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.