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For success in the garden, aim for native plants of southern Virginia
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For success in the garden, aim for native plants of southern Virginia

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Having spectacular gardens is a whole lot easier when you work with nature instead of against it.

And that starts with using native plants.

Plants that are native to southern Virginia are the easiest to grow because, if they hadn’t been displaced in the first place by development, they would be thriving on their own. You don’t have to pamper them, because all the conditions they need are right here anyway.

There’s no better example of the power and impact of native plants than the glorious rhododendrons that bloom throughout Patrick County. You could try to grow some Henry County and Martinsville, and they might survive and get bigger, but they won’t thrive in the east’s lower elevations as they do up on the hillsides and mountains to the west.

Rhododendrons also need acidic soil, adequate availability of water and moderate humidity and winds. A bright, sunny, open spot on a flat yard in Martinsville can’t provide the ideal conditions the shaded mountains of Meadows of Dan do.

Inkberry holly and mountain laurel are other staple evergreen plants that grow well in the higher elevations, and weigela does well across the region.

A beautiful yet underappreciated local plant is phlox. This month, blue phlox is in bloom, creating knee-high clouds of a cheery light blue so complete you barely seen the green leaves below them. In a few weeks, as the blooms fade away, you can cut it all down to about 6 inches high, then watch the show repeat itself.

In early summer, white phlox blooms similarly -- but not as dramatically.

Coralberry is a small, mound-shaped shrub with 1-inch smooth, dull green pointed-oval leaves. It forms extensive colonies about 4 feet high and spreads by rooting where it touches the ground. It is easily found in woods, especially where Post Oaks grow, and can be transplanted.

Coralberry is not a formal-looking plant but rather looks good in naturalized settings or shady gardens. Its greenish-white flower clusters aren’t showy, but its coral-pink to purple berries along its bare stems in winter provide cheerful color during an otherwise dull time.

The dogwood, state tree of Virginia, is a classic native tree that’s in flower now. The oddly named redbud tree, which is covered in not red but tiny, light purplish-pink flowers that bloomed over the past few weeks and are fading now, also is native.

Bluets are those tiny blue flowers that seem to float above the ground this week. Also in bloom now are violets, so common even in lawns that they don’t get their due as a pretty garden plant.

In fact, if you’re looking for easy plants, look no further than at old houses – or even where old houses used to be. Yucca, or Adam’s needle, that spiky plant that sends up 5-foot-tall stems loaded in white bell-shaped flowers in summer, often continues to grow along roadsides and fields where houses once stood a century or more ago. At old house sites you’ll also often see daffodils (not native, though) and coralberry.

If those plants survived decades of neglect, even a century, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll do fine in your garden, too.

Other native perennials include Baptisia, black-eyed Susan, heuchera (including coral bells), heliopsis, blanketflowers, swamp milkweed, bee balm, bush St. John’s wort, ironweed (Veronica), geranium, violets, joe-pye weed, strawberry, candytuft, peegee hydrangea, euphorbia, purple coneflower, coreopsis, sedum, salvia and goldenrod.

The list continues with plants from a wider range including iris, larkspur (delphinium), clematis, verbena, yucca, tiger lily, spurge (snow-on-the-mountain), cinnamon fern, lobelia, passionflower, forget-me-nots, hellebores, hyssop, salsify, turtlehead, poppy, bellflower, Jacob’s ladder and purple coneflower.

Many favorite garden staples, considered to be old fashioned, actually are not native: Daffodils were brought to the U.S. from Europe. Flowering quince, star magnolia and many varieties of honeysuckle are from Asia. Forsythia came from Asia and Europe. Yoshino cherry trees are from Japan. Other plants from abroad that have become staples we take for granted include Kwanzan cherry, bridal wreath spirea and Leyland cypress.

On the other end of the spectrum are invasive plants that are taking over our woods and roadsides, pushing out the native species – and not providing wildlife with food it needs.

One of the top offenders is the Calloway pear, the monstrous offspring of the Bradford pear. Trees with white blooms you noticed a few weeks ago in the woods or roadsides probably are those (especially along Va. 58 from Rolling Hills road and toward Brosville). The Calloway pear not only vigorously takes over areas, but the long, sharp spikes that cover it make it nearly impossible to handle and even break the tires of machinery brought in to clear land.

Other invasive plants in this area that still are planted intentionally, perhaps without realization of their aggression on the landscape, include burning bush, English ivy, wisteria, honeysuckle, crepe myrtle and butterfly bush.

Ironically, you may have to dig a little deeper to find flowers and plants that belong in this area than you would those introduced species that are commonly sold in stores and garden centers.

However, you’re in luck. One of the best places to get plants is the Patrick County Master Gardener plant sale, which is held every spring. This year’s sale will be April 24, from 8 a.m. to noon, at the Rotary building in Stuart.

That plant sale never disappoints. It has a tremendous variety of plants that come from actual gardens in this area – and the Master Gardeners staffing the sale can answer your questions and give advice.

Holly Kozelsky reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at holly.kozelsky@martinsvillebulletin.com

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