Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plants

A comprehensive database of Tennessee native plants

Mosses — A New Addition to the Native Plant Database

Tree Apron Moss. Photo Credit: David G. Smith, http://www.delawarewildflowers.org

With growing awareness of the value and complexity of mosses, we think it is time to add mosses to our native plant database.  Tennessee has a wide range of native mosses, and plant vendors and nurseries are starting to sell them.  It is a surprising plant group to explore if you are not already familiar with them.

Mosses are in a division of plants called Bryophtes which means they are non-vascular.  They lack the parts of a plant that we are used to seeing – no true leaves or roots, no seeds, and no flowers.   Mosses are an ancient plant that has existed for millions of years.  They originally evolved from aquatic plants and still have some characteristics in common with aquatic plants, such as requiring constant moisture in order to be active and grow.  Scientists estimate there are at least 12,000 species of mosses found all around the world (except not in salt water), successfully adapting to locations ranging from cold, snowy mountains to baking hot deserts.

Mosses have their own unique structure and workings.  Since they have no seeds, mosses reproduce by spores.  Spores are simply reproductive cells capable of developing into a new individual without first fusing with another reproductive cell.  They are tiny, only 1 micron across, which makes them invisible to our eyes.  Mosses do have simple leaves which are generally only one cell thick and have no internal air space.  Instead of proper roots, they have threadlike structures that anchor them to the surface on which they grow, but these structures cannot extract any water from the ground.  Mosses function like little sponges and absorb water and nutrients through their bodies.

Mosses need damp locations but generally not swampy ones.  They often prefer compacted soil, especially compacted clay soil. They are usually found in moist, shady locations, especially woodland and forest floors.  But mosses are tougher than they look.  Lacking roots they cannot replenish their water supply so when moisture disappears, they must go dormant.  Leaves cease operation, curl up and dry out, waiting for the next rainfall.  You can take a piece of dried out moss, add moisture to it, and watch it unfurl and come back to life within an hour.

For such small, often overlooked plants, they are amazingly complex and provide many ecological benefits.  They are among the first plants to colonize disturbed sites.  They help stabilize the soil surface and retain water to help new plants grow.  They help break down surrounding organic materials which provides food for other species of plants.  They are also good indicators of water and air quality.

Perhaps their most fascinating function is providing valuable shelter for insects and micro animals such as the waterbear to live, reproduce, and hunt for food.  One scientist who has studied mosses in depth compares the complexity of all the tiny life forms found in mosses to that of all the layers of life forms found in a rain forest, just in microscopic size. 

If you want to learn more about mosses, four good sources to check include:  (1) Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians by Joseph Rohrer, Karl McKnight and Kirsten McKnight Ward; ( 2) “Mosses in Winter” by Margie Hunter; Tennessee Naturalist; https://tnnaturalist.org/mosses-in-winter; (3) Gathering Moss; A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmer.   Kimmer writes beautifully from a dual perspective—looking at mosses from the objective, scientific training of her PhD in botany and from the subjective side, understanding mosses from the emotional and spiritual side of her Potawatomi heritage.  (4) You can find great tips on mosses and how to grow them at Moss Lovers; https://mosslovers.com   

In terms of this addition to our database, we are focusing on true mosses, which means we are not including things like sphagnum moss or plants that are called moss but really aren’t, such as Irish Moss.  A new, separate category of moss vendors has been added to our list of plant sources.  At this time, we estimate there are approximately six commercial vendors collectively selling a total of about 10 species of mosses native to Tennessee.  We will try to update this information as more becomes available.

A little tip – mosses have even more multiple common names than most plants.  You may think you are looking at two different mosses with two totally different common names when in fact it is one and the same plant.  Keep an eye on the scientific name to determine if you have one plant or two. Please note that our advanced search feature does not apply to mosses listed in the database due in part to the small number of entries and in part to the very specific habitats required by mosses.

Finding Plant Sources – A Quick Reminder

Now that we are nearing the point where we have almost 800 Tennessee native plants in the database, it might be a good time for a reminder — the plants are listed here only if we have found them to be available commercially (typically by mail order). Theoretically that means you can purchase some form of each plant — seeds, plugs, bareroots, or potted plants or even some combination. It is pretty amazing to think that we have such a diverse selection of Tennessee native plants available to us. Granted, as time passes, some sources may disappear such that the plants may no longer be available at the moment. However, if you find a plant you love and need help finding a source, feel free to ask for our help. We will do our best to assist in finding a source.

Gardening with Nature

If you are interested in gardening with native plants, I came across a book that I would like to recommend — Garden Revolution; How our landscapes can be a source of change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher. Timber Press, Portland, OR, 2016. It is an eye-opening perspective on an alternative concept of the garden, and I only wish I had found it in 2016 when it was first published.

It answers a key question I have been struggling with — can I actually create a functioning plant community in my yard, not just a traditional garden to be maintained in the traditional way? The book gave me an enthusiastic “yes” and includes detailed instructions for success. Larry Weaner is a leading figure in landscape design and in creating gardens that are ecologically functional systems working in harmony with Nature. Weaner argues that not only are they more beautiful and dynamic, they allow you to dispense with many of the traditional gardening methods, such as tilling the soil, watering, and fertilizer.

The essential key is to select native plants that are part of an existing plant community that is suited to the soil, sunlight and water of your planting site. Do some research and find out what native plant communities occur in your region and select one that best matches conditions in your yard. You will be selecting plant species that have proven their ability to coexist in a balanced composition. Over eons of time they have adapted to both the conditions of their habitat and also to each other’s presence, with each species filling a complementary niche in its community. It is the very best way to insure not only plant survival but to create a landscape that evolves over time according to natural processes. One moves from attempting to artificially control plants to letting your planting become a dynamic community where plants make many of the decisions. Such a landscape is viable over a long period of time without massive amounts of effort on your part.

This plant selection process may sound like a lot of work. This approach does require more information but overall not more work. The following list highlights some of the essential differences between this approach and that of traditional gardening, the latter being so deeply drilled into us as gardeners that we normally do not even question these guidelines.

1. You need to fertilize and water plants. NO. If you have plants adapted to your site, only weeds benefit from fertilizer and water. You are encouraging weed development. Your selected plants do not need it.

2. Adjust the pH of your soil. NO. If you have plants adapted to your site, changing the pH only makes it possible for new weed species to move in.

3. You need to till your soil before planting. NO. Tilling the soil brings up dormant weed seeds. Only weeds benefit from this process.

4. Get rid of weeds by pulling roots and all. NO. Digging up existing plants only brings up new soil which exposes dormant weed seeds. It is generally better to cut weeds off at the base to set them back while your plantings have time to take control of the site and block off weeds’ light and water.

5. Employ the standard 1 foot spacing between plants. NO. Plants determine how far apart they need to be. Close together is fine. For example, a plant with a deep taproot can grow right next to a plant with shallow surface roots because they occupy different niches in the soil. Same with a tall plant next to a short plant because they occupy different niches above ground. If you leave empty niches in your planting, that is a welcome invitation for a weed to move into the niche.

6. Plants in a garden should be selected for their beauty, and the design should be fixed as best possible, keeping plants in their assigned spots. NO. Choose plants first for their ability to exist in the community and second for their beauty. Once planted, let the landscape make many of the decisions.

7. Select garden plants that have the most eye appeal to you irrespective of their geographic source. NO. When we do this, we often select plants from entirely different parts of the country and even the globe, plants that have no experience or relationship with one another and probably don’t even occur naturally in similar ecosystems. Keeping them alive can become a struggle that requires watering, fertilizer and babying.

With all these practical “NOs”, it is probably easy to imagine that beauty takes a backseat. However, a natural healthy landscape is full of harmonies and contrasts of color, shape and size. As it evolves and changes over time, it is full of surprises that delight the senses. Plus although maintenance never disappears, workload is dramatically reduced.

In addition to beauty, there are many ecological benefits. We are moving from a garden that consumes resources — water, fertilizer, pesticides — to a community of plants that help protect resources by reducing stormwater runoff, providing wildlife habitat, sequestering carbon, restoring the soil, and helping preserve native plant species.

The following photos are examples of designs created by Larry Weaner and Associates. Although we may not have his command of creating dramatic beauty based on an intimate knowledge of individual native species, it is clear that any of us can work towards a beautiful plant community that makes Nature our partner. It just takes a little more knowledge.

Larry Weaner and Associates
Larry Weaner and Associates

A Yard Conversion in Dickson County

There is a gem of wisdom in the saying that “we often do not see an opportunity because it is wearing overalls and looks like work.”  It was my good fortune to recently meet a woman and her husband who certainly don’t fail to see opportunity even when it involves a lot of work.

I was doing outreach to members of the conservation group Homegrown National Park, where members have converted part or all of their mowed lawn to wildlife habitat filled with native flowers, grasses, shrubs and/or trees.   Since I am also a member, I thought it would be fun to learn what other members in Tennessee are doing with their yards.  When I learned what Deborah Rosenthal and RJ Comer have accomplished in Dickson County, I swore that the next time I was feeling sorry for myself at the amount of work involved in my yard, I was going to have to give myself a little slap on the hand.

Two years ago, Deborah and RJ decided to convert their four acre “front yard” pasture from non-native grasses and weeds to native wildflowers and prairie grasses.  They began by hiring a commercial company to spray weed killer several times during the ensuing spring, summer and fall to kill off existing vegetation, which is essential to ensure the prairie will not succumb to invasive grasses.  After a few more herbicide applications the following year, Roundstone Native Seed Company out of Kentucky used a tractor with a native seed drill to plant a wide variety of native Tennessee wildflowers and grasses for pollinators in late June.   I have included a photograph of the four acres taken after completion.  To get an even better sense of the impact of their project, be sure to view the drone video on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_S0XvckuVpA

Now the whole field is buzzing with life, and Deborah is out there every week managing the planting.  However, this workload hasn’t stopped Deborah and RJ from expanding their efforts.   They have been gradually expanding their original 30 acres by acquiring adjoining property when it becomes available.  They now own a total of 65 acres including some very degraded property, seven acres of which had been recently clear cut.  Both Deborah and RJ  strongly believe that they are stewards of the land and are doing much of the physical labor themselves to restore an oak woodland, a stand of shortleaf pine and an additional  pollinator field of prairie grasses and pollinator flowers.

Deborah and RJ are “city folks” who moved here from Los Angeles, California five years ago.  Neither one had ever lived on a farm or knew anything about farming.  But they knew they wanted to retire to the country and they picked Tennessee for their new residence, selecting a home in Dickson County.  They also knew nothing about the flora and fauna of Tennessee and nothing about how to sustainably protect the landscape.  What they lacked in knowledge, they more than made up for in the zeal, dedication and energetic enthusiasm that they applied to quickly learning what they needed to know.  Today RJ is on the Dickson County Planning Commission for his area, and Deborah is Interim Director of Operations for the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative.   In fact, it was seeing the Executive Director of the organization speak at a Wild Ones conference three years ago that inspired Deborah and RJ to embark on their prairie restoration.

Most of us do not have a large, four-acre yard and are not likely to be managers in local conservation organizations.  However, Deborah and RJ are an important reminder to me of the importance of forming an emotional bond between ourselves and Nature, so that we will work to save what we love.  Any time we can convert a portion of our mowed lawns, however small or large, to native plantings, we are taking a step to help protect the biodiversity that allows Earth’s natural systems to function. 

Another Way to Edge Your Native Plantings

A few months ago I wrote a blog on how to maintain the edge where lawn and native plantings meet up. Since writing that blog, I came across another idea. A recent issue of Fine Gardening magazine had a reader’s idea of edging the garden with cut up sections of tree trunks, stacked on end and butted side by side. To tell you the truth, I probably wouldn’t have tried it if I hadn’t found the idea in a respected magazine. It sounded like an inexpensive, rather intriguing option. Then I lucked out and discovered that my neighbor was cutting down trees in his yard, sawing the trunks into sections and stacking them out front for anyone to take. You can’t get much cheaper than that!

I did purchase some EPDM pond liner and cut it into 17″ wide strips. I removed the old wood chip border and laid the pond liner down on bare ground where the wood chips had been. I figured that placing the logs on a rubber strip would make them last longer than sitting on wet ground. Plus the liner would keep weeds and grass from growing up to and in between the logs which would require hand trimming. We placed the bottom edge of the logs just far enough in from the edge of the liner to allow for the wheels on the lawnmower. So now we can mow right alongside them with ease.

