Garden spot

For great green results, go native

CorrespondentAugust 24, 2012 

  • Why go native? Native plants have a greater chance of thriving in the soil and climate of this region, and they require little upkeep once established. Their pollinators are more likely to be present, and these plants’ fruits, berries and seeds are attractive to local wildlife. Learn more about gardening with native plants at: • • • • Native Plant Society The Native Plant Society has chapters across the state, including one in the Triangle that has a monthly nature walk and maintains a garden at the N.C. State Fair. To download a membership application or browse a gallery of recommended plants, visit
  • Favorite natives These are some of Cary gardener Tom Harville’s favorite native plants: • Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) • Yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) • False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) • Wild ginger • Black cohosh Some other natives that grow in Harville’s garden: • Oakleaf hydrangea • Iris prismatica • Iris virginica • Venus flytrap • Carolina lily (Lilium michauxii) • Goldenrod • Solomon’s seal

I don’t know what Tom Harville’s woodland garden looks like in spring and fall, but on a Sunday afternoon in what he calls “the green malaise of summer,” plenty of plants got my attention. Harville led a tour by the south side of his Cary home, around the back, to the north and along pathways that climb a wooded bank.

Ferns, hemlocks, azaleas and oakleaf hydrangea are among several hundred species of native plants in his garden. Just a bit of color – red berries on Solomon’s seal and fading purple peeping through a wave of yellow Heliopsis helianthoides and Rudbeckia heliopsidis – was visible on this day in early August. Mostly there’s green in various shades, shapes and textures.

Although most of his plants are native to North Carolina, Harville said he’s not a “purist.” He also has non-natives, or exotics. Some satisfy his wife’s desire for specific cutting plants. Others were put in when he settled here and thought he’d plant a formal English garden. His plans changed.

After meeting members of the N.C. Native Plant Society and others who extol the benefits of native plants, Harville became curious.

“They were here and the whole ecosystem developed them,” he said.

Native plants are better for wildlife and the environment, according to N.C. State University’s “Going Native” website. Native wildlife depend on native plants for food and shelter, and according to the website, “As exotic plants replace our native flora, fewer host plants are available to provide the necessary nutrition for our native wildlife.” Gardeners who grow native plants are more successful in attracting native birds and other wildlife.

To get his garden started, Harville covered the bank with hardwood mulch and let nature take over. About six years later, he cut out all of the loblolly pines on that north-facing bank and selectively thinned out the hardwood trees. Later he added paths that crisscross the slope. His work gave nature a helping hand with forest succession.

Some plants have arrived at Harville’s place the way they do in nature – in birds’ beaks or droppings, the wind or other natural means. Harville has gathered some plants on rescue trips with the N.C. Native Plant Society. The group digs up and transplants plants that might otherwise be destroyed by construction.

Early on, a landscaper recommended he plant Iris cristata, so Harville bought some from the nursery. Later, while out walking in his neighborhood, he found the same iris growing in a vacant lot. He received permission to dig some up to move to his own garden.

He cut a swath, rolled it up and transplanted it to his garden. Soon, he not only had irises but also tiarella, hepatica and ranunculus that had come along for the ride. He was hooked.

Harville spends two to three hours a day in the garden. Part of that time is spent discovering what’s landed. Some is spent admiring what’s there, such as how plants change with the seasons. He noted that the oak leaf hydrangea has three seasons’ worth of interest – white blooms in the spring, which fade to pink in early summer and then turn brown.

Occasionally, he is surprised, for example, when a plant like Dryopteris intermedia, a fern that grows in the mountains, does well in his Piedmont garden.

My tour was punctuated by botanical stories. Botanist John Bartram, who traveled the Appalachian region collecting seeds and plants, gets credit, Harville said, for saving the Franklinia alatamaha tree from extinction. One of these trees, formerly known to grow only near the River in Georgia, is in Harville’s woodland.

Harville clearly loves his woodland garden. It makes him feel connected.

“Watching nature ebb, grow, adapt is very calming,” he said. “My woods give a refuge to all sorts of life and that’s good.”


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