Plants for Your Outer Banks Landscape: Tried & True Recommendations from Ocean to Sound

OBX planting guide

For some folks, an empty yard is an open canvas waiting for them to plant lush foliage and a tropical paradise.  For other folks, an empty yard is a nightmare destined to spawn more devil weeds.  The Outer Banks is a unique environment that requires some understanding before one embarks on a landscaping plan.  It has unique opportunities and challenges, unlike even relatively geographically close areas, like Virginia or even more distant Mid-Atlantic states.

Sometimes it is the opposite issue, weeds and other plants volunteer and want to take over your yard.  It is hard to keep hacking back invasive plants determined to take over your yard.  A plan of attack is needed.

Make a Plan

If you have recently purchased an Outer Banks home, as a second home, vacation rental home or permanent home, take some time to make a landscaping plan.  Whatever you do, do not visit a big box store in spring and select all the pretty flowers and believe your task will be complete.  Most will be annuals and may not even make it through the season.  A consultation with a nursery or landscaping professional can be very helpful.  They can discuss your plans and wish list and point out drainage issues or hardscape choices to make your vision a reality.  Many are amenable to performing a project in stages so it can be completed over time.

Install Hardscape

Just like your home, a garden should have good bones.  If your hardscape or retaining walls are disintegrating, you should fix or establish the bones before you start planting.  If you are installing a pool then this work must be completed before you start on the planting.  Completing any construction or improvements needed to the property before doing the landscaping.  Even painting and power washing can damage tender young plants.

Examine Your Conditions

The location of your home and even the direction it faces will impact which plants will thrive there.  The oceanfront and nearby may have more wind and salt spray while the sound front and surrounding areas have more shade and woodlands. 

While you may be anxious to begin your landscaping right away, taking a year to understand how the environment and sun movements change during the year can be very beneficial.  Generally, your Outer Banks home will fall into one of 4 zones: oceanfront, dune, marsh or maritime forest.

Take into consideration what plants are growing and currently thriving at your home and which plants may be struggling.  Also, check out your neighbors to see which plants you like that are thriving.  Chances are good, that it will also perform well in your yard due to similar conditions.  Identify possible causes for desirable plants in your yard not performing well; too much or too little sun, shade, wind or water, perhaps?

Follow HOA Rules

Trunk of Toothache Tree
Toothache Tree

For a plant you want to keep, determine if there is another location that it could be moved and be happier.  Some HOA associations have restrictions about removing vegetation so be sure to check your documents before you remove any trees, foliage or hardscape materials.  There are also some rare plants, like the toothache tree, that while may be “ugly” are rare and should be preserved.

Other Resources

Visit Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo to get more plant ideas and to see them in a growing environment.  This page will list the bloom season for many popular plants for the Outer Banks.  This list can help you select plants to keep a vibrant landscape year round.  You can also purchase plants there and they do have sales around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Design Considerations

It is helpful to think of plants according to their growing conditions, color, height and width when making a plan.  You also must consider what conditions the plant grows best with regard to sun/shade, dry/moist, wind, soil nutrients and flooding.  Match the plant to the conditions present in the area in your yard that you want to create interest or a focal point.  Groupings of odd numbers work best and having a tall plant, medium plants and low plants create a sense of balance.  Lining up plants in a straight line like soldiers is not as effective as creating curves and island groupings.

Obviously, trees can get very large, there are various bushes and midlevel plans as well as ground covers and creepers.  All serve a function and create balance but be careful to allow room for all to grow to full size without planting too close together.  While this planting may appear sparse at first, it will make for a happier environment in the long term.  Grouping colors, both foliage and blooms, that harmonize and sometimes contrast is recommended.  But color is a matter of taste and if you want to have all the colors mixed together, go right ahead, it is your prerogative.

Annuals & Perennials

It is also important to know if a plant is an annual or perennials.  Annuals are plants that only last a season.  Most flowering annuals will bloom through the entire season.  Some annuals will either volunteer or last through a mild Outer Banks winter.  Snap Dragons, Begonias and Petunia’s are annuals that have returned for me several times. 

