Eco-friendly plants that beautify your garden
photo by Melinda Fawver
With the days getting longer and the summer months just around the corner, our thoughts turn to spending more time outdoors and to sprucing up our gardens. But before you head to a Big Box Store or local nursery to stock up on flats of impatiens and petunias, consider integrating native plant species such as white wood aster, wild geranium, and eastern purple coneflower into your landscape plan. Not only will your garden be visually stunning, but you’ll also be helping the environment.
Suburban landscaping typically includes many non-native species, which disrupt the balance and compromise nature’s ability to attract and sustain native insects, birds, and regional animals important to the ecosystem.
Native plants are well adapted to regional weather and soil conditions, and need less water. Their inbuilt defenses make them more resistant to pest infestations. Once established, they are low-maintenance. Natives seldom require pesticides or fertilizers, so planting them also protects the aquifers from contamination. While non-native plants (for instance butterfly bush, maiden grass, and hybrid holly) might seem like nice additions to your landscape, they do not attract or support wildlife in in our area.
Many non-native plants available at garden centers can seem hardy and harmless, however they are invasive, negatively impacting our ecosystem, and, in some instances, our health. A perfect example is the Japanese barberry shrub. Once established, it chokes out everything in its path. It has adapted extremely well to our environment and is a prolific seed producer. Birds carry off and distribute the seeds, resulting in more Japanese barberry taking root and taking over. This is also a major health concern because white-footed mice—known as hosts to Lyme disease—thrive under the umbrella of the Japanese barberry.
A good way to integrate natives into your landscape is to utilize the natural or “wild” patches that surround your property, called habitat corridors. Donna Merrill, a member of the Wilton Conservation Commission explains, “Corridors are important to all wild animals in search of food or mates, and they are also important to birds that might otherwise be reluctant to venture into suburban or urban areas. In Wilton, we have the advantage of an abundance of remnant vegetation surrounding our properties. With corridors, wider is better, so maximize the benefits of the vegetation you have by adding native plants to what is already in place.”
Another option is to create a wildflower bed, which will add visual interest and beauty to your landscape, while also attracting birds and insects. If you have a large acreage, consider adding a meadow to provide movement, texture and color. Wilton Garden Club member Tina Duncan has planted a meadow on her property that includes black-eyed Susans, common milkweed, asters and sunflowers. Aside from being ecologically friendly, the Duncan’s meadow alters with the seasons, providing a cheerful blanket of green in the spring, a riot of color in the late summer and early autumn, and a more subdued palate of burnt orange, and dark purple in the late autumn. Even the winter season brings a rustic beauty, and as the meadow dries, it provides seed heads, and protection for birds that winter in this region.
During a recent summer with a low rainfall, the Duncan’s lawn became dry and parched, but the meadow thrived due to its natural ability to absorb and hold rainwater. “When we landscape,” says Duncan, “we tend to remove native vegetation and then we’re surprised when we don’t have any birds. Planting a meadow is good for the environment. Meadows also attract necessary pollinators, like bees, butterflies, and humming birds. A perfect example is the common milkweed, which attracts the monarch butterfly. We have wildlife on our property all year long because of the meadow.”
There are many online resources and regional gardening magazines that provide visual references of native plant species you might want to integrate into your landscape. Local shows and garden clubs are also great for ideas. For bigger projects, consider working with a landscape architect who specializes in designs that incorporate natives. So what are you waiting for? Go native. Birds, bees, and butterflies will flourish, and you’ll delight in your decision for years to come.