By Anne Halpin
Have you ever dreamed of a landscape that’s less work to maintain, that doesn’t need lots of watering, or fertilizing or primping? Native plants can be the answer. As the East End becomes more populated and developed, and we face continued problems with nitrogen in our bays and pollution in our wetlands, native plants have become an integral part of an increasing number of local landscapes. There are many good reasons to grow native plants. For one thing, they’re naturally suited to our climate and conditions, and will thrive with less fussing than a lot of imports. Natives will be less likely than exotic species to suffer pest and disease problems. They will survive a drought like the one we are experiencing this summer better than plants that need more moisture. Your garden won’t need as much fertilizer or supplemental water–native plants are less demanding of our natural resources. Choose plants that suit your garden environment–sunny or shady, moist or drier.
Native plants tend to be less dramatic and showy than traditional commercial plant varieties, and for that reason many people turn up their noses at them, considering them little better than weeds. But don’t sell native plants short. Natives have a quieter, subtler beauty that can be just as appealing as a flashy bed of English perennials, precisely because they are better suited to the environment. It’s a matter of seeing the garden in a different way. And many of them are just undeniably beautiful.
Consider New England aster, which bears masses of yellow-centered flowers in rose, purple, pink and white in late summer and fall. Or beebalm with its heads of brilliant scarlet, soft purple or pink flowers in midsummer. Or sweet pepperbush, with its fragrant wands of lovely white flowers.
As more homeowners are discovering the positive attributes of native plants, breeders are putting more energy into developing improved varieties. There is now butterfly weed that blooms in pink, yellow and white in addition to the original brilliant orange (and yes, it does attract butterflies). Sweet pepperbush comes in pink as well as white, and its sweetly fragrant flowers are magnets for honeybees, which are endangered. Purple coneflower can now be had with orange, yellow or creamy white blossoms as well as the original purple-pink. And more landscape designers are discovering the virtues of natives and using them in creative ways.
If you don’t think you would be happy with an all-native garden, how about a compromise? Start by adding a few into your existing garden. Or, start with a small bed of them somewhere. Create a basic framework with natives and add plants such as ornamental grasses, with a similar spirit, and inject extra shots of color by adding some more traditional perennials or annuals that will bloom all summer.
You can find native plants in local nurseries, as well as from online outlets. Two good local sources are Fort Pond Native Plants in Montauk and Marders in Bridgehampton. Here are some plants to consider, to get started. You may well spot some of them growing wild: shadblow in spring, goldenrod in late summer, red cedars all year, mountain laurel blooming in the woods in early summer. They can beautify your landscape, too, just don’t dig them up from the wild to put in your garden.
For flower gardens: columbine, butterfly weed, New England aster, black cohosh, blue flag iris, Turk’s cap lily, cardinal flower, prickly pear, spiderwort, rose mallow, sweet goldenrod, marsh marigold.
Trees: red maple, shadblow, serviceberry, hackberry, Atlantic white cedar, American holly, Eastern red cedar, tulip tree, tupelo, black gum, wild cherry, white oak.
Shrubs: sweet pepperbush, red chokeberry, witch hazel, inkberry, mountain laurel, beach plum, sumac, pussy willow, arrowwood.