Hibiscus is flowering perennial
Hibiscus plant

On the other hand, perennials will come back year after year but typically have a shorter bloom period.  Hibiscus, Hydrangea, Hostas and Irises come to mind as examples of perennials.  Some patience is required with perennials.  They may take up to 3 years to settle into their new home; the first year they sleep, the second year they creep and in the third year they leap.

Zones & Micro-Climates

My garden is on the sound side in a maritime forest; it is more difficult to control the plants that I do not want to take over.  Plants like the sea oats, naturally grow on the dunes and are appropriate for the oceanfront and nearby locations but can be invasive on the sound side. 

The Outer Banks also has sandy soil (no surprise here since it is a barrier island), is subject to flooding and has a large deer population that will eat your landscape overnight.  Choosing deer resistant plants is recommended if your area has a large population of deer.

The Outer Banks USDA Hardiness zone (1990 map) is listed as 7b – 8a but I have pushed the envelope and found that I can get plants outside the recommended zone to grow.  The revised map for 2012 shows 8a or extreme minimum temperatures of 10 /15. 

I think part of the reason I am successful with plants rated outside the zone is the microclimates in my yard; with raised beds, south facing walls that give off additional heat and wind blocks I can create pockets for plants that require the next higher zone.  I enjoy experimenting in the garden and have even kept bananas and artichokes growing for a couple of years.  I also had a ponytail palm and jelly palm last for many years but succumbed after a particularly cold winter.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map 2012
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map 2012 – By USDA-ARS and Oregon State University (OSU) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

When to Plant

Even though garden centers and big box stores are full of plants in the spring, the best time to plant trees, shrubs and your permanent landscape is the fall.  In the fall, we still enjoy mild temperatures for root development,  good rainfall to encourage the roots to go deep and a longer period to become established before the hot humid (sometimes dry) summer season. 

Proven Plants to Consider for Your Outer Banks Landscaping:

Fig Trees 

fig tree outer banks landscaping
Fig Tree

 

These trees withstand saltwater flooding, high winds, and sandy soil.  Fruit is edible and the deer enjoy the fruit as much as humans so make sure you get to harvest first.  Give the fig tree plenty of room to spread out.  While they can be cut back rather drastically, I prefer a more natural shape.

 

 

 

 

 

Oleanders 

Oleander Outer Banks landscaping
Oleander

 

These bushes or shrubs will take ocean and sound flooding and produce lovely blooms (red, pink or white) through most of the summer.  The dark green narrow leaves remain through winter and are an excellent choice for winter interest over other deciduous plants.  The plants are poisonous when ingested; so, be aware should you have small children or curious pets.

 

 

 

Crepe Myrtles 

crepe-myrtle OBX landscaping
Crepe Myrtle

 

These long blooming trees flower from June to September with red, pink, lavender or white clusters of blooms that are a lovely addition to any landscape.  They tolerate the occasional flooding or even periods of drought.  Drive down just about any street in the Outer Banks and chances are you will see a multitude of Crepe Myrtles.

 

 

 

 

mimosa outer banks landscaping
Mimosa tree

Mimosas 

These trees have a wonderful canopy shape with fern like foliage and feather-like pink blossoms in spring.  Very attractive to butterflies.  I have had several trees volunteer in my yard.  However, do not plant the tree over a drive way or any location where the blooms will drop onto vehicles or painted surfaces as it may discolor them.

 

 

 

Azaleas 

pink-azalea-outer banks plant selection
Azalea shrub

 

These ever green shrubs perform well in the shaded protection of other tall trees and prefer more acidic soil.  The lovely spring blooms are a sure sign spring has arrived.  There are several varieties which also bloom in the fall.  Wide range of bloom colors to choose from.

 

 

 

 

dogwood tree OBX landscaping
Dogwood tree

Dogwoods 

The white blooming dogwood tree has been on the Outer Banks for a long time.  Southern Shores Dogwood Trail is named after them and is a beautiful sight in spring when the street is lined with them.  I believe there has been a pest or disease that has thinned them out recently.  I’m not sure if nursery varieties are resistant.  The nurseries typically also carry a pink version.

