Plan a Native Shade Garden for Spring

Winter is the time to plan your garden for the coming seasons. This spring, consider planting a native shade garden for its beauty, to attract pollinators and to build healthy landscapes.

Native milkweeds are important to help boost our declining butterfly populations. Yet there are many other native plants we should be growing, not just for butterflies but for the entire ecosystem including insects, birds, wildlife, and human.

    We want healthy living landscapes that are biologically balanced. Doug Tallamy, PhD, tells us in Bringing Nature Home, only about five percent of the U.S. is pristine forest and about 80 percent of our woody ornamentals are non-native and provide no nutrition for our insect populations and birds. As E.O. Wilson, a famous ecologist, says, “they (insects) are the little things that run the world.”

All energy in the world begins with plants. Habitat destruction is rampant yet we can begin to rebuild our ecosystems and food chains by redesigning our gardens with the use of native plants. 

Think of new landscapes for native plants—the tree canopy, the understory, shrubs, the herbaceous layer and the ground layer. 

Two natives that are in the ground layer and thrive in shade are wintergreen and partridgeberry. Both like similar conditions of moist, well-drained, acidic soil in shade. These evergreens grow slowly as ground covers. 

Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, makes small, white down-turned bell flowers that form red berries in late fall. When the leaves are crushed you can smell the wonderful scent of wintergreen (methyl salicylate). The red berries smell  even stronger and are edible. Traditionally wintergreens were used in a loose-leaf tea for colds, headaches and externally for sore muscles.

Partridgeberry, Mitchella repens, is a very low-growing little vine with wonderful fairy-like white trumpet flowers that are extremely fragrant and form small red berries in late fall. The leaves and berries have been used to make a tea for menstrual problems and childbirth pain.

See if you can find these plants on a winter walk in the forest.

I’m not advocating ripping out non-natives but if everybody planted a few more natives and layered the landscape, a lot of ecosystems would be restored.