By Nikki Belmonte

We’re in the first week of spring and you can feel it in the air. There is so much to look forward to – longer, warmer days, flowers and leaves, farmer’s markets, patio seating, opening day for the Braves… the list goes on. We’re bursting into this season with enthusiasm and optimism, just like plants with their bright green shoots, pastel flowers and tiny yellow dustings of pollen. 

What am I looking forward to? Besides a better day for my college basketball bracket, I’m ready for some plant sales. I’m not talking about the garden center deals at Home Depot. I’m talking about fold-out tables and outdoor tents chock full of native plants at a park or community center. This is where the March madness is. Hopeful gardeners with their plant lists line up before opening to have a chance at their top picks. The dreamers show up with no list and a wad of hot cash to burn on whatever suits their fancy this year. These native plant sales are mostly run by extremely knowledgeable volunteers who have curated a collection of native species for three-season blooms and supporting wildlife. You’ll come out of a native plant sale with a cartful of hope and you’ll have forgotten about your busted bracket.

March madness shopping at a native plant sale. Photo by GNPS. 

Shopping for native plants can be overwhelming though. I encourage you to do a little bit of research before entering one of these tempting candy shops for plant lovers. You don’t want to end up with so many plants that they never make it into the ground. It’s like picking too many promising Cinderella teams in the basketball bracket; so much hope in the underdog teams… wouldn’t it be great if they all won? Sure, but that won’t happen, just like the 50 pollinator plants you just bought are not going to make it into the new garden beds you haven’t prepared yet. 

So how can you enjoy the spring rush of the native plant sales? Approach it like a realistic March Madness bracket; make a list and shave it down to the best species for the areas that will be ready to plant this spring. Native plant sales are a spring/fall feature, so there is time to buy more plants later this year. Shop for your Final Four or Elite Eight. Only go into this with a Sweet Sixteen list if half of the plants are back up choices. The great thing about this strategy is that you are set up to succeed. There is no championship game, so you can come home with at least four winners. 

Just for fun, I’d like to suggest a 2024 Final Four by plant type: tree, shrub, forb, and groundcover. These picks are purely based on species that have performed well for me and others in the metro Atlanta area, and on species that are inspiring me this spring.

Eastern redbud in bloom by N. Belmonte.

Tree: Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis

Eastern redbud is my spring inspiration this year. I’m seeing it everywhere and it brings me hope that native plants will have a comeback in managed landscapes. This midstory deciduous tree is blooming now, creating a spattering of rosy pink to purple on woodland edges and understories, parks and parking lots and roadsides. Eastern redbud can tolerate full sun or part shade and a variety of soil conditions. The heart-shaped leaves turn yellow in the fall, adding a sunny pop to the landscape, and supports at least a dozen species of butterflies and moths as well as leaf-cutter bees, birds and small mammals.

Oakleaf hydrangea spring growth by N.Belmonte.

Shrub: Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)  

Oakleaf hydrangea has become my favorite shrub to landscape with because it is hardy, tolerates a wide variety of conditions and provides year-round interest. I was walking into an office this week and the typical plantings around the building featured this shrub. The new spring growth was just coming out, providing a bright green spark of color against the drab building and beige pinestraw. Oakleaf hydrangea boasts large oblong bundles of white to pinkish flowers that attract pollinators and striking leaves shaped like its name. Their reddish-brown exfoliating bark and delicate brown flowers make for a beautiful fall to winter display. 

Blue mistflower by N. Belmonte.

Forb: Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Looking to summer, blue mistflower welcomes an abundance of insect visitors during the hot and dry summer and fall. This vivacious wildflower was voted the Georgia Native Plant Society’s 2024 Plant of the Year. I appreciate that it spreads itself easily across the sunny portion of my yard (it’s easy to pull up if it gets too aggressive), and I also love that the deer don’t eat it. The bright blue-purple color of the flowers demand attention, and the seed heads that remain provide welcome forage for goldfinches and sparrows. It’s an eyecatcher for sure, which is why GNPS put it on a shirt this year (get yours on the GNPS online store).

Green and gold by N.Belmonte.

Groundcover: Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)

Quickly becoming the champion in my yard is green and gold, a low-growing evergreen perennial that spreads easily. This is my go-to recommendation if you are shrinking your turf lawn, periwinkle mat (Vinca minor, an aggressive exotic invasive) or English ivy carpet in my case. Green and gold grows well in full shade to sun (keep it moist when establishing). The golden yellow flowers are one of the first to emerge in the spring, and bright green leaves create tunnels for salamanders, lizards, turtles and a variety of invertebrates. 

Native Plant Sales in Georgia

Georgia Native Plant Society (GNPS) maintains a list of seasonal plant sales. Many are hosted by GNPS chapters and support the important conservation work happening in local communities. Native plants are not easy to find at large box stores and many traditional plant nurseries. Supporting seasonal native plant sales helps grow awareness and demand for what should be in our yards, parks and streetscapes. Hopefully in the coming years, we can write about the amazing March madness comeback of native plants to our landscape.

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