Maine Garden Experts Explain How to Rewild Your Yard

From blueberry to milkweed, these native plant species are adapted to thrive in the Pine Tree State

Virginia rose’s (Rosa virginiana) pink petals, which surround a yellow center, emerge in mid-summer.
If you hope to harvest your highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), you’ll need to protect the fruit from birds with netting.
Once swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) blooms in late summer it is sure to attract butterfly pollinators.
Emma Kelly lined these stone steps with sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) interplanted with Eastern hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula).
Matthew Cunningham created a sense of enclosure in this corner with a multi-trunk Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) that rises above hay-scented fern and Pennsylvania sedge.
There’s a wide variety of ferns native to Maine, including New York fern (Parathelypteris noveboracensis).
Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
Here, spores are visible on the back of a native Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) frond.
Eastern hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
A bee visits the Fireworks goldenrod (Solidago rugosa “Fireworks”) in Matthew Cunningham’s yard.
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) grows beside paths crafted from textured slabs of reclaimed granite in a garden designed by Cunningham.
Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) plants are either male or female; the female plants produce small gray, waxy berries that birds love in the fall, but there must be a male plant nearby to pollinate it.

Gardening in Maine requires some fortitude. You must get used to harsh conditions, extreme weather, and a relatively short growing season. People who didn’t grow up here often have trouble figuring out what will thrive in Maine, and seasonal residents look for those elusive plants that can survive benign neglect. One way to ensure success is to look to nature for inspiration: native plants, ones that have grown in the region for millennia, are much more likely to thrive than those imported from far away. These indigenous plants are adapted to local conditions and are more resilient to drought and deluge cycles.

Native plants also support biodiversity by creating the foundation of our local food web. Insects can’t eat and reproduce on just any plant: in the same way that monarch butterfly larvae can feed only on milkweed, hundreds of other plants and insects have coevolved. As the native plants disappear from our landscape, insect and butterfly populations dwindle, leaving flowers unpollinated and birds with nothing to eat. We can provide wildlife with the food and habitat they need right in our own yards, simply by choosing native plants.  

Installing hyperlocal plants also makes aesthetic sense. “Native plants are an essential part of how we think about placemaking,” says landscape architect Matthew Cunningham, founder of Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design, who has offices both in Maine and in the Boston area. “We use plants to shape spatial experiences that feel authentic and rooted to a place.” 

It’s a sentiment other local garden designers share. Emma Kelly, a landscape architect in North Yarmouth, says she doesn’t even think in terms of native versus exotic plants anymore because she designs almost exclusively with natives. “It’s a limited palette that really thrives here. The Maine plant palette is more concentrated, but it’s beautiful in how and where it’s applied,” she says.

While the native plant palette is narrower than what you’ll find at a conventional nursery, it is by no means paltry. “Rest assured that we have beautiful native plants that will grow in any conditions you have. There’s no such thing as a yard that’s too shady or too wet or too dry,” says Heather McCargo, founder of the Wild Seed Project, a nonprofit dedicated to returning native plants to the Maine landscape. The key, she says, is choosing the right plant for the right location.

We asked these local experts to share their favorite Maine plants and how best to use them in our landscape design. Here are their picks.


“Blueberry is an excellent native shrub and an easy-to-grow food plant,” says McCargo of this quintessential Maine plant. Gardeners need to know that there are multiple types of wild blueberry, two of which are highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum), the equivalent of the blueberries you’ll find at the store, which grows to be four to eight feet tall; and lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) which stays low, from just six inches to two feet tall. Both types of blueberry are native to Maine. McCargo describes the highbush as an attractive, vase-shaped shrub. “All the stems come out of the ground together and then arch out, and it has particularly beautiful, coppery bark.” Lowbush can be used almost like a ground cover. Both high- and lowbush are low maintenance after getting established. Highbush blueberry likes moist soil; in the wild, you’ll usually see it in dappled shade or on the edge of the forest. Lowbush blueberry, however, is usually found on a dry, sunny site. When shopping, McCargo notes that you want a nursery-propagated lowbush—not one that has been dug up from the wild.

Pro tip: If you’re planting fruit bushes or trees, you will have better cross-pollination (and therefore more fruit) with multiple plants. This is true even if the plant is labeled “self-pollinating.” 


