After years of dabbling in gardening, I still don’t consider myself a gardener. I don’t have a lot of free time to devote to weeding and landscape design; I’ve never had a lot of extra money for big garden projects, and I’m not attentive enough to remember to water. But I do love plants, and I’m making my outdoor space a place where bees, songbirds, hummingbirds, caterpillars, butterflies and other creatures can thrive. Gardening can be less work if you choose native plants, and those are the best ones to plant to bring lots of life to your yard.
I learned this last year at a talk, “Native plants: What’s good for nature is easier on the gardener,” by Dan Jaffe. Dan was the main plant propagator for the Native Plant Trust (formerly the New England Wild Flower Society). His talk 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 filled with mostly non-natives, some prolific spreaders. I attended the talk because I was curious how to replace these plants with beautiful, low-maintenance native alternatives.
Since native plants evolved here, they can live here with little attention from gardeners. Dan said that after planting, he waters and cares for his new native plants for a year when they’re herbaceous, and for two or three years if they’re shrubs or trees. But otherwise, he does very little maintenance after planting because native plants are relatively resilient, provided they are planted in the right soil and sunlight conditions. Dan began by talking about mulch. Having started in conventional landscaping, he had an interesting perspective. He noticed that mulch was a huge part of landscaping, 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 mulched gardens, at great expense to the homeowner. Why not mulch the way the forest does, with a low herbaceous layer that does these functions just as well, and is arguably much more beautiful? Dan suggested the native mulch alternatives Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and creeping phlox (such as Phlox divaricata). Since then, I have added foamflower and creeping phlox to my garden beds in the hope that they will slowly form a ground cover that keeps unwanted volunteers down and keep the soil stable. Not to mention it will create an interesting texture, produce more microhabitat for living things, and attract insects with the beautiful blooms.
Attracting insects is a major goal of my garden. It gives me something exciting to do with my three-year-old. This summer my daughter and I were delighted to discover our first-ever eastern black swallowtail caterpillars munching on our garden dill. Gorgeously patterned with green and black stripes and spots, swallowtail caterpillars can be found munching most members of the parsley family. As a parent and environmental educator, one of my greatest pleasures is to share the cycles of the natural world, like the life stages of a butterfly, with children. Finding tiny living creatures with their own sets of survival needs lays a beautiful foundation for empathy and wonder for the natural world. Furthermore, insects are a vital part of any backyard garden ecosystem. Many are responsible for the perpetuation of plants via pollination; others make up the diet of bats, birds and other insects; still others keep aphids and other so-called pests in check. In other words, if you have a diversity of insects in your garden, you’re doing something right to support life.