Roots, Rocks, and Clay: Part 1

Every Connecticut gardener knows that the above three words largely comprise CT soil. It’s a testament to the tenacity of humans that we can get anything to grow in this stuff.

However, the big claim to fame for native plants is that many of them have evolved in this climate and geography. The bonus to going native is that there is very little needed amending of the soil.

Always get your soil tested. It will give you a better sense of what kind of soil you’re planting in, and therefore better able to choose the right plants for the site.

For the front of our house, we have a dry, mostly clay soil. There are roots from the nonnative shrubs and pachysandra that lived there, but very few. I hit rocks sometimes as I dig in it, but nothing insurmountable.

I’ve gone with a mix of grasses, shrubs, and flowers. I started with an order from Earth Tones, a native plant nursery in Woodbury, CT.

This is the plan:

2 evergreen shrubs: I went with inkberry (Ilex glabra), because it benefits 39 species of moths and butterflies, honeybees love its blooms, and birds eat the berries. Inkberry can tolerate full sun and average soil. I will plant two females in hopes there is a male nearby. If no berries appear, I will plant the male in place of the morrow honeysuckles on the edge of the lawn.

Image credits: Large photo is from My Garden Life, berry photo from Natural Landscapes Nursery Hollies, and flower photo from Pinelands Nursery.

A mix of grasses: Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) (benefits 9 species of moths and butterflies), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) (benefits 6 species of moths and butterflies), Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) (benefits 25 species of moths and butterflies), and Northern Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) (benefits 0 species of moths and butterflies, unfortunately, but does provide food for birds) were my first picks. Indiangrass is very tall and gorgeous in the sunlight, so it goes to the back. When Little Bluestem is lined up, it has a sort of serried soldier look about it that is quite striking. Switch Grass has a lovely, fluffy and ethereal seedhead, and the shorter Northern Dropseed forms a green clump that provides further variety in the textures of the garden. All of these grasses provide seeds for birds and mammals.

The seasons of Little Bluestem. Photos from North Creek Nurseries.

3 deciduous shrubs: The front of our house is long. So along the side of our garage, I planted 3 red-twig dogwoods (Swida sericea). With mulch in this drier area, it can withstand partial shade (this part of the house gets some shade from tall oaks across the driveway), and it can support 118 species of moth and butterfly. The white berries provide a late fall source of food for birds, and bees also enjoy the flowers. The fall color is gorgeous, and the twigs stay a brilliant red throughout the winter, which adds interest to what can often be a drab time of year.

Image credit: Berries and red twigs from, flower photo from

More evergreens: I’ll also plant Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides), and bearberry (also called kinnikinnick) (Arcostaphylos uva-ursae). I want this to spread below the red-twig dogwoods – red and green for the winter season.

The ferns: I love the tall plumes of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Since the red-twig dogwood shrubs are still very small, I have the ostrich ferns to provide beauty in the summer. Bonus: ostrich fern fiddleheads are edible.

Image credit: Mature plumes from Spring Hill Nursery, unfurling plumes from Pinterest (I would love it if the photographer reached out!), and the little fiddleheads from U of Maine.

Part Two to this post will be on the specific flowers that were planted.


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