Native Plants as Problem Solvers

As a landscape designer, I am presented with lots of problems – planting on hillsides, dry shade under trees, screen and hedge choices, ground covers, deer browsed areas, replacing old landscaping with natives, and lawn makeovers – and I thought a post about what I have done will help you make better choices.

So many of our commonly used plants today are non-native
Native plants used in a landscape are messier looking, but more pollinator friendly

More and more people are requesting native selections, and the choices narrow tremendously, when you throw in deer resistance as well. Some of the plant cultivars can be hard to find, but are getting easier as nurseries are carrying more and more native varieties.  In most cases a native garden is quite a bit ‘messier’ looking than a non-native one – not always, but usually the choice of a native plant isn’t a neat and tidy plant. But you end up with a healthier and more pollinator-friendly environment that attracts a wider variety of animals.

My hedgerow is in its 3rd year and is slowly taking shape

I still mix non-natives with natives because the palette of plants is so much greater and when you deal with deer browsing, you have to have a large variety of plants in your quiver. Deer are just as likely to eat a native plant as a non-native. And this isn’t low-maintenance either! Your native plants require care and tending just like any others.

Native blueberries mixed with non-native nepeta makes a great deer resistant combination

Dry Shade Under Trees

Evergreen Carex should be your go-to plant for shade
Carex pensylvanica in a shady area

Dry shade under large trees is always a challenge. Turf can be difficult to grow and roots make it tough to plant anything sizable. But there are a number of choices that will work quite well with low maintenance solutions.

My go-to choice for under trees is Carex grass. It amazes me that more people don’t use the native evergreen Carex. The most commonly used is Carex pensylvanica, and is usually readily available. Looking similar to Liriope, deer avoid Carex completely, unlike liriope. Other native Carex are Carex plantanginea (Seersucker Sedge), Carex  vulpinoidea (Fox Sedge), and Carex stricta (Tussock Sedge). For more information on how Carex varieties perform in the Mid-Atlantic Region, go to Carex for the Mid-Atlantic Region from Mt Cuba, which always does rigorous multi-year studies on plant groups, especially natives.

Blooming Carex provides nectar and pollen for pollinators

Other Options for Shade Ground Covers

Ferns on a hillside

For other options, Ferns are a huge help in dry shade, contrary to the widely held opinion that they need moist soil. I always tell customers that if you have the combination of deer and shade, that ferns are your best friend.  Many ferns will do better in moist soil, but in dryer shade there are natives that thrive, like Red-stemmed Lady Fern, Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady In Red’, which is one of my favorites.  Other native choices are regular Lady Fern, Hayscented Fern, Wood Fern, Christmas Fern, Evergreen Wood Fern, Sensitive Fern, Royal Fern, and New York Fern – a whole stable of choices.

Lady in Red has great red tinged stems
Lady in Red Fern

It takes a few years for ferns to get well established. But they are well worth the wait. Lady in Red isn’t evergreen, but I love the ruby red-stemmed spring emerging foliage!

A few other worthy native ground covers are Tiarella (Foamflower), Aquilegia (Red Columbine),  Chrysogonum virginiana (Golden Star)and Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny Pachysandra) which are deer resistant. The Allegheny Pachysandra is similar to the Japanese Pachysandra, but is a much slower grower, so you have to give it some time.

Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is a great low maintenance ground cover for shade
Tiarella, or Foamflower, blooms with creamy white flowers in the spring
Allegheny Pachysandra
Packera aurea or Golden Ragwort is a great native for woodland situations
Golden Star or Chrysogonum virginiana is a wonderful deciduous native ground cover
Native aster laevis ‘Bluebird’ is a great ground cover for high shade


Another often requested customer question is what kind of screen to plant to block a view. Arborvitaes, cherry laurels, and pine trees are the traditional and safe choices.

Traditional arborvitae screen

But I had the opportunity at my own house when I had to remove 43 dead spruce trees that were planted by the previous owner, to create a different kind of screen. The trees over time had interfered with the power lines as many screens do, and I decided to replant with a much shorter mixed evergreen and deciduous shrub border. Most of it is native, but I have mixed in some other much-loved ornamentals with a wide variety of natives.

A stand of spruces were removed and chipped up, ready for new plantings

When the trees were removed, I had all the chips left instead of them being carted off to a landfill, and we spread them out to make a nice mulch which will retard weed growth for years, plus decompose and feed the soil for years to come. Some of the logs were stacked up into pyramids and I drilled holes in them for native pollinators to nest in and reproduce. In addition, the rotting logs will provide habitat for invertebrates, amphibians, and reptiles.

Drilling holes in logs
Starting a mixed hedgerow, leaving the stumps and chips in place
Traditional English hedgerows line the roads and bisect fields to form a network of greenery

Hedgerows are living fences of trees, shrubs, and other plants, like vines. It can consist of a simple row, or be a intricate layering of plants to form a barrier. Creating corridors for wildlife in fragmented landscapes, which is most of what we have left, Hedgerows provide food and shelter for wild things. Also, providing energy savings by blocking wind, which I was counting on at a top of a hill facing the house. I decided to make my hedgerow a multi-year project. As I obtain plants from extras from different jobs or pick up a plant that I buy from a sale, I will add it. So, this isn’t a planned hedge that will be planted all at once. It will evolve over time.

A hedge of rugosa roses

Combining both evergreen and deciduous plants, that flower and berry at different times of the year, you can provide a wide season of wildlife attraction. A diversity of species and height structures, including logs and other deadwood makes a successful hedge habitat. It is better to have a wider hedgerow than a simple narrow line to create more types of habitat. I plan on adding another line of shrubs in front of my original plantings. For more information, check out Creating a Wild Backyard – Hedgerows. 

An established hedgerow needs regular maintenance

I am avoiding planting any type of large trees because of the hedgerow’s location under power lines, but if the power lines weren’t there, I would be planting native trees like hawthorns and oaks.

My hedgerow is in its 3rd year and is slowly taking shape
Along a busy street, I planted a hedgerow of different viburnum species for a client; this is American Cranberry Viburnum
Viburnum ‘Blue Muffin’ is a wonderful native Viburnum suitable for hedgerows
Native Beauty Berry (Callicarpa) has cascading branches of purple berries
Native Clethra ‘Ruby Spice’ is in my hedgerow


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