Here are a couple photos. Please keep in mind that these pictures were taken in March when nothing is up or green yet. (Also if you have a free moment, check out the following sequence of updates on how project progressed.)

When I told a friend what we had done, he said “I hate to spoil your excitement but you are going to attract loads of termites.” At first I felt a little panic but then I thought “This is not next to my house, and I wonder what eats termites?” So I did a little research. It turns out that the top eaters of termites are ants and 100s of different species of birds. Next are frogs, toads, lizards, dragonflies and praying mantis. Plus ants are an important insect in the food chain. So, what a perfect edging for a wildlife yard! I have a feeling that as the logs decay, they will turn into a cafeteria line for wildlife. However, that decay process is going to be pretty slow. Some of these sections were so heavy we had to roll them into place.

Update – August 2021

Now that the plants have grown up and lawn mowing is well underway, I thought it would be fun to do an update. I love how well the logs are working. Even though most of them are not much over 18 inches tall, they are not only keeping the lawn weeds out of the native plantings, they are pretty darned good at keeping the tall wildflowers from falling over into the lawn. My workload has gone down substantially.

Note: The sign is from Homegrown National Park. Check out their website if you are not already familiar with it.

Update: April 21, 2022

I have noticed that as the logs age (a year later), the first thing to happen is the bark starts to separate and begins to fall off, which can get kind of messy. I had an idea to test out, which is to take some old leftover durable deck stain/sealer and paint the entire log top (aka cut surface) to seal the exposed wood from the elements. You probably have some leftover partial cans in your basement; this is a great way to use them up. I did it on 10 newly cut log pieces added this year, and on about 10 of the old ones from last year. Now I can do a mini “scientific study” comparing how much this treatment improves the durability of the logs over time. It sure does make them look nice.

Update: September 20, 2022

I did not anticipate so many updates, but then this effort was an experiment. So please bear with me. A totally unexpected benefit of using these logs is that I now have a gorgeous bracted fungi garden with no effort on my part. (I had to get help to learn their proper ID!) I am adding a few pictures but unfortunately cannot identify individual species, can just appreciate their beauty.

They are an amazing example of the complexity of nature. I learned that there is an entire food web functioning within these fungi. The fungi provide a microhabitat, giving a unique place for animals to live. Spiders, mites and insects live in large shelves where they hide in a pore and eat the spores produced by the fungi. There are beetles so tiny they can fit inside the pore (which is already too small for us to see). A few are so specialized that they can only be found living in shelf fungi. Other insects feed on those insects living in the shelf. In fact, there is one species of spider that can only be found in the pores of shelf fungi. So this fencing not only created some gorgeous fungi but a whole new functioning microhabitat and food web.

Stumps at 1 1/2 yrs with fungus
Specimen 1
Specimen 2
Specimen 3
Specimen 4

Restoring Nature at Home

One of the benefits always touted for using native plants in your yard is that of attracting wildlife – typically butterflies, bees, and birds.  It always sounded a bit academic to me, something nice and desirable but hypothetical.   Now that I have actually done it, my response is more one of amazement.  Not only does it happen, it happens quickly.  Now  I cannot look out a window without seeing a bird fly by, nor can I walk past my favorite flowering plants  in summer without hearing the continuous hum of dozens of bees (no, I have never been stung) or seeing  butterflies squabbling over the flowers.  Sometimes I feel like I am living in my own small park.  I can only conclude that there are lots of hungry birds, bees and butterflies out there in need of food and shelter.

If you are considering adding native plants to your yard and can set aside an hour to just sit back, relax and be inspired, here is a presentation by Doug Tallamy to check out.  The talk is “Restoring Nature’s Relationship at Home” and it explores in detail why use of native plants makes such a difference.   This talk is sponsored by Ohio State University as part of their Living Landscape Speaker Series and was presented on January 15, 2021.  Ohio State University has made this recording of Doug’s presentation available to anyone who missed the in-person presentation. 

For those of you who don’t already know Doug, he is professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.  “He has authored 103 research publications and has taught insect related courses for 40 years. Chief among his research goals is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. His book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens was published by Timber Press in 2007 and was awarded the 2008 Silver Medal by the Garden Writers’ Association. The Living Landscape, co-authored with Rick Darke, was published in 2014. Doug’s new book Nature’s Best Hope released by Timber Press in February 2020, is a New York Times Best Seller.  He has received many awards, including Garden Club of America Margaret Douglas Medal for Conservation… and the 2019 Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award.”


So sit back and have some fun!

Pollinator Lawns

Lawns are one of our nation’s largest “crops,” totaling between 31-40 million acres. The fact that they are composed of alien grasses which provide neither food nor shelter for wildlife is one of the main reasons we are losing so many of our bird species and beneficial insects such as butterflies and bees. So it is no surprise that one of the newest movements emerging is what is called the “pollinator lawn.” The Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota is at the forefront of this effort. Pollinator lawns are based on a conservation philosophy that both supports biodiversity and allows for human use rather than putting these two uses in direct conflict with each other.

I was so intrigued with the concept that I rushed into a crash research effort to learn how and what to plant for a pollinator lawn. At last maybe I could get rid of all my remaining sections of lawn as well as the lawn paths through my native plantings. Yea!…no more worrying about alien grasses escaping into the native planting areas! However, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that a pollinator lawn won’t work for me. It requires regular weeding– either by hand or chemicals—so it is most practical on a small scale. I can’t quite bring myself to totally give up the idea yet, but in the meantime I thought it would be fun to use this blog to share what I have learned.

Pollinator lawns blend selected species of both flowers and grasses, including both native and non-native, to create a low-lying vegetation cover that gets about 4-6 inches tall and is only mowed a few times a year. The grass foundation of the pollinator lawn is generally one or more of the following — red fescue (Festuca rubra), hard fescue (Festuca trachyphylla) or Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). Then a wide variety of flowering plants are added to the grass. Species are selected based on their ability to provide food for birds, bees, or butterflies, on their ability to be walked on, and on their ability to do well when kept to about 4-6 inches in height. Believe it or not, some of our native wildflowers that normally get up to 2 feet tall, such as Lanceleaf Coreopsis and Calico Aster, are perfectly happy to still bloom when cut as low as 3 ½ inches tall.

Pollinator Lawn (photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Bee Lab)

Although pollinator lawns generally include a mix of both native and non-native grasses and flowers, it is possible to create a pollinator lawn using just native species or even just non-native species if that is your preference. For example, red fescue is technically native to Tennessee although its history is a bit unclear. In contrast, Kentucky bluegrass and hard fescue are native to Eurasia. When selecting flowers, the choices become easier as there is a wider variety of desirable native and non-native species from which to choose.

No-mow lawns (aka eco-lawns) are a close relative of the pollinator lawn. They also use similar species of grasses, require little or no mowing, and tolerate foot traffic. However, they do not contain flowers and do not focus on attracting pollinators. No-mow lawns have been around quite awhile, and most big native plant nurseries offer custom no-mow lawn seed mixes, each designed for a specific region of the United States. Although the grasses in these mixes are typically fescues, there are also native grasses and sedges that work well for no-mow lawns. Some of these native species of grasses and sedges are also highly rated for wildlife. If you want to expand your choices of plant species for your pollinator lawn, you might want to add some of the species typically listed for no-mow lawns to your mix.

No-Mow or Eco-Lawn (photo courtesy of Prairie Nursery)

With all the choices out there, it is important to always select the right plants for the conditions in your yard. If you are choosing among native grasses, including sedges, be sure to mix both warm season and cool season grasses so that when the green of a cool season grass fades in the heat of summer, you have warm season grasses coming into their own. Be sure to pick species that can tolerate some foot traffic, can take sun or shade depending on your location, and that require a moisture level and soil type that best matches the conditions in your yard. And don’t worry, there are species of grasses and sedges that can tolerate both dry conditions and clay soil. Lastly you can check the University of Minnesota website to learn techniques for overseeding an existing lawn and for totally eliminating your lawn and starting over from scratch.

Given our widespread presence of low-growing, fast-spreading weeds such as crabgrass, Bermuda grass, and Dallisgrass which cannot be controlled by mowing only a few times during the growing season, pollinator lawns require regular maintenance. Maintenance typically means hand weeding, spot application of herbicides, and applications of either organic (corn gluten meal) or chemical pre-emergents in the spring. This limitation generally makes pollinator lawns more applicable to yards with a small lawn area or for persons with larger lawns who are not so inclined to have large flower beds but like the idea of having a lawn that feeds the birds and bees.

If you are intrigued or just curious, check out the University of Minnesota websites at


In the meantime, here are some plant species to consider for a possible pollinator lawn. They are grouped based on grasses vs. flowers, natives vs. non-natives, high vs. low wildlife value, and whether they are typically recommended for pollinator lawns or for no-mow lawns.


Typical Grasses Used in Pollinator Lawns
Red Fescue (native to Tennessee)
Hard Fescue (native to Eurasia)
Kentucky bluegrass (native to Eurasia)
   Note: These fescues are also used in no-mow lawn mixes.

Tennessee Native Flowers Recommended for Pollinator Lawns. All with High Wildlife Value.*
Aster lateriflorus – Calico Aster
Aster sericeus – Silky Aster
Coreopsis lanceolata – Lanceleaf Coreopsis
Lanceleaf self-heal – Prunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata (only the subspecies is native to Tennessee)
Salvia lyrata – Lyre-leaf Sage
Viola pedata – Bird’s Foot Violet

Flowers Not Native to Tennessee Recommended for Pollinator Lawns. All with High Wildlife Value.
Astragalus crassicarpus – Ground Plum (native in the US)
Prunella vulgaris – Self-heal
Trifolium repens – White Dutch Clover
Thymus serpyllum – Creeping Thyme
Viola tricolor — Johnny Jump Up


Tennessee Native Grasses and Sedges Recommended for No-Mow Lawns, High Wildlife Value*
Bouteloua curtipendula – Sideoats Grama.  Birds, butterflies, nesting materials for native bees.
Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania Sedge.  Birds, larval butterfly host.
Sporobolus heterolepis — Prairie Dropseed.  Larval butterfly host, nesting materials for native bees.

Tennessee Native Grasses and Sedges Recommended for No-Mow Lawns, Low Wildlife Value*
Carex albicans – White Tinged Sedge, Oak Sedge
Carex appalachica – Appalachian Sedge
Carex brevior – Plains Oval Sedge
Carex cherokeensis – Cherokee Sedge
Carex eburnea – Bristle-Leaf Sedge, Ivory Sedge
Carex texensis – Texas Sedge, Catlin Sedge
Deschampsia flexuosa – Wavy Hairgrass
Eragrostis spectabilis – Purple Lovegrass
Juncus tenuis – Poverty Rush

TN Non-Native Grasses & Sedges Recommended for No-Mow Lawns, High Wildlife Value
Bouteloua gracilis — Blue Gama Grass.  Birds and butterflies.
Buchloe (Bouteloua) dactyloides – Buffalo Grass.  Birds, butterflies, butterfly larval host.
Deschampsia cespitosa – Tufted Hairgrass.  Birds.
   Note: All of the above are native in the US, just not in Tennessee.

TN Non-Native Grasses & Sedges Recommended for No-Mow Lawns, Low Wildlife Value
Carex divulsa – Grassland Sedge (native to Europe)
Carex rosea – Rosy Sedge
Sesleria autumnalis – Autumn Moor Grass

*See more details on the native species listed above in our Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plant Database.

Sources: Hoffman Nursery 2020 Catalog of Grasses; Prairie Moon Nursery Catalog; BeeLab at University of Minnesota; Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Database; TexasSmartScape; Dyck Arboretum of the Plains; Xerces Society.

As usual, please be sure to add a comment if you see needed corrections or have supplemental information. This is an ever growing topic.

Thinking about the Practical (Sigh!) Aspects of Native Plant Landscaping — Part I

Our home is on a double lot that is just under ¾ of an acre, and when I decided to replace the majority of lawn with native plants, I had a lot of practical issues to deal with. Two big questions were: (1) What material do I use to create paths through the plantings? (2) How do I manage the edges where large areas of native plantings meet up with remaining areas of lawn? These questions may sound minor, and they probably are in a small garden. However, on a larger scale planting, they are especially relevant and at the same time easy to overlook when you are in the exciting stages of planting.

Now 14 years later, I find myself still working much too hard on maintenance of both paths and edges. So I can’t help but ask “What should I have done differently? Are there better techniques that I would select now based on my experience?” Here are my thoughts on these questions, and hopefully they will be helpful to others. What works best for you will depend on your particular situation and preferences.

