Buying Native Plants: Cheaper and Greener

I stood out in the rain on Saturday looking at plants. No, I haven't completely lost my marbles. I was drawn to one of the native plant sales that crop up every fall around my neighborhood. It was worth a little bit of wetness to catch some of the deals on native plants in Parkfairfax and Green Spring Gardens, both in Alexandria.

Native plants, which are grown in the community, have become quite popular over the last few years. They require less water and maintenance, they attract more birds, they thrive better in the local region's clay soil and they're often cheaper than what you'd find at Home Depot or Lowe's. I saw Asters, flowering plants, for $3, large aloe plants in decorative pots for $10 and all kinds of cactus plants for $4 to $8.

"Native plants are becoming trendy because they're cheap and fun and your garden becomes like a science experiment," says Scott Knudsen, an Alexandria resident who organized the Parkfairfax sale.

Here are a few tips I picked up while browsing these two sales:

Tip #1: Finding out where to buy native plants is more challenging than making them grow in your garden. These sales are still relatively obscure but you can find them advertised in the newspaper in early spring and fall. Green Spring Gardens sells native plants throughout the year and includes a big sale during its fall festival. The Virginia Native Plant Society also has resources for finding out about local sales.

Tip #2: Be open to trying new plants, even ones you may have never heard of. Since they're relatively cheap, it won't be a huge financial loss if they don't work out. And since they like our soil, they have a pretty good chance of surviving.

Tip #3: Ask lots of questions of the people selling native plants. They know a lot and are willing to answer all kinds of questions about their product. They'll even be able to tell you which plants are most appropriate for your garden based on how much sun and moisture it gets.

Tip #4: Write down as much as you can about what you buy. These kinds of plants won't have handy little tags explaining how to care for them but most vendors have display signs with lots of information about what you're buying.

Tip #5: If you miss a native plant sale, the Virginia Native Plant Society has some recommendations for nurseries that sell them.

Have you bought native plants? Where did you get them and what worked well for you? Where did you find the best deals on native plants? Post a comment below.

By Tania Anderson |  September 30, 2008; 3:00 AM ET General Interest
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Enjoyed your article. It's important to clarify what is a native plant and what is a locally grown plant. Native plants are those typically grown in this area over centuries- those that would be here even if humans weren't. Locally grown plants are just that- plants that someone grew in a nearby garden or greenhouse. I don't believe cactus and aloe plants are native to this area. i know that locally grown English Ivy thrives in this area, but is a damaging invasive pest that kills not only other native plants, but also escapes to our parks and forests and kills native plants trying to live there.

Even some native plants don't thrive the way one would hope. While azaleas, laurels, and many berry plants are native to this area, the area they are native to is usually the mountains- Shenandoah, Blue Ridge and other highlands. While they will establish themselves in local yards, they require lots of care and watering to deal with the higher temperatures associated with the lower elevation of the metro area.

Posted by: science experiment | October 1, 2008 5:14 AM

you can get native (or indigenous) plants at many regular nurseries as well. It is frequently marked on the display whether or not a plant is native. Behnke's sometimes has a good selection.

It is important to differentiate between what is native to this area, and what may be native to the southwest, for example, as mentioned above, so I always try to get plants native to Fairfax county, where I live.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 1, 2008 5:38 AM

"and even" challenge.................


Posted by: rod | October 1, 2008 6:54 AM

Natives are the way to go. I have purchased Allegheny pachysandra, woodland poppy (known as celedine poppy), hellebores (lenten rose) interrupted fern, trillium, and alumroot (the native Huechera), all to great sucess in my dry shade garden. All of these plants do well under the large canopy of trees that I have around my house. the fern, pachysandra and trillium take a little while for them to multiply and fill in. The poppy happily multiplies, but is easy to control. Behnkes and Valley View Farms, have been good sources of natives in Maryland for me.

Posted by: Otis1 | October 1, 2008 7:29 AM

Native plants are a terrific addition to a garden, but buyers need to be careful of their native plant sources. Too often plants are taken from the wild to supply nurseries with "natives". This can extinguish local populations of plants that do not reproduce abundantly (trilliums, for example). Native plant enthusiasts should only purchase from sources that do not take from the wild. The VNPS Nursery list is a good reference for this. If you are unsure if a plant is wild-removed or not, do not buy.

Posted by: Sylvia | October 1, 2008 8:51 AM

How are cacti native plants?

Posted by: Karen | October 1, 2008 10:21 AM

I bought native perennials for the first time last weekend at Behnke's on sale. So far I'm delighted with the black-eyed Susans and asters because they're blooming prettily. Tiny bees and so far one butterfly like them, too, so they are fun to watch. Now the rest of the yard seems too still. I plan to put in more.

