Growing awareness of environmental threats to species like the monarch butterfly is fueling a nascent movement on Long Island that uses native plants to support their survival, restore lost habitat -- and redefine what a garden can be.
Those plants sustain imperiled pollinators such as monarchs, whose population has plunged 90 percent over the past two decades, and bees. Now, native plants, which evolved in particular regions along with native wildlife and flourish without fertilizers or pesticides, are increasingly sought out by gardeners for their function as much as for their good looks, experts say.
"The monarch has done a service here, by raising awareness that there's another reason to garden besides aesthetics," said Jim Glover of Glover Perennial Nursery, a wholesaler that grows more than 200 varieties of native plants in Cutchogue.
The perennial milkweeds, or asclepias, are the only larval host plant for the monarchs and are being eradicated from agricultural fields along the monarchs' migration routes between North America and their shrinking Central American winter habitat. Now, garden center operators say, people are "practically beating down the door" to buy them, as Regina Morrow of Hicks Nurseries in Westbury put it.
"This has been the biggest year for butterfly and hummingbird gardens, so much so we're designating areas of the nursery for it," said Anne Trimble, owner of Trimble's Nursery in Cutchogue. At Martin Viette Nurseries in East Norwich, milkweeds and monardas, or bee balm, put on shelves in the morning are sold by day's end.
And as more native plants overcome their often unwarranted reputation as too weedy and unruly for gardens, more growers are specializing in them, and more are available for sale. Advocates say gardeners don't have to give up their favorite non-natives but can simply add the native perennials, shrubs and grasses to the mix.
Policymakers are paying attention, too.
They already mandate natives in wetland revegetations, and in coastal restorations after superstorm Sandy. Now the Peconic Bay Estuary Program is reimbursing East End homeowners up to $500 in federal funds to replace pavement or turf with natives and rain gardens in an effort to cut runoff polluted with fertilizers linked to massive fish die-offs in the bay's waterways.
In Suffolk County, the legislature unanimously approved a pollinator education program, with a pilot garden to be installed in Mount Sinai later this month. "This idea has really taken off," its sponsor, Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), said, noting interest from fire departments and schools to Girl Scouts and community groups.
In May, a White House Task Force recommended pesticide limits and pollinator plants along federal lands and roadsides to boost bee and monarch populations. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) proposed a similar measure in the Senate highway bill, and Anker said she'd like to see that on county land as well.
The usual Long Island garden is still "a lawn, some shade trees and foundation plantings," Glover said, and non-native "exotic" plants from all over the world -- hostas and hydrangeas, daylilies and dianthus, salvias and begonias -- continue to dominate garden center sales. But as awareness grows and natives earn acclaim in highly visible projects such as the wildly popular High Line park in Manhattan, change is afoot.
Landscape designer John Beitel of Brookhaven said his high-end clients are increasingly interested: "It is becoming really popular across the spectrum," he said. "And we're incorporating more natives on our own, not just because it's stylish to do so, but because they tend to be more disease- and pest-resistant."
"It's honoring a sense of place," said landscape architect David Kamp of Dirtworks in Manhattan, who has used natives in multiple projects, from city apartment terraces to an award-winning Amagansett beach house, as well as at the Shelter Island home he shares with his partner Michael Rubin, an architect. "It's celebrating where you are."
In January, miscanthus sinensis, a widely used grass with gracefully arching foliage, will go on Suffolk and Nassau's "do not sell" list of invasive plants. John Meyer of Atlantic Nursery in Freeport foresees a shift to native grasses like switch grass -- which, he added, was already selling "phenomenally." He said demand had risen to "now we're definitely making sure there are several varieties of native plants here at all times."
He sells everything from old favorites like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and asters to the lesser-known lobelia cardinalis, clethras and geranium maculatum.
"I call it going native," laughed Sophie French of East Hampton, who took advantage of the Peconic Bay Estuary program to pay for her new garden of native grasses, shrubs and milkweeds. "They love terrible soil and they're deer-resistant. They're perfect -- why wouldn't you plant them?"
The native rain garden that Howard Heilenberg and his wife, Ruth, were reimbursed for installing on their Southold lawn performed as intended when it absorbed the runoff from a recent storm that left their home without power. "It's certainly much better than we had before, which was just a washed-out situation," he said.
Natives are riding a wave of resurgent environmental consciousness, said Jonathan Lehrer, chairman of Farmingdale State College's department of urban horticulture and design. "It's very trendy," he said.
"I do think we're seeing a shift in horticulture and landscaping and the green industry as a whole to incorporate more sustainable or ecological concepts," Lehrer said, adding his department planned to revamp its curriculum to incorporate them, too. "I think that is something that will persist, and personally I think it's a good thing . . . a well-planned garden can serve as an oasis in an urban landscape."
Lehrer, however, said that to say native plants support native wildlife and ecosystems better doesn't mean noninvasive exotics have no benefit or role to play. He cautioned that natives aren't necessarily low