2014 Garden Plan – 10 Lessons

So it’s definitely spring in the Northeast and the forsythia, oaks, tulip trees, redbuds and red maples are all poppin’ off. In that order, everything looks like this:


We have NONE of that happening here at Lil’ Spot. Everything is still twiggy and muddy and I don’t have any early bloomers that brighten things up this time of year. That’s okay though – gardening is a slow process and I’m learning to enjoy it. Each year I add a few things, move a few things and learn a lot of things.

I’m making a huge effort to plant only native species on our small piece of suburban property. Planting native takes a little bunch of extra research and planning. But it pays off in the form of a green conscience, plants that are easier to care for (because they’re meant to grow in your conditions) and a yard full of birds and butterflies (because you’re providing their favorite food and nesting sites). That last part really sold me. #birdnerd

People are always amazed to learn that in our area, just 25 miles north of Manhattan, we have hummingbirds! (Don’t tell anyone, but they’re in Manhattan too.) Well listen, if you plant native Trumpet Honeysuckle instead of invasive poo-pants Japanese Honeysuckle, you’ll actually SEE them in your own backyard. For REALZ. It’s science.

image credit: chris dupe

ruby throated hummingbird | image credit: chris dupe (CC)

Here are my favorite resources for learning about native plants:

  1. American Beauties Native Plants – a comprehensive resource for building a garden plan around native plants; look for their branded pots at your local nursery to help you distinguish native cultivars
  2. National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife –  a great guide for native plants with instructions for turning your space into a Certified Wildlife Habitat (yes, please!)
  3. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – I love their list of recommended species searchable by state or effort; you can find out which plants are good for honey bees or monarch butterflies, for example
  4. PlantNative – a thorough database for native plants by type – trees, shrubs, perennials, ground cover, etc.
Chanticleer Garden | image credit: JR P (CC)

Chanticleer Garden | image credit: JR P (CC)

And here are 10 lessons that I’ve learned the hard way and am happy to share with you:

  1. Don’t be fooled by what you see in your neighbor’s yard. Many of the most popular plants used in landscapes are actually super invasive (forsythia, privet, bamboo), and nurseries don’t necessarily advertise plants as invasive. So it’s up to you. Here’s the Naughty List you can use to cross-check your shopping list before you leave home.
  2. Speaking of, make a list before you go to the nursery. Plants aren’t good impulse-buys. Trust me. Please trust me.  Plus, it’s hard to remember their crazy long names by heart.
  3. Ahem, learn the scientific names that are crazy long and impossible to pronounce. The common name (i.e. winterberry) is SO much easier to say than the scientific name (i.e. ilex verticillata), I know. But common names are not as specific and there are multiple common names per species so they’re all jumbled in a big drunk 18th-century-botanist mess. It’s actually a terrible nomenclature system, unless you stick to the scientific. Plus it makes you sound SMART! Bottom line is that using the common name may lead you to purchase a species or cultivar (variety) that isn’t what you were looking for. No bueno.
  4. Learn about cultivars and varietals. If you want to plant a red stem dogwood in your yard do a little homework first. I learned that there are 2 species of dogwood shrubs that have red stems and each has SEVERAL CULTIVARS. Oye! All are different sizes, shapes, growth rates and colors. So if you buy one plant that’s a different cultivar…you’ll end up like me and have a “3 of These Things Belong Together” situation on your hands.
  5. Figure out which Hardiness Zone you live in and don’t try to deny it! If you live in New York, you shouldn’t be growing palms or succulents outside. Our harsh winters will kill those babies right away and everyone will be sad and poor. If you just can’t live without palms and succulents, move to Arizona. Here’s a map where you can just plug in your zip code to find your zone.
  6. Non-native doesn’t always mean invasive. There are many non-native naturalized plants out there that aren’t harmful to our ecosystem, they just weren’t born here. Over the years, naturalized plants have learned to play nicely in our sandbox and they are not invasive. They’re good guys, they just may be more high maintenance.
  7. Don’t take the nursery staff’s word for it. Unfortunately, staff knowledge can be hit or miss. Plus, not all nurseries are up to speed on the demand for native plants. For serious questions, ask for the head gardener. And at some nurseries you can look for the American Beauties pots and know that you’re choosing a US native.
  8. Try to choose a color palette and stick to it. Back to the cultivar issue – if you’re trying to grow a purple, white and gray garden and you accidentally install a plant that flowers red, you blew it. Just kidding, but now you have to either move the red plant or plant more red so it looks intentional. This part has been hard for me , but I’m trying to stick to purple, white and yellow.
  9. Don’t forget about the leaves! They’re part of the plant too and will contribute more to the look of your garden than the flower, most likely. Try to mix up broad leaves with feathery, waxy with fuzzy, chartreuse with deep green and so on.
  10. Plant for all seasons. This goes along with #5 – remember that most deciduous plants, most perennials and all annuals will lose their leaves in the fall and die back in the winter. Mix in plants that stay beautiful and evergreen all year long and you’ll have “winter interest” (and birds!) in the cold months.

I’ve learned all of these things through trial and error…and more error. Gardening is about patience, planning and coaxing – skills that we aren’t used to honing in our modern lives. A beautiful garden doesn’t happen overnight and doesn’t always work out the way you hoped. Which is why it’s something worth having.

Tomorrow I’ll share some of the before + after progress we’ve made in transforming Lil’ Spot’s Plot (aka our yard).

Loveyoubye! Maggie


  1. Thanks so much for posting this! I am itching to rip out a bunch of old gross bushes from our backyard and I never really thought about actually making sure I get native plants to replace them. Thank you also for listing all the great resources.


  2. “I’ve learned all of these things through trial and error…and more error. Gardening is about patience, planning and coaxing – skills that we aren’t used to honing in our modern lives. “… I teach preschool. Most young parents…or even older parents…would make the same comment about parenting. 🙂 Gardening and pet owning are good practice. 🙂


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