Friday, March 18, 2011

Designing ecologically and sustainably in New England

A sustainable garden or landscape has so many benefits for our earth, for our health and for the preservation of native species.   By choosing plants that are appropriate for our gardens' existing moisture, soil and light conditions, we won't have the need for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides or fungicides.  In fact, we'll have very little use for any of these additives even in the organic form.  And of course, by not using chemical products, there will be no harmful run-off into our watersheds which directly affects our water sources and, potentially, our health.

Native wildflowers are adapted to our regional weather conditions like high humidity or heat, drought conditions and heavy snow or very low temperatures.  They are the easiest and most natural way to "go green" in our gardens.  And they reward us with a multitude of colors, textures, and scents.

Plus natives will bring the pollinators we need for our flowers, veggies and herbs, and they are the only way to bring not only adult butterflies but the host plants that are crucial for their larvae to eat.  Adult butterflies aren't so picky when searching for nectar and will drink from natives and non-natives, but their larvae must have native hosts to survive.  I'll get to that in another post!

Watching slides of the High Line Park in New York City at a lecture at the New York Botanical Garden yesterday reminded me of how beautiful and completely sustainable that landscape is in the middle of an urban environment.  Piet Oudolf, the planting designer for the High Line, did an incredible job of using native plants throughout all the gardens that give texture and ongoing color while requiring much less maintenance than non-natives.  The variety of sedges on display alone will make you want to rip out your turf and put in these varied and tough beauties instead.

I'm still working on my husband but haven't won that battle yet!  He won't completely give up on his "grassy patch" but maybe we can leave the turf for the skinny baseball "strip" we have and get rid of the rest of the grass that dies by late july anyway.  Maybe he'll look at Little bluestem for our obviously infertile patch of backyard which can even be mowed short like traditional turf grass.  It can be left to grow in the fall, standing erect and turning a beautiful rusty gold - so it even gives us some winter interest if it doesn't get blanketed with snow like we had this winter.  It will also do well in dry, hot weather that we always get mid-summer here in Connecticut -- when my husband starts cursing at his patchy crabgrassy tiny backyard.  He tries every summer to have some pretty green "traditional" grass, and it starts well...but it never ends well.  Maybe he'll let me convert most of it to one of the many versatile sedges.

A sustainable garden or landscape must have native plants in its design to truly work.  A native is any plant that lived in our region before Europeans settled on our continent.   So in the New England region, we need to use native plants that live in our region.  If you are in another part of the country, use your region's natives.  Nurseries are stocking natives more and more often, and this trend will hopefully continue to grow as more and more of us become aware of how these plants help us create sustainable landscapes, preserve species and bring wildlife back to our gardens.  We'll see more bees, butterflies and birds visiting the habitats we create for them, and we'll enjoy learning more about them and the land around us with our families.

As a designer, I create ecologically sustainable gardens, but I also love many ornamentals and understand their value in our gardens as well.  We don't have to exclusively use natives, but having them as the backbone of our sustainable landscapes, we'll still receive all the benefits.  And we can mix in our favorite ornamentals plants, making sure they fit into the site chosen so they are healthy and happy.  Plus herbs and vegetables can be incorporated into our gardens with our flowers for a harmonious, colorful design that will bring bees and butterflies and give us food for our summer table.

A native, sustainable design doesn't mean out of control and wild.  If natives are chosen properly for the site you have, planted in optimal soil and maintained the way they need to be, the garden will be as refined as a garden with all ornamentals.  In fact, creating a sustainable garden has all the same criteria as creating an ornamental garden, but we reap all the healthy benefits and we'll help instill our neighborhoods with their own unique and special regional and cultural identity.  We all probably have many natives in our gardens now, like this common coneflower...lovely and happy home to many bees and butterflies.

Just writing about this for the last half hour makes me itch to get out and see what's coming up in my own gardens and to shop for some new natives myself!


  1. Want to join Jan's Sustainable Living Project meme?

  2. Quite sound advice. We all want that English cottage garden, but here on the plains it just isn't realistic. I love the cone flowers and once they get a good start they are prolific bloomers and do attract a variety of insects. cheers. ann

  3. wonderful post and lots of good info to help anyone start...I love my natives but am not a purist either...great points here...

  4. A very reasonable discussion of a very important topic. We have been slowly getting rid of our grass for years and have removed about 1/2 acre so far. Replaced with garden beds and pine needle paths.

  5. Thanks for reading, Ann, Donna, and Carolyn! I'm still learning about natives, too, and I truly believe we can have a garden with mostly natives but leave some of our favorite ornamentals and have a successful sustainable landscape. I'm not getting rid of all of my favorite hydrangeas! Some are native, like the oakleaf, but some are not, and they are so incredibly beautiful and rewarding. I have them mixed in with so many natives and I get tons of butterflies and bees, so it must be working just fine. And each year I add a few more native New England species. Thank you for visiting and for your comments! Happy spring...

  6. Cindy,

    Very nice discussion on natives. Good luck winning over your husband, it's not easy for some to let of turf, but I bet when he sees the beautiful substitutes you offer he'll come around. Here's hoping!!



  7. Thank you Scott! I know, it's hard to let go of what little grass we have in our small yard. What do you think about this snow we got on the fourth day of spring?

  8. Was not happy about the thought of snow, luckily only about a half inch. It melted fast, whew!

  9. We actually got more than that -- I had a couple of inches to scrape off my car to get the kids to school! Spring in new england never fails to surprise us...