Part I — Paths

The bottomline is that there is no path material that is maintenance free except for the expensive option of poured concrete. I have used 3 different materials – gravel, wood chips, and lawn. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and you want to pick the one that has the disadvantages that you can live with over the long haul.


I once attended a gardening talk by a nationally known native plant specialist who raved about the benefits of gravel paths through your native plant gardens, describing the pleasant sound of your feet in the gravel as you walk. Well, it may very well sound nice, but there is a lot more to it than that!

Gravel does have some pluses. It makes a relatively low cost, easy-to-install path and sounds nice when you walk on it. It stays in place pretty well and does not decay. Plus you can generally clean big litter off the surface with a rake or leaf blower. If you want a gravel path, I do recommend: (a) lining the path base with landscape fabric to block out native plants with underground runners; and (b) either removing a couple inches of soil and replacing the soil with gravel or using a larger stone edging to keep the gravel in place.

Gravel path with stepping stones

The one very big drawback to gravel is that gravel attracts lots of small plant litter…bits of dead leaves, shreds of grass, twigs, etc., and plant litter decays into dirt. You cannot sweep a gravel path, and gravel filled with bits of dirt is excellent bedding for seeds. After 14 years, my gravel paths are seed germination mats par excellence and require many hours of weeding during the spring season. I have over 250 feet of gravel paths, and I am not sure I would do that again.

Wood Chips

On the good side, wood chip paths are pleasant to walk on, look attractive, and, if you use the coarsely shredded form, they interlock well and stay in place well in heavy rain even on moderate slopes. As with gravel, they definitely require some kind of edging, e.g. river rock, to keep them in place. Otherwise, weather will gradually scatter them over a much wider area than you want. I have installed heavy duty landscape fabric under the chips, so when they get old and start to decay, I can very easily rake/sweep them up and replace them.

There are some negatives. Unlike a gravel path, wood chips need regular replacement. A good quality chip that is not finely ground will last up to 3-4 years. As the chips start to age, they will support seed germination and require weeding, although not on the scale of an old gravel path. Other negatives to consider are that neighborhood cats love wood chip paths for a litter box, and robins love to energetically dig in them on the mistaken belief that there are loads of earthworms under the chips.

Wood Chip Path

Wood Chip path edged in river rock


Lawn paths are the cheapest and easiest to install, especially if you already have lawn and can just leave some of it intact when you are killing off the rest. Lawn paths are easy walking and attractive, although of course they will need mowing.

The single biggest drawback is that lawn grass naturally suckers, and the lawn path will rapidly spread into the native plantings. Within just a few years, you will have a nice, tall stand of lawn grass and lawn weeds growing among the native plants. This problem is the same one that occurs where areas of lawn meet up with areas of native plantings. Please see Part II of this blog for ideas on how to handle this difficulty.

Create a Native Grass Path

The option of a native grass path is probably the simplest and least expensive path option.  When you kill off existing lawn and weeds, simply kill off the entire area with which you are working.  Once all existing vegetation is dead, mark off the area you want to use as a path.  Heavily seed it with a few native grass species.  The best options are:  (1) Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), which grows 12″ high and likes full to part sun and moderately dry to dry moisture levels.   (Although Blue Grama is native in the U.S., technically it is not native to Tennessee.)  (2) Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) which grows 24″ high and likes full to part sun and medium to dry moisture levels.  If you don’t have heavy clay and need something more shade tolerant, include Eastern Star Sedge (Carex radiata) which grows 12″ tall and likes part to full shade and medium to moderately wet moisture levels.  All of these grasses can be mowed occasionally and can tolerate some foot traffic.

There are only two main drawbacks.  First, these paths obviously need periodic mowing to keep the path open.  Second, native plant species in the adjoining areas are going to re-seed into the path.  If mowed regularly, these incoming plants will not be able to get more than a few inches tall, although they may change the texture of the grass.  On the good side, if the grasses manage to re-seed and escape the path, it is certainly not a problem.

Please do add your thoughts if you have options or comments to share!

Thinking About the Practical (Sigh!) Aspects of Native Plant Landscaping — Part II

Part II — Lawn and Native Plant Borders

The borders where areas of lawn meet up with areas of native plantings are surprisingly high maintenance. Lawn and lawn weeds will sucker into the native plantings, and native plants will sucker and re-seed into the lawn area, although the latter is not much of a problem since lawn is mowed.  Here are my thoughts on how to handle the borders where lawn and native plantings meet up. Hopefully, these observations will be useful to others. What works best for you will depend on your situation and preferences.

I once read an interesting article by a landscape architect in which he said that if he had to pick the single most important landscaping guideline, it would be “clean edges.” I certainly do agree with him, especially when it comes to landscaping with native plants. Large areas of natural plantings can have a wild look to them, and a clean, attractive edge definitely tames the image.

I have relied on basically a single technique – an 18 inch wide, bare strip of ground between the two areas which is heavily mulched with wood chips.  On the plus side, this technique gives a very desirable, groomed look to all the plantings. It makes for easy mowing of the lawn. Coarsely shredded wood chips will last up to 3-4 years, interlocking nicely and staying in place in heavy rain even on slopes as long as they are not terribly steep.

As with anything, there are disadvantages. Wood chips need periodic replacement, which is problematic – both time and money – if long distances are involved. Old rotting chips must be removed, and new ones installed. Also lawn grass and lawn weeds as well as many species of native plants are perfectly capable of sending out runners or re-seeding into the wood chips, so the wood chip edging requires regular weeding, especially in spring.

To deal with creeping lawn grass and lawn weeds like clover, I bought an electric lawn edger which I run along the outer edge of the mulch strip, between the lawn and the chips, about four times during the growing season. It creates a wonderfully clean edge very quickly with a minimal amount of work.

I probably have over 250 feet of this type of edging, and after 14 years I certainly do find myself thinking there must be an easier way! After considering all the various materials and techniques I have tried over time, I have come up with an idea that I have not used yet in this exact combination. Although installation would be much more expensive, the potential savings in labor and money over the long haul would definitely pay off in the end. This idea is on my to-do list.

I would continue to use the 18″ wide border but I would substitute alternative materials of EPDM rubber pond liner and flat, 1” thick flagstones (a minimum of 6” wide). EPDM rubber pond liner is very tough, long-lasting rubber that can be cut into strips and overlapped on the ends. No plant seeds or roots can penetrate it even after years. Anything that tries to germinate on top of it quickly dies from lack of water.

Pieces of flagstone can be laid on top the rubber strip and carefully fitted together to minimize the amount of visible bare space. If there is concern about potential for the rocks to shift over time, there are a couple possibilities. One option is to apply some caulk on the bottom of each rock before placing it on the rubber, such as the exterior version of liquid nails or asphalt patch caulk.  Although EPDM rubber is sensitive to UV rays from the sun, over a short period of time natural plant litter should provide a thin protective cover to any still exposed rubber.

(Note: I am not suggesting use of heavy duty landscape fabric for this purpose because native plant seed easily germinates on top of it and their roots very easily penetrate the fine mesh of the fabric. You end up with landscape fabric glued to the ground and established plants that cannot be pulled up because their roots are so well fastened into the fabric.)

Mowing along the edge is easy because total height is below the mower setting. If plant litter on the edging strip becomes excessive, a leaf blower can easily remove it. Since lawn grass is good at expanding out even over solid surfaces, a lawn edger will still come in handy but clean-up will be much easier since there are no grass roots to remove. The one limitation is that the rock strip probably should not be walked on as if it was a path.

At this point, my proposed strategy is just an idea that needs testing.

As always, please DO add your comments on these or other ideas or if you have other suggestions to share!

Repairing a Sweetbay Magnolia Tree

I thought it might be helpful to share an interesting experience I had with the 14 year-old, multi-trunked Sweetbay Magnolia tree in my yard because it is likely that other people may have the same problem. I was unaware that this species has exceptionally pliable wood. We had a big windstorm come through this summer, and much to my surprise it bent one of the tree’s trunks over so far that you hit your head if you tried to walk under it plus it bent another trunk down so low that it was nearly resting on the ground. Yet neither wood showed any signs of cracking or splitting. It was like they were made out of rubber.

I cut off the trunk nearly resting on the ground, and I left the 3 other trunks—one straight up and one each branching off sideways in opposite directions. I contacted a friend who is a horticulturist and asked what I should do next. I fully expected him to say “Cut the whole thing back just above ground and let it re-grow.” Surprisingly, he told me to pull the trunks back up straight, tie them off and leave them for two years. Then I should remove the ties and the trunks would stay straight.

It sounded like quite a project. However, my husband and son came up with a strategy that worked very well and made short work of it. They took 4 sets of tie-downs with rachets. They roped the tree trunks together just a couple feet off the ground and racheted it as tightly as possible. Then they moved a short distance up the trunks and repeated the process, doing the same thing with each of the remaining 3 tie-downs. When those 4 had been used, they removed the lowest tie-down which was not needed any more and moved it up to the top in the sequence. They kept repeating this process until they worked their way far enough up the tree that the trunks were then straight. They left the top 2 tie-downs in place and removed the bottom 2 as they were no longer needed.

I hope these photos give you an idea of the process. In two years, I can update this blog and let you know how it worked!


Sideways Trunk


Three Trunks – Before


Applying the tie-downs




Tree Trunks — After

August 2021 Update. It has been two years since we did the tie-downs so it was time to remove them. They did make a big improvement. However, when they were released, the trunks did not stay exactly where they were; they did spring sideways a little. I had expected them to stay right where they were. Maybe if they had been left on longer? Also we discovered that it matters where you place the tie-downs. The one placed in a notch of two branches had grown into the wood and had to be cut rather than simply released. The one placed flat against the smooth side of the trunk was a simple, clean release.

How do I add native wildflowers to a weedy field without killing off existing plants?

Last week I worked the TNSY booth at a seed swap sponsored by the Johnson City TN Parks Department. A woman presented me with an interesting question. She said she owns an abandoned farm field next to her house, and she wanted to know how to add native wildflowers without doing any removal of the existing grasses and weeds. It is an intriguing question and I am sure not an uncommon one. I told her to start out by purchasing a large quantity of seeds of aggressive plants that germinate easily from seed and can hold their own against existing weeds once they are up. I pointed out that there are quite a few that are $10 or less per ounce, and she could do it without spending lots of money. In a short time, she would know whether it was going to work. Otherwise she should look into purchasing plugs of aggressive plants.

I have never tried to do this actual task although I have lots of experience with aggressive plant species and some experience with seeding over established plantings. I thought this is a perfect opportunity to use the TNSY native plant blog to collect feedback from people who have tried to do this and learn what works and what doesn’t. Maybe she will even see this blog and get a more complete answer to her question. In the meantime, it is a great chance for all of us to learn more.

After thinking about the problem, I would expand my original suggestion as follows. First do a soil test and check soil type and moisture level in order to better match plants to the site. Second, mow the field area in fall, if you can, and broadcast the seed in early December. Third, think about how much seed you want to use per foot.  Do at least the recommended rate for your site which is probably at least 100 seeds per square foot.  You may want to even double the recommended rate.

I would recommend purchasing seed by the ounce of the following species based on a combination of two or more factors — ease of germination, aggressiveness once established, and cost (and, of course, always a good pollinator plant):

Canada Milk Vetch — Astragalus canadensis 17,000 seeds for $8
Partridge Pea — Chamaecrista fasciculata 2,700 seeds for $3 (an annual but a great spreader)
Purple Coneflower — Echinacea purpurea 6,600 seeds for $3
Maximilian’s Sunflower — Heliantus maximiliani 13,000 seeds for $4
Early Sunflower — Heliopsis helianthoides 6,300 seeds for $4
Wild Bergamont — Monarda fistulosa 35,500 seeds (half oz) for $9.75
Smooth Penstemon — Penstemon digitalis 130,000 seeds for $15
Yellow Coneflower — Ratibida pinnata 30,000 seeds for $10
Black-eyed Susan — Rudbeckia hirta 92,000 seeds for $3
Brown-eyed Susan –Rudbeckia triloba 34,000 seeds for $6
Sweet Black-eyed Susan — Rudbeckia subtomentosa 43,000 seeds for $12
Cup Plant — Silphium perfoliatum — 1,400 seeds for $15
Tall Ironweed – Vernonia gigantea — 28,000 seeds for $10

My hypothetical list would give you almost half a million seeds for $103.  I used current prices in my favorite resource, the Prairie Moon Nursery catalog, to create this list.

