Organizing Theory & Artistry

Garden Status Report – Native Plants

Virginia Native Plants starting to get established in my garden: bleeding heart and Christmas fern.

This month I am out in the garden pulling weeds, planting, mulching, watering and trying to take a high level view on how my efforts are going so far.

Almost two years ago, I gave an overview of the Virginia native plants I was trying to grow. My hope was that they would be easier to grow in our poor, clay soil, good for enhancing the local environment and perhaps deer tolerant. Native plants are surprisingly hard to find! They typically aren’t available at most nurseries and big box stores. I have had to order all of mine online. Native plants also typically come in “bare root” form, which means when you open the shipping box to plant them, all you have is just a bunch of stems to plant underground. While you spend hours doing it, after all that planting effort the average viewer will see absolutely no difference in your garden at all. Kind of depressing.

With regard to my own native plant efforts, I have both good news and bad news.


First, the bad news. These were the plants that never grew. I couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps the soil was too poor. Perhaps I didn’t water enough or the soil was too wet. Perhaps they succumbed to diseases. Perhaps wild animals found the roots delicious.

Teaberry/Creeping Wintergreen

Bare root plants, creeping wintergreen.

Initial fall planting of a row of creeping wintergreen. Never survived to grow the next spring.

This was one of those plants I was really hoping would work out. It’s a beautiful plant, has a wonderful scent and year-round appeal. It is also supposed to be a quick-spreading groundcover and an “easy care” plant. Unfortunately, none of that came to pass.

Black Cohosh/”Bugbane”

Black cohosh bare root plants. None survived to grow in spring.
This was another plant I hoped would work out. I was particularly interested in its insect-repelling properties. I planted some near the doomed teaberry plants and perhaps there was something wrong with the soil or water content in that location. My notes say that something came up the following spring.  Perhaps one small leaf or shoot but it apparently wasn’t memorable enough to photograph and hasn’t appeared since! Frustrating!

Jack in the Pulpit

These were tiny little bulbs that never produced any evidence of life. These bulbs are edible (even to humans when they are dried) so the chance that some forest animal ate them as a snack is probably pretty high. I’ll have to write these off as too delicious for my garden.


Turk’s Cap Lily

Turk's Cap Lily bulb
Turk's Cap Lily approximately 1 year later

This is probably the showstopper of Virginia native plants. It is a beautiful orange color and has a beautiful shape. I planted about 3 roots of these lilies. Only one has bloomed and I only got one bloom on a single long stem. I am hopeful that the one bloomer will come back this year and that the plant will eventually multiply into something more substantial.

Bleeding Heart

Bare roots of wild bleeding heart.
Bleeding Heart approximately 18 months old.

Bleeding hearts are supposed to be excellent plants for the shade garden. The leaves have a delicate appearance to them and the small, colorful flowers add a small but noticeable pop of color. I planted about 3 of these and as of this moment only 2 are surviving. One is a good, healthy, substantial plant with flowers and the other just a meek stem. The substantial plant was vigorous right from the start. I had leaves and flowers one month after planting in the fall!

Christmas Fern

Bare root (tendril) of a Christmas fern when first planted.
Christmas Fern approximately 18 months after first bare root planting.
Fern tendrils
Fern tendrils unfurl to make new leaves.

For one of the most shady spots of my front garden, I was hoping the Christmas fern would be the answer to my prayers. So far, it has done quite well! I planted about 5 or so of these. As of this moment I have about 3 that are growing quite well and 1 that is just one leaf but is still hanging on. The ferns are interesting to watch. They send up curly, fuzzy stems called “tedrils” that eventually unfurl and make leaves.


The spidery root of spiderwort.
Spiderwort in bloom.

This is another beauty. It has a small bluish-purple flower that opens during the day and closes at night. The stems and leaves are kind of unremarkable and basic. So far, these have generally all grown well. All I have is a stem here and a stem there though, not a generous clump of flowers. This is another plant I hope will grow with time.


The insect-like root of bloodroot.
Bloodroot flower in spring.
The distinctive leaf shape of bloodroot.
It’s an incredibly cool name and a “dangerous” plant to boot! This little plant is poisonous but so beautiful. It sends up a white daisy-like flower in spring and then has unusual butterfly-shaped leaves. This was a great plant to teach my daughter about the concept of poisonous plants. So far, I still only get about one flower per plant but they are spreading just a little bit. This year, I seem to have 3 leaves per plant instead of one.

Bottom line, my native plant success rate is about 62%. I do enjoy learning about the native plants and I am thrilled with the ones that have made it. There is a bit of disappointment though. Compared to buying larger plants at a garden center and getting the instant boost of color and perhaps more vigorous growth, these natives are just really, really subtle and slow-growing. It would take another native plant expert even to appreciate what I have done so far.

I have a new appreciation for “Don’t pick wildflowers.” rules that you see at national parks and other places. After seeing how slowly some of these plants grow, you can understand why picking could set the plant back a year or more in growth.

We will keep going with native plants but I have decided not to focus exclusively on them. Native plants are sort of like doing calculus in your garden. It’s nice to take a break and do something more like simple arithmetic by planting the tried and true garden plants that are full and bushy right from the start. So, our garden, like our lives, will be a curious mix.

Do you have labor of love plants in your garden that only you can appreciate? Please share in the comments.