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Gardening With Native Plants In Pots

Native Bee on Butterflyweed.
Native Bee on Butterflyweed. Photo Credit: Contributed by Kim Eierman

WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- Planting in containers is a great way to extend your gardening onto your patio, deck, or even the front porch.

While many gardeners plant in pots, few people think about using native perennials – and there are many natives that do quite well in containers. Not only are native perennials less expensive over time than exotic annuals, they also provide far more ecological benefits.

Whether you plant native flowering perennials, grasses, sedges, or ferns, here are some tips to keep in mind:

The principles of container design also apply to native plants:  “thriller, spiller and filler “ makes for a pleasing container.  Try to use a tall, bold plant, then shorter plants, and wrap up with a cascading plant that flows over the pot’s edge.

Plant for a multiple-season bloom.  Favor plants with differing foliage texture and color to keep the pot interesting when nothing is in bloom.  Native ferns, short grasses and sedges can also add interest. Select pots that are frost-proof so that you can leave them out over the winter and not have to re-plant in the spring.  Terra cotta pots won’t make it in this region.   Lightweight composite pots with drainage holes are a great choice.

Use a container that is large enough to accommodate the mature size of the plants, and make sure that the pot is deep enough for the roots once the plants are fully grown. Plant for visual appeal and ecological function.  Choose native plants that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds and pollinators.  Avoid double-flowered plants that often have little or no nectar, pollen or seed.

Use “ecological themes” with native containers.   It’s a terrific way to get kids outside.  Here are some ecological theme ideas:

Hummingbird container: Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)  Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) Dwarf Canada Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis ‘Little Lanterns’)

Bee-friendly container: Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) Dwarf Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Kim’s Mophead’) Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia)

Beneficial Insect container: Heart-leaved Alexanders (Zizia aptera) Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) Dwarf New England Aster (Sympyhotricum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’) “Bring Back the Monarchs” butterfly container: Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

No fertilizers are needed with native plants.  Add compost and shredded leaves to keep the soil biology going.

Even native plants will dry out in containers.  Water more than you would if the plants were planted in the ground, but keep in mind the moisture requirements of the plants you have selected (ex: wet feet vs. drought tolerant).

Leave the plants standing through the winter to provide seed for birds and habitat for overwintering insects.   Cut the plants back in early spring. Sit back and enjoy the butterflies, bees, beneficial insects and birds that you have attracted by planting great native plants in containers!

Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.

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