Please add your ideas—modify this strategy or add to it; modify this possible list of plants by removing or adding to it—all based on your experiences!!

Making Sure Your Seeds Germinate

Seeds of many native plants have built-in protections that keep them from germinating at the wrong time, such as before a frost, in the fall, or during droughts. In the wild, seeds will lie dormant in the soil until the right conditions are present to insure success. There are a variety of methods that seeds use to break that dormancy, and many plant species have specific needs. To successfully grow a plant from seed, we often need to learn how specific seeds naturally break their dormancy. We can use these methods, called stratification, to increase the chances of seed germination.

Methods for breaking dormancy are quite varied and rely on one or more factors including air temperature, time, moisture, light vs. no light, and soil temperature. The most common methods involve a combination of moisture, air temperature and time. It can be as simple as two months in cold, dry storage and as complex as a lengthy sequence of alternating cold, moist periods, with warm, moist periods. (This method generally means a seed will require over a year to germinate).

There are general how-to guidelines derived from the experience of growers and hobbyists that will improve your success. Catalogs from native plant nurseries are a great source of information for particular plant species. Also, this website Native Plants for Tennessee operated by the University of Tennessee’s Smart Yards Program includes a description of 12 different methods for breaking dormancy in our Definitions section under Germination Codes. This germination code information was provided courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery, a native plant source in Winona, Minnesota. In addition, each plant in our Native Plants for Tennessee database has a description of which method or methods work best. Plant specific data on this website is taken from a host of native plant resources including the Prairie Moon Nursery catalog.

The two most common methods are: (1) cold, dry storage, and (2) cold, wet storage. These methods are commonly called cold, dry stratification and cold, wet stratification.

Cold, dry stratification typically means you do not need to provide any pre-treatment. The native plant nursery will have stored the seed under these conditions prior to its sale. You can plant the seed as soon as your planting schedule requires it. Prior to planting, simply store the seed in a cool, dry place or under refrigeration at 33-40 degrees F.

Cold, wet stratification means seeds germinate after an approximate number of cold days and moist storage (typically around 60 days). Prairie Moon Nursery’s catalog describes two different methods of cold, wet stratification for the home gardener; this information is also available on their website at

The first method is storing seed in dampened sand as follows:
(1) Add 1 -2 teaspoons of water to 1/3 cup fine sand for each 1/8 oz of seed to be treated.
(2) Mix the seed, sand and water and refrigerate in a sealed plastic bag for the required time period.

The second method is using a dampened paper towel or coffee filter as follows:
(1) Rinse a coffee filter or paper towel in water and squeeze out excess water.
(2) Place seed in a single layer on the damp paper, fold over the paper and place it in a sealed plastic bag.
(3) Add a dry paper towel inside the bag to help maintain even moisture by pulling excessive moisture away.
(4) Store in the bag in the refrigerator for the required time period.

For more detail, see Prairie Moon’s step-by-step tutorials at https://www.prairiemoon.com/PDF/PrairieMoon.StartingFromSeedSheetWEB.pdf

From a very practical standpoint, the easiest way to do cold, wet stratification is to let nature do it for you. Simply plant the seed outside in its designated spot in late fall or early winter and allow the seed to go through nature’s stratification process. This eliminates the need to monitor your refrigerated seed for premature sprouting, mold, or drying out. However, you will need to increase the amount of seed that you plant to allow for seed loss during the winter because seeds are susceptible to hungry birds or rodents, can be blown away by wind, and washed away by rain.

Always remember, each plant has its own set of adaptations for germination. Be sure to check the specific germination requirements for the specific plant species you want to grow. It is a little more work, but it can make the difference between success and failure.

Ten Native Shrubs Possessing Great Fall Leaf Color By: Dr. Hugh Conlon

Some native U.S.  landscape shrubs are not only great spring/summer flowering shrubs, but their fall foliage color(s) are an added attraction. Here are ten of my favorites listed alphabetically by genus:

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parvifolia) – foliage of this summer flowering shrub turns bright yellow in fall. (zones 4-8)

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) – under-planted native shrub that grows 6 – 10 feet high. White flowers appear in early spring; recommend compact cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ with attractive glossy red berries and red fall foliage color. (zones 4-9)

Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) or (F. x ‘Mt. Airy’)  both selections are among the finest spring flowering shrubs along with red fall leaf color. (zones 5-8)

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) – is a highly variable flowering shrub, available in a range of sizes from 3-25 feet. Some varieties exhibit exceptional red or bronze foliage in autumn. (zones 5-9)

Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) – blanketed with fragrant blooms in May and dependable red-purplish leaf color in autumn (zones 4-8)

Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) – grow 2-6 feet tall (depending on variety planted). Plant two or more different varieties for more berries.  Blueberries require a highly acidic soil pH around 5.0-5.5. Its bluish-green summer foliage turns bright red in autumn. (zones 5-8)

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) – an under- planted native viburnum that blooms in May. Fall foliage turns yellow to red to burgundy along with dark blue fruits. (zones 3-8)

Witherod viburnum (Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’) –white flowers in late spring are followed by bluish black fruits and red to reddish-purple  fall foliage. (zone 5-9)

American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) – tall 12 feet high shrub deep burgundy-red fall leaf color and bright red drupes often persist through winter. (zones 3-7)

Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) – flat white cymes (flowers) with numerous yellow stamens and purple-red fall foliage color. (zones 3-8)

About Dr. Hugh Conlon

I am a gardener, one who actually enjoys his addiction for plants.  I have been a horticultural educator for 30+ years.  Beginning my retirement years provides me with more time in my garden and more time to share my profession with those whose company I enjoy the most—you who till the soil.
Once Upon a Time…
Over the past 33 years, I have worked as the University Extension Area Horticulturalist in east Tennessee and in southwest Iowa. Over the past 23 years I have organized hundreds of educational meeting for commercial nursery and greenhouse growers, landscapers and garden center employees. I continue to teach training classes for the University of Tennessee Master Gardener program.  From 1974 to 1977, I served as Home Ground Extension specialist at the University of Rhode Island and taught plant identification courses at Michigan State University.
I continue to write garden features and articles for magazines and newspapers. I am a frequent contributor to various landscape and nursery trade newsletters as well as to the Southern Appalachian Plant Society newsletter. I have written over 40 Extension garden fact sheets under the “Tennessee Great Gardens” logo.
I have organized over 25 commercial industry and home gardening tours throughout the Southeastern and Northeastern U.S. I continue to lecture at commercial, horticultural and gardening events.  In 1994 I organized the first UT Master Gardener class in the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee, and I continue to play an active role in the Master Gardener program today.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I pursued a PhD degree in Ornamental Horticulture for five years at Michigan State University. I earned a BS degree (Pomology) from Cornell University in 1967 and a MS degree (Plant Sciences) from the University of Delaware in 1969.
My wife Jane and I are proud parents of four children. Hobbies include photography, writing and traveling.

Frost Aster — A blessing or a scourge?


Aster take-over, just before blooming

If you don’t have Frost Aster in your garden yet, you will! It seems to be just a matter of time. It took almost 8 years for it to show up in my gardens and then it made up for lost time by becoming one of my more abundant flower species.

Frost Aster (also known as Hairy Aster, Downy Aster and White Oldfield Aster) is Aster pilosus (or if you like to keep up on the latest scientific name changes Symphyotrichum pilosum). It likes full to part sun, most any moisture level except swampy and most any soil except gravel. It grows typically about 3 to 4 feet in height, is covered with an abundance of small white flowers for an extended period in fall, and spreads aggressively by both rhizomes and self-seeding.

I first noticed it several years ago when, in fall, one whole section of my yard was suddenly covered with white flowers. I liked the effect because it was almost like a light layer of snow. Then last summer I eliminated another section of lawn. In December, I put out a lovely selection of wildflower and native grass seeds, all of which came up nicely this past spring. However when fall arrived this year, I now have nothing but a solid stand of Frost Aster, with the other species barely visible between the Frost Aster stems. Maybe some of my seed had been mislabeled by the nursery? I called to ask, and they reassured me that there was no chance of that. One of the staff suggested that I spray the whole thing with Round-Up and start over.

I really didn’t like the Round-Up solution so I started doing research, checking with any native plant specialist I could find. To my surprise, I discovered that many nurseries sell Frost Aster seed (a good sign). I also learned that Frost Aster tends to come and go in spite of the fact that it is so aggressive (another good sign). I also learned that it is a very valuable plant for bees and butterflies. As one garden reference so nicely put it—“We have lost so many flower species valuable to pollinators, we should be glad that there is Frost Aster which can help fill the gap that has been left” (another good sign). So I decided to leave everything as is and see what happens. I will either be left with a solid, perpetual stand of nothing but Frost Aster or, over time, it will gradually integrate with the other species. It is certainly a chance to learn more about how Nature operates.

This experience has been an important reminder that I am no longer in charge of my yard and its plantings—Nature is now in charge. When you first start planning to install a native plant meadow, picking out plant species and doing the layouts, you are in control. But gradually Nature takes over, and now I have slowly come to realize that I am no longer in control. Funny that it has come as a bit of a surprise, but when I look back, it makes sense. Plants now come and go at their own discretion based on weather, lighting and soil. The only role I have left is to patrol for the unwanted visitors – pokeweed, dandelions, poison ivy, etc. — and remove individual plants where I find them, and, of course, more importantly, to learn from Nature

A Safe, Edible Weed Killer

Sprayed area next to unsprayed, after 24 hours

Sorry but I couldn’t resist the title for this blog! However it is generally true because it is vinegar. Although it has its limits, it is a great weed killer in the right situations. (I use the term “weeds” loosely to mean anything growing where I don’t want it.)

I have used more Round-Up than I care to admit. If I am killing off very large areas of lawn, it does seem to be unavoidable. However, I have been using some for maintenance too. So I am trying to find other strategies to reduce and maybe eliminate my use of Round-Up. The more news I read about it, the scarier it is. The FDA reports they are now finding it in our corn products and in beef from cattle that eat the corn.

I decided to experiment with three alternatives—sudsy ammonia, bleach, and vinegar. To my surprise, ammonia right out of the bottle didn’t even kill little seedlings. I mixed bleach and water to the point where if I had poured it on my clothes, it would have discolored them. That had only modest impact on seedlings, and I sure wasn’t going to switch to 100% bleach. So I tried straight old 3% white vinegar. I got 100% kill on small broadleaf seedlings (less than 1 inch tall). They are totally gone in a few hours and don’t re-grow. However, grass seedlings only get a bad burn and then recover.

After my success with regular vinegar, I decided to see if I could get more acetic acid and raise the percentage a bit. I found that you can’t buy it straight, but you can get vinegars with much higher percentages of acetic acid, although these are often insanely expensive. I finally found a product called Aceta Force Industrial Strength 30% Natural Acetic Acid Vinegar on the Amazon website. It costs $27 a bottle which is pretty pricey, especially compared to the fact that 5% vinegar costs less than $3 a gallon at your local discount store. However, I did the math, and one gallon of this stuff is enough to increase the strength of four gallons of regular vinegar from 5% to 10%. For each gallon of 5% vinegar that you use, add one quart of the 30% vinegar. So that $27 gallon will provide you with a grand total of 5 gallons of 10% acetic acid vinegar which is a lot of spraying. (I did test the 10% vinegar on my skin and had no reaction. However, do keep your nose away from the pour spout of the 30% vinegar!)

I couldn’t wait to try it out. I tried it on everything from 3-4 inch tall weeds on down.  I got total, permanent kill on all seedlings including grass, on monarda plants that were about 4 inches tall, on little violet seedlings, and even on a small patch of exotic weeds that had been trimmed in the past and were trying to grow back. I didn’t have any luck with nodding pink onion seedlings, probably due to the fact they are bulbs.

It won’t permanently eliminate fully established weeds which have enough energy in the roots to grow back, but it is wonderful at killing seedlings. It is especially useful for spraying plants germinating in your wood chip mulch, in gravel or woodchip paths, in beds of decorative stone, and in bare ground between established plants. During the spring when new seedlings are constantly germinating in these areas, vinegar will immediately wipe them out with a quick spraying, and repeated sprayings won’t raise your guilt level.

If you have other suggestions or experiences, be sure to post a comment or maybe even start a new blog.

