These days we’re all paying more attention to beneficial wildlife in our gardens, and to that end, looking for good native plants to grow. But which ones? Those official lists of state or regional natives don’t really help the aspiring eco-gardener make their choices. So many of the listed plants aren’t even in the trade! Instead, I always recommend asking experienced gardeners.
Gardeners like me, for instance. In this short video I gush about the 10 best-performing native plants I’ve ever grown, and by that I mean they look great and are easy-care. No fertilizers or fungicides needed. And except for the Oakleaf Hydrangea, no regular watering after the plants are established.
They are: Black-Eyed Susans, Coreopsis, Purple Coneflower, Spiderwort, Joe Pye Weed, Golden Groundsel, Amsonia, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Crossvine, and Redbud. And in the video description on YouTube I add three “bonus plants” that aren’t in the video for lack of decent photos of them: Ninebark, Penstemon and Little Bluestem.
Books and articles about the benefits of native plants are important but photos of plants fully grown and looking great in a garden setting are what’s needed for me to spend my actual money on plants that don’t look like much in the nursery or in catalogs. And I’m not the only one, by far. Even eco-gardeners respond to beauty, after all.
Will the wild orchids in my woods survive the changes of the next half century?
There was a certain irony in the timing, given America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Still, last week was the time when a group of Master Gardeners had asked me to give them a lecture about the possible effects on gardening of global climate change – and how gardeners can do their part to meet this challenge. Because my wife is a geologist who studies long-term climate change, I had expert help with the scientific aspects of this issue. Different climate-modelers present different scenarios of what is likely to happen as our current century unwinds, but virtually all agree that unless we kick our addiction to fossil fuels, our climate will grow significantly hotter by the end of this century. Indeed, the way things are going now, it looks as if by 2100 summers in upstate New York will be as warm as those of present day South Carolina.
Obviously, this sort of transformative change will have many effects on gardening. One point that particularly troubles me is the impact that it will have on what plants will flourish naturally in our region. Like so many other gardeners, I support the use of native plants – that’s a fundamental part of the message of Garden Revolution, the book I wrote with landscape designer Larry Weaner. But what will be native when the trees we are planting now mature? By century’s end, even if we moderate our use of fossil fuels, suitable habitat for our current forest types are predicted to have drifted 350 miles northward.
Other than the obvious point that gardeners must do their part to moderate climate change – for example, minimize the use of dirty two-stroke gasoline engines and the application of greenhouse-gas-generating synthetic nitrates – the answer to our changing ecosystems is beyond me. Given that Americans in particular seem loath to address their addiction to fossil fuels, perhaps the most realistic response is to accept that our current native plant communities are on their way out, or at least on their way north.
While I was visiting New York City earlier this month I didn’t JUST visit the High Line. Also on my agenda was the Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden, about which I’d read so much when it opened this spring. It was designed by DC-area landscape architect Sheila Brady. She’s now co-owner of the famous Oehme van Sweden firm, which is credited with creating what they called “the New American Garden,” composed of sweeps of grasses and other perennials, the naturalistic look that’s become so popular over the years – thankfully.
Their designs were not necessarily new or American, but they were using massings of grasses and perennials to create blocks of color and texture in a way that was novel and gained attention. About half the plants were of American origin, although some had been given legitimacy in Europe.
How to Wow with Native Plants
I think there are great lessons for the eco-conscious home gardener in the success of this new garden, with its use of plants native to “the Northeast,” according to its website. Actually, Brady and her team avoided a strict definition of “native,” and instead drew on plants native to a huge chunk of the U.S. – from Virginia to Southern Maine and as far west as the Great Plains.
And perhaps more importantly, the garden was designed to be beautiful, rather than to replicate how things would look without human intervention. Again I’ll quite Higgins:
The garden rejects a conventional idea of presenting native flora as replicated eco-systems and instead gathers American plants with a gardener’s eye for color, texture, combinations, seasonal peaks and other aesthetic ambitions. The planting schemes are complex, and besides the mind-boggling number of plants involved — 90,000 perennials, grasses, bulbs, shrubs and trees in a 31/2-acre area — Brady and her collaborators have used varieties bred for improved garden performance.
So, the third tip for choosing native plants that wow is to include cultivated varieties – because they’ve been cultivated for “improved garden performance.” I know that stricter adherence to what’s “native” wouldn’t allow cultivars but this garden, with its public role and $15 million price tag, needed to look terrific – and it sure does. I saw it this month, in its first season, and it wow’ed me.
Goldenrod and Little Bluestem in the dry meadow.
The 3.5-acre Native Plant Garden includes a large water feature, wet and dry meadows, small groves, and over 400 species and cultivars.
The “Split Rock” above is a “glacial erratic” – meaning it’s not found where it’s believed to have originated. The split was caused by hundreds of freeze-thaw cycles. Next to it and elsewhere throughout the garden is Milkweed in bloom.
This style of native-plant garden seems to be spreading to other public gardens. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden recently opened its expanded Native Flora Garden with a more designed and garden-like look than it had originally, when its design goal was to exactly replicate what was there hundreds of years ago. I saw it a couple of years ago and agree that it wasn’t exactly pretty.
Wild turkeys love these Highbush blueberries.
In conclusion, I think this native plant garden will go a long way to promoting the use of native plants. Well done, Sheila Brady and the NYBG!