What to plant in your garden, according to your soil type

Ox-eye sunflower, one of the native plants in meadowland loam Photo by Kaprisova/Shutterstock

On episode 5, season 4 of the Cottage Life Podcast, gardening expert Lorraine Johnson shares the benefits of native plants for your cottage garden. Listen to the show below, and then the rest of the season here.

When the construction crew cleared out last summer, Janet Davis was left with a fine new cottage on Lake Muskoka, near Bala, Ont., and a rather daunting gardening challenge. The hot, dry slopes on either side of the cottage we re essentially bare as a result of building activity. What little soil there was, was sandy, slightly acidic, and vulnerable to drought. Despite the difficulties of these conditions, Davis had a clear gardening vision: “I wanted to create a buzzing, fluttering, bird- and insect-friendly place, using native meadow plants that would thrive until the tree cover comes back. I’m basically creating a transitional native planting—habitat for wildlife—full of colour until the oaks and pines return. In the meantime, with sun and heat and not much soil, you need drought-tolerant species.”

Davis’ approach—working with nature and the specifics of her site, using native plants adapted to tough conditions—reflects the essence of naturalistic gardening. As she puts it, “a cottage is a place set in nature; why would you want to deny nature?

What nature offers the gardener in cottage country does seem daunting. Indeed, pick a problem: Pure sand. Deep shade. Pine needles galore. Rock where soil should be. Extreme wind. Perhaps a frost in June or August. Drought for weeks, then maybe a hailstorm or a tornado. But don’t give up, give in. Use these so-called deficiencies, as Davis has done, to create a garden that thrives precisely because of the sand or shade or rock or drought. Tilt your sun hat in thanks for the things that make the landscape of cottage country what it is, and start planning.

Evaluating your conditions

When you know your site’s quirks and characteristics—the pockets of clay soil in what is essentially a loamy bed, for example, or the corners that get scorched by late afternoon sun in an otherwise shady garden—you’ll be able to pick the plants as well suited to cottage life as you are. The critical factors are light and soil conditions. Miriam Goldberger of Wildflower Farm, a native-plant nursery and landscaping service in Schomberg, Ont., offers a handy general guide for rating the light conditions in the area you’re hoping to plant: “If you have two to three hours of sun per day, you’re dealing with shady conditions; if you have three to four hours, it’s part sun/part shade; more than four hours, and it’s essentially a sunny site.”

As for soil condition, you need to assess composition—clay, sand, or loam—and pH—whether it’s acidic, neutral, or alkaline. A simple squeeze test will determine the first: Take a handful of moist soil and clench it in your fist. If the soil breaks apart immediately into crumbly, loose particles when you release the pressure, it’s sandy soil. On the other hand, if the soil holds together in a heavy clump, it’s clay. Another clue: When clay soil gets wet, it becomes quite sticky and, when it dries out, it becomes impermeable, dense, and “forms thick clumps that can look like rock,” says Rebecca Krawczyk, who runs Native Bark Plant Nursery, in Baysville, Ont. If you’re lucky enough to have loam—generally considered the ideal garden soil—it will hold its shape as a ball in your fist but will break apart relatively easily if you jab it. You could have all three soil types around the cottage—maybe pockets of sand or clay near the water’s edge and loam deeper into the woodsy fringes—so test a number of different areas.

While “soil pH” sounds entirely too serious for laid-back cottage gardening, it’s important to know because some plants have marked pH preferences. Blueberries, for example, need acidic soil, whereas purple coneflower or prairie smoke prefer alkaline. Soil pH is very easy to test, using an inexpensive kit available from most commercial nurseries; in general, soils on the Canadian shield tend to be acidic, while soils in limestone-based areas, such as the Bruce Peninsula or the Rideau lakes, tend to be more alkaline. But there are pockets of different conditions throughout the province—for instance, “between Bracebridge and Parry Sound,” says Rebecca Krawczyk, “the soil is quite alkaline in places.”