Feb. 2020  Update:  Since I am now boycotting Amazon due to the treatment of their employees, I had to find another source for 30% vinegar.  I found an even better one with great customer service, a cheaper price than I paid before and free shipping even under $25.  If you are looking for a second source for 30% vinegar, check out Factory Direct Chemicals.  They sell Green Gobbler 30% vinegar for $24.99 a gallon.

Great Aid for Planting Seeds on Slopes

Since so many of us in Tennessee seem to have homes on slopes, I thought it might be helpful to post a blog on a product called “jute matting erosion control cloth” (or sometimes “geo-jute”). We have been eliminating lawn on some pretty steep slopes and then re-seeding with native flowers and grasses.  We needed something to help hold the new seed in place.   After killing off the lawn and all spouting weeds during one whole growing season, we seed over the area in early December and then immediately put down the geo-jute over the whole surface.  We have used this product several times, and it makes a world of difference.  It is especially good for doing large areas.

It is a very open mesh, made out of burlap, and comes in 4 foot wide rolls that are 225 feet long (and weigh about 75 lbs. each!). It is very easy to apply.  Simply cut the strips to the length you need, roll them up, start at the top of the hill, and just let the cut section unroll itself right down the hill. Even though it has a very open mesh, that technique works fine. Then we take some galvanized fencing with 2″x 4″ openings, cut the 2″x 4″ sections into  pieces open at one end (much cheaper than buying those expensive fabric pins at the garden center), and use them as pins to hold the geo-jute in place; it doesn’t take many.

It decays into the soil after about 12-18 months so you never have to remove it or have it ball up like those awful nylon meshes that never decay. In the meantime, it not only keeps the seed from flowing downhill in a rain storm but provides a little matting to help hold moisture in the soil while the seeds are germinating.

It does need to make contact with the ground in order to work so it would not be good for spreading out over an area with a lot of plant material still present.

You won’t find it at your local gardening store. We live in NE Tennessee and our closest Tennessee-based supplier is Great Western Bag Company in McMinnville, TN. They will ship to you. If you live in another part of Tennessee and use a different supplier, be sure to post a comment and let us know where you buy it.


*Update: Thanks to all who participated in this event, all seed packets have been distributed. :)

Free Seed Give-a-Way!! Extended to March 15th, 2018!

Receive a FREE package of Purple Coneflower seeds when you leave a comment on a native plant featured on our website!*

We still have Purple Coneflower seed available! Therefore, we are extending the end date to March 15 while supplies last. Tennessee Smart Yards is giving away a packet of Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seed (350 seeds) when you post a comment on a plant in the TNSY Native Plant databaseLimit 1 packet per comment and two comments per person.  This is a wonderful chance to get a free package of native seed to try in your garden plus a chance to help others learn more about native plants based on your own experience. Please post the comment directly on the specific plant (not on this seed give-a-way blog) and provide helpful information or observations about the plant to assist other people who are viewing your comment.

First post a comment on the website then e-mail us your mailing address to tnyards@gmail.com, and we will send you a free seed packet!  Your information, address, and email is never shared with any other party.  If you are not familiar with this plant be sure to read about it here: https://tynnativeplants.wordpress.com/flowers/common-name/purple-coneflower/

* This offer is only available to U.S. residents while supplies last. Unfortunately international shipping is not available at this time.

Some Observations and Puzzling Questions about Landscaping with Native Plants


After over 10 years of converting roughly one-half acre of lawn to native plants, I still struggle with how to conceive of my planting process and goals. I like to imagine that I am creating a native plant meadow that will eventually become a natural, dynamic community that takes care of itself. However, the huge amount of unending work involved makes my first thought seem naive, and I have moments when I think what I am trying to do is impossible. I have simply undertaken an out-of-control gardening project that exceeds my ability to handle it.

I recently came across two books that seem very relevant to these two perspectives. The first one is The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. He was a Japanese farmer/philosopher from Shikoku Island who lived from 1913-2008 and was an articulate advocate of farming in harmony with nature. The other is Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. These two authors offer a new modern perspective on sustainable landscaping with native plants.

Fukuoka believed that nature, being far more complex than we can comprehend, provides all that is needed for successful farming. He was appalled by the growing use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, large farming equipment that scours the earth, and rigid farming techniques. He believed that man’s improved techniques badly upset the natural balance of nature and made the land dependent on them. Seeking alternatives, he carefully observed and experimented for many years on his own farm, always asking himself whether he really needed to take a specific action in order to farm successfully. He believed that nature already provides all that we need to grow plants, and he learned how to farm in accordance with nature’s guidelines. As a result of his work, he developed 4 principles, which he found comply with the natural order and lead to a replenishment of nature’s richness:

1. No cultivation, no plowing or turning of the soil
2. No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost
3. No weeding by tillage or herbicides
4. No dependence on chemicals

To outsiders, his farm appeared somewhat wild and unkept. However, following these 4 principals, he was able to produce volumes of rice, wheat and oranges per acre on his land that matched or exceeded that of the commercial farm industry, and he did it with fewer hours of work.

After reading his book, I am encouraged to ask myself the same question—what can I not do? For example, I can cut back on weeding and follow his guideline –“Weeds play their part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community. As a fundamental principle, weeds should be controlled, not eliminated.” If I work in harmony with nature, maybe I can succeed at creating a natural, self-sustaining plant community and eventually my workload will decline.

On the other hand, when I read Rainer and West’s book I am not so sure of my potential success. In the introduction, Claudia West talks about nature as it was before we tamed the landscape. The paradise of native plant species in the wilderness of our ancestors is completely gone, and invasive species and climate change have drastically altered our landscape. She argues that even though there are some success stories of sites being restored to a “more so-called native state,” these sites require years of heavy labor or herbicides to remove invasive species, and even once removed, the sites must be covered with new native plants to keep the invasives at bay. “To turn back the clock to the landscapes of 1600 is no longer possible. There is no going back.”

Although I have no illusions that I am re-creating an original intact native plant meadow in my yard, this assessment leaves me feeling pessimistic about my potential success at creating a natural, ungroomed, functioning plant community on my half-acre. In their book, Rainer and West go on to describe how to use native plants to design gardens that function like naturally occurring plant communities and provide the natural beauty that we have lost. Although they offer wonderful ideas for a more ecologically connected landscape, the work and process involved sounds an awful lot like traditional gardening and definitely not a landscape left to its own dynamic process. Maybe there is no going back.

So I seem to have come full circle and still don’t know how best to assess my yard. For now, I lean toward following Fukuoka as much as I can and see what happens. There is a great phrase used to describe his farm—“the unkept exuberance of natural growth.” I can continue to learn to see the beauty in that unkept exuberance and enjoy the mobs of bees, butterflies and birds that thrive on it. And hopefully, the amount of work will decline!

Why Can’t I Buy Tennessee Native Plants…..or Can I?

Asclepias incarnata

I have often complained that my local greenhouses sell very few plants native to Tennessee, and I hear my gardening friends make the same complaint.   I wonder how suppliers can ignore the beauty and benefits of our native grasses, flowers, trees and shrubs.  Perhaps if they knew our interest in these plants they would stock more?

At the same time, I have been working on the Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plant Database, slowly making my way through our many species of native plants.  Recently I decided it was time to update our count of total number of plants in the database, and I discovered that we now have 750 species!  To top it off, any plant in the database is there not only because it’s a Tennessee native but because it is for sale commercially!  Granted you will find very few of these plants for sale at your local greenhouse, but they are available from a wide variety of vendors online.  Who would have guessed that we have such an awesome wealth of opportunities to purchase our native plants!   I think I am going to have to stop complaining and start doing more buying.

Now is the perfect time to plan for spring plantings.  For your convenience,  I have included what we have found for online suppliers  (https://tynnativeplants.wordpress.com/buying-native-plants/) on our Buying Native Plants page.   Maybe local nurseries will start to take notice that these are desirable species.  Until then, use this resource as a way to incorporate more native plants into your landscape!

Mapping the Locations of Our Tennessee Native Plants

We are fortunate to have the University of Tennessee Herbarium, a nationally recognized facility, that houses over 600,000 specimens of plant species, including flowering plants, ferns, mosses, liverworts, and fungi. One of the Herbarium’s many resources is the Tennessee Vascular Plant Occurrence Database. It is the resource we use in the Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plant Database to indicate where plants listed in our database occur within the state. Although we provide only a general description of where plants occur in Tennessee, you can easily use the Herbarium’s database to identify specific county locations for a plant and whether that plant occurs naturally in your county.

We live in one of the most botanically diverse and interesting states in the nation, and the Vascular Plant Occurrence Database contains nearly 9,000 photos and 2,900 distribution maps of plants. One cannot help but wonder how such a large database was created. The key has been dried and pressed plant specimens. Collecting plant specimens is an old art, practiced since the late 15th century, when they were collected for medical, herbal or ceremonial uses. Today they are collected as part of scientific research, housed in herbaria, and used to provide a record of when and where a plant was growing.

The Tennessee Herbarium’s collection of dried specimens dates back to 1934, when a fire burned the previous collections. In addition, Austin Peay State University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Memphis provided county records, and ultimately all the records associated with dried specimens were loaded into the Tennessee Vascular Plant Occurrence Database in 1996 and made available on-line in 1997.

Although the state is pretty well collected with thousands of records, new information comes in on a regular basis and is added to the database. Generally, new additions are based on specimens that are pressed and dried. However, sometimes it is done from high quality photographs. Most new submissions come from herbaria staff but also from members of native plant societies and graduate students. However, anyone can submit a sample for possible inclusion in the database, either to demonstrate a new plant species or a new location for plant species already in the database. If you don’t have a plant press, you can press the specimen between sheets of newspaper in a book until dry or you can submit a high-quality photograph. Either way, be sure to note the date and exact place where the plant was found.

The Vascular Plant Database receives over 33,000 visits per year. Staff strive to make it easy to use, and it is a great resource for questions on our Tennessee native plants and where they are found. You can find it at https://herbarium.utk.edu/vascular/index.php.

Help Us Improve Our Website by Sharing Your Experience!

turks-cap-lily-Keith Horn

We believe there is a wonderful treasury of information among our visitors. The Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plant Website is an ideal place to share your information with other plant enthusiasts. Our database has a huge amount of helpful information, and we typically have around 100+ visits per day!  Share your advice on how to grow plants, what to avoid, great plants to try, and other relevant experiences in your comments. This information is extremely helpful to others who are considering various species of plants for their yards. In addition, sometimes information gained from experience may not be widely available or even not reported for the less common species. Also, if you have a knack or interest in writing, become one of our bloggers!  We are always looking for plant enthusiasts that are interested in contributing articles to our site.

Posting a comment or blog is easy. For comments on a specific plant, just click the “Comment” button and enter your information. If interested in blogging, please contact us at tnyards@gmail.com to register. We strive to make the process as easy as possible, and all requests and informational posts are processed as quickly as possible.

Take a moment to explore and add your experiences to the website and help improve our knowledge of Tennessee native plants!

Happy Planting!

Photo Credit: Turk’s Cap Lily by Keith Horn

Buttonbush Offers Year-round Interest


Buttonbush Is Large Shrub

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), aka Button-willow or Honey Bells, is a medium to large native shrub with many fine landscape attributes. This unique flowering shrub is a favorite in attracting beneficial wildlife. It populates bogs, swamps and pond areas, as well as dry limestone bluffs in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada (USDA hardiness zones 5–9).

White pompom flowers are the unique ornamental asset. Tiny fragrant flowers appear in creamy white balls that are 1 – 1 ¼ inches in diameter in late spring (in Philadelphia, PA) to early summer (northern New England). Long projecting styles from the flower

Cephalanthus occidentalis at Chicago Botanical Garden

heads gives it a distinctive pincushion appearance. Flower heads mature into hard spherical ball-like fruits containing tiny two-seeded nutlets. Dried seed balls persist all winter long.

Give the buttonbush room to grow. This multi-stemmed deciduous shrub grows 6-12 feet tall and 4-7 feet wide. On older shrubs stems and trunks appear twisted when twigs are bare of leaves in winter. Pruning is usually unnecessary and is done in early spring to shape or reduce plant dimensions. Old neglected plants may be revitalized by cutting them back near to the ground in late winter.

Buttonbush has year-round garden interest with late spring flowers, summer and fall foliage, and fall/winter fruits. Narrow oval green deciduous leaves emerge in spring and turn shades of red in fall. It has no serious disease or insect problems. Foliage is poisonous to humans and livestock; deer may snack on new spring growth.

