10 Great Natives for a Sunny Border

If you need something that can thrive in a hot, dry spot, consider these North American plants.

Fine Gardening – Issue 181
native plants for sunny border
Photo: Carol Collins

The South Garden at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessen, Delaware, has been nicknamed the “pizza oven” by those who tend it. It sits in full sun, and its antique brick walls and pathways radiate a lot of heat. Yet this garden looks fresh and appealing throughout the seasons, thanks to a colorful palette of North American natives that are perfectly adapted to flourish in this hot, bright spot. Visitors who are inspired to plant these beautiful, border-worthy selections will also be helping to feed the local wildlife that depends on their gardens for forage and shelter. Here are some of the spring and summer stars that brighten the South Garden.

1. ‘Pica Bella’ purple coneflower

purple coneflower

Name: Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’

Zones: 3-8

Size: 18 to 36 inches tall, and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; dry to medium, well-drained soil

Native range: Central and southeastern United States (straight species)

‘Pica Bella’ purple coneflower was a standout in Mt. Cuba Center’s trial garden. It is disease and pest resistant, and its vibrant blooms attract bees and butterflies from June through September. With a long season of interest and a tidy form that requires no staking, this plant can do a lot of heavy lifting in a design. Individual plants last for many years, especially when divided every 3 years to keep them in prime health.


2. ‘Valerie Finnis’ artemisia


Name: Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’

Zones: 5-10

Size: 18 to 24 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; dry to medium, well-drained soil

Native range: Throughout North America

When given its preferred conditions—sandy soil, full sun, and moderate humidity—‘Valerie Finnis’ artemisia will produce an abundance of cool white foliage that gives any garden a Mediterranean feel. Use it to add a soft glow at the front of a bed. Be forewarned, though: This plant can be an aggressive spreader; tame it by pinching or shearing the  flowers. Plant it in the sunniest, best-drained spot in your garden because shade will shrivel it.


3. ‘Short and Sweet’ catchfly

pink border flowers.

Name: Silene caroliniana ssp. wherryi ‘Short and Sweet’

Zones: 4-8

Size: 4 to 8 inches tall, and 8  to 12 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; dry to moist, well-drained soil

Native range: Central, southern, and southeastern United States

‘Short and Sweet’ catchfly lives up to its name, making it the perfect choice for taming a border’s edge. In May, it will be covered in dianthus-like flowers, and the foliage remains attractive long after the blooms pass. Try raising it to eye level in a container, where it will appreciate the extra heat and drainage.


4. ‘Arizona Apricot’ blanket flower

light orange blanket flower

Name: Gaillardia ‘Arizona Apricot’

Zones: 4-9

Size: 8 to 10 inches tall and 10 to 12 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; average to poor, well-drained soil

Native range: Western and northern United States into Canada

‘Arizona Apricot’ blanket flower is another low grower, with nonstop flowers that glow like a sunrise. The key to maintaining this plant is grooming—it responds well to rejuvenation pruning, and, if the flowers are deadheaded when they start to fade, it may bloom well into winter. ‘Arizona Apricot’ will be happiest in a spot with low humidity and well-drained soil. Be prepared to replace this short-lived perennial when it starts to decline, around 2 years after it is planted.


5. ‘Dark Towers’ beardtongue

Dark Towers beardtongue

Name: Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’

Zones: 3-8

Size: 1-1/2 to 3 feet tall, and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; dry to medium, well-drained soil

Native range: A hybrid of species from south-central and eastern United States and Canada

‘Dark Towers’ beardtongue offers 3 seasons of worry-free interest. Rosettes of deep purple basal foliage persist almost all winter. Then in late spring, 3-foot-tall, ruby red flower spikes emerge, studded with pale pink, gem-like flowers that attract bumblebees and hummingbirds. Once the blooms are spent, its shiny red seedheads and thick, dark foliage look beautiful in the garden or in a bouquet.