 

 

 

 

Camellias 

camellia blooms in winter for your outer banks landscape
Camellia shrub

One of my all-time favorite shrubs for the large rose like blooms which appear from October to April.  I just love having bushes blooming in the middle of winter.  There are many varieties with colors from red, pink, white and variegated; single blooms and double blooms.  They perform best in the shade or partial sun.

 

 

 

 

 

Succulents & Sedums  

sedum autumn joy outer banks landscaping
Sedum Autumn Joy

The Sedum Autumn Joy comes to mind for its vibrant fall blooms and usefullness in the front of borders.  There are so many varieties and shapes of Sedums, succulents and Catus to choose for your Outer Banks landscape.  They do well in the intense summer heat and dry conditions with little care, water or maintenance.

 

 

 

Cactus 

Prickly Pear Cactus OBX Planting guide
Prickly Pear Cactus

 

I planted a few Prickly Pear Cactus to discourage my dog from trampling through the terraced area of the garden.  It didn’t work, and any piece touching soil quickly rooted to spread.  These plants were not very friendly to work around during the course of normal gardening. However, cactus grow well in sandy, dry conditions and can be stunning and easy to grow without needing to water during dry spells.

 

 

 

 

sea oats outer banks planting guide
Sea Oats Grass

Sea Oats 

It was a mistake to plant these on the sound side in my garden.  While sea oats are admired for the wonderful seed heads that resemble oats, they volunteered all over the place and are difficult to stay contained in my sound side garden.  Beautiful and natural for the oceanfront especially how they sway in the breeze and the bronze color they turn in the fall. Useful for dune stabilization.

 

 

 

 

Japanese Maple 

japanese-maple-outer banks landscaping
Japanese Maple

 

These small trees are admired for the unique shape and delicate cut leaves.  They remain rather small for trees.  They don’t do well in full sun but enjoy partial shade and make a nice focal point in the garden. 

 

 

 

 

magnolia outer banks planting guide
Magnolia Tree

Magnolia 

This classic southern tree has large white blooms and large leathery evergreen leaves with a silvery undersides .  While I have a few in my yard that have volunteered, they have remained small, perhaps due to lack of space where they volunteered. Most will get rather large in a pyramid shape form.  There are hundreds of varieties; some are evergreen, deciduous or semi-evergreen.

 

 

Russian Olives 

Russian Oliver a common hedge plant in the Outer Banks
Russian Olive

 

These hardy shrubs are frequently used as hedges due to fast growth rate.  Personally, I think they require too frequent trimming as the spindly long shoots need to be frequently cut back to maintain a uniform shape. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wisteria vine outer banks planting guide
Wisteria vine

 

Wisteria 

This vine has wonderful lavender purple blooms in the spring that are just breath taking.  Unfortunately, the seed pods spread everywhere.  It grows so prolifically here, that it will take over a tree.  This was a plant that I inherited in my yard and have constantly struggled to keep in check and to remove all volunteers.  I grew Wisteria when I lived up north and it was not a constant battle like it is here.

 

 

Ivy 

English Ivy can be rather invasive in OBX
English Ivy

 

From what I was told, only a single sprig of English Ivy was planted in my yard before I purchased it.  I have spent 20 years trying to get rid of it.  It attaches to the siding, crawls up cement walls and refuses to die.  You may think it would make a good ground cover but it doesn’t just stay on the ground.  It grows up trees, the side of the house, just about anywhere.  While I would dissuade other from using it, there are many other varieties of Ivy that are not as invasive.

 

 

 

 

pampas grass-outer banks planting guide
Pampas Grass

Pampas Grass 

These tall grasses with seed heads that emerge in mid-summer appear to be low maintenance but do spread.  The leaves can be very sharp and cutting back in fall or spring sometimes requires a chainsaw and string.  Over time the center dies and the clump loses attractiveness.  IMO – just not worth the trouble.  There are other smaller grasses that perform well and do not require a lot of maintenance. 