As well as assessing soil type, you’ll need to gauge its depth—whether or not, for example, the bedrock is just a few inches down, requiring shallow—rooted species, such as columbine and beardtongue. And you’ll have to size up the general moisture regime of the site: does the water drain quickly, leading to dry conditions during periods of little rainfall, or is the water table close to the surface, creating moist patches in the earth? As well, take note of wind patterns at your cottage. Usually, the more sheltered the site, the larger the plant palette you can work with; gardens exposed to the blasts of prevailing winds will be limited to tougher customers.

The plants already growing on site and in nearby wild areas will provide you with all kinds of information. For instance, as Krawczyk says, “junipers tend to signal shallow soil, and conifers growing in sandy soil suggest acidic conditions. If you’ve got a well-drained site but there’s a red maple growing, it suggests that that particular spot is a moist pocket.” So get yourself a good native-plants field guide, such as Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers, and take cues from the natural environment.

Garden type: woodland, meadow, or rock?

You’ve got four broad choices of naturalistic cottage garden: woodland for shade, woodland edge for part shade/part sun, meadow for sun, and rocky pockets, in sun or shade. Within these broad categories, of course, there are endless variations: deep shade woodland gardens under dense evergreens, for example; dry, sandy woodland edge gardens under sparsely scattered white pines; wet meadow gardens in moist sunny areas; and dry meadow gardens in very sandy soil. To give you a taste of the glorious variety of colour, height, foliage, and bloom you can combine in a native-species cottage garden, we’ve provided starter lists of plants (see below) appropriate to each broad habitat type, though many can cope in more than one set of conditions (for example, trout lily and Canada tick trefoil can grow in loam, clay, or sand). Whatever garden type your cottage environment ultimately dictates, remember to start small. “Just take a little corner of your property and see what you can do with that comfortably,” says Bill Dickinson, chair of the Natural Heritage Committee of the Muskoka Heritage Foundation. “If you have a lawn, for example, create little island bed of naturalized plants in it, and let them spread.”

Preparing and planting the bed It’s an uphill, and ultimately futile, battle to try to dramatically alter soil at the cottage. You can add horticultural lime to bed of acidic soil to turn it alkaline, but, inevitably, the acid pH of the surrounding environment will work its way back in. You’ll have much more success, and less frustration, if you accept your conditions and plant the species suited to them. That said, even a garden based on the naturalistic, “go with the flow” philosophy can benefit from a bit of preparation, such as building up and enriching the soil base. Landscaper Robert Allen, of Northway Gardeners in Utterson, Ont., thinks it’s fine to import a purchased soil blend such as Triple Mix , which is manure, peat, and topsoil, but not to use it in large quantities, as it is often full of weed seeds. “It’s good for helping plants get established, but there will be a rush of germinating weeds that you’ll have to deal with in the first year.”

He recommends building up your soil with compost, which will improve its water-retention capability and boost its organic matter content. If you’re leery of setting up a compost bin at the cottage for fear of attracting more wildlife than yo u’d like, bring in compost from your city bin or a nursery. For rock gardens in particular, it’s a good idea to build up the soil layer in fissures and cracks between the rocks with a mix of compost, sterilized composted manure, and sand. This will help shallow-rooted plants, such as barren strawberry and pearly everlasting, slug it out in next-to-no soil.

Once the bed is prepared, you’re ready for the most satisfying part—planting. Although you can use seeds (if the chipmunks don’t get them), potted transplants make more sense for cottage gardeners who aren’t constantly on the premises to coddling seedlings. And they provide virtually instant gratification and quick visual impact, also a must when your garden time is limited to a short season of scattered weekends.

Transplants are best put in the ground in the cooler, rainier conditions of May or early June but, ideally, you should try to get to the cottage several weekends in a row to ensure they are getting enough water during this critical phase. Fall is also a good time to plant because you don’t need to be as vigilant about watering. Even summer planting is an option, as long as you’re at the cottage for an extended period of at least three weeks to water daily and protect the transplants from drought.

