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Choosing the Right Plants

Updated: Mar 23

Choosing the right plants for your yard is one of the most important steps you can take to creating a successful backyard habitat. In the wild, plants grow where they are most suited, being distributed in many areas but growing best where they are happiest. For example, a plant that prefers dry conditions, like white goldenrod, is unlikely to be found in a wetland habitat. Likewise, a plant that prefers wet feet, like soft rush, is unlikely to be found in dry areas.

However, there are exceptions. Plants such as obedient plant and prairie milkweed prefer moist soils but can tolerate medium moisture and even drought. While most plants have a preference, many have a wide range of tolerance that comes in handy when we are designing our gardens. When we consider what our yards have to offer, we can utilize these tolerances to broaden the diversity of the plants we bring home. We can look to not only what the plant prefers, but where in the wild it can be found. For example, many plants associated with meadows can also be found in open woodland. The plant descriptions found in our shop list the habitats in which the plants usually occur in the wild as well as common uses they are good for in our yards.

Habitat preference is an important consideration, but so is growth habit. Growth habit will be whether the plant reseeds, suckers, grows slowly, vines, etc. This also includes the rate in which it spreads. All of the plants in our shop list whether the plant is considered aggressive or not. All of these things give us clues to where the plants will grow and how much maintenance they will need.

Below are some examples of common questions, problems and requests that Archers of Arcadia receives regarding what plants to choose for backyard habitats.

If you'd like help choosing plants for your yard, email!

Should I avoid aggressive plants?

Sometimes aggressive plants are exactly what you need. If you've recently removed a large amount of invasive plants, you'll want to fill in that space as quickly as you can before the area is compromised again. Aggressive plants are great for this or other areas that you'd like to see fill quickly. Some plants are aggressive only if grown in ideal or open spaces, such as rich soil or spacious mulched gardens. In our listings, the plants indicated as "somewhat aggressive" can become aggressive in these settings. That doesn't mean that the plant isn't a good choice- it simply means that you will either need to commit to thinning out the ones that come up in undesirable spaces or that the plant does best when crowded with other species. Ashy sunflower, obedient plant, grey goldenrod, royal catchfly, broadleaved mountain mint and foxglove beardtongue are all examples of plants that can be aggressive when planted alone.

Can I grow shade-loving plants in sunny locations?

Many shade-loving plants will tolerate some sun with a few other conditions met, particularly soil moisture and coverage. Plants like zigzag goldenrod, bottle gentian, figwort, and blue mistflower will do well in sunny locations if the soil is moist-wet, especially if there are other plants nearby to cast shade on the soil to keep it cool.

Can I grow sun-loving plants in shady locations?

Many sun-loving plants are shade tolerant, but not all. Prairie habitat plants may require full sun but those that also grow in open woodland or river edges will often do fine in some shade. Some characteristics may not be as prominent in shade as they would be in sun such as height, spread, flowering or fruiting. Some examples of plants that prefer full sun but tolerate part-shade are common pawpaw, white goldenrod, prairie milkweed, Joe Pye, butterflyweed, blue indigo, and meadowsweet among many others.

I have sandy/rocky soil...what are my options?

You're in luck! Many plants require excellent drainage to do their best, even those that require moist soils. Liatris, common pawpaw, goldenrods, American ginseng, partridge pea, and small-flowered leafcup all have various soil moisture preferences but require adequate drainage.

What plants would establish quickly for erosion control?

For erosion control, aggressive plants are your best bet for a quick resolution. Many popular groundcovers are considered aggressive. For erosion issues on steep terrain, planting a complex design may not be feasible- that's where these tough guys come in. Some excellent choices are broadleaved mountain mint, blue mistflower, blue skullcap, glade mallow, goldenrods, American germander, soft rush, obedient plant, and even vines like trumpet vine and virgin's bower. For riverside erosion control, choose plants that choose that habitat naturally in the wild! For areas that have degraded soil and need protection from wind, but which you don't want to introduce aggressive species into, you can choose a species compilation that exhibit various root growth patterns. Fibrous grass roots and taprooted milkweed species, for example. The fibrous roots will help hold soil in place while the taprooted species will help break up compaction. In between these plantings, you can lay compost and straw to rejuvenate the soil while you reduce its temperature, keep it in place, and give time for the plants you've chosen to establish.

Can I have a pollinator garden next to a road or in a ditch where there might be road salt exposure?

It's safe to say that there's less than a handful of plants that grow in Ohio that love salt. There is, fortunately, many that will tolerate some salt exposure to various degrees. These will be the plants that you'll want nearest your driveway, in ditches, or along the curb depending on other factors like your personal preferences, city ordinances, etc. Some of these plants will survive with some burned leaves, others will appear unscathed. Such plants as tall thimbleweed, hairy beardtongue, wild senna, Shrubby St. John's wort, sneezeweed and blunt broom sedge can survive some salt exposure. Those with proven tolerance to salt are listed in the plant descriptions of our shop.