Buttonbush is best planted in wet, humus-rich soils and in full sun to part shade. Favorite landscape sites include in rain gardens or the edge of ponds. Established plants after 1-2 years are moderately drought tolerant.

Fragrant flowers attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds for nectar. Leaves are the larval host for some butterfly species. Waterfowl, quail, and other birds feed on the nut-like seeds. Cut flowers look great in fresh summer bouquets or in dried arrangements.

This blog is taken from “What Grows There”– a website created by Hugh Conlon. It provides a host of helpful information on a wide range of gardening topics, from many species of flowers, trees, shrubs and grasses to practical hints on garden maintenance, garden problems and lawn care. Hugh has worked for 30+ years as a horticultural educator. Before retiring, he was most recently horticulturist for University of Tennessee Extension, Washington County.

Link to original post on ” What Grow’s There” here.

Check out Lemon Mint/Purple Horse Mint (Monarda citriodora)



Lemon Mint or Purple Horse Mint (Monarda citriodora) is a Tennessee native annual wildflower, and it is turning into one of my absolute favorite flowers to grow.  I thought it would be fun to put up a post on it.  It is very pretty, gets about 2-3 feet tall (not so tall that it is likely to need staking), blooms most of the summer, is not fussy about soil (one site even says it prefers clay) and tolerates drought.  It also attracts lots of butterflies and bees.  I went out this morning and I had both a Tiger Swallowtail and a Red Admiral feeding on it.  Lots of native bees are always on it.  The only drawback that I have found is that since it is an annual, it needs to re-seed for the following year.  In my first major planting, it came up really well but disappeared after the first year, so it doesn’t seem to be too competitive with other plants.  I tried another new planting area this past spring, and I now  have lots of this plant.  I am hoping for better luck with it re-seeding for next year.  But even if I don’t get new plants next year, it does make a wonderful, spectacular “nurse crop” on a first year planting of native species.

Useful Info on a Practical Question — How Many Seeds per Square Foot?

In the past, when I am converting an area of lawn to native plants, I always go through the process of trying to figure out just how many seeds I need to order.  I am a bit variable in the number of seeds I use per square foot, and I got to thinking I need to get a better handle on this question. If you are doing a small garden and just want to plant seeds in a row, it is relatively easy. However, if you are going to broadcast seeds by hand over a larger area, for example 30’ by 40’, it gets a bit tricky.

This decision process is definitely not a science but more of a reasonable guess. So many factors influence the rate of germination of seeds. These include how well you have prepared the soil, whether or not you rake the seed into soil, how much weed seed is still viable at the soil surface, time of year you put down the seed, slope of the land, viability of your seeds, and even the size of the seeds. (Small seeds generally have less carbohydrate reserves and perish more easily than large seeds.)

In general, I found that the recommended rate varies by source, but it is usually between 20 and 60 live seeds per square foot, depending on their size. One source specified a minimum of 40 viable seeds per square foot, which seems like a good starting point since it falls in the middle of the range. Then you adjust this number according to your situation:

(1) If you are planting on a slope of 3:1 or more, you need to increase the seeds per square foot by 50%. (A 3:1 ratio means that for every 3’ of horizontal run, there is a vertical change of 1’ of ascent or descent, which is about a 4” change per foot.) On a slope, seeds are more vulnerable.

(2) If you are hand-broadcasting the seed, you need to increase the number of seeds by 30% to account for fact that seed is not uniformly buried in the soil.

(3) If you are putting seed down in a dormant period, e.g. in fall so that the seeds can go through the required cold stratification during the winter, you need to increase the number of seeds by 50% to take into account the extended time for loss of seed due to birds, rodents, being blown away by wind or washed away by rain.

(4) Most seed formulas count number of seeds needed based on the assumption that all seeds are viable. In reality, not all seeds will germinate. Growers calculate the percentage of “pure live seed” or PLS. PLS takes into account the percent purity of each seed lot and the percent of successful germination in that seed lot. Packages of grass seed usually have the PLS designated on the package, usually about 80%, which means 80% of the seed should germinate. However, PLS is rarely listed on flower seed. I talked to a rep at a large native plant nursery, and he said you can probably assume that flower seeds on average also have a PLS of 80%.

This calculation process is not as complicated as it might sound. It is much easier in an example. Assume a worst case example and that every situation listed above applies……you are planting a native seed mix on a slope in the fall by hand broadcast.

Minimum seeds per square foot = 40
Plus 50% for the slope = + 20
subtotal = 60
Plus 50% for dormant planting time = + 30
subtotal = 90
Plus 30% for hand broadcasting = + 30
subtotal = 120
Assume 80% live seed so divide by 80%
Grand total seed needed = 150 seeds per square foot

Just to repeat….this is not a science, and I know there are other ways to calculate and adjust the numbers. In fact, I find that sometimes an influential factor is how many seeds I have left over and I just want to add more to use them up. Still it is helpful to have a starting point that you can tweak to your own situation.  Plus I went back and looked at my seeding rate on my plantings, which so far have worked pretty well, to see how they compared, especially since all of the above conditions apply to me.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that I have been in the ballpark on my plantings, so it seems like the formula works for me.  Sorry for such a long blog but hope it is helpful.  Any related advice is appreciated!!

Need advice & help on various wild goldenrod species

I am finding that over time there seem to be a number of goldenrod species planting themselves in my native plant gardens. I haven’t tried to ID them because I figure I need to catch them in bloom before I have any chance of figuring out what they are. But I know they send out aggressive rhizomes and spread into large patches if I don’t happen to notice them for a couple years. Even if they are native, they are sure weedy because  I even see them growing in the rotting plant material collected alongside the curbs in the street. I think I am seeing at least 3 different species, including Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), which I definitely don’t want because that stuff seems to kill anything that grows next to it. In fact, I don’t think I want any of them given how aggressive they are, but I have just under 1/2 acre in total and weeding is getting tough!!

Does anyone know what these species generally are? Do you know what happens if you just do a modest control effort, i.e. pull them up when you happen to see them, or even what happens if you do nothing? Am I eventually going to have pretty much nothing but goldenrod or is this kind of a pioneer species which will eventually get crowded out? Or maybe it will just be another species mixed in with a wide variety of other plant species…..I should be so lucky!

Although I have done a lot to fight this stuff, including spraying Round-Up on very large patches that accidentally escaped my attention, I am definitely getting the feeling that this is a battle that I am losing.

What are your favorite native plants?


Given the number of native plant species that are available for purchase, I figure it will help most all of us to have a place to look for ideas. Plus I find that I often get into the most problems when I buy something I know nothing about! So I thought it would be great if people visiting this website have a spot to make recommendations based on their experiences. It would especially help people who are just getting started. If you have one or more favorite species–flowers, shrubs, trees, grasses–please take a moment to add a comment, list your species and add a few words about why you like it. Thanks!

“FREQUENT INSECT PROBLEMS” — A Good or Bad Trait for Native Trees in Our Yards?

With growing recognition of how important insects are in the food chain especially for birds, it has gotten me to thinking about how often we reject the idea of planting any native species in our yards that is designated susceptible to frequent insect problems.   Since insects provide critical protein for birds and are essential  to their babies’ survival, maybe a complete reversal of this kind of thinking is in order.  A tree that suffers from insect damage becomes a desirable planting for the yard.

Most of our more objectionable insect “pests” are great bird food.  Chickadees, wrens, nuthatches, hummingbirds and tufted titmice eat aphids.  Nuthatches and woodpeckers eat borers.  Cardinals, wrens, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and tufted titmice eat bagworms and webworms.  Chickadees and tufted titmice eat scale insects.   The list of bird food is a long one, including many types of caterpillars and beetles, stinkbugs, moths, lawn grubs, whiteflies, ants, plant lice, millipedes, weevils, and wasps.  Yum!

Yet we seem to have a split mentality in how we feel about this great food supply.  When I was looking for a listing of insects that attack the Eastern Poplar, I found a great quote by Michael Dirr in his handbook of woody plants.  ”If anyone plants poplars, they deserve the disasters which automatically ensue.”  Maybe that should be enough to discourage me from this line of thought? Perhaps part of the problem is that tree species that are susceptible to many insect problems often tend to be susceptible to disease problems?  I still think it is an intriguing idea, and it should be true that “the more bugs you have, the more birds you have.”

If I had the space left in my yard, I think it would be a fascinating experiment to set aside a portion of my yard and only plant native tree species labeled “susceptible to many insect problems.” Can’t you just see it…a tree grove of “lower class, misfits”!  It certainly challenges the stereotype.  I love it!

The Living Landscape by Rick Darke & Doug Tallamy

LLthumbThis book has just come out, and it is great reading for anyone who wants to work with native plants in their yard. I just finished reading it, and while I don’t want to write or post a book review here, I thought it would be fun to highlight the key points that I learned and what I would do differently in my yard if I had read the book before I started planting.

The book is focused primarily on understanding the benefits of woodland plantings in our home gardens. It focuses on the structure, functions and benefits of native species of the forest with lots of helpful tips on good species to choose and how to plant them.  Plus there are lots of gorgeous photos to illustrate the points being made.

The book describes each of the distinct, horizontal layers of a forest—canopy trees (the uppermost layer), understory trees (growing within the canopy), shrubs, herbaceous plants and the ground layer of accumulated organic matter and soil. They review the functions and plants of each layer as well as the creatures that live in each layer and beautifully describe the interactions between the layers.

When I created two smaller areas of woodlands in my yard, I knew about the various layers of the forest.   However, it never occurred to me to actually try to build the layers one on top of the other.  I put in trees here and there and shrubs here and there, with a goal of eventually having full shade.  Although I planted a few canopy trees, I put my understory trees outside the canopy such that the canopies of all the various trees would meet when the trees were full sized.  Then I filled in the open spaces with shrubs and herbaceous plants.   I didn’t think about building my woodland garden from the top down.  However, according to the authors, it is possible to plant all the layers at once and have it work.  That is a bit of a revolutionary idea.

Now I am trying to amend my plantings by going out into my gardens to find openings where I can sandwich in more trees and shrubs and better implement the concept of layers. Unfortunately for me, my spacing is already pretty well set.  Adding more canopy trees now with their 50-80 foot spread is out of the question.   Adding more understory trees is possible but requires me to try to sandwich them in where I can find the appropriate amount of space needed.

It seems like this concept will work in our home gardens even if the yard is small. If you need to, you can limit yourself to just one large, canopy tree and then plant the smaller understory trees, shrubs and herbaceous layer  beneath what will be the canopy once the canopy tree matures. There are a number of species that can take both shade and sun.  It does require us to think well ahead and arrange our plantings to take into account the plants’ mature size and probably provide a little more water to the understory plants until they become shaded.  But other than that, it is a fun, creative way to approach creating a mini-forest in our gardens and yards.  Plus you get the wildlife benefits of the layers.

Gong, Going, Gone — What Is Happening in My Native Plant Garden?

Scientists recognize that native plants tend to occur in communities where species with similar limits tend to grow together, and these communities are defined by the dominant plant species in them.  It is also recognized that the there is a predictable and natural succession over time where one plant community gradually or rapidly replaces another, although there are differing theories of how this complex process of succession occurs.   Understanding the structure and functioning of native plant communities is the focus of many scientific studies that go beyond the understanding of most of us native plant gardeners.

Front yard native planting (3)

Native planting

However, after watching all the significant changes that occur in my native plant gardens, I can’t help but draw some parallels.  It seems to me that in a sense my gardens are mini-communities that are going through their own process of succession.  I have two plots where the changes have been dramatic over a 4-5 year period.  In one 40’ by 35’  area, I have gone from a planting dominated by Purple Coneflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, and various Penstemons to one dominated by Big Bluestem grass with the original species either gone or only a handful remaining.  In another,  50’ by 40’ area, I have gone from an area with sweeping stands of Golden Alexanders to one dominated by Slender Mountain Mint with only a few scattered Golden Alexanders remaining.  Sometimes I hate to see the change and really miss my original mix of species.

All of this has gotten me to wondering how these changes happen and what drives the process in my own yard.  Even if what I am witnessing is not true community succession as scientists define it, it is some form of succession.  Plus knowing that succession will occur suggests some important basics that a person can take into account when doing a native plant garden.  First is to just recognize that there is going to be lots of change.   The characteristics of the planting site – soil, moisture and light levels—will influence the changes over time.  Having an initial seed mix with too large a percentage of seeds of an aggressive species can eventually put that species in control of your garden.  A seed mix that has a small number of aggressive species will likely lead to a planting heavily dominated by just a few species.