Posted by: nativelover | October 1, 2008 10:39 AM

"Native plants are cheap, require less maintenance and thrive better in the local region's soil. What more could you ask for?"

They should be edible varieties marketed with preparation tips.

Posted by: Charles Peterson | October 1, 2008 11:04 AM

Auburn, Alabama has grown (too!) rapidly, meaning that lots of houses, strip malls and offices have gone into previously wooded areas. By staying one step ahead of the bulldozers, I have been able to "rescue" beautiful trilliums, native azaleas, wild orchids and wonderful ferns.

In fact, I carry a little shovel in my trunk, and am always ready to step over the surveyors' markers.

Posted by: War Eagle | October 1, 2008 11:15 AM

About cactus and aloe. Aloe is native to the Canary Islands. And the only cactus that I know of that is native to DC/Virginia/Maryland is the Eastern Prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa).

Posted by: C4nier | October 1, 2008 11:41 AM

Cannot tell you how interesting it is to read the article and the comments here in Australia. We have the dryest continent in the world and at all times somewhere is in drought in Aus. For a couple of hundred years people struggled with gardening from the homelands of England,Ireland et al. Then - some decades ago came the "natives" are the way to go movement. And for all the reasons you mentioned. Our flora and fauna is spectacular and seeing it all together is just that and interesting rather than pretty I suppose. But - it's incredibly water wise. I don't know anyone who does not have natives in their garden or like next door to me - all native. Regards Sue Deane

Posted by: sue deane | October 1, 2008 12:04 PM

Friends of Sligo Creek is having a Native Plant and Seed Exchange as part of its annual Celebration this Sunday, 4-6PM in the Silver Spring area. Find more here.

Posted by: MtR Gardener | October 1, 2008 12:38 PM

Hellebores are not native to No. VA, but do well in shady areas and are deer resistant. Does anyone have a list of native (originally from here) plants that are deer resistant and shade tolerant?

Posted by: g. werfel | October 1, 2008 12:50 PM

My experience is that the VNPS plants are potted on-site just before sales (May, September) and not likely to be pot-bound. Most plants I buy from other vendors have a tight mat of roots at the bottom.

PS please consider joining the VNPS - plants are discounted and the educational programs are very interesting!

Posted by: marty | October 1, 2008 1:26 PM

Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria has compiled a series of very helpful lists for gardening in this region. On the lists that are for native and non-natives, they highlight the native plants. And then there are the lists that just include natives--for example native plants to attract birds, and native plants to attract butterflies. The link is below:

Posted by: Sara | October 1, 2008 1:34 PM

One more post from me. I primarily buy natives from plant sales or grow them from seed (there's a seed source in Pennsylvania, Bowman Hill Preserve), but there is a native nursery in Alexandria that I've found to be very good.

Posted by: Sara | October 1, 2008 1:39 PM

This last spring, I purchased several varieties of potted wildflowers from the Black Hill Park society. Yes, 'wildflowers' are really weeds with flowers but, as a result, my garden was full of flowers, bees, butterflies and loads of green foliage this summer. No fertilizers, mulch or special care needed other than water and sunshine. It was marvelous! The kinds I bought were perennials so I expect that next summer I will have even more.

A special point about wildflowers; they are almost impervious to doggie ‘irrigation’ [if you know what I mean] which usually is how many other plants have met their deathly fates in my garden. The only thing you must do is a bit of research to be sure the wild flowering plants you select are not poisonous to your pets [Queen Anne’s Lace and Milkweed. are both very dangerous.] Some varieties have a bad reputation for being allergens but actually are not; a non-allergenic example is Goldenrod which makes a beautiful addition between other plants.

Posted by: gracielou | October 1, 2008 1:48 PM

The City of Falls Church has a Habitat Restoration Team that pulls invasives from our city parks like english ivy and plants natives that can thrive and beautify. We are having a native tree/shrub presale in October with pickup on Nov. 1st. If interested please email melanite at for an order form. The plants come from Nature By Design, a native nursery - they have a retail location in Alexandria.

Fall is a great time to plant trees/shrubs - it allows them to settle in before the summer heat kicks ito gear.

Also, I noticed last year during the drought, all my native wildflowers, trees and shrubs continue to grow and thrive despite the harsh conditions. This summer they were even more impressive.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 1, 2008 2:02 PM

There's a great book that quantifies the value of native plants and trees in a very scientific manner, written by Doug Tallamy, called Bringing Nature Home. Tallamy spoke about ten days ago at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. He has made studies of what the birds are eating, and the numbers are astounding. More than 500 species of moths and butterflies use oak trees, for example.

