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Sunday - April 20, 2008

From: Alexandria, VA
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Landscaping suggestions for small yard in Alexandria, VA
Answered by: Barbara Medford


Hi Mr. Smarty Plants, My husband and I are preparing to till up most of our back yard and redo it. I'd like to use native plants, but am open to cultivars of them (as in, a column-shaped Ilex glabra) to provide the visual interest we're looking for (texture, height variations, etc). Our yard is just a little slice (35 feet long by 25 feet wide) which is almost entirely sun and surrounded by neighbors with similarly-sized yards. We planted a Southern Magnolia in the back corner last May, but of course it's still pretty small. We're putting in a patio, and my husband still really can't abide the idea of not having an area of turf grass. We have a small air conditioner compressor that needs to be screened from view in the one shady corner of the space -- which is actually next to where the patio will go. This leaves us with about 400 square feet of planting area around the perimeter. We're planning space for a vegetable garden and an herb garden (obviously, these are not natives). I would love to plant blueberries somewhere. That's where I hit my wall. Can you give some suggestions to provide plant diversity, seasonal interest, and textural and size differences in a small space? I know it's a tall order, but thanks much in advance!


Much as we would like to, we really can't give you a landscape plan without seeing the property. However, you have given us enough information that we can probably suggest some native plants that will thrive in Virginia, and you can either select from our ideas or search our Native Plant Database for more ideas of your own. First suggestion: perhaps you can talk your husband out of a patch of turf by suggesting a wildflower meadow in that space, instead. This will be good for the environment, because it will take less watering, fertilizer and maintenance than a conventional turf, which is usually a non-native grass and sometimes invasive. Read our How-To Article on Meadow Gardening. You could put a path of stepping stones or gravel through the garden for maintenance, and goodbye, turf.

What we are going to do is search our Native Plant Database Recommended Species list, searching on Virginia, and then selecting Herbs (growth habit), Perennial (duration), and sun (exposure 6 or more hours a day). On separate searches, we will look for shrubs, trees and grasses or grasslike plants, picking four of each category. You can follow the link to a webpage on each plant and see if it suits your purposes. Then, you can broaden your search, again going to Recommended Species, clicking on Virginia, and then on Narrow Your Search, which will give you an opportunity to name the category you want to see more of, as well as sun exposure, soil moisture, etc. When you've got your ideas together, go to our Native Plant Suppliers for suppliers near Alexandria, and visit them in person or online to determine what they have in stock.

HERBS (flowering plants)

Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) - pink, purple blooms June to October, attracts butterflies

Conoclinium coelestinum (blue mistflower) - blue, purple blooms July to November, attracts butterflies

Echinacea purpurea (eastern purple coneflower) - pink, purple April to September

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinalflower) - red blooms May to October


Morella cerifera (wax myrtle) - evergreen, fragrant leaves, attracts birds, butterflies

Physocarpus opulifolius (common ninebark) - deciduous, white, pink blooms May & June, attracts birds

Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) - deciduous, Fall color, attracts birds, butterflies

Ilex glabra (inkberry) - evergreen, attracts birds


Prunus americana (American plum) - deciduous, Fall foliage, conspicuous flowers April & May

Prunus serotina (black cherry) - deciduous, white blooms March to June

Thuja occidentalis (arborvitae) - Images. evergreen, food and cover for birds

Taxodium distichum (bald cypress) - deciduous, attracts birds


Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem) - 3 to 6 ft. tall, good to screen air conditioner

Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama) - to 3 ft. tall, tolerates shade

Carex blanda (eastern woodland sedge)

Chasmanthium latifolium (Inland sea oats) - shade tolerant, attractive in Winter

Asclepias incarnata

Conoclinium coelestinum

Echinacea purpurea

Lobelia cardinalis

Morella cerifera

Physocarpus opulifolius

Rhus glabra

Ilex glabra

Prunus americana

Prunus serotina

Taxodium distichum

Andropogon gerardii

Bouteloua curtipendula

Carex blanda

Chasmanthium latifolium




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