Native plants are nothing new. In fact, a native (or indigenous) plant is most commonly defined as a species that was present in a particular region prior to when the first European settlers rowed ashore. In Connecticut, that means our native plants have evolved over, oh, the past 18,000 to 20,000 years since the last glacier meandered through, and have spent their time wisely by adapting to our geography and climate, not to mention the other species (whether plant, animal or iPhone-wielding beast) that call this same land “home.”
The question isn’t why should you garden with natives, it’s why shouldn’t you? Here are a do…
Yes, they are pretty miraculous, our feisty natives, yet honoring and nurturing them is something that seems to have gotten lost along the way. Instead, we’ve “oohed” and we’ve “ahhed” over newcomers brought from foreign shores and planted these “aliens” (we’re talking to you, burning bush and forsythia) in place of those tried and true. Forgive us, dear ones, and take heart: The times, they are a-changin’.
As Easton native Dan Jaffe and Mark Richardson, both of the New England Wild Flower Society, write in their recent book Native Plants for New England Gardens (Globe Pequot Press, 2018), “Our gardens are critical ecosystems. Native plants are fundamental components of these urban and suburban ecosystems, and by using more of them in our gardens, we can keep our environment healthy.”
Lisa Turoczi of Earth Tones Native Plants in Woodbury calls it “looking at your landscape as a part of a community.” There’s been a “disconnect between people and nature, and what we are trying to do is pull the two back together,” Turoczi says. “By using native plants, one backyard at a time, we can begin to strengthen our ecological community.”
Indeed, “Native plants matter,” says Katie Blake, bird-friendly communities manager for Audubon Connecticut and a founding member of the Connecticut Native Plants for Pollinators and Wildlife Working Group, formed in 2016 to increase public understanding about the benefits of native plants. “Restoring native-plant habitat is vital to preserving biodiversity.”
Still need convincing? (And, yes, we can see you hugging that Chinese dogwood.) Read on for some reasons our Connecticut experts believe it’s high time to go native.
Let me tell ya ’bout the birds and the bees…
“I like my plants to work hard, not just look pretty,” says Margery Winters, assistant director at Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton and the glorious green thumb in charge of the center’s native plant and butterfly garden. “Don’t just sit there, do something,” she commands the native beauties under her care — and they do.
“Remember the food chain that we were taught in third grade and then promptly forgot all about?” Winters asks. “Plants are the base of the food chain, and the fact is that native plants host more insects.” Want more butterflies in your garden? Don’t worry about what color they’re said to be attracted to, plant the natives that are able to feed their caterpillars.
“Non-native plants aren’t palatable to native insects,” explains Blake, citing research by University of Delaware entomologist Douglas Tallamy showing that a native oak tree, for example, supports a whopping 534 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars, whereas a ginkgo, a common landscape tree from Asia, can host a mere five.
“Native plants and insects have co-evolved and need each other,” Turoczi says. “It’s a beautiful balance.”
Easy does it
“If you plant the right native plant in the right spot where its natural needs are being met [think soil condition, sun exposure, room to grow], you won’t need to do a lot once it’s established,” Turoczi says. It will follow nature’s cues.
Sure, in a plant’s first year you might need to “baby it a bit,” she admits, and certainly “keep an eye out for any invasives trying to sneak in on its territory,” but other than that it should “flourish.”
“Native plants can also use much less water than non-natives,” says William Kenny, owner of Native in Fairfield, “which is good for water management — critical in suburban Connecticut where whatever water we use eventually drains back into the Sound.” These tough guys are also generally resistant to local pests and diseases, which means “less chemicals, less fertilizer and less pesticides draining into our lakes, rivers and the Sound,” he adds.
“Don’t worry about them!” Winters admonishes. “We have too much of a ‘Versailles complex’ and feel we must control our gardens. These are very savvy plants. They’ve been around since the Ice Ages and learned to adjust. Just let them be themselves.”
Home sweet home
“Native plants are not just suited to our locale, they can give us a sense of place,” Winters says. “There’s been too much homogenization of our landscape. Everyone plants the same thing. Using different plants lets you know where you are [whether it’s native beach plums along the shore or the white pines at our northern borders]. Let them.”
Native plants “help us celebrate the things that make our regions unique,” Turoczi says. They speak to who we are — and link us to what came before.
You do you
“It’s not uncommon for people to think that gardening with natives means a yard that is ‘untamed,’ ” Blake says. “That’s not necessarily the case.”
Indeed, there’s no need to “sacrifice any look” when using natives in the home landscape, Kenny says. “When we hear ‘wild’ we often think ‘wild and crazy,’ and that’s just not true. You can still have a clean, refined landscape if that’s what you want, or you can go with a more easy-going, ‘loose’ effect.”
Regardless, “Fashions in gardening change over the years,” Winters says. (Think about it: how many marigolds do you see these days?) “Given the benefits to our ecosystem,” she points out, “We can certainly change how we appreciate our natives.”
That being said…
“It doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing,’ ” says Karen Griswold Nelson, program administrator for Connecticut’s Northwest Conservation District. “Look for the joy in life where you can find it. You don’t have to feel bad if all you do is mix in a few natives. My garden is a combination of things that speak to my heart. I’m just happy to see increasing numbers of people learning that they can tailor natives to fit their needs or wants.”
After all, “It’s a lot of work to replant,” says Ted Johnson of Wildscape Artisans in Wethersfield. “Take it one step at a time.”