Tallamy's talk was part of a lecture series at Brookside. The one this Friday will feature Lauren Wheeler, who will tell a lot about using natives in the landscape. Check for more info.

Posted by: Native Gardener in Silver Spring | October 1, 2008 3:20 PM

Personally, I like your photo. I think Richard just "got up" on the wrong side of bed. Love the info on native plant sales.

Posted by: Happy Pappy | October 1, 2008 3:49 PM

Never mind that Richard fellow, your look is rocking and, more importnatly, your column is spot on this week. Anyway, I went to the parkfairfax sale last spring (I guess they do them twice a year) and it was great. I got a nice rasberry bush and almost bought some honeysuckle to plant. Parkfairfax is full of Cherry Blossoms and other non-native trees and plants, but this recent movement towards indiginous plants has been good to see. While you are there you can drive around and see where Ford and Nixon lived while they were junior congressmen.

Posted by: j2p | October 1, 2008 6:14 PM

I agree with the other posters - cactus and aloe aren't native to this area. A couple of other thoughts - did you look at native plant sellers in Maryland or DC? Your more northern readers would like some sources too.

I'd also be curious about where to find fall and winter-blooming plants in the spring, it seems that everyone only carries plants during their blooming season, even though they should be planted at other times.

And finally, I would love to see a shopping blog about "back to basics" gardening supplies - you know, the ones not carried by the big box stores. Like straw, insecticidal soap and other simple necessities. I find I have to buy anything that isn't a popular name brand online these days.

Posted by: jen | October 1, 2008 7:53 PM

Some natives spread too aggressively, like common milkweed and some types of goldenrod. You can pull them from where you don't want them, or plant less invasive varieties, but my favorite solution is to plant these thugs next to each other and watch them battle to a draw.

Posted by: Rob | October 1, 2008 10:37 PM

1.Natives and deer tend to mix just as well overall, if not better, than non native species. A moment's reflection will tell you that natives are all the deer had to eat before the Europeans came.
2. While in theory natives should cope with this climate very well, it does not follow that every native will do well in every place. Some require bogs, some acid soil, some dry soil, etc. The "clay soil" that most of this region is, is one thing with a generous water supply and a layer of forest duff over it, and quite another on a new building lot where the topsoil was stripped away, building debris covered over with subsoil and a thin layer of supposedly good soil replaced, and then left to bake into a brick in full sun. A lot of the MD/VA natives are actually geared to the climax forest that most of the region was in; some languish without it, and have to be cared for, and some go gonzo without the competition of existing forest. Some, like the wild grapes, are every bit as bad as the most aggressive non natives, as other people have posted above. And of course, poison ivy is native.
4. My own conclusion is that natives are good, but each plant is good for a certain set of conditions. The danger of saying "native is good" is that people will then look no farther than the word "native".
Full disclosure here-- I work part time in season at Behnke Nurseries, so I use them as an example for that reason only; but they have, I believe, a list of natives. Certainly the perennials that are natives are labeled as such (and this includes hybrids and selections, so long as their parentage only includes one species of native they remain part of that species) and woodies are also marked when they are native. I suppose that most nurseries do this, and if you don't see this on the signage, then by all means ask! That's what a nursery's staff is there for. The point I want to make here is that you don't have to specialize in natives to carry natives among the non natives. I was in charge of the Four Seasons Garden Club booth at Green Spring Gardens -- it may have been our asters you saw, the price you quoted was our price-- and there were certainly other natives there. ((Incidentally, they just re-started up this Fall plant sale at Green Spring, and the May one each year is HUGE-- well worth going to.)) Most nonspecialty vendors will have natives among their offerings, and will quite cheerfully point them out if asked.
And I truly believe that even aggressive non-natives have their uses. I would agree, for example, that Chinese wisteria is a danger if it gets into a roadside, beautiful though it is-- but I'd fight anyone who tried to take it off my arbor. I use the aggressive Chinese tawny daylily to block erosion-- et cetera, et cetera. And I couldn't live without roses, trumpet lilies, peonies, lilacs, daffodils-- a lot of our old garden favorites are, of course, non native, brought over from the Old World.

Posted by: Jim Dronenburg | October 1, 2008 11:22 PM

Wow! What a great discussion of native plants. I certainly learned a lot. "Jen" had some great ideas about future posts on the topic like where to get native plants in Maryland and D.C., and where to buy Fall and Winter-blooming plants during the Spring. And I love the idea about gardening supplies. If anyone has some input on any of these topics please e-mail me at

Posted by: Tania Anderson | October 2, 2008 2:53 PM

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