 

 

Bamboo 

Bamboo is another plant that can be invasive in OBX
Bamboo

 

Most varieties are just too invasive.  While I am told clumping varieties are safe, I would confine to a pot or planter to make sure it does not take over your landscape.  Some varieties can even damage foundations.

 

 

 

 

canna outer banks planting guide
Canna flowers

Cannas 

These tall tropical looking plants have blooms and foliage in many different colors.  I planted only a small clump and within a few years it was over 50’ wide and as long.  Granted, it was over my septic field.  Best to plant in pots and place it around pools or in your landscape.  Plants can winter over in the pot.  Plants in the ground die back in winter and re-emerge in spring from the tuber.

 

 

 

Palm Trees 

ponytail palm and many palms are outside the suggested zone for OBX
Ponytail Palm (Pataelefante)

 

Many palms will not survive our winters.  The classic royal palm is one that does not survive here long, even when wrapped in the winter.  Other palms, like the Jelly Palm and windmill palm are more tolerant.  I recently lost a jelly palm after more than 15 years due to one overly harsh winter.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weeping Willow outer banks planting guide
Weeping Willow

Weeping Willows 

One of my favorite memories growing up (Mid-Atlantic) was a giant weeping willow in the back yard.  They are well suited to wet spots and will help with any drainage issues.  The reason they are on my not recommended list is they are shallow rooted and tend to blow over in windy conditions.  The Outer Banks frequently has windy conditions. 

Maintenance Requirements

The above lists are my personal opinion and based on my experience in my yard.  The conditions in the Outer Banks can vary dramatically between ocean and sound.  What works in one locale may not work in another.  It is important to consider your location and conditions to find the best combination of plants for the look you want and the life style you lead. 

One should also consider the amount of time for maintenance and upkeep.  If your Outer Banks home is used as a vacation rental or second home, then maintenance requirements should be minimized. Many homeowners install irrigation systems to ensure adequate water.  Frequently, well water is used but well water tends to contain Iron and will stain structures or concrete over time.  Minimizing the amount of additional watering required is good for the environment and our natural resources.

Mulch is helpful to conserve moisture and provides a neat and attractive appearance.  Typically, it needs to be reapplied each year.  Rock can also be used as mulch and does not require as frequent re-application.  Some herbs perform better with a rock mulch but selection is typically based on personal preferences.

Native Grass or Manicured Lawn

Lawns and grass are optional in the Outer Banks unlike many other places where it seems mandatory.  While some guests in vacation rentals prefer having a grass area to enjoy, this should be weighed against the additional cost and maintenance required to keep the lawn.  During periods where there has been a lot of rain, our grass needs to be cut two times a week.  There are many types of native grasses that can be used that do not require frequent cutting but do not create the same “lawn” effect.  Artificial grass is a trend on the west coast but not prevalent in the Outer Banks but could be an option to reduce maintenance cost and keep a pristine lawn. 

Implement Over Time

Your Outer Banks landscaping does not need to be elaborate to be effective.  A few selected plants can be complimented with potted plants to be cheery and welcoming.  Flowering annuals are inviting in pots near the front door.  The pool area can feel tropical with Elephant Ears planted in pots.  The Elephant Ear tubers can be dug up at the end of the season and placed in peat moss to be replanted the next year.  You can create an overall plan or vision for your landscape and implement a portion each year.

A smart landscaping plan will help to set your vacation rental above the competition.  Keeping maintenance requirements in mind will allow you to enjoy your visits to your second home without performing a lot of work or yard chores.  Investing just a little thought and money into a landscaping plan can bring you years of enjoyment and increase your return with improved curb appeal when you are ready to sell.

The Outer Banks rental market continues to be strong to provide income from the investment and enjoyment for the family for years to come. The Outer Banks has been named a top beach destination every year.  For more information on buying Outer Banks Real Estate or to learn more about the Outer Banks in general, please contact us or check out our blog.

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