It isn’t always just which plants are aggressive.  I talked to a staff person at one of the large native plant nurseries about what influences succession in our native plant gardens.  He described a garden at their nursery site that had lots of Early Sunflower, a plant that I know from personal experience to be very aggressive.  He said that one spring, they were suddenly  gone and no one knew what had caused the change.

One of the most important factors affecting succession is the total number of plant species in the original seed mix.  That seed mix forms the seed bank from which my mini-community will draw as the years progress.    Use as large a number of species in the original mix as you can.  A large number makes for more plant diversity and less chance that one or two species will take control and crowd out others.  It should also make the succession process more dynamic and a little closer to what occurs in nature.

Disappointments aside, it is fascinating to watch all the changes occur and part of the fun of native plant gardening.

3 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me

Looking back on my efforts to replace large sections of lawn with native plants, I can think of three things that I sure wish some gardening wizard had told me in advance.  Although everyone’s planting experiences will be, to some degree, unique to their situation, I thought it would be useful to pass along my bits of wisdom in hopes they will be helpful to others.

1.  Diversify your plant species.

Don’t depend on just a few species of grasses or flowers to make up the bulk of your planting area.  If you rely on just a few species and one or more of them turns out to be problematic (too aggressive, too floppy or weak-stemmed, ugly, etc.), you are headed for problems.  It is darned hard work to get rid of something planted in volume once you decide you are sorry you planted it.  A naturally-occurring plant community can have 100 species or more.  So follow Nature’s example and diversify, diversify, diversify.

2.  When you select species for your planting area, take into account Nature’s amazing ability to spread seeds far and wide.

Although some species are very slow to spread, many of them are aerial acrobats that make you wonder how they do it.  Don’t select any plant species that you aren’t willing to have appear in all your other planting areas.  The only alternatives are to be a determined weeder or to have done your homework ahead of time and select species that self-seed poorly.  Otherwise you are headed for a losing battle of trying to keep plants in their assigned locations.  This concept may be something we gardeners love to do, but Nature is totally oblivious to it.

3.  There is no such thing as “done.”

I once read a description of a gardener who took 13 years to get her native planting established.  I naively thought “That is not going to happen to me.  I will be done in 2-3 years.”  Although I knew that native plant communities are dynamic, I didn’t fully appreciate what that means, nor did I understand just how much fun “dynamic” would be.  I still had the traditional gardener’s mentality of getting a flower bed “done,” a fixed end product so to speak.

If native plants had a mantra, it would be “Change!”  Once your initial planting is done and plants start coming up, the changes begin, no matter how much planning you may have done.  Some plants come up, last long enough to encourage you, and then totally disappear because they aren’t happy where they are.  Some plants love their site and can’t spread fast enough.  Some plants don’t like where they are and happily move to a location they like better.  Proportions and locations change, and you never know exactly what the next year will bring.  Eventually a large planting will stabilize, and I now understand why the woman’s garden took 13 years.

However, the change never totally stops.  So take advantage of this dynamic process.  There are always opportunities to try adding a few new species each year.  Tennessee has such an abundant wealth of native flowers and grasses to try.  You will make your planting better and have more fun at the same time.

In a natural setting, new species often occur in areas of disturbance that create openings, for example a downed tree that suddenly lets in sunlight.  Find areas of disturbance in your planting area, e.g. bare ground where other plants have failed or where you have ripped out weeds or some plants you wish you hadn’t planted.  Use these areas to introduce new species.  Then you have the fun of anticipation, waiting to  see how the plants will adapt and change.  Each year comes with its own special surprises, and  you get to look forward to what the next growing season will bring.

Check Out Standing Cypress!


Almost by accident I discovered a Tennessee native plant called Standing Cypress (Ipomopsis rubra).  It has a number of other common names including Scarlette Gilia and Flame Flower. It is a striking,  beautiful biennial with brilliant red tubular flowers spaced throughout the entire length of the 2-5 foot tall spike.

This past spring, I had planted about an ounce of Standing Cypress seed, scattering it by hand, here and there across the top of the soil surface.  Then I forgot all about it, except that on and off all summer long, I kept noticing these little green feathery-looking plants popping up here and there in my planting area.  When they hadn’t grown more than 3 or 4 inches tall by fall, I figured they might be a biennial.  I just didn’t know what they were.   I went back to my seed lists to see what I had ordered, and of course, it was Standing Cypress in its first year.

The more I read about Standing Cypress, the more I am looking forward to next summer.   It is a low-maintenance, easy-to-grow plant that deer don’t like and hummingbirds do.  It is a dependable re-seeder and once you get it started, you will have it blooming every other year.  You can get it to bloom every year if you plant seed two years in a row.   In their Native Plant Database, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center describes this plant as ”one of the most successful  species” in their field testing from seed.

It likes full to part sun and medium to dry moisture.  Its preferred soils are rocky, sandy or loamy.  Since my soil is mostly clay, it will be interesting to see what happens.  But so far, so good!

This plant sounds like a great combination of beauty, ease and dependability.  I will update this post next summer and add some pictures.  If anyone else has tried this plant, let us know how it worked for you.  Here’s to next summer!

An Easy Riot of Color with Native Annuals

I got into experimenting with annuals out of necessity when I was trying to start native perennial wildflowers, which need that first year or more just to get established.  Annuals gave me a good, temporary filler in my planted areas.  Now that I have tried them and found how easy and colorful they are, I am always looking for opportunities to sandwich in a few annuals here and there.  You can buy large quantities of seed for very reasonable prices, and annuals make a great addition to your native plantings.  I thought it would be fun to share those species that I have tried and liked.

I am grouping my list into three categories :  (1) species that are part of Tennessee’s  native habitat; (2) species that are North American wildlflowers  and native to surrounding states but not originally found in Tennessee; and (3) species that are found growing wild in Tennessee but are escapees from gardens and were originally native to Europe.  This information helps if you are anxious to limit yourself to only naturally-occurring Tennessee wildflowers.  (None of these plants are on any of the lists published by the Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council.)

Our TYN blog is a great place to exchange ideas and information, so I hope others will add their comments, thoughts and other plant species!

Tennessee Native Annuals

Blanket Flower 'Arizona Sun' Indian Blanket or Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella).  This plant has red flowers with yellow rims.  It likes heat (and tolerates drought), sandy soil and full sun, potentially blooming clear into October.  It is listed as getting 1 to 1 1/2 ft. tall but mine are consistently more like 3-4 ft., which can tend to make them a little floppy.   I have plants in clay soil, which they don’t seem to notice, and the species re-seeds very readily for me.  It occurs in 4 counties in Tennessee, mainly in Middle Tennessee and in eastern Tennessee’s  Ridge and Valley Province.

Monarda citriodoraLemon Mint or Purple Horse Mint.  It is a typical member of the Mint family with square-shaped stems, and flowers are deep purple to lavender.  It gets 2-3 ft. tall, isn’t fussy about soil type and likes full to part sun.  It blooms for most of the summer.  Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love it.  It is my favorite plant out of all the annuals I have tried.   I planted it on a fairly steep slope of clay soil and had great luck with it.  Even though it is easy to start from seed scattered on bare ground, my only disappointment is that it hasn’t re-seeded for me at all.  It occurs in isolated counties in Middle and East Tennessee.

Coreopsis tinctoriaPlains Coreopsis or Calliopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria).  This plant has striking yellow flowers with maroon centers and gets 1-3 ft. tall.   It prefers full sun and isn’t picky about soil type.  It likes damper soil so it is good for areas with poor drainage or that tend to stay soggy for periods of time.  I have only tried a variety of this plant called Dwarf Red Plains Coreopsis (with the same scientific name).  It has very striking, solid mahogany-red flowers and blooms from mid- to late summer.  I had good luck getting it to come up and bloom, but then it disappeared, probably because my soil didn’t stay wet enough.  However, it was still worth having, just for that solid deep, red color.  The species is native to Tennessee and occurs statewide.  The dwarf variety appears to be originally native to mid-western U.S. and has escaped from cultivation in the eastern U.S.

North American Annual Wildflowers

Clasping Coneflower (Dracopis amplexicaulis or Rudbeckia amplexicaulis).  This rudbeckia has black, cone-shaped heads surrounded by bright yellow drooping flowers.  It takes full sun and isn’t picky about soil.  It gets 2 feet tall and potentially blooms from early summer to September.   Seed has a high germination rate, and it is a very heavy re-seeder.  I have to add that I won’t be planting my new seed until next spring, but I put it on the list because of all the good things that I have read about it.   It is native to the mid-western and southern states, including our neighboring states of Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia.   Also Tennessee DOT sometimes adds this species to their native seed mixes that they plant along Tennessee roadsides.

Escaped Annual Wildflowers

Papaver rhoeasRed Corn Poppy or Flanders Poppy (Papaver rhoeas).  This bright red poppy is technically a native of Europe and has become naturalized throughout the United States.  It has fire engine red flowers, and you can easily spot it from 30 or 40 yards away.  It needs full to part sun and blooms spring to early summer.   It is a regular sight along Tennessee’s Interstate System.  For all the seeds I have put down, I have gotten mighty few plants.  I read that good germination only occurs in areas of bare ground which may be part of my problem.  However, even one or two successes are enough reward to keep me trying, at least for a while.  (A knowledgeable friend of mine who proofed this post for me tells me that I will get better results if I scatter seed in fall instead of spring.)

Salvia coccineaScarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea).  This plant has fluorescent red tubular flowers and can get up to 3 feet tall.  It likes full to part sun and sandy to gravelly soil.  It potentially blooms from early summer to the first frost and is a hummingbird magnet.   Even though it is found growing wild in the southern U.S., it was originally introduced from Brazil.   Although I usually try to stick with Tennessee natives, I find this plant hard to resist.  It is so striking and brings in the hummingbirds and butterflies that I love.   I buy seed by the ounce and scatter it widely.  Although most seeds don’t come up on my clay soil, I get enough plants to make it worthwhile and even a little re-seeding.  However, I do find that my plants don’t start blooming until late summer or early fall.

You can find suppliers for bulk seeds of all these species, usually somewhere between $4.50 and $9 per ounce.  My favorite sources are Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, Texas, Everwilde Nursery in Sand Creek, Wisconsin and Easywildflowers.com in Willow Springs, Missouri.

If you have other plant species you have tried or other favorite seed sources, please be sure to post them.  Also be sure to post any techniques you have tried that improve plant growth and performance.

When selecting a new plant species to grow in your yard, please do keep an eye out for plants that have been labeled “invasive.”  Sometimes catalogs of annual wildlfowers list species that are considered invasive but make no mention of any such problem.  If you have doubts, check out the species first with either the USDA Plants Database (my favorite resource!) or the website of the Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council.

Tennessee Native Wildflowers — My favorite grow-your-own species

Since I prefer to plant large areas of my yard in native flowers and grasses, money always seems to be the number one criteria in my plant selection. The dilemma in selecting anything out of the ordinary is that I have to buy either live plants or expensive seed that can run $50 to $100 an ounce.  So I have tried to teach myself to grow plants from seed in starter pots, using only $2 seed packets. Every year I try a new list of species.  Each time is an experiment, some seeds come up and some don’t, and each success is an exciting surprise.

I thought it would be fun to post my favorite 10 plants that I have found relatively easy to grow from seed in pots. As is typical with wildflowers, every species on this list requires 1- 2 months of cold, damp treatment before the seed will germinate. So in late December, I plant the seed in little peat pots (about 40-50 to a tray), water the pots and put them out in the garage for the winter. I cover the trays with a sheet of wax paper and top that with a few sheets of newspaper; I check them every few weeks to make sure they are not drying out.  On March 1, I bring them into the house and put them on the floor under grow lights that I have hung on the underside of a metal folding table.  Then the fun begins, and I get to see what works and what doesn’t.

Here are the plants I’ve had the most success with and consider desirable additions to my native plantings.

