Planting The New Front Steps

This week we received loads of much needed rain. More than 5 inches in fact. So I am taking a break from the garden and making time for some long over due writing. Much has happened in the garden this spring and life has been insanely busy finishing out the school year with the boys that the blog has sadly been neglected. Earlier this spring we had several areas professionally hardscaped with a walkway, seating area and stairs (to see those projects click here). We needed to plant out the expanded bed around the new front steps as soon as the project was complete so the plants would establish themselves before the dry, hot summer. As this area is highly visible my aim is to demonstrate how to create an interesting landscape in tough conditions with low-maintenance, native, pollinator friendly plants.

Come with me and I'll show you how we planted this hillside.

When designing this slope I had to take into consideration that much of this space gets full-sun and is well-drained clay soil. This hill has several different grades ranging from steep to gently sloping, which requires a selection of different plants suitable for the varying conditions. The area at the top of the stairs is flat and connects to the walkway leading to the front terrace.

It begins with three large flagstones where I selected groundcover plants that wouldn't distract the view. Since I am keen on incorporating herbs in the landscape and not just confining them to the kitchen garden, I included creeping thyme (Thymus praecox 'Cocineus'), which has a spicy fragrance and bright magenta blooms and woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) with lovely soft gray foliage. I was inspired by a garden in Toronto, Canada that used thyme as a lawn substitute. I'm not going for anything that big (at least not yet) but it works well planted around the flagstone, is very drought tolerant and will brighten the path with its aromatic foliage and delicate flowers servicing bees and butterflies.

I nestled a few hen and chicks between the flagstones to fill the gaps without covering up the stones. These succulents mix up the space with their rosette shape plus they have an amazing tolerance for unwelcoming conditions. So they should thrive here.

As we make our way down the first few steps, to the right you'll find rosy coreopsis (Coreopsis rosea), white doll daisy (Boltonia asteroides), and dwarf blazing star (Liatris microcephala) in front of my husband's prized Japanese Maple. These natives are showy and will attract a variety of pollinators as they bloom and will standout against the purple foliage of the weeping maple.

rosy coreopsis & white doll daisy

On the other side of the steps at the peak of the slope is Quail Fame Flower (Talinum teretifolium). This is a threatened species in its native range. I first saw this plant at the granite outcrop at Thompson Mill Forest Arboretum, which is just a few miles from us and loved its dainty blooms. I've already observed hoverflies visiting the flowers in the heat of the day when the blossoms open.

Quill Fame Flower

Several excellent native creepers were added to hold in the slope. Blue moneywort (Lindernia grandiflora) with its heart shaped foliage hugs the ground and its cute blue flowers will bloom through spring and summer. The stems of the powderpuff plant (Mimosa strigilosa) will trail nicely around the steps while the purple flowers will be used by bees. It is also a host plant for the little sulphur butterfly.  Creeping phlox (phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue') was incorporated on the steepest parts of the slope for erosion control and will eventually create a carpet of flowers that will attract early spring butterflies.

view from base of stairs: stokes aster, finestem needlegrass, creeping phlox

Mingled between these pollinator plants is Finestem needlegrass (Nassella tenuissima), which was included to provide movement and soften the harder edges in the space. Stokes aster (Stokes laevis) 'Klaus Jelitto and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), still allow a view of the stairs from the road yet have showy blooms to add color and attract a variety of pollinators.

looking down stairs toward pollinator hill with view into the woods

As the bed widens at the base of the steps, we were able to add several larger plants. Fothergilla major 'Mt. Airy' was incorporated for seasonal interest. The inflorescence of summersweet (clethera alnifolia) to bring in bees and butterflies, which will result in seed capsules in fall to attract birds. Spring blooming Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) for a showy springtime element at the foot of the stairs. This area is part sun as it is protected from the towering tulip poplars and hickories. Like the established buttonbush, which is just in the background, it will benefit from the water run-off yet still remain well-drained. We enriched the soil here with lots of organic matter.

To fill the gap between the end of the retaining wall and the stairs, help with erosion, and provide further interest we added a tall container. Using the design concept filler, thriller and spiller, perennial verbena 'homestead purple' and beard tongue 'purple'  were planted in the container. Still looking for a native perennial as a filler for foliage contrast against these two pollinator friendly plants. Would love to hear your suggestions.

In Autumn, when fall blooming perennials are more readily available at nurseries, we will add a few more plants to support pollinators, birds and beneficial insects for a full three seasons.And then wait for it all to fill in.

I like being different and living in a neighborhood where everyone has your standard builder landscape, it is my hope that our front garden will be an inspiration to those who are looking for ways to support pollinators and birds and simply create a more eye catching design.


  1. Coreopsis auriculata has done well for me in containers and expands to fill the space. Plus yellow looks great with purple. You might also consider 'Golden Fleece' goldenrod for a later bloom; I have also used milkweeds in containers with success.

    Nice project and I appreciate hearing the details.

    1. Love those suggestions! I adore coreopsis. We have several varieties throughout the garden but I think it would work well in this container too. But I also think goldenrod would be spectacular, especially since it would be unexpected in a container. Thanks for the suggestions!

  2. Very impressive! You've been busy and it shows. It looks great already, and it will continue to take on more personality. I wonder if Lilium michiganense or some other Lily, surrounded by a filler plant in the pots would provide a dramatic complementary companion to the Verbena and Beard Tongue. It will be fun to see more posts about your new garden during the coming months.

    1. A lily would really pop wouldn't it! I am a big fan of orange and purple combo. I may have to combine your suggestions and Ellen's above and really make a POW statement! I am going to try to get back to writing more. I've missed my blog friends! (And girl, I will miss you at the Fling!)

  3. Nice plant choices. It looks good now and when they're full grown and in bloom will be even more delightful.

    1. Thanks Gail! I'm looking forward to seeing it mature. I find I want to pack plants in tighter than I should because they seem so far away from one another when they're little. Must be patient. I have to remind myself when planting that they grow in quickly.

  4. Wow, Karin - such a diverse range of plants. You have done an amazing job - can't wait to see this area as it matures! I have a feeling that you'll be getting a lot neighbours following suit :)

    1. I hope so. I would love to see more pollinator friendly plants added to our neighborhood and not just be an island surrounded by sterile gardens.

  5. I like what you're doing, though you are using a number of plants that are unfamiliar to me. I also like to think that my influence is changing some of the yards around me but to be honest it is very slow going, at least with the people in our immediate vicinity.

  6. It's going to look so wonderful as everything fills in, and it will be full of activity from all the pollinators that it attracts! I've never heard of dwarf blazing star - love that one! At my last house I really did notice a change in the neighborhood after I started gardening. A few of my neighbors really did start putting in more plants and gardening more, which was really awesome to see. In my current neighborhood, a couple people somewhat garden, but most really, really love their lawn, so we'll see. I hope your new garden is inspirational to the neighborhood!


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One of my favorite things about blogging is the conversation with readers. Leave a comment and let's get talking. ~Karin

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