As for the best way to settle young plants into the ground, Jackie Kennedy-Ciphery, of Water’s Edge Landscaping in Port Carling, Ont., advises digging “a hole three or four times the width of the pot and twice as deep, and blend lots of compost into this large planting zone.” She then submerges the plant pot in air temperature water until bubbles stop appearing to give the roots a good soaking, and adds water to the bottom of the hole before planting—“otherwise, the ground can steal moisture from the plant if conditions are very dry.” As a further measure, Miriam Goldberger suggests creating a saucer-like depression in the surface soil around the plant, “so water will collect at its base, bringing moisture to the root system more easily.”

But watering concerns don’t end with the early days of planting. It’s crucial to keep transplants moist throughout their inaugural growing season. “Even if you’re planting drought-tolerant species, the first year is absolutely critical,” warns Kennedy-Ciphery. “You need to make sure the plants aren’t drought stressed, so if you’re not at the cottage during a dry period, ask a neighbour to water.” The hitch is that your cottaging neighbours are likely to be coming and going as much as you. In that case, she says, “buy a reliable timer and attach it to a soaker hose, which is better than a sprinkler because water isn’t lost to the air.” Obviously, if your pump breaks down or there’s a power outage, the plants will go thirsty, but timed watering is good option if your visits to the cottage are fairly frequent.

With summers tending now to long dry spells, mulching cottage transplants is essential for holding moisture in the soil, as well as discouraging weeds. Kennedy-Ciphery recommends spreading about an inch of shredded dead leaves or cedar or pine needles or bark in the woodland garden. For a meadow garden, Goldberger suggests clean, non-weed-infested straw, available from nurseries or horse farms.

Design considerations

Aesthetic preferences are intensely personal, and that, after all, is one of the joys of gardening. But as you plan your garden layout, keep in mind the following considerations:

• Before finalizing your design, decide where paths should go, and which path materials would best enhance the native species theme. Janet Davis, for example, chose woodchips for her path because they are “soft, easy on the eyes, and much more sympathetic to the surroundings.” Of course, more absorbent materials, such as woodchips, pea gravel or, Robert Allen’s favourite, composted pine mulch, have the important advantage of soaking up precious rainfall and tainted cottage runoff that would otherwise roll off hard surfaces and head to the lake.

• Arrange mossy rocks and fallen logs from your property around the plants. If you dig down a couple of inches and let them settle them into the earth, they’ll look like nature put them there. As well as adding visual interest and easing grade changes, they provide great habitat for beneficial insects. If you’re short on your own rocks and decide to import a few, make sure they fit with the local look—nothing is more jarring than limestone boulders plunked down on Canadian shield!

• When planning where to situate your beds, consider the views you most enjoy at the cottage—sitelines from the porch or dock, for example—and give extra attention to their design, since you’ll be seeing them a lot. Likewise, something yo u’d like to screen out of view, such as an unsightly addition to a neighbour’s cottage, might call for a strategic hedge planting.

• Take special care designing the transitional edges, where the garden abuts the natural landscape. “This is often overlooked,” says Allen, “but it’s the big deal.” Instead of an abrupt edge of regimented plants that stops unnaturally where the more random wilderness begins, you want a softer, more irregular placement of perennials and shrubs to ease the transition. “Pick up on the meandering line that’s already there and just organize it a bit more,” explains Allen. “You want the woods to seem part of your property.”

• Many native woodland plants bloom exuberantly in spring, but few cottagers a re there to see them. Because the summer woodland garden is more subdued, with cooling greens and foliage texture providing interest, you can add some colour by planting perennials that produce berries later in the season, such as false Solomon’s seal, and berry-producing shrubs, such as elderberry. The fruits will also draw an enthusiastic audience of birds .

Janet Davis’ native-plant landscape is young, but already the black-eyed Susans and wild blue lupines are flourishing and she’s seeing lots of “buzzing and fluttering” insects. “If you want butterflies, bees, and birds, this is the way to go,” Davis says. “Like any garden, it was work to put in but, over time, it will become a stable environment. I didn’t want to take a ‘city garden’ and plunk it on a hillside of Canadian shield, because that’s not what cottage country is all about. My garden, I hope, will look natural after a few years.” In other words, Davis’ garden will look as if it had been there all along.

