Native Plants: What’s Good for Nature is Also Easier on the Gardener!

By Katie Koerten

In April, Dan Jaffe of the New England Wildflower Society gave a talk at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment titled “Native Plants: What’s Good for Nature Is Also Easier On the Gardener.”

Co-sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Master Garden Association, Dan’s talk generated a lot of interest; the maximum capacity of 130 people was quickly met in the weeks leading up to the program, rendering it waitlist only. Many in attendance were Master Gardeners there to add to their expertise.

A photographer and author, Dan earned a degree in botany from the University of Maine, Orono, and has years of nursery and plant sales experience. He is the official propagator and stock bed grower of the New England Wild Flower Society. Dan is co-author of Native Plants for New England Gardens.

A novice gardener, I was drawn to this talk because it focused on how to create a low-maintenance garden made up of plants native to New England, that would encourage not just pollinators, but many living things as part of a thriving, interdependent ecosystem. When I bought my house I inherited a garden with a lot of potential, but that was filled with mostly non-natives, some of which were aggressive spreaders. I was curious how I could replace these plants with beautiful, low-maintenance native alternatives.

Dan’s talk was organized into four parts: Living Mulch, Pollinators, Roadsides, and Lawn. Having gotten his start in conventional landscaping, Dan had an interesting perspective on mulch. He noticed that mulch was a huge part of landscaping, and was used to keep soil moist, temperature stable and weeds down. But it didn’t work very well — landscapers needed to keep coming back all summer long to maintain these expensive plots. Why not do it the way the forest does, with a low herbaceous layer that mulches just as well (and is much more beautiful). Dan suggested the native mulch alternatives: Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and creeping phlox (such as Phlox divaricata).

A topic that has been getting a lot of attention lately is pollinators. Dan pointed out that our gardens should support pollinators at all stages of life, not just adult; for example we should provide food not just for butterflies but for caterpillars as well. A number of unique caterpillars love green and gold (Chrysognum virginianum), Dan said. Solidago, the goldenrod group, is also extraordinarily supportive to pollinators, and there are many to choose from (some more prone to spreading than others).

If any of us ever have the opportunity to garden a roadside, there are plants Dan recommends for a rich, thriving ecosystem: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), purple love-grass (Eragrostis spectabilis), and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) are all great choices that spread prolifically and support life.

Finally, the subject of lawns. This is one I am really curious about. The typical American lawn requires far too much work, and could hardly be less friendly to bees, decomposers, mammals and birds. Not to mention the fossil fuels that go into mowing the lawn – weekly, for most of us. Dan suggested a sedge, Carex pensylvanica, as a native, grasslike alternative that only needs to be mown once a year! Plus it can handle foot traffic. Fragraria virginiana, native strawberry, is another possibility that can handle foot traffic, does well in dry sites, and only needs to be mown every two to three years!

Dan’s talk really spoke to what a lot of us are wanting: to help our planet and to start in our own yards. I think I can speak for many in the audience when I say I walked away with some very specific ideas of what to plant next in my garden; in fact, I have since added creeping phlox and hope to add more every year!

2 responses to “Native Plants: What’s Good for Nature is Also Easier on the Gardener!”

  1. Eve Vogel says:

    This sounds wonderful – sorry I missed it. Could the Hitchcock Ctr and/or the New England Wildflower Society and/or Mass Audubon start up a backyard habitat support and certification program, like the Audubon Society of Portland has? I’d love to see backyard habitat flourish here, rather than just the (often pesticided) lawns and bark mulch that seem the norm here, even among the environmentally minded.

  2. Alice Robbins says:

    Are you familiar with the New England Wildfllower Society, formerly NEWFS, now known as New England Wild?
    They do offer such courses, although many are offered at Garden in the Woods in Framingham. Some are at their nursery in Whately.

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