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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Using native vs. non-native plants

Clethra, a late spring-blooming shrub, is one of

Clethra, a late spring-blooming shrub, is one of the three favorite plants of Vincent Simeone, head horticulturist at Planting Fields in Oyster Bay. Credit: Dreamstime

Native plantings are low-maintenance in that they don’t typically require regular watering or fertilizer, and they tend to resist diseases and pests. Because they naturally belong in our climate, they aren’t bothered by our hot summers or cold winters and, in symbiotic circle-of-life fashion, they are well-suited as food for local insects, birds, butterflies and wildlife.

Some people contend that true native plants are those that originated and have evolved within 100 miles. Others consider plants from the region — in our case, the Northeast — to be natives, and still others include all those native to North America. It depends on how much of a purist you are.

But are all nonnative plants thugs, poised to take over the garden bed, choke out precious food for pollinators and threaten biodiversity? Not really. Although natives are pretty much guaranteed to behave and feed our precious ecosystem, there are some exceptions. Likewise, some non-natives, even some from Europe or Asia, have pretty good manners.

It’s vitally important to plant natives, but there isn’t any harm in mixing in a few introduced ornamentals, as long as you do your homework and select the right ones. Bearded irises and peonies, for example, are non-natives that get along perfectly well alongside natives in our gardens. And some native plants — evening primrose and bee balm, for example — will overtake their neighbors if not reigned in regularly.

When selecting non-natives, avoid the lure of those regarded as “fast-spreading” or “quick climbing” and those described as “rapid self-sowers,” “vigorous,” “aggressive” and the like. Those usually are code words for invasive. As with most things in life, good things come to those who wait. And in the garden, misfortune often comes to those seeking instant gratification: It’s often said that with invasives, you’ll buy now and pay later.

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