Meadow Plants (Listed according to preferred

For loam:

  1. Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa): 60–90 cm, lavender flowers mid-summer, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds
  2. Sky blue aster (Aster azureus): 30–120 cm, gorgeous blue flowers in late summer through autumn
  3. Ox-eye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) 60-150 cm, yellow flowers all summer, attracts butterflies, self-seeds
  4. Nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum): 30–60 cm, pink or white nodding flowers early to mid-summer
  5. Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida): 60-120 cm, purple flowers early to mid-summer, attracts butterflies
  6. Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida): 30–120 cm, masses of yellow flowers late summer to fall, not invasive
  7. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium): 30 cm, deep-blue flowers with yellow centre in late spring/early summer, grasslike leaves
  8. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium): 45–75 cm, clump-forming grass, turns bronze in autumn

For moist areas

  1. Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis): 30–60 cm, white flower in early summer, spreads rapidly
  2. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis): 60–120 cm, intense scarlet flowers in mid- to late summer, attracts hummingbirds
  3. Turtlehead (Chelone glabra): 30–90 cm, white flowers in late summer, look like turtleheads
  4. Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor): 30–90 cm, blue flowers in late spring/early summer, spiky leaves
  5. Spotted Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum): 60–180 cm, clusters of purple pink flowers from mid-summer to fall, whorled leaves
  6. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata): 90–120 cm, purple-pink flowers clusters in summer, fragrant, attracts butterflies

For clay

  1. Lavender hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): 60–120 cm, violet-blue flowers in spikes, attracts butterflies
  2. Canada tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense): 60–150 cm, pinky-purple pea-like flowers
  3. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea): 30–90 cm, small, bright yellow flowers in late spring/early summer, purple seed pods
  4. New England aster (Aster novae angliae): 90–120 cm, violet-purple flowers late summer through fall, attracts butterflies

For dry, sandy soil

  1. Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea): 10–90 cm, masses of white flowers mid- to late summer, host plant for American painted lady butterfly
  2. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa): 30–90 cm, intense orange flowers mid-summer, host plant for monarch butterfly
  3. Lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata): 30–60 cm, glowing yellow flowers in summer, deadhead to extend bloom
  4. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta): 60–90 cm, yellow daisy-like flowers all summer, self-seeds
  5. Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta): 30–90 cm, spike with purplish-blue flowers all summer, self-seeds
  6. Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera): 8–40 cm, spike of purple flowers in summer, attracts butterflies
  7. Purple prairie clover (Petalostemum purpureum): 30–60 cm, brilliant-purple, thimble-like flowers in early to mid-summer, fixes nitrogen in the soil
  8. Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis): 30–60 cm, graceful, narrow-leaved grass, bronze in autumn
  9. Three-toothed cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata): 10–20 cm, low-growing shrub, evergreen, white flowers in mid-summer, shiny foliage

Woodland Plants (Listed according to preferred conditions)

For rich loam

  1. Trout lily (Erythronium americanum): 15 cm, nodding, bell-shaped yellow flowers in spring, mottled leaves
  2. White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) : 30–45 cm, white bloom in spring, red berries in late summer
  3. Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum): 30–45 cm, single white flower in late spring, creates dense colonies
  4. Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia): 15–30 cm, spike of white flowers in spring, great groundcover
  5. Bloodroot (Sanguinarea canadensis): 15–30 cm, small white flowers in early spring, saucer-like leaves
  6. Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides): 30–75 cm, evergreen, leaf frond deeply cut (like a comb)
  7. Wild ginger (Asarum canadense): 15 cm, maroon flower in spring, heartshaped leaves, great groundcover

Lorraine Johnson’s latest book, The Gardener’s Manifesto, by Penguin, is now out in paperback. Part 3 will look at gardening challenges such as planting on septic beds and under pines.

This essay appeared in the June 2003 issue of Cottage Life as the second part of a four-part series. You can find the rest here: Part 1: Let native plants guide your gardening, Part 3: Overcoming your garden’s critters and septic beds, Part 4: Seed-planting guide for natural gardens.

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