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Ramblings of a Native Plant Gardener: Late Spring Musings


My friend, Marie, and I walk together twice a month. Recently she said, “I just broke my favorite coffee cup,” and her hands folded together, ever so slightly. “You know,” she added, “there is always one cup that feels just right in your hand!”

In her gesture I saw gardens both infinite and intimate. Her words spoke of belonging, comfort, and home. At Innisfree Gardens in the Hudson River Valley there are 168 acres, preserved for generations to come. Last year, the guide introduced us to the notion of “cup garden,” a concept re-awakened in me by Marie’s hands.

A cup garden is any kind of enclosed space with a focal point, a “room” that provides a view. Often sheltered by trees or walls, a cup garden holds us. The garden can be as small as a flower bed around a fountain, or as large as a pond surrounded by trees. In both examples, the space creates a feeling that nourishes, perhaps enchants.

A rain garden is a fine example. It can surround a rain chain, creating a slight depression that holds water and plants. As we get more rain in this area, these gardens provide a water management tool to mitigate flooding. Some shade rain garden plants include wild ginger (Asarum canadense), turtlehead (Chelone spp.) and foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia). Many fern varieties will also do well.

If you prefer a sunny space for a cup garden, start with some “walls.” Perhaps your property includes an abandoned spring house or an old foundation. Any structure can help create a sense of surround. Some hardy shrubs, like Viburnum acerifolium or Vibernum lentago have flowers and berries. Arborvitae (Thuja spp.) is fast growing. Button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) needs moisture. Nine bark (Physocarpus opulifolius) changes color depending on the season. Any or all will give you interesting and varied enclosures.

Late blooming spring flowers add color and interest to any garden. Bearded tongue (Penstemon), Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum), and false indigo (Baptisia australis) are three of my favorites. These woodland plants add splashes of color and bloom from late spring to summer. Later on, in summer and fall, other wild flowers can fill your beds.

Indigenous plants thrive among the familiar. They know where they belong. Northeastern plants prefer this climate, this rain, and this type of soil. In our wetland garden the clay soil is not easy, yet natives thrive. The plants are linked to the pollinators, part of an encircling web that has been centuries in the making. Multiple generations of insects, birds, flowers, and trees support one another.

It is reported that up to 98 percent of pollinators choose natives over exotics. For a garden wedding we wanted an instant splash of color near our driveway. We planted a bed of both native and hybrid coneflowers. The bees chose the natives every time. I realized it was easier to give the pollinators what they want, simpler to allow the ordinary to take over. Recent flooding has weakened the hybrids, but the native coneflowers continue to grow.

Before I built my “secret garden,” I had dreamt of a private, enfolded space. For a decade we have worked on its creation. It has curved bamboo screens and native trees and shrubs that hide driveways, roads, and cars. I walk over a tiny foot bridge and am in a different world. I see a fountain, a statue, and diverse flowers. The garden is in a flood land, so all these plants have wet feet and dappled light. In spring there are spring anemones (Anemone blanda), golden groundcel or golden ragwort (Packera aurea), and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum). In summer the palette changes.

Flower names hint of their origin and use. Baptisia comes from the Greek word “bapto,” or “dip into water.” Baptisia has been used for centuries for dyeing fabric. Also known as false indigo, it has intense blue flowers. The Lenape taught the Colonists to dye their wool with baptisia, which added denim color to their wardrobe. Different parts of the plant were used for healing. Like many indigenous plants, baptisia is multi-purpose. Grow it for its beauty, its function, its history; you will have something to share with your family and friends.

While there are as many different gardens as people, my own preference leans to the wilder but also protected spaces. In my cup gardens I welcome the hitchhiker plants. I invite in the refugees, those flowers, shrubs, and butterflies wanting to belong. Like holding a cherished cup, I open my arms to guests and strangers alike, hoping they will find an intimation of home.

Susan Talia Delone, Ph.D., a member of the Bucks County Chapter of the Woman’s National Farm & Garden Association, is a psychologist living in Buckingham. Her garden has been featured on the annual native plant garden tour offered by the organization in June, this year on June 15. Visit for information.

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