Prairie Phlox Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa).  This is a wonderful sun-loving phlox that gets about 1½-2 ft. tall, likes soil moisture from moderately wet to dry, and flowers in whites,pinks and lavenders.   My seed catalog labels it “difficult from seed,” but I have done it two years with no problem (although of course not every pot germinated).
Blue Salvia Blue Salvia (Salvia azurea).   This salvia likes full to part sun, grows 2-3 ft. tall (more like 4 ft. for me) and likes medium to dry moisture.  It does tend to lean when it gets tall so it needs the support of surrounding plants.  However, it has beautiful blue flowers which the bees can’t stay away from.
Ohio Horsemint Ohio Horsemint (Blephia ciliata).  This mint likes part to full shade but will accept full sun.  It grows 16-24” high and likes medium to dry moisture.  It accepts a wide range of soils including clay and has pretty, pale blue flowers with purple spots which the bees love.  (It doesn’t have the pungency needed for use as a culinary herb.)
 Missouri Primrose Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa).  This primrose likes full to part sun, medium to dry moisture level, and grows 6-12” tall.  It prefers lean soil; in fertile soil, it can be overwhelmed by its larger neighbors.  You may already know this plant for its eye-stopping, huge, bright yellow flowers.   Its only drawback is that it does tend to form a somewhat messy tangle of leaves and stems, but with flowers like that, who cares!
 Penstemon calycosusPhoto courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery Calico Beardtongue (Penstemon calycosus).  This plant likes full to part sun, moderately wet to medium moisture, and grows 2-4 feet tall. It prefers humus-rich soil but will adapt to average or sandy soil.  It has attractive rose-pink flowers and deserves to be grown more often. (If you are a penstemon fan, also check out Hairy Beardtongue (P.hirsutus). It is another easy-to-grow, adaptable penstemon that has elegant lavender and white blooms that attract hummingbirds.)
 Rattlesnake Master Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium).  This plant likes full to part sun, moderately wet to moderately dry moisture and will grow in just about any soil.  It is an unusual and striking architectural plant that gets 2-4 feet tall.  It reminds me of a yucca.
 Solidago ulmifoliaPhoto courtesy of Illinois Wildflowers Elm-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia).   This plant likes part to full shade, medium to moderately dry moisture, and grows about 3 feet tall.  I had tried some of the better known goldenrod species with poor results so I decided to try some of the lesser known goldenrods instead.  I was not disappointed; this flower has beautiful sprays of golden yellow flowers that brighten any shady spot.
 Polemonium reptansPhoto courtesy of Illinois Wildflowers Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans).  This is a lovely woodland plant that I had always incorrectly assumed would be hard to grow from seed, as many woodland plants seem to be. It grows in part to full shade, likes moderately wet to moderately dry soil, and gets 12 inches tall.
 Small-flowered Leafcup Small-flowered Leafcup (Polymnia canadensis).  This is a woodland plant that needs light to medium shade, medium to moderately dry moisture, and loamy to rocky soil.  It gets 2-4 ft. tall, has small white flowers with scalloped edges and is most striking for its large deeply-notched foliage.  It is an uncommon flower and not known to the public.  I had never seen it or heard of it;  I just wanted to try something unusual.
 Anise Hyssop Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).   If you research this plant, you will find that I am cheating on this one because it is technically not a Tennessee native.  The nearest state where this plant occurs is Virginia.  So maybe it does creep over the state line now and then?  However, this plant has so much going for it that I add it to my native garden anyway, and I enjoy looking at it every time I walk by.  It grows in sun or shade, likes medium to dry moisture, and gets 2-3 ft. tall.  It is so easy to grow from seed, re-seeds very nicely, is attractive, blooms for a long period, and loved by bees.

With hundreds of species out there to try, this list barely scratches the surface. Be sure to post any species you have tried that worked well for you.  We would love some suggestions.

What kind of Liatris can I grow in my garden?

I consider the Liatris species to be the royalty of the native wildflower world.  They are tough, beautiful and butterfly magnets.  However, I have always been kind of confused by the diversity of plants in this genus and by their very picky cultural needs.  Since I have never spent the time required to really study which ones grow where, I have been missing out on this great plant.

I spent some serious time researching the six species that are native to Tennessee and thought it would be fun to share the chart that I developed to help me select the right plants for my yard.

To start out, it is good to be aware that all the species have several things in common.  They are beautiful and easy to grow if you meet their needs.  They all need full sun to reach their potential.  Well-drained soil is a must.  You can start from seed fairly easily but generally plants are slow to establish, so you are better off buying plants.   The tall varieties are likely to need staking.  That said, here is my chart, and please be sure to post any observations or edits you have.


Native Plants I Wish I Hadn’t Planted!

I always like to diversify my native plants as much as possible, and even though I try to research each species ahead of time, some of them always come back to bite me.  Here is my list of regrets.  If anyone has had a different experience with these plants or has found a way to deal with them, please post a response.   Also to help out the rest of us, please consider posting your own list.

Here is my list from worst to “least worst”:

Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus)

1.   Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus).  I can’t find a single good thing to say about this plant except that it is a cheap and very easy-to-grow grass.  Since it is a cool season grass, it dries to a crispy brown in Tennessee’s summer heat and looks like a farmer’s field ready for harvest.  It can’t stand up by itself in a storm and takes everything around it down with it when it goes.   It is listed as “short-lived” but that is inaccurate.  I have been pulling and dead-heading it for five years.

2.   Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).  Generally, this is considered a very desirable meadow grass.   Tall at 6-7’, it is sturdy and generally stands straight even after a storm.  But it RE-SEEDS to the point of taking over and driving out everything else in just about 3 years.  I complained to my seed source, but I don’t think they believed me, saying only that they had never heard of such a thing.  I did buy my seeds from a northern state, so maybe I got a northern “ecotype” of the plant that just goes nuts in Tennessee’s warm climate.  What are other people’s experiences with this plant and where did you get your seed?

3.   Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana).  Although it is a charming, attractive groundcover, its ability to spread puts Bermuda  grass to shame, especially if planted in sun.  It works fairly well in dry shade, but it is almost like something from outer space if put in full sun with plenty of water.  It is often on rain garden plant lists, and I made the mistake of using it in my rain garden.  In less than 3 months, a total of 6 plants had buried every other plant in the garden, and when I pulled it all out, I had rooted plants about every inch to half inch.

Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis)

4.   Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis).  This plant is a darling, small purple petunia that makes a great groundcover.  I read that it shoots its seed up to 10 feet through the air, which at the time sounded rather charming.  In reality, it is a huge headache if you have any areas within 10-15 feet where you don’t want it or if it is planted among less aggressive plants.   Since it blooms the first year from seed, those plants will then send their seed out another 10 feet..…kind of an exponential explosion.  Even though it is a small plant, you cannot hand pull it by the roots .  I am no longer sure that I want it, but it is too late.  Once planted, it is so invasive that it is here to stay.

Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)

5.  Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa).   This plant is both pretty and a huge headache.   It is a great rain garden plant with bright yellow flowers.  However, it is a giant plant at 5-6’ that sprawls in all directions by mid-summer, burying everything around it.  It re-seeds with abandon, popping up everywhere in the yard.  If you don’t have too many, the only solution is to cut it back to at least half its height in early June, which turns it into a somewhat manageable bush by the time it blooms in late July.

My Top 10 Native Plants

I have spent 19 years  growing native plants in my yard, a little over 5 years of which has been in northeast Tennessee.   So I thought it would be fun to post a list of my favorite plant species in case they will be helpful to someone else.  My favorites are those plants that are dependable, good on a modest budget, and easy to grow from seed applied on bare ground.  They give me quick results that make me feel  like I know what I am doing and that I don’t look back on with regret, thinking I should have known better.

As a preface to the list, I should mention that I like to grow natives in a meadow-like setting as a replacement for lawn.  So I am not necessarily recommending these plants for use in a groomed, formal flower bed, which is a whole different creature.  I like to do larger areas from seed for a natural setting that draws lots of birds, butterflies and bees.

Here are my dependable favorites and why:

Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea)

1.   Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).   This is my top pick.  It is spectacular en masse, blooms for a long period, reseeds well on its own, and beloved by butterflies.  It is also a favorite food of goldfinches, who are so impatient to eat that they start checking for seed ripeness as soon as flowers appear.  When fall arrives, a flock of goldfinches hangs out in my yard for about two weeks while they stuff themselves.  The seed is also inexpensive.  You can get it for $2 an ounce (6,600 seeds).

Smooth Penstemon/Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

2.   Smooth  Penstemon/ Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon  digitalis).   This is a charming, white flower that is a very strong re-seeder so you need to be a bit careful in the amount of seed you use.   For such a tiny seed (130,000 per ounce), it has an amazingly successful germination rate.  You can depend on it to quickly cover bare ground (perhaps a little too quickly).  But again it is spectacular en masse, and a large, mass bloom comes alive with the hum of hundreds of bees.  It is also an inexpensive seed at only $5 per ounce.

3.  Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata).  This is an easy coreopsis from seed and gives quick bloom in the first year.  I like its bright dependable color.  It makes a good nurse crop while other plants are getting started.  I find it does tend to decline after a few years.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

4.  Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea).   This is a dependable, bright yellow flower for spring.  Seed has a high germination rate, and plants re-seed readily so it is easy to get too much of it.  However, it is a favorite food of swallowtail caterpillars, so I don’t mind if I have a solid field of it in April and May.  (Even though prolific, it doesn’t seem to crowd out other plants.)  Seed is only $5 per ounce (11,000 seeds), but be careful how much you use.

Nodding Pink Onion (Allium cernuum)

5.   Nodding Pink Onion (Allium cernuum).  Personally I love the cute nodding heads of pink flowers.  Its dainty height and shape is a nice contrast to the large plant species. Given its small size, it is better placed along the garden edges.  This is another bee plant, and as far as the bees are concerned, you can’t have too much.  It is more expensive at $10 per ounce (7,600 seeds) but you can buy a ¼ oz. and depend on just a few plants to nicely reseed themselves over time.

6.  Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).  This plant is the old-fashioned native from which many cultivars have been produced.  Unfortunately it has a bad, and in my opinion undeserved, reputation for mildew.  I find the bees like it better than the cultivars, and the flowers are unique and beautiful.   It is a little on the coarse side, but I wouldn’t be without it.  When you plant the seed, be forewarned that it will feel like every single seed that you planted germinated.   $10 per ounce (70,000 seeds), which is definitely an amount I do not recommend, so simply adjust the amount according to your needs.

7.  Bradbury’s Monarda (Monarda bradburiana).  If Wild Bergamot is too coarse for you, this is a tamer and smaller species that is easy from seed and spreads well.  It has lovely flowers and deep green leaves.  The bees and butterflies like it too.  Very expensive seed at $50 per ounce (35,000 seeds), but you only need a small fraction of an ounce and some patience.

Slender Mountain Mint ( Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

8.  Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).  This is a mid-summer bloomer with many, small white flowers with purple-tinted edges.  It is not a spectacular flower from a distance but extremely pretty close-up.   It is very easy from seed, re-seeds readily, and very popular with butterflies and bees.  It will provide a mass bloom just after the Alexanders have finished.  Expensive seed at $30 per ounce (378,000 seeds), but you are better off with a fraction of an ounce.

9.  Side-oats Gramma (Bouteloua curtipendula).  This is a charming 2 foot tall grass that I have been told is a not a strong survivor in Tennessee.  Granted it will never replace Little Bluestem as a “backbone” grass species for a meadow garden, but I love the ease of growth, the cute teeny red flowers that line the grass stalks, and its simple charm.  So far mine are hanging in there for their 3rd succeeding year.  Cheap seed at only $2 an ounce (6,000 seeds).

Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

10.  Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).  This is my “surprise plant.”  It has very small seeds, at 500,000 per ounce.  I have planted seed off and on over several years with very modest results.  But it only takes a few plants, and once you have them, Blue Lobelia will move quickly into the areas that it likes.  Although the books specify that it tends to be a wetland plant and likes wet to average moisture, it has planted itself on the steep, rather dry slope behind my garage.  When things are turning brown and straggly in the fall, the bright blue of this lobelia is most welcome.  After about 3 years, I have it scattered here and there across the entire slope.  When I went back and looked at my original seed mix for this site, I found that it didn’t even contain Blue Lobelia.  Although the seed is more expensive, you can buy 1/4 oz for $8, which is 125,000 seeds.

 P.S.  With all these quoted prices and amounts, I anticipate questions on where I buy my seed.  I get it from Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minnesota.  While I am very happy with their quality and service, I am sure there are also other outlets with competitive prices.

Welcome to Tennessee Yards & Neighborhoods TN Native Plant Database

We are compiling a list of native plants in Tennessee with the help of Master Gardener Joy Stewart!  This blog will serve as a TN native plant database with images and growing information as well as a place where you can come and provide feedback and ask questions about plants in your garden!