There are lots of gardeners out there. Our motivations for gardening vary from growing our own food to attracting wildlife to personal artistic expression or creating a place of serenity. Some garden for stress relief, exercise or be connected to the natural world. 

If you are like me, you check all those boxes. And I am one of those gardeners who lack control when it comes to buying new plants in the spring. I can’t say, “no, you can’t come home with me, you strange purple cone flower.” (Which is actually an odd new red cultivar with gold stripes and, at best, a two year perennial).

I have some advice — actually, a list of suggestions — for buying plants.

  1. Focus on perennials and shrubs in the spring. You can plant trees, but they are better for planting in the winter.
  2. Wait until April to plant tender plants. With annuals, unusual exotics, and vegetables, a late frost or freeze will damage new growth and can kill young annuals. We all saw our Asian magnolias and fringe tree get hit hard this year and they are tough trees.
  3. Make room for your plants. Prepare the site and remove plants that you don’t like to make more room for the “right” plants.
  4. Make a list of what you are looking for and how many you need. Yes, you will stray from this list, so treat it like a guide so that you can buy the Indian pink that no gardener would say no to. I have about a dozen in my garden. Try not to tear up the list to relieve the guilt of completely ignoring it.   
  5. Don’t just buy annuals. Yes, they are showy, but you will love watching perennials pop up in the same location year after year, waking up from their winter rest. I have a royal fern that is about 4 feet wide. In the winter, its form is a piece of architecture reminding me that there is no room here for any other plants! For me, gardening includes caring for and nurturing plants year after year; perennials are like family that you like coming home to visit.

Most of the native plants below have value for wildlife in some way or another, so I have divided them into sun and shade plants.

For Shade

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) This plant has a delicate white flower that last a few days. The leaf is a blue green and stays under 6” tall. I like to mix it with native pachysandra and toad trillium. It can take average woodland soil that isn’t dry and can take deep shade to pine shade.  It will create a nice patch if given the space and reseeds nicely too. It is called bloodroot as it bleeds red if you break the root or stem. 


Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) Like bloodroot, it likes deep shade and it is an “ephemeral,” meaning that in drought or late summer heat, it will disappear until the next spring. It has an apple green leaf, prefers moist to almost-wet soils, looks like a lily pad on a stick or a umbrella and reaches a foot high. It makes an elegant groundcover, spreading easily when planted in the right place. It won’t flower until it has a double leaf, and it produces an edible fruit that is a favorite of the box turtle. The rest of the plant and seed is poisonous to eat.


Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) This is my favorite fern.  It is like a fern on a stick.  The fronds are at the end of an 18” thin almost black stem. Spreading like rays in an umbrella fashion. It prefers soil to be on the moist side and needs full shade.  Like broad beech fern, the trick to success is to put a small chunk of concrete or cinder block at the bottom of the planting hole as it likes a higher ph soil than most of us have in our gardens.

Northern maidenhair fern.

For Sun

Amethyst Falls native wisteria (Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls’) This native wisteria is the only wisteria to plant in the southeast!  This cultivar needs full sun and has a fragrant flowers reaching about 5” long. This vine is a twining vine and unlike the beautiful Asian species, it is not a very aggressive grower and will not choke trees to death. It is the host plant for Zarucco Duskywing and Long-Tailed Skipper butterflies and like all legume plants will fix nitrogen in your soil.


Purple Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) This grass prefers moist soils and full sun.  The pink flowers and fuzzy seed head look a bit like cotton candy are very much appreciated color in the fall. The faded seed head gives a nice silhouette in the winter. In mild winters the grass can be almost evergreen.

Purple muhly grass.

Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) I admit that I have had little success with blazing stars, although I am told they are easy to grow.  The purple flowers are striking.  It likes full sun and average to dry soil. It is a host plant to the lovely Glorious Flower Moth, which is able to camouflage itself on the flower stalk.

There are lots of plant sales that support your favorite non-profits and help test your restraint. Of course, there is Trees Atlanta’s sale. There are many more including the Chattahoochee Nature Center, Oakland Cemetery, Georgia Native Plant Society, Woodlands Garden and Georgia Audubon.

Blazing star.

Greg Levine

Greg Levine is Co-Executive Director & Chief Program Officer of Trees Atlanta.