I don't have much time, space, or money to create a formal garden. How can I help increase habitat?

A lot of times, when we think of habitat, we think of the beautiful wild areas or well-established gardens we've seen. For those of us with limitations, there are luckily many small options available to us that make a big difference. Using what we do have, we can simply add a handful of native plants in areas like fencerows, unused corners of our yard, ditches, creeks, and between storage structures or other established perennial plants in the landscape. It does not need to be complex to be beneficial. Experts recommend patches that are at least 3x3, and for plants to be grouped by color/species, but just do what you can. Many bugs and birds will thank you! Even simply planting a "soft-landing" garden around a single tree can be tremendously helpful to wildlife. Furthermore, if you have existing species growing in your yard that have been discovered to be harmful to the environment, like burning bush, oriental bittersweet, purple loosestrife, Japanese honeysuckle, privet, lesser celandine, wintercreeper, buckthorn or Japanese barberry, you can help by removing them.

My yard has typical Ohio solid clay soil- I can't grow anything, right?

Good news! The soil that we have now is the soil that we've had here for a long time! Of course, development can change some things, adding or removing clay, but if you've been struggling to establish a garden in clay soil, you have even more reason to consider planting a native plant garden! Many species of native plants will grow in clay. What you'll need to consider is drainage and nutrition availability. Clay is extremely nutrient rich, but because the particles are so small and flat, they get locked up. This is also why drainage can be an issue. If you have heavy clay, you'll want plants that don't necessarily need great drainage. Adding compost is also an option. Compost and clay are ionically charged opposite which means bonds are formed when the two are mixed. This opens up the clay particles, releasing nutrients and increasing drainage. Add a bit of sand and you are closer to the loam category. In general, it's best to work with what you have, but you do have a bit of an option here. Our shop includes over 50 species that will grow in various types of clay soil.

My neighbors are picky about appearance, how can I increase habitat while maintaining aesthetics?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we may not all behold the same. Our best bet in pleasing the most people would be to follow some basic design principles. There are many excellent articles out there that cover design and nowadays, there are landscape companies who specialize in native plantings that are beginning to change our yardscapes in amazing ways. In general, you'll want plants that boast showy foliage, leaves, or growth habit and can hold their own in smaller spaces. Plants with shorter stature are a popular choice (but not the only choice!) and it's best to avoid aggressive plants unless they are being used en masse such as a groundcover, slopeside, as part of a hedge, etc. Choosing a couple centerpiece species like trees or strong tall perennials and designing around them is an option. Creating boundary lines or borders to your grow spaces are an excellent way to show a "cue of care" and thoughtful maintenance goes a long way. Rather than allowing your stems to remain through winter (best), cut them down to about 18" (next best). If you must remove the leaves on your lawn, try to carefully relocate them (perhaps around a tree) rather than mulching or removing them. Adding educational signage promoting habitat is helpful in educating through demonstration. Walking paths, water fountains, benches, yard art and other hardscape features can really make a garden pop with interest!

My soil test revealed that I have acidic soil. What can I grow?

While it's true that many species specifically prefer alkaline, neutral or acidic soils, it's also true that many can grow in a wide range of soil types. Having your anticipated garden space tested first is always a great idea, but it's best to plant in what you have rather than trying to change the soil to something that it is not already. Crooked-stem aster, sneezeweed, goatsbeard, American pennyroyal, foxglove beardtongue, white and blue false indigos, round-headed bushclover, rose mallow and biennial beeblossom are just a few that will grow in acidic soil.

What can I do for a privacy hedge?

Whether it's for privacy, to outline property boundary, to have habitat off to the side of our yards, hedges are great options. They are typically low maintenance, attractive, and easy to install. More importantly, they represent vital habitat. That's right! Plants that do best in a hedge exist in various wild habitats, two being sadly undervalued- edge and thicket habitat. Traditional landscape ideals left these two habitats behind when straight lines and predictable patterns became the favored design choice. Edge habitat is that which is found between habitats. This can be riparian, woodland, or even the boundary line between differently managed properties. Thickets are densely populated stands of plants. Edges and thickets have a lot in common, but there are some differences. Many bird and mammal species depend on each. They are often messy with great diversity, which gives the impression that they are unkempt, therefore, they are removed with brush hogs or herbicides. If you would like a hedge, or if you have enough land to allow nature to be wild, please consider growing edge and thicket species such as nannyberry, cockspur hawthorn, scarlet hawthorn, American bittersweet, virgin's bower, American germander, trumpet vine, climbing false buckwheat, Shrubby St. John's wort, late figwort, wrinkleleaf goldenrod, wild senna, native crabapples, serviceberry, flowering dogwood, juniper, spicebush, hazelnut, vibernums, wafer ash, wild plum and so many others!

If you'd like help choosing plants for your yard, email!


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