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Earth Matters

Sustainable Saturday: Native Plant Gardening

by Susan Hellauer

Japanese Pachysandra is an awful, awful, AWFUL plant.

native plant adversary, Japanese pachysandra

That awful plant

A murmur of opprobrium, matching the speaker’s, rose from the audience of 35 local gardeners, gathered in Nyack on May 18 for a lecture, sponsored by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, on “No Fuss Native Plants for the Home Garden.”
Michael Hagen, curator of the New York Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Garden, described the philosophy and design of the 3.5-acre display in the heart of the Bronx, then worked his way through a list of hardy indigenous perennials for local landscapes.
His passion for the undemanding native plant — variously defined as existing in a given place before European colonization or the last ice age (8,000 BCE) — sometimes percolated up into Trump-like diatribes against horticultural wall jumpers.

Sustainable Saturdays, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique, O’D’s Tavern and Strawtown Studio.

But it soon became clear — even to the uninitiated — that his vitriol was not misplaced.
Invasive plants, often imported from Asia and Europe by botanists in the 19th century, not only squeeze out the natives, but can make the soil inhospitable for indigenous flora. And native birds, bees, butterflies, bugs and browsers need the food sources — and habitats — that they evolved with.

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed. Photo credit: Teune at the English language Wikipedia

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed. Photo credit: Teune at the English language Wikipedia

Want to see more monarch butterflies? Make room in your garden for Swamp Milkweed. Okay, did that, but now where are all the butterflies? Development has wiped out most milkweed-hosting meadows around here, and nineteenth-century Euro invader black (or pale) swallow wort (a milkweed relative) is running wild in New York State, choking out the true milkweeds. Monarchs lay their eggs on the impostor, and the larvae die on their inedible host.
And the earthworm, your garden’s “friend,” is another European import. “They’re great for growing vegetables,” said Hagen, “but all the native plants we know don’t get nutrients from worm castings. Earthworms make their nutrients — not present in our native soil — available to invasive plants and weeds,” he said.
From Eastern Bluestar through New York Fern, Hagen’s point was clear: making a place for native plants, shrubs, grasses and trees helps assure the critical biodiversity and natural food chain threatened by invasive species in suburbia and in the woodlands that remain.

Bringing nature home through Native Plant Gardening

Upper Nyack landscape detail: l. to r. Blue Star, Pennsylvania Sedge, Meadow Rue. photo: Marcy Denker

Upper Nyack landscape detail: l. to r. Bluestar, Pennsylvania Sedge, Meadow Rue. photo: Marcy Denker

Nyack’s Sustainability Coordinator, Marcy Denker, is a licensed landscape designer who trained at the NYBG during a wave of native-plant popularity in the late1980s. “I was so excited by it,” she says, and still designs her gardens with an emphasis on native and non-invasive plants.
That horticultural wave got a huge push forward in 2007 with the publication of entomology professor Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home.” That author’s research, and observations of pollinators interacting with native and imported plants, supported his thesis that non-native plants put pollinators at a disadvantage, harm habitats and the wild food chain, and lead to a less biodiverse ecosystem.
It seemed so sensible, so intuitively right . . . until other scholars began to make their own observations, and challenged some of these premises and results. In a recent native-plant seminar Denker attended, the instructor noted that our Hudson Valley pollinators were happy to feed on the flowers of dill and other Mediterranean herbs.

So, out with that theory?

No, not one bit.

Native Plant Resources

Here are a few good reads and places to go to learn more about Native Plant Gardening.
Attend Native Plants Through the Seasons in a Rockland Park in Haverstraw on June 6 at 7p, sponsored by the Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Read The New Native Gardening,  an article by Marcy Denker, on invasive and native plants.
Contact WCC’s Native Plant Center which has courses and special events for gardeners, amateur and professional.
Learn, and play garden matchmaker with the native-plant database on The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website.
Get a copy of the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s illustrated “Selected Native Plants for Rockland County.” It lists 29 plants, trees, shrubs and ferns found at most local nurseries; Call or email their horticulturalist Mike Wilson, (845-429-7085 ext. 110; who complied the list, for a copy.

See the Long Island Cornell Cooperative Extension’s list of alternatives to invasive ornamental plants.

Where to shop? A database of mail-order and nursery suppliers can be found on the LBJ site; locally, for a larger-than-average selection of native plants, Marcy Denker recommends Rosedale Nursery in Hawthorne, N.Y. and Red Hill Nursery in New City.
Where not to shop? Don’t take native plants from their natural habitat. Their environments are increasingly stressed by deer, development, pollution and climate change. Help them hang in there.

Insects and animals can adapt, to an extent. But, despite some debate about the theoretical nuances, the bigger picture remains. Native plants, especially in cities and suburbs, are pre-adapted to local conditions and require less water, fertilizer and pesticide. But they need our support, and protection from invaders, to keep the ecosystem in balance, from top to bottom.
“It’s complicated. It’s the world we live in,” Marcy Denker says. “But the whole thing about the ecological approach to gardening is that you have to be observant and thoughtful. You can think of ecological functions: habitat, storm water management, shade and cooling . . . And for so many years lawns have dominated everything, but they don’t have all of these functions.”
This kind of thinking is moving beyond the backyard in many places. New York’s super-trendy High Line has gone all-in for native and non-invasive plants, and sustainable gardening.

Where to begin?

Whether you have a tiny patch of ground, or you’re planning a garden re-do, green-designer Denker says “find an analogy for that spot, and think of what it would be in nature — a shady understory? a sunny meadow? — and then find the plant or shrub that would thrive there.” The horticultural proverb “right plant, right place” always applies, she says, regardless of the philosophy in play.
How to find that right plant? Look over the local field. The NYBG’s Native Plant Garden is a world-class collection where you can find habitats and microclimates that mirror your own.
The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County, in Stony Point, has a native plant demonstration garden.
Also close to home are the native gardens at Westchester Community College, which are open to the public, and feature self-guided tours.

Gardens are gardens

Jack-in-the-pulpit in a West Nyack forest wildflower garden. Photo: Laurence Pringle

Jack-in-the-pulpit in a West Nyack forest wildflower garden. This photo and featured image of white trillium: Laurence Pringle

When asked whether his NYBG Native Plant Garden just grew naturally, curator Hagen replied: “It is a garden. We are managing it.”
To Marcy Denker, a native garden is a conscious garden, and not just backyard eye candy for barbecue guests. It’s a hardworking habitat, feeding and protecting what flies and crawls and hops. It purifies water, it enriches the soil. It gives back what lawns and invasive imports take.
“People like gardens because they’re beautiful,” she says, and then reflects for a moment.

“Gardens are gardens. They always have to be managed, but nowadays when I go out to walk along a trail someplace where a lot of native plants are holding their own together…That is joy.”

Sustainable Saturdays is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique, O’D’s Tavern and Strawtown Studio.

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