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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Tips for growing native plants in your garden 

Anthony Marinello, prunes an eastern redbud in his

Anthony Marinello, prunes an eastern redbud in his West Hempstead garden. Credit: Barry Sloan

Anthony Marinello has been dedicated to growing native plants for more than 10 years. In addition to learning from independent research, coursework in permaculture and local experts, he has learned from trial and error. Here is his advice — including cautionary tales — for gardeners interested in going native.

1. “Native” isn’t always native

“Just because a plant is native to North America does not make it native to Long Island,” he warns. And a plant may be native, but still be an aggressive grower better suited to living in the wild than your front yard. It might be a heavy seeder, for instance.

“I learned that after planting cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), a member of the sunflower family,” he said, relating a decision he soon regretted. “It was like a tentacle plant! It would die to the ground every year and regrow, and then the seeds would pop up all over the place.” Marinello recommends checking Wildflower.org or the New York Flora Atlas, newyork.plantatlas.usf.edu, to learn whether a plant is native to our area before planting it.

2. Learn botanical nomenclature

Gardeners should know the botanical name of the plant they are looking for to ensure it is the straight native species and not a hybrid from the nursery industry, Marinello says. “Because native perennial plants have evolved within their respective ecosystems, they're designed to thrive in our climate and soil. They are extremely drought resistant, cold hardy, require no fertilizer, and are pest resistant, besides being highly ornamental.”

In addition, it’s not uncommon for more than one plant to share a common name. American boxwood, for example, is the industry name for a Eurasian shrub, Marinello says. And Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is actually a juniper, not a cedar, while Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is the tree commonly called arborvitae. Although both are native, they aren’t remotely related. The only way to be certain of the plant you are getting is to check its botanical Latin name.

3. Consider butterflies and bees

“I would like to see people planting more milkweeds because they feed monarch butterflies,” Marinello says. “They thrive in wet, dry, shady or sunny conditions and provide a ton of color in the garden. It will make most of the pollinators happy in your garden — bees will be all over it, and you’ll get caterpillars and butterflies.” New England and New York asters, Virginia bluebells, goldenrod and native willows are other favorites Marinello plants to provide a food source for butterflies and bees.

4. Aim for four-season gardening

“We seem to focus more on summer plants, but it’s important that we plant early spring bloomers and late fall bloomers, too,” Marinello says. “Pollinators that emerge early in the season don’t have a lot of options for food, especially in suburban gardens.” Good spring choices include native maple trees — red maples or swamp maples — and native willows, which provide early blooms. For fall, native asters and native goldenrods are good options. In addition, oak trees house 300 types of insects that feed our native songbirds; exotic trees house maybe two or three types of insects.”

Learn more

Fort Pond Native Plants (26 S Embassy St., Montauk; 631-668-6452; nativeplants.net) is Long Island’s leading native-exclusive garden center, selling mostly plants that have been grown (and bred) in the Northeast, and many right in Suffolk County.

Long Island Native Plant Initiative is a volunteer organization composed of more than 30 local nonprofit organizations, nursery professionals, government agencies and residents who strive to protect Long Island's native plant population and biodiversity. Visit linpi.org for volunteer opportunities, plant sale information and informative native plant fact sheets.

ReWild Long Island began in 2017 as a local movement in Port Washington that encouraged residents to protect biodiversity in public and private spaces. Some 50 residents and public institutions have been coached through the transition from conventional landscaping to wildlife-friendly native gardens that save water and attract bees, birds and butterflies. For information on starting a chapter in your neighborhood, visit rewildlongisland.org.

Long Island has several hyperlocal Audubon chapters serving nature- and bird-enthusiasts in the North Shore, Four Harbors, Great South Bay, Eastern Long Island, North Fork and South Shore communities. For meeting schedules, sighting locations, contact information and more details, visit nwsdy.li/BirdingLI.

Education and Research Center run by Friends of Hempstead Plains is a 100 percent sustainable, 19-acre nature preserve that aims to “connect to its past by showcasing local history and native fauna and flora.” Visit friendsofhp.org for seasonal openings and special workshop announcements

The Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center and the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County co-hosted a half-day workshop, Using Native Plants in the Landscape, at Tackapausha Museum and Preserve on March 3 in Seaford. Presentations and instructions geared toward landscape professionals as well as anyone interested in gardening were held throughout the event. Email trsac@audubon.org to request to be notified when future workshops are scheduled.

Recommended reading

Dig into these books for the dirt on native plants and insects, and the gardens that love them.

“Gardening for the Birds: How to create a bird-friendly backyard,” by George Adams ($24.95/Timber Press): Adorned with beautiful photos of birds and blooms, this guide is a must-have for anyone who enjoys gardening and finds joy awakening to the sounds of songbirds. The author shows how using native plants in your garden provides the food, water, shelter and nesting spots to invite birds to call it home. Hundreds of native plants and bird species are profiled, and plant suggestions are provided by region to help you create a sanctuary in your backyard.

“Attracting beneficial bugs to your garden,” by Jessica Walliser,” ($24.95/Timber Press): If you’ve got a pest problem — or are hoping to avoid one — the solution isn’t pesticides. It’s beneficial insects. Lure them to your garden to wage war on the aphids, tomato hornworms, bean beetles, leafhoppers, cutworms and other things that bug your plants, no chemicals necessary. Learn to identify good bugs and bag bugs, which pests are targeted by which beneficial insects, and what to plant to lure the cavalry.

Grow your Soil: Harness the power of the soil food web to create your best garden ever,” by Diane Miessler ($16.95/Storey): The author, a certified permaculture designer, conveys the complexities of soil science in such a straightforward, easy-to-digest manner that it reads more like an arts and crafts lesson than hard science. And yet, the science is all there. Chapters delve into nutrients, soil testing, biodiversity, microbes and insects, composting and step-by-step guidance for starting a garden that feeds itself. And such a garden can thrive with little human intervention, as enriched soil that’s teeming with life can do the work for you.

“Our Native Bees: North America’s endangered pollinators and the fight to save them,” by Paige Embry ($25.95/Timber Press): “Native bees are the poor stepchildren of the bee world. Honey bees get all the press.” So begins the author’s lament about the raw deal given to the 4,000-plus species of native bees in the United States and Canada, which have been forced to take a backseat to the European honeybee. To get our underdogs some much-needed attention, Embry takes us on a journey from the blueberry fields of Maine to the hills of southern Oregon in search of native bees, which are responsible for pollinating much of our food supply, yet are dwindling at an alarming rate. Readers will hear directly from bee experts, farmers and scientists to learn about these necessary garden helpers and explore reasons their numbers are dwindling and what can be done to save them. The fascinating accounts are punctuated by beautiful, up-close photos of bees, and the author’s passion and friendly tone.

“Roots Shoots Buckets & Boots: Activities to do in the garden,” by Sharon Lovejoy ($13.95/Workman Publishing): What better place for parent-child bonding than in the garden? Pulling weeds won’t likely grow their interest, but planting a sunflower house, "snacking & sipping" garden or pizza patch will, as will each of the dozen projects detailed in this imaginative and inspiring book. Garden basics and resources are included along with growing and care tips. Engaging activities and interesting tidbits about how a seed grows, how to make a critter-control collar out of a paper cup, use old stockings to support vining plants, and more are sown throughout the book to grow the fun factor.

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