Sustainable Gardening

Earth Friendly Sustainable Plants


Smart plant selection is an important way to create a sustainable landscape. We asked local experts for their picks on sustainable plants for the garden. These were selected because of their non-invasive habits, resistance to disease and insects, and minimal watering and fertilization requirements once established.

Walter’s Viburnum
Viburnum obovatum
A tough native of the southeast that performs extremely well in North Carolina, this viburnum is exceptionally drought tolerant with no serious pest or disease issues. It takes our heavy clay well and will grow in full sun to part shade. The rounded dwarf ‘Mrs. Schiller’s Delight’ is semi-evergreen in Raleigh and bears masses of white flowers in spring.

Prostrate Yew
Cephelotaxus harringtonia prostrate
This evergreen, low-growing conifer with fine texture and glossy dark green foliage grows 2-ft tall x 4-ft wide. It has good drought tolerance, will grow in part sun to full shade in well-drained soils, has no pests, and is one of the best deer-proof plants around.

False Indigo
Baptisia australis
This upright herbaceous perennial grows 3-4 ft tall in full sun to part shade. The purple, lupine-like flowers atop flower spikes extend well above the foliage mound of bluish-green leaves. Flowers give way to seedpods, which turn charcoal black when ripe and have a considerable ornamental interest. Easy to grow in dry to medium, well-drained soil, the plant also tolerates drought and poor soils.

Aromatic Aster
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium
A native from the Northeast to the mid-Atlantic and west to the Rocky Mountains, aromatic aster is a clumping shrub about 4 ft x 4 ft. Deer and rabbits do not usually desire the scented, rough-textured leaves. Its violet flowers, present from August to October, attract a variety of pollinators. It requires little care once established in a sunny woodland edge or full sun border and has no invasive tendencies.

Red Chokeberry
Photinia pyrifolia
Red chokeberry is a slow-spreading native shrub/small tree with attractive dime-sized white blooms in April covering the tips of the entire plant. Plant it at the back of a woodland border, or in full sun with room to grow. It requires little care once established, and its bounty of pea-sized red fruit attracts a host of birds, especially robins and cedar waxwings.

Virginia Sweetspire
Itea virginica
A native plant with a broad range of tolerances – it doesn’t require a lot of water but also doesn’t mind occasional inundation, it does great in full sun but can also take a fair amount of shade, it doesn’t have trouble with pests or disease. This suckering shrub has a loose graceful habit, nice drooping racemes of white flowers that attract interesting pollinators, and produces great fall color.

White Fringetree
Chionanthus virginicus 

This trouble-free native small tree requires little to no care once it’s been planted. Whether you choose to grow it as a single-trunk tree or a multi-stemmed large shrub, white fringetree is attractive with a nice form. The graceful and unusual spring flowers are this plant’s best asset – and the dark fruits, which appear after the flowers, are enjoyed by wildlife.

Lantana camera
Perennial types of lantana such as ‘Ms. Huff’, ‘Ham ‘n Eggs’ and ‘Chapel Hill Yellow’ have a profusion of blooms from summer through fall. Tough as nails, it is drought tolerant, does not require fertilizer and is so disease and pest resistant that it never needs spraying. The plant attracts pollinators, and best of all the deer won’t eat it.

American Beautyberry
Callicarpa americana
With beautiful arching branches and gorgeous magenta berries in the fall and winter, the native American beautyberry thrives in our poor clay soils. A very drought tolerant deciduous shrub that grows 8 ft tall x 6 ft wide, it takes full sun to part shade and has no major insect or disease problems. This plant will self-seed, but not to the point that it is unmanageable.

‘Red Sprite’ Winterberry
Ilex vertillata
This compact native deciduous holly has gorgeous red berries from November–March. It takes poor wet clay soils but is also drought tolerant. It does require a male pollinator (Ilex verticillata ‘Apollo’ or Ilex verticillata ‘Jim Dandy’) in order to produce the berries. Grows 5-ft tall/wide.

‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod
Solidago rugosa
A horticultural star in the garden, ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod features showy arching wands of flowers in fall and is beloved by all types of pollinators. It’s also tolerant of heat and drought.

River Birch
Betula nigra
‘Summer Cascade’
 is a deciduous tree with beautiful exfoliating bark that tolerates well-drained to wet soils, and is also drought tolerant. The weeping river birch makes a great specimen tree in the garden. It grows 20 ft tall x 15 ft wide.

Oakleaf hydrangea
Hydrangea quercifolia
Whether you grow oakleaf hydrangea en masse or as a single specimen plant – it always looks good. This is a drought-tolerant native that is resistant to disease and insects and performs well without added fertilizers. You’ll love the color, a nice burgundy red with cream flowers that turn pink before they dry on the plant.

Ginkgo biloba
This tree attracts attention with its unusual fan-shaped leaves that turn a beautiful yellow in the fall. Once established, it is drought tolerant, durable in sunny areas, and insects leave this tree alone. For the smaller landscape try some of the dwarf Ginkgo varieties ‘ Witches’ Broom’, ‘Chase Manhattan’, or ‘Mariken’. If there are other ginkgoes in the area, select a male or you could end up with smelly ginkgo nuts.

Stokes Aster
 ‘Peachie’s Pick’
Stokesia laevis ‘Peachie’s Pick’
This native perennial remains compact and is covered with showy purple flowers throughout the season. It makes a great cut flower, is attractive to butterflies and other pollinators, and tolerates our heat and humidity.

A symbol of the South, crepemyrtle is a small flowering tree and shrub sustainable because of its drought tolerance. It is also disease and pest resistant as long as it is in full sun and not overcrowded. The flowers come in many colors and sizes with a long bloom time in the heat of summer.

Featured image: Baptisia “Sparkling Sapphires’ / Proven Winners

JC Raulston Arboretum, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, North Carolina Botanical Garden, NC State Extension/Durham Co., Gardening with Confidence, Architectural Trees, Niche Gardens, Logan Trading Co., Homewood Nursery and Garden Center.

Copy link