Using native plants with purpose
Sweet nectar: A Monarch butterfly feeds on a native orange milkweed plant
Photograph by Jill Lang/Shutterstock
I remember well the very first butterfly garden I designed for a client. With the exuberant enthusiasm of a young designer, I showed her dozens of pictures of showy native flowers in the lavish full bloom of late summer. I promised her the ultimate reward: frequent butterfly visits. (I knew she kept a pair of binoculars on the windowsill above her kitchen sink to spy on the wildlife that already visited her property.) She loved the idea.
I confess, while installing her butterfly garden in late September — as I was kneeling in the planting bed, up to my elbows in mulch — a cloud of doubt passed over me. One of those “Oh no! What if it doesn’t work?” moments. I needn’t have worried. I wasn’t even finished planting the bed when we had our first customer — a lovely Monarch — which was on the move as part of its migration to Mexico in late summer and early fall. It rested on Asclepias tuberosa, our native milkweed, and I held quite still, breathing a sigh of relief.
It’s that easy.
The well-designed butterfly garden is just one example of a native habitat garden: one that uses native plants to recreate a self-sustained ecosystem, which provides sustenance for many species of local wildlife. So what exactly are native plants and why should we use them? Simply put, they are plants indigenous to a particular region. Easy enough. The sticky part comes when we ask ourselves, “How far back in time shall we go? To the time of the dinosaurs?” For the purposes of this article, native plants are those which were found growing here when European settlers arrived. They include wild species as well as those “improved” species — cultivars (plants that have been intentionally improved or selected by commercial cultivation) and hybrids (plants that result from cross-breeding different species) — as long as the parent plants are indigenous to the Hudson Valley. These are the ones you normally see with names like “Little Joe,” “Fireworks,” or “Hello Yellow.”
Why should you garden with native plants? There are several reasons. First, they can help reduce the work required to maintain your garden: Because they are so well-adapted to local conditions (such as the climate and soils), they don’t need much maintenance. In addition, deer find most native plants to be less than appetizing (which can be seen as an example of survival of the fittest). Of course, short of a tall fence, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to discouraging deer, but choosing from among the native-plant family is a smart way to hedge your bets.
To get your garden off to a good start, you first need to do a little investigative work. I always begin by planning my gardens on paper. It doesn’t need to be complicated — just a basic map that shows your house, garage and other structures, and the plants you already have growing. Draw an outline of your lot, and take it with you as you walk around your yard. Draw and label circles (or other shapes) to represent the plants you already have growing. Include pertinent information such as where your outside water supply is located; this will also prove helpful in the planning process.
Next, take notes about your existing growing conditions. Things to think about: Is your property open to the wind, or protected from it? Very dry or wet? Sunny or shady? Here are some simple guidelines to keep in mind: Full sun is any location that receives six hours or more of direct sunlight each day. The south side of your property is likely to be where you get the most all-day sun; the west side is likely to have hot afternoon summer sun. Part sun is any area that gets less than six hours; shade areas are in the shadow of a structure or large tree for most of the day (often on the north side of your house). As you walk around your property, be on the lookout for problem areas. Are there places, for example, where it stays wet for a while after a heavy rain? This could be an indication of poor drainage, and many plants won’t do well there (although some others thrive in moist conditions).
Now you can decide where to put your garden. Use the map to determine which spots might work, and which definitely won’t. Think about places that are visible from various vantage points — like that favorite view from your kitchen window or from the deck. Or how about the area guests see when they first arrive?
By completing this process, you have accomplished the most important step in building a successful garden: you understand your site. Now you can start to think about what plants you would like to include.
To better understand the native plant communities, think of them as part of an interconnected family. They are separated into five layers, in descending order: the tall shade trees, the midsized understory trees, the even shorter shrubs, the herbaceous layer (which includes flowering perennials and ferns), and the ground layer (which includes mosses). All of these layers work together, providing food and shelter for all manner of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and insects. In addition, the natural process of decaying leaf litter helps replenish soil nutrients.
Sign of spring: The native redbud — with its thousands of pink flowers — is one of the first trees to flower in spring
So, how might you use these plants in your yard?
Shade Trees Perhaps you have a west-facing deck that is too hot in the late afternoon when the family gathers for dinner around the grill. Or maybe your house has south-facing living room windows that let in too much light in the hot summer months. Shade trees can help lower your summer cooling costs by reducing the heat gain from direct sun exposure. They also add what landscape designers call “architectural interest” to the garden. Nothing is more gracious than a great old elm tree on your property — perhaps with a hammock or a favorite chair perched right beneath it. Gums, oaks, hickories, maples, and elms are all native shade trees. HIGHLIGHT: If you are looking for a shade tree for your backyard, or a street tree for the front, consider the Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica; also known as black gum). This tree is unparalleled for fall color, turning an eye-popping scarlet. Bird enthusiasts will appreciate the dark blue fruit that attracts and provides food for our feathered friends. At only 30-50 feet high and 20-30 feet at maturity, the Black Tupelo is smaller than most oaks and maples, making it a good choice for tight spots. “Miss Scarlet” is a selection that has a rich, deep-green summer foliage, reliably red fall color, and lots of fruit to draw in the birds.