This plant is known by many names, including juneberry, sugar plum, shadblow, and saskatoon, and according to the Maine Forest Service seven species are native to Maine. Common serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) grows as both a small tree and a multistem shrub. “Serviceberry produces this really beautiful white flower in the spring, and then it transitions into this blue berry that attracts cedar waxwings and all kinds of birds,” says Cunningham. Serviceberry can grow in lots of different conditions. It tops out at about 20 feet, so Cunningham suggests using it to fill a place in your landscape design where you might otherwise plant a Japanese maple or dogwood. 

Sweet Fern

“Sweet fern” is a misnomer: this plant (Comptonia peregrina) is not a fern but rather a subshrub in the bayberry family. Its name refers to its fernlike leaf shape and the sweet, minty aroma of its leaves. Native to the whole eastern seaboard, sweet fern can fix its own nitrogen and is often found in barren, nutrient-poor soils, including human-disturbed habitats. Cunningham likes this tough, low-maintenance plant because it tolerates all kinds of growing conditions, including lean soil, and also because it stays low (in the realm of 18 inches to three feet tall). In fall, its leaves turn dark and purplish, and Cunningham says the chocolate-hued bark and twig form “looks beautiful and dramatic against snowfall.” For the best visual impact, Cunningham recommends planting at least three sweet ferns in a cluster.

Pro tip: While it’s low fuss after establishment, sweet fern doesn’t like to have its root system disturbed, so be very gentle when you transplant it from a container into the ground.


Related to sweet fern, bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) is often found growing on the edge of a wetland or near the coastline, and like sweet fern it is an extremely hardy plant. Cunningham says bayberry can take a range of different growing conditions, from full, hot sun to partial shade. Salt, wind, and drought tolerant, bayberry can even endure periodic flooding and is not favored by deer—this is one tough plant! It’s a great candidate to use along roads, driveways, and wetland edges. 

Virginia Rose

“The beach rose that everybody loves (Rosa rugosa) is actually an invasive species,” says McCargo. McCargo would like to see more people planting Maine’s native Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana) instead. Like its foreign counterpart, Virginia rose has a simple pink flower and is tolerant of ocean spray and road salt. (It can, therefore, grow in the harsh coastal and roadside conditions where beach rose is often found.) “It’s a really great and super-tough plant,” says McCargo.


Goldenrod is often thought of as a weed and blamed as the source of seasonal allergies, but it is neither! Insects pollinate this plant—not the wind—so its pollen is heavy and sticky; wind-pollinated ragweed is the real hay-fever culprit. Cunningham urges gardeners to give goldenrod a try. “Don’t even get me started on how beautiful goldenrod is,’’ he says. “It’s tenacious, yes, and it can be aggressive, but it is a staple in our environment that provides crucial late-season nutrition to wildlife.” There are dozens of different species of goldenrod, and 19 of them are native to Maine, so talk to your local nursery about what is best for your site. When you’re doing your research, pay attention to the mature height, which can range from one to six feet tall. Goldenrods look best in a meadow planting or planted in clusters on a wide border. 

Pro tip: If you’d like to see goldenrod in a garden setting, head to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in late summer or early fall. You’ll find many native varieties, including blue-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago caesia), solar cascade goldenrod (Solidago shortii), grass-leaved goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia), and showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), as well as the “Little Lemon” hybrid variety.

Swamp Milkweed

Like goldenrods, there are multiple types of milkweed; McCargo recommends swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) as an excellent choice for gardens. Milkweeds are famously the host plants for monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, but they will also attract many other types of pollinators and butterflies. The pink-blossomed, summer-blooming swamp milkweed is at home in a wet meadow or a rain garden and in partial or full sun.

Pennsylvania Sedge

Also known as oak sedge, Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is a grasslike sedge that grows to only about six or eight inches tall. “Once it’s established, it requires zero maintenance,” Cunningham enthuses. Cunningham has used it as an accent plant and as a ground cover. Pennsylvania sedge can grow in almost full shade to almost full sun, but it really thrives in dappled shade with a little bit of natural moisture. “I love the texture that it provides. It has a very fine, almost hairlike quality to it,” says Cunningham.


When you think of Maine deciduous woodlands, you probably picture a forest floor covered with ferns. “I love all the ferns,” says McCargo, who says ferns are a must for woodland gardens. Most ferns can tolerate shade to partial sun. They are also extremely low-maintenance once established. Here are four ferns the experts especially love for Maine gardens.

New York fern

One of McCargo’s favorite ferns, the lacey New York fern forms a small patch of knee-high fronds that taper at both the tip and the base. It prefers drier soils. 

