may need to thin them out in a few years, but for now they are all in one group. I love their interesting basal leaves and am anxious to see them bloom. The flower heads will be borne on one to two-foot tall stalks.

The beautiful stokes asters attract native pollinators.

I planted the smaller love grass bunches in a group to the left side of this space with some of the coreopsis between them. The rest of the coreopsis was planted behind the original love grasses and is what is so showy in the photos below.
I already had Stokes asters (Stokesia laevis) and tropical sage (Salvia coccinea) in a number of places on our property, so I moved some of them to this area in groupings. Also elephant’s foot (Elephantopus elatus) with its leathery basal leaves and delicate lavender flowers and the native blue stemmed grass (Andropogon spp.) volunteer out here, too.

In the second major stage of this garden some of the natives have been planted behind and between the Elliot’s Love grass.

And so, everything sat for a few months while I was gallivanting around the state for my book tour for “Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida.”

Stage three: The final touches (Of course, nothing is ever final in a landscape...)

The shrub layer needed editing.
Before I started this phase of the garden transformation, there was a large prostrate gardenia and an Asian azalea that were going to be removed. I don’t know which holly cultivar is growing out there–probably ‘Nellie Stevens,’ but I will leave it there because of all its berries and its dense growth that provides good shelter for birds. Also, I trim its branches to use for holiday wreaths each year.

My goal here was to replace the non-native shrubs. The Asian azalea, which I plopped out there five or six years ago as a root-pruned cutting from the foundation azaleas, had never done well in all that time, so I yanked it. I also had put the low growing gardenia out there on a temporary basis, but never got around to removing it. Unlike the azalea, it did extremely well crawling all over the place and layering itself into a huge tangle. I thought it looked out of place in my otherwise native garden, so I dug it out, which was much more difficult than I had anticipated.

The native azaleas

I’d purchased a native sweet pinxter azalea (Rhododendron canescens) several years ago that has been doing well out here by itself. I thought it might be lonely. So when the opportunity presented itself, I was able to change that.

The root balls were tiny. I soaked the root balls and stretched out the roots.
Here in northeastern Florida, we are in the of the southernmost and easternmost range of the endangered Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum). Its range is limited to just four states: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. The native plant trade is ensuring its survival.
I purchased a handsome pair in three-gallon containers at one of my many gardenfests on my book tour this spring. They were full and the leaves were bright green and I’ve been holding them for several weeks in their pots. They’ve been well-adjusted and have never wilted or showed any signs of distress.

So, I was quite surprised the other day when I finally removed them from their pots for this project. Their root balls were tiny.  They’d obviously been kept in six-inch pots for far too long. The root balls were solid and no roots had ventured out into the nice rich-looking potting soil in the containers.

After soaking the root ball in a pail of water, I worked to untangle the roots before planting.
I soaked the root balls in a pail of water and then worked to untangle the circling roots.  When I placed the azaleas in their planting holes, I made sure that the root flares were above the soil line and that the soil where I placed the stretched out roots was nice and loose. I tamped them down so they stayed upright and then built berms around the planting holes with all that good and totally unused soil from their three-gallon pots. This way the extra irrigation for these plants stays in the root ball.
Now, several days after the brutal treatment of their roots, those azaleas never wilted once! I have kept them moist, but still, I would have expected some trauma.

As with trees, you’ll want only the native soil in the planting hole–no amendments of any type, because you want the roots to stretch out.  This fall, I’ll lay down some rich compost outside the planting hole to entice the roots to spread into new areas. See my post “Native Plants for your Yard: The Next Step” for much more information and resources concerning the best practices for installing trees and shrubs.

The weeds

I spotted a blue curls plant near the front edge of the garden. Knowing how tall and rangy they get, it couldn’t stay in this location. I opted to move it and its neighboring coreopsis farther back in the garden.

I did fair amount of weeding especially at the front edge of the garden, especially dollar weed (Hydrocotyle spp.) and other crawling invaders from the lawn including the St. Augustine itself. In most cases, I sent the weeds to the compost pile or the yard waste, but when I spotted this blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) growing amongst the coreopsis, I decided to move it farther back in the garden for a neater look. Blue curls has beautiful flowers, but the plants can get rangy–growing to three or four feet tall.

Normally I would not have bothered to transplant it because I have so many, but I knew that I’d be watering the azaleas and several other transplanted plants, so irrigating one more would not be much extra effort. One of the coreopsis plants went with it. I'd also transplanted a stokes aster from near the existing pinxter azalea, where it was hidden, out front with the others asters. These asters have been quite showy this spring, but now they are past their prime and you can hardly see them in these final photos.

The top dressing

I used leaf & pine needle mulch for most of the garden. I piled a thick layer around (but not touching) the new azaleas. I also piled it thickly at the front edge of the wild meadow.

I’d been storing a good-sized pile of leaves and pine needles since late last fall. In Florida, winter is the dry season, so not much composting had taken place and nary a worm was found in the whole dry pile.

I used the leaves to mulch most of the area. After all my weeding and editing, there were many areas of loosened and uncovered soil.  Weeds would have had a hay day, if I had not laid down the mulch.
But at the edge that interfaces with the lawn and for the path next to this area, I used neater-looking wood chips. I am still working on the pile that I acquired when my neighbor removed a hickory tree.  See “A Requiem for a Hickory Tree“  for more information on using arborists’ woodchips.

After all the weeding, clearing & mulching, a much more attractive.
All natives, except for the holly.

What I’ve done here, from a design point of view, is to create the edge of the lawn with about twelve feet of meadow and followed by another edge created by the shrubs on one side under the trees and the taller and wilder meadow that was already there on the other side. The three native azaleas form a shallow triangle and behind the azaleas there are beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) that have plenty of room to grow. I don’t know how big they’ll get out under the trees, but I’ve laid some compost around them as part of this project and will also do so again this fall. The wild-looking front meadow consists mostly of goldenrods (Solidago spp. and Euthamia caroliniana) and native grasses, but a wide assortment of other plants is also present.

Another view of the edited garden. Notice that the wood chips are tamped down along the edge of the lawn? This is so the wheels of the riding lawnmower can easily ride over the edge and not suck up the chips into the blades.

More native gardening adventures to come…

© Ginny Stibolt