Rain Garden Natives: Kara’s Picks

Picture courtesy of Michler’s Garden Center
Picture courtesy of Michler’s Garden Center

Folks around Central Kentucky often ask me which plants are appropriate for a rain garden. Rain garden soil conditions can vary from wet to dry, making them tough places for many plants to grow. The plants chosen for rain gardens are adapted to these conditions and typically have extensive roots that help pull water into the ground, which can help reduce stormwater runoff.

To help you get started on your rain garden, I’ve picked out a few of my favorite Kentucky natives that really thrive in moist or well-drained soils.

Eupatorium maculatum – Joe Pye Weed

15638101339_214e2973a3_o A Butterfly Magnet, the extravagant Joe Pye Weed is crowned with clusters of bright pink flowers in late summer. Eupatorium maculatum is perfect for planting in damp soil in marshy areas, along streambanks, and on pond edges. Joe Pye Weed (also called Spotted Joe Pye Weed) also thrives in rich garden soil. If you love Joe Pye but have too much shade, try Sweet Joe Pye Weed.


Monarda didyma – Bee Balm

22222 A pollinator favorite, Beebalm’s red bloom makes it especially attractive to hummingbirds. One of only a few red-flowered natives, it holds a special place in the mid-summer color scheme. Native to the Appalachian Mountains, Monarda didyma will grow well in zones 4 – 7. Does best in a rich soil with a good organic matter content to provide moisture during the heat of summer. Also known as Oswego Tea, American Beebalm or Scarlet Beebalm.


Chelome obliqua – Turtle Head

1111 Turtleheads are native wildflowers that adapt beautifully to garden conditions. In this species, plants form an upright, bushy mound of green foliage, bearing upright stems of large bright-pink hooded flowers beginning in late summer. Best in a moist or wet site, this also adapts well to average border conditions. Terrific at the waterside. Excellent for cutting. Showy and long lived. Attractive to butterflies. Plants are easily divided in spring.

If you would like to learn more about rain garden and apply for a $250 grant to build a rain garden at your own home check out our web page or register for a workshop!



To help endangered monarch butterfly, plant milkweed, create ‘waystations’

This season I enjoyed a plethora of butterflies in my yard and garden, mostly the beautiful tiger and eastern black swallowtails. The feeling seemed to be reciprocated, as they drank the nectar from my flowers and their larvae (caterpillars) chomped down on my dill and parsley. But one species was conspicuously absent – there were no monarchs.

Male monarch butterfly (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I am a native and heirloom plant enthusiast, and I have always planted to attract pollinators. But I had not realized that although the adult monarchs drink nectar from a variety of flowers, milkweed is the sole host plant for laying their eggs and feeding their larvae. And I had not planted any Asclepias sp. (milkweed) on the property!

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Flight Behavior. It is a fictional account but whet my appetite to learn more about the unique, and fragile, life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Monarchs go through four generations each year. The first three hatch and live for about six weeks, but the fourth lives for up to eight months to facilitate migration.

Female monarch butterfly (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Monarchs cannot tolerate cold weather, so as the temperature drops in autumn, those living in the eastern half of North America migrate to southcentral Mexico to hibernate in oyamel fir trees (always in the same trees, even though a new fourth generation migrates 2,500 miles each year). In the spring, they begin working their way north again, back to the milkweed plants that sustain them.

Unfortunately, herbicide and pesticide use is eradicating the native milkweed in the United States, and their overwintering sites are threatened as development encroaches on the fir forests in Mexico. We can help save this endangered species by planting Monarch Waystations – sites that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. You can register your waystation through MonarchWatch.org.

My friend, Joanna Kirby, president of the Garden Club of Kentucky, has made this a focal project for her term. They have partnered with Wild Ones to promote Monarch Waystations in gardens, at homes, at county extension offices, at libraries and at schools. The commissioner of state parks and our state naturalist are also on board.

To qualify, in the spring or fall, plant at least 10 milkweed plants – preferably two species, including the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and another native varieties such as butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa) or swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) as well as native nectar plants, such as black eyed susan, purple coneflower or coreopsis.

Being pesticide-free is crucial because these are food plants for butterflies and other wildlife. Native plants can be purchased from local nurseries such as Springhouse Gardens, Shooting Star Nursury, Michler’s and Locust Trace AgriScience Farm. For more information, visit WildOnes.org.

As Halloween approaches, I am preparing the garden area for my monarch waystation, but I am taking my mission one step further. My costume this year is – what else – a monarch butterfly with a sign that reads: “I’m Endangered – Plant Milkweed for Me!”

Deborah Larkin joined Greensource in 2010 as an environmental educator. She works with numerous schools in Fayette County as part of Greensource’s partnership with LFUCG and is responsible for outreach activities in Boyle, Clark, Garrard and Lincoln counties. She received her bachelor’s in Horticulture from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to Greensource, Larkin worked for 27 years at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, where she researched and re-established the 19th century apple orchard, herb garden and heirloom seed industry.

This article appeared in KY Forward on October 24, 2013.