Understory Trees Generally less than 25 feet tall, an understory tree is shorter than a shade tree. Happily, these often bloom in early spring when they enjoy the benefit of full sun (since their taller neighbors haven’t yet put out their leaves). Dogwood, redbud, shadblow, serviceberry, and magnolia are all examples of native understory trees with showy spring flowers. HIGHLIGHT: Redbud (Cercis canadensis), a diminutive ornamental understory tree, is among the very first of the flowering trees to make its grand entrance in spring. And it does so with great pizzazz: Thousands of bright pink flowers hug the branches before the leaves come out. Often you will find this tree to be multistemmed, a wonderful attribute if you’re looking for a naturalistic small tree. Plant one in front of an evergreen tree to highlight the contrasting colors.
Shrubs Living near the floor of the forest, plants such as fothergilla, sweet pepperbush, native deciduous azalea, mountain laurel, spicebush, rhododendron, and blueberry are native to the shrub layer. To get the full effect of their blooms, you might consider planting them in groups of three or more in a highly visible location such as near your front door or driveway. HIGHLIGHT: The one-of-a-kind winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), which — unlike most hollies — drops its leaves in autumn, produces bountiful amounts of beautiful red berries fall through winter. Cut a few twigs to bring into the house for the holiday season. I recommend “Red Sprite,” a dwarf variety; be sure to have one male among the fruiting females to assure pollination.
Herbaceous Plants These include the plants used for a butterfly garden; many of them also make excellent cut flowers. Coneflower, butterfly milkweed, yarrow, hummingbird mint, globe thistle, Joe Pye weed, blazing star, New York aster, goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, and tall garden phlox are all crowd-pleasers and are sure to attract butterflies in the summer. Ranging in size from 18 to 48 inches or more, they look great grouped together with the taller plants in the back and the shorter ones up front. Make sure they are a suitable distance away from your house if you want to be able to see them from your windows. To find the right location for a butterfly garden, stand at a window inside the house, and have a friend walk around outside with a yardstick or similar item that’s between 24 and 36 inches tall. He or she may feel silly walking around as you call out to move “a little to the left,” or “further back,” but everyone will be glad you went to the trouble to find the ideal spot for your butterfly garden.
Ground covers These herbaceous plants are noted for their spreading habit. They’re ideal for larger areas, and can lessen your maintenance efforts by reducing your lawn area. Many grow no higher than 6 to 8 inches; the smallest ones look wonderful sprouting between stepping stones or open-joint pavers. HIGHLIGHT: If you need a good ground cover for shade, try our native Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense). It has beautiful velvety, heart-shaped leaves — and the deer will shun this one, too.
Perennial, 18-48 inches
Many different varieties have been sprouting up as this native perennial gains in popularity; all of them will attract birds, bees, and butterflies. The classic, straight-up native is quite tall, with purple ray-shaped petals that droop around a raised bronze eye. Very easy to care for, these plants are considered garden workhorses, blooming continually from late spring to late fall.
(Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’)
Perennial, 30 inches and taller
One of the most beloved garden perennials of all time, the black-eyed Susan is a traditional highlight of the summer garden, and a nectar source for local butterflies.Stems remain upright year-round, making an architectural display in winter.
(Liatris spicata ‘Floristan Violett’)
Perennial, 36-48 inches
Virtually maintenance-free, this native perennial boasts dramatic spikes of mauve blooms in summer with narrow, grass-like leaves; it shows off to best advantage when planted in groups. Attractive to butterflies and an excellent cut flower, try drying gayfeather for winter bouquets.
Orange Butterfly Milkweed
Perennial, 24-36 inches
This host plant for Monarchs
attracts all kinds of butterflies. Profuse orange blooms June-September on the unimproved native, and yellow blooms are offered by the cultivar “Hello Yellow.”
(Monarda ‘Marshall’s Delight’)
Perennial, 30 inches
Very free flowering, bee balm bears exceptionally large blooms of a bright and showy pink from July into September, several weeks longer than other varieties. Highly resistant to mildew, its fragrant foliage and square stems are typical of members of the mint family. And like mint, they are vigorous growers — so be sure to put them where they can spread. As the name implies, bees are drawn to this perennial, but so are butterflies and hummingbirds.
Perennial, 24-26 inches
Aromatic aster is a very showy, low-growing, bushy plant with hundreds of daisy type blue-lavender flowers with yellow centers. Like most asters, it is very attractive to butterflies and makes an excellent cut flower. Its mounds of gray-green foliage and flower buds create an interesting display through the summer followed by masses of flowers which are 1.25 inches in diameter. It grows easily and quickly in dry to average conditions and tolerates clay and sandy soils but will benefit from added compost. It derives its common name from foliage which is aromatic when handled.
Different Types of Native Plant Gardens
The Butterfly Garden: Any garden designed to attract native butterflies. Nectar plants, including coneflower, blazing star, and butterfly milkweed, are plants that butterflies feed on; host plants, including parsley and dill, are plants that butterflies like to lay their eggs on.
The White Garden: Use native plants to create a white wonderland: white flowers in different shapes and sizes. “White Flame” tall garden phlox and “Miss Manners” obedient plant create a cool-feeling respite on a hot summer day.
The Rain Garden: As a tiny wetland, this garden can help reduce drainage and flooding problems and keep pollutants out of your stormwater system.