Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plants

A comprehensive database of Tennessee native plants

Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Some Observations and Puzzling Questions about Landscaping with Native Plants

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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!

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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 http://tenn.bio.utk.edu/vascular/vascular.shtml

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

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

Liatris_Table

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!