Minutes September 16 — Functionality of Plants in a Garden

JDillon - Functionality of Plants Presentation

Gardeners Exchange Group Meeting 16 September 2017
Location: Home of Louise Finch
Topic: Functionality of Plants in a Garden with James Dillon, PCH
Submitted by Julie Neely, GEG Secretary

The meeting was held at the lovely home and garden of Louise Finch. Louise, a noted master gardener herself, designed and maintains a beautiful, colorful and productive garden of flowering plants and vegetables in spite of hungry, marauding deer in her woodland setting. Her husband Bob, has an amazing miniature train collection and display. Jane began the meeting with the following administrative remarks:

  • The Gardeners Exchange Group is still looking for volunteers to fill a variety of positions. If you would like to volunteer to help with the GEG, would like to contact another GEG member, or would like to share information with GEG members, contact us! You can contact Terry Thorson, the GEG website administrator, through the GEG website (the little envelope on the right-hand side of the menu, or at admin@g-e-g.org, and you can reach Jane Blash, GEG’s organizer, at janeblash44@gmail.com.
  • Becky Jones, a Master Gardener and GEG speaker, is presenting Gardening for Birds and Butterflies sponsored by the Life Long Learning Center on 27 Sept.
  • Shana Keane, who works with the Shepherdstown Elementary School Roots and Shoots Program is looking for volunteers.
  • Renny Smith provided information on the “Birds be Safe” cat collar to reduce your cat’s ability to catch/eat birds.
  • The series Noah’s Garden was recommended as an example of a native garden in New England.
  • Next month’s GEG meeting will be the last of this year. The topic will be winter gardening and seed swap. Get your plants and seeds ready now for exchanging.

Intro to the Speaker — James Dillon

JDillon - Functionality of Plants Presentation

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James Dillon, PCH, has a B.S. in Biology and Chemistry from East Carolina University. A certified horticulturalist, he graduated from the Wilmington, Delaware Center for Horticulture. He has over 15 years of field experience studying plants and working in garden design. He is the owner/ operator of Native Havens LLC a Landscape and Garden Service with Horticultural Expertise.

According to James, ideal gardens provide visual beauty AND benefit pollinators and birds. He specifically recommended and quoted from four books:

  • Planting in a Post Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
  • Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy
  • Designing with Plants by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (beautiful photos)
  • Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner
JDillon -Functionality of Plants in the Garden List

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The lecture was organized around an incredible handout which listed plants according to functionality. If you take nothing away from this lecture, the handout, which is available on the GEG website electronically, will have made your time worthwhile. It’s an extensive compendium of plants, that grow well in this area, organized by function (like ground cover, filler etc.), deer resistance, common and botanical names, plant type, foliage type, and additional pertinent notes. An extremely useful handout! The function of plants was grouped into four categories: Fillers, Ground Covers, Seasonal Theme, Structural Plants. Each of these categories was discussed and examples given.

Design Considerations

James has directed his garden design efforts toward densely planted beds of compatible plants that leave little bare dirt and which outcompete weeds. This more closely resembles natural plant growth, reduces maintenance, and reduces opportunities for invasives to enter the garden. Gardens need diversity and should contain at least 25 different plants; monoculture gardens are not environmentally beneficial and require too much maintenance and provide only one bloom cycle. Tightly-spaced plants that have different root-length growth and different above-ground growth will be compatible and will benefit from each other’s company in your garden. Design your garden with the end goal in mind. That means work with nature and consider reducing the area and time you spend on maintenance like weeding and mowing by reducing both the space devoted to mulching over dirt and the amount of lawn area you mow. Plant for all season aesthetics (including winter) and to please pollinators year-round. Consider using screening plants and provide soil stabilization as needed. Use plants that serve as hosts for native insects, caterpillars and birds — some are MUCH better providers than others. Embrace the soil that you have. Work with Nature; edit and steer, stop/slow down on soil amendment; instead choose plants that like to grow in your soil conditions. In the long run, slower-growing plants will need less maintenance and soil affects weed growth. The handout contains information addressing these issues.

Regarding Invasive Plants

Remember that invasives keep their leaves late into the Fall, which makes them easier to identify and eradicate. Invasives in our area include: Japanese Stilt Grass, Japanese Honeysuckle, knot weed, Norwalk Maple, Burning Bush, Johnson Grass, and Garlic Mustard to name a few. Deer herbivory favors the increase of invasive plant species. Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation (roads cutting through areas), climate change, deer eating habits, pesticides, drought, flooding, and increased number of invasive species all contribute to declines in pollinators, insects, birds, diversity, and a general lack of balance in the environment. Human population growth directly correlates to the huge rise in the number of extinct plants and animals.

Now is the time for an “all hands on deck” effort to increase conservation and management of the environment by reducing the use of pesticides, implementing pollinator strips “everywhere,” raising awareness of the importance of residential gardens, and creating rain gardens.

Ground Covers

Ground covers should comprise 50% of your garden beds; consider them as green mulch and make them do more of the maintenance work by covering the dirt available for weeds. Look for plants with evergreen basal foliage to cover the soil, preventing weeds and providing year round interest. Examples include: Green and Gold Chrysogonum virginianum, Ivory Sedge, ground ivy (yes – creeping Charlie), and Eastern Star White Wood Aster.

Seasonal Theme Plants

Seasonal plants should comprise 25-40% of your garden. These are the seasonal pops of color that keep your garden interesting. Examples include: Echinacea, Black Eyed Susan, October Sky Aster, and Butterfly Weed (don’t forget this one has a tap root).


Fillers should comprise 5-10% of your garden. These are plants that cover the bare dirt quickly like cardinal flowers, wild geraniums, Geranium Karmina Cranesbill, Mehania Cordata (Meehan’s Mint), and columbine.

Structural Plants

You don’t need many of these, maybe 10-15% of your garden. Their height and vertical upright shapes define the garden space — your eye will travel along from one to the other, through your garden, according to your plan. They can provide winter interest. Examples include: Jacob Cline Bee Balm, Little Blue Stem, Joe Pye Weed and Dallas Blue Switch Grass.[hr]

If you found this valuable, please go to James Dillon’s Facebook page, Native Havens, and “like” it.