Eastern hay-scented fern

A strong spreader, hay-scented fern forms dense colonies, so be thoughtful about where you use it. Kelly notes it is great at revegetating a forest-edge site postconstruction. This fern tolerates a variety of soil conditions.

Ostrich fern 

Named for its plumelike fronds, this is a big, beautiful, and dramatic fern. McCargo notes that this is the source of beloved fiddleheads, so if you plant it you can harvest your own. It prefers moist soil.

Christmas fern

Evergreen, this low-growing, dark, glossy fern stays verdant long after other ferns have gone dormant. Unlike many other ferns, it can be successfully used as an accent plant. 

Essential Reading for Using Native Plants 

Curious to learn more about the native plants of Maine? Here are three resources to explore.

The Northeast Native Plant Primer
by Uli Lorimer

An indispensable resource with photos of every plant mentioned, this book was written by the director of horticulture at the Native Plant Trust. It offers in-depth recommendations for how to use 235 native northeastern plants in your garden.

Native Plants for Your Maine Garden
by Maureen Heffernan

Written by the former executive director of the acclaimed Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, this book features more than 140 native perennials, grasses, ground covers, ferns, shrubs, vines, and trees—and how to use them successfully in your home landscape.

Wild Seed Project Guides

The Maine-based nonprofit the Wild Seed Project publishes a series of handbooks on gardening with native plants. Titles cover native trees, shrubs, and ground covers, and the new 2024 guide will explore using native plants for climate resilience.

Native Plant Nurseries

The best place to buy local plants is at a local nursery—ideally one that specializes in native plants and does not use pesticides.

Blue Aster Native Plants  |  South China 

This nursery propagates organic, seed-grown native perennials and shrubs. Blue Aster is open by appointment from mid-May to the end of September.

Fedco Seeds |  Clinton

Fedco is a worker-owned cooperative whose plants are mostly Maine grown. While most of their plants and trees are sold “bare root” through winter preorders, you can find a selection of potted native shrubs and herbaceous species at their Organic Growers Supply Warehouse throughout the growing season.

Fernwood Nursery & Gardens |  Montville

This family-owned nursery calls itself “Maine’s shadiest nursery,” a playful acknowledgment of its specialty in woodland and shade-tolerant plants (which are not exclusively native). Fernwood is open May through September and in October by appointment.

Maine Audubon  |  Falmouth & Holden

In addition to the annual late-spring and summer native plants sales, you can order online for curbside pick up at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth and Fields Pond in Holden from June through August.

Native Haunts  |  Alfred 

A small nursery, Native Haunts sells pesticide-free, Maine-grown native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Owner Shawn Jalbert also works as a landscape consultant. Plants can be ordered online and picked up starting in mid-April.

Rebel Hill Farm  |  Liberty 

A small family-owned nursery, Rebel Hill sells field-grown, certified-organic perennials and specializes in native plants. Gardeners can place orders for pick up at the farm starting in April. Rebel Hill also sells through various Maine garden centers and local plant sales.

Rooted Elements  |  Montville

Rooted Elements is a peat-free nursery offering seed-grown native plants. While their retail location is under construction, plants can be purchased at numerous plant sales across the midcoast region throughout the season and through scheduled nursery appointments from May through mid-October.

Sweetfern Maine  |  Cape Neddick 

This small nursery grows native perennials for sale through online orders (primarily email) for local delivery and at nearby farmers’ markets. Over 40 species of seed-grown herbaceous and woody plants are available in individual containers or plug flats.

The approximate number of Maine native plant species
(according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension)

Salvage the Site

Plantsman Shawn Jalbert offers preconstruction consultations on native plant conservation. 

New property owners often fall in love with Maine’s rugged landscape, like this scene of lowbush blueberry growing in the wild, but then their home construction kills most of the native flora on-site.

If you’re building a new home, you can conserve some of the native flora on your site. “People buy beautiful properties in Maine because they love this pristine place and there’s something about it that calls to them,” says Kelly. “But then they build a home on the land, and it just trashes it.” 

Shawn Jalbert, the owner of Native Haunts nursery in Alfred, offers a service that can mitigate some of that damage. “Before the bulldozer lowers its blade, we can come in to identify any rare or significant plants,” says Jalbert. Trees worth saving can be barricaded to survive construction, while smaller plants can be removed and stored in a safe area until the building is done. Anything the homeowner doesn’t want can be upcycled as stock plants for propagating material or rehomed to another garden after rehab at the nursery. “It’s such a travesty to see native plants ruthlessly bulldozed when a little foresight can have a big impact,” says Jalbert.