6. ‘Carolina Moonlight’ baptisia

yellow baptisia

Name: Baptisia ‘Carolina Moonlight’

Zones: 4-9

Size: 3 to 4 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; average to dry, well-drained soil

Native range: A hybrid of species from southern United States

Baptisias (Baptisia spp. and cvs., Zones 3-9) are close-to-perfect garden plants. They are long lived, disease free, and deer resistant, and they thrive in poor soils due to their nitrogen-fixing root nodules. Once established, they require little, if any, watering. ‘Carolina Moonlight’ is a compact cultivar with a vase-shaped habit that sends up spikes of buttery yellow, pea-like flowers for about 3 weeks in late spring. Its nectar is a valuable early-season food source for bumblebees, perfectly timed to provide nourishing meals for emerging queens.


7. Coast azalea

 Coast azalea

Name: Rhododendron atlanticum

Zones: 6-8

Size: 2 to 6 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; light, acidic, well-drained soil

Native range: Coastal eastern United States

You will want to plant coast azalea close to a window or a sitting area, where its sweet spring fragrance can be enjoyed. This coastal plain native blooms and sheds its spent flowers before the foliage fully emerges, giving it a neat and tidy appearance when bloom time is done. Due to its compact size, it will not require frequent pruning. Flower color varies within the species and by cultivar and includes a range of whites, pinks, and yellows. For healthy plants, not to mention a stronger floral scent, give coast azaleas what they want: full sun.


8. Turk’s cap lily

Turk’s cap lily

Name: Lilium superbum

Zones: 5-8

Size: 4 to 7 feet tall and 6  to 12 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; average to moist,  well-drained soil

Native range: Eastern United States

Turk’s cap lily towers over the rest of the garden, which is fortunate because its graceful, nodding blooms are best viewed from below. Its height makes it well suited to the back of a border, where in spring its foliage will telescope upward, branching outward at the inflorescence. This long-lived lily is easily propagated by dividing bulbs, but it must be protected from deer, rabbits, and rodents.


9. Giant coneflower

Giant coneflowers
Photo: Carol Collins

Name: Rudbeckia maxima

Zones: 4-9

Size: 5 to 7 feet tall, and 3 to  4 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; moist to dry, well-drained soil

Native range: Central and southern United States

Nothing delights quite like a goldfinch bobbing up and down on the stem of a giant coneflower, working to pry seeds from its cone. You can invite charming avian guests into your garden by planting this prairie native, which produces flowers that arrive with the heat of summer and persist through July. This is a plant that needs full sun, high heat, and lean soils, and it may require staking in more fertile conditions. If the stalks are cut back when flowers fade, you might get a second, shorter-stemmed batch of blooms. These plants are exclamation points in the garden, sure to catch the attention of any garden visitor, be it human, bird, or insect.


10. Tiny Wine® Atlantic ninebark

Tiny Wine Atlantic ninebark
Photo: Carol Collins

Name: Physocarpus opulifolius ‘SMPOTW’

Zones: 3-8

Size: 3 to 4 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; dry to medium,  well-drained soil

Native range: Central and eastern North America (straight species)

The deep bronze foliage of Tiny Wine® Atlantic ninebark and its contrasting warm red bark add a transfixing sense of depth to a garden design. This shrub grows wide and dense as it fills out and requires pruning maintenance to keep foliar disease at bay. No need to shear it; just prune out the 3 to 5 oldest canes in the shrub after it finishes blooming. This will open up air circulation between the leaves, and the shrub will still look full and healthy.

Choose border-worthy native plants for your garden

two gardeners planting new additions

Three members of Mt. Cuba Center’s horticulture staff planned the South Garden’s plant list and bed layouts over the course of more than 20 meetings. Here are some of their tips for choosing the right native plants for any bed or border:

“Start with a list of native species that will survive and thrive in your garden’s particular conditions. Narrow the list down by imposing a color scheme, then think about bloom times: What will be blooming together? Will you have color in each season?”

—Donna Wiley, formal gardens horticulturist

“Remember that foliage colors will carry a design through the seasons. Let flowers be the icing on the cake.”

—Vic Piatt, horticulturist and gardens manager

“For a formal border, consider a blocked planting design in which groups of each plant are massed together to create bold swaths of color that shift throughout the seasons. It looks great and also helps pollinators and other wildlife forage from their favorite plants more efficiently.”

—Travis Beck, director of horticulture

Katie Bohri is the marketing and communications coordinator at the Mt. Cuba Center.

Photos, except where noted: courtesy of Mt. Cuba Center


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