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Ask the Expert: How to Grow Native Plants in Containers

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Ask the Expert: How to Grow Native Plants in Containers

April 20, 2023

We’ve all been learning about the importance of growing native plants in our yards. They’re vital to the insects, birds, and wildlife we love. The good news is that you don’t need a yard to support them. For most of the week, I live 10 stories above the street in New York City, where I have just the smallest sliver of outdoor space. I wanted to see if I could grow some native plants in pots on my terrace to support the birds and insects that fly past my windows. I reached out to Uli Lorimer, director of Horticulture at Native Plant Trust, the nation’s first plant conservation organization, and the author of The Northeast Native Plant Primer- 235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden (Timber Press, 2022). He shared his advice—and now I need to get planting.

Photography by Uli Lorimer.

Q: What should you look for when selecting plants for containers?

Above: Uli Lorimer’s Northeast Native Plant Primer: 235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden (Timber Press, 2022)

A: The first distinction that I would like to make is that many of our native plants are perennials, either woody shrubs and trees or herbaceous. This means that they will continue to grow and fill in a container over time. I like to select plants for containers with the aim of eventually planting them out into the soil in the future. Remember that these plants are more than just ornaments to be discarded at the end of a growing season. As a way to honor them and the hard work that went into propagating these plants, try to ensure they have a forever home after they have outgrown the container.

That said, there are several great native annuals to incorporate into container plantings like partridge pea (Chamaechrista fasciculata) for dry sunny conditions or herb robert (Geranium robertianum) for dry shady conditions. These plants have extended bloom periods and will draw pollinators to your container. For aesthetic reasons, I look for the same qualities that you would for annual or tender perennial container plants, plants that may trail over the side, structural plants, and certainly a progression of blooms throughout the season.

Q: What herbaceous plants do you recommend for containers?

A pollinator magnet—especially for native bees, wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) flaunts purplish-pink flowers in spring through fall. It is a clump-forming perennial that does well in part-sun to part-shade conditions.
Above: A pollinator magnet—especially for native bees, wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) flaunts purplish-pink flowers in spring through fall. It is a clump-forming perennial that does well in part-sun to part-shade conditions.

A: For a spring woodland feel, I like woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum). For sunny dry locations our native prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) is a stalwart performer, very drought tolerant and capable of producing a multitude of gorgeous yellow blossoms in summer. Pussytoes (Anntenaria sp.) are low growing and drought tolerant with silvery foliage. For summer standouts, include mountain mints (Pycnanthemum sp.) and wild bergamots (Monarda sp.), as these are sure to attract every pollinator in the neighborhood.

A northeast native cactus, Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) is drought- and salt-tolerant. It showcases showy yellow flowers in summer and is beloved by native bees.
Above: A northeast native cactus, Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) is drought- and salt-tolerant. It showcases showy yellow flowers in summer and is beloved by native bees.

We often include ferns in our containers at Garden in the Woods, evergreen ones like Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) or gently spreading ferns like narrow beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis) or ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Ferns add a relaxing textural element and are generally good for shadier spots. Lastly, for autumn bloomers, I am fond of heart leaved aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Its stems are stout and festooned with small pale blue flowers while wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia) produces graceful splays of blue stems with cheerful yellow blossoms tucked into the axils between the leaves. There are truthfully too many herbaceous options to list them all, but these count among my personal favorites.

Q: What trees do you recommend?

A spring flowering beauty, flowering dogwood (Benthamidia florida syn. Cornus florida) is a shallow-rooted understory tree that likes moist, rich soil and full sun to part shade.
Above: A spring flowering beauty, flowering dogwood (Benthamidia florida syn. Cornus florida) is a shallow-rooted understory tree that likes moist, rich soil and full sun to part shade.

A: Magnolias with large leaves such as umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) or big leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) are great for their bold texture while small flowering trees like flowering dogwood (Benthamidia florida syn. Cornus florida) or redbud (Cercis canadensis) add spring interest, foliage, and fall color as well. Fringetree (Chionanthu virginicus) produces deliciously fragrant blooms in late spring and the mostly evergreen sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) will perfume your deck or front stoop in the depths of summer.

Q: What shrubs do you recommend?

 Aboe: In his book The Northeast Native Plant Primer, Lorimer describes the flowers of the spring-blooming deciduous shrub pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) as smelling “heavenly, with hints of bubblegum.” Butterflies and moths flock to its tubular flowers that “resemble eyelashes.”
Aboe: In his book The Northeast Native Plant Primer, Lorimer describes the flowers of the spring-blooming deciduous shrub pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) as smelling “heavenly, with hints of bubblegum.” Butterflies and moths flock to its tubular flowers that “resemble eyelashes.”

A: One of my favorite evergreen shrubs is bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), a prostrate creeping shrub that trails over the edges of containers beautifully. I am also fond of our deciduous azaleas: pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum), and swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) for their structural elegance, elaborate blossoms, and in the case of swamp azalea, intoxicating aroma. I would shy away from shrubs that spread through rhizomes as they are likely to crowd out other plants in the long run.

Q: How should you care for them?

A: If you are the sort of gardener that packs your containers full at the outset, I would be sure to monitor watering needs as the season progresses. When watering, be sure to water the entire soil profile, keep watering until you see water exiting the drainage hole! And if your container does not have a drainage hole, either make one OR consider a bog planting featuring pitcher plants, cranberry plants and other wet loving companions. If you feel the need to fertilize, I would recommend using a dilute solution of fish emulsion fertilizer once a month.

Q: Can you lure certain bees or butterflies to your garden by growing certain plants?

Above: A host plant to loopers, grays, and owlet moths, blue-stem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) features clusters of yellow flowers along the stems. Grow this late season bloomer in dry, shady conditions.

A: With a little research, you can include either host plants for butterfly caterpillars (think milkweeds for monarchs, or carrot family for swallowtails) or groups like the mountain mints, asters, and goldenrods that will attract some specialist bees as well as the generalists.

Q: Is there anything else we should be aware of when growing native plants in containers?

For a contest at LongHouse Reserve, Lorimer put together this container of native plants. It&#8\2\17;s anchored by two trees: Big Leaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) and SweetBay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). The rest is filled with high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), a shrub sporting red foliage, red and yellow flowered Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica), and grass-like globe flatsedge (Cyperus echinatus). It’s no surprise that the container won a blue ribbon.
Above: For a contest at LongHouse Reserve, Lorimer put together this container of native plants. It’s anchored by two trees: Big Leaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) and SweetBay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). The rest is filled with high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), a shrub sporting red foliage, red and yellow flowered Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica), and grass-like globe flatsedge (Cyperus echinatus). It’s no surprise that the container won a blue ribbon.

A: One important thing to consider with using native plants in containers involves calibrating your expectations. These are not the highly bred and manipulated annuals that get traditionally used in container plantings. The focus of plant selection has as much to do with texture and form as it does with flower color and bloom time. That said, native plant containers should have some floral feature that takes center stage throughout the season, meaning an aster or goldenrod component to bring the season to a close in autumn is as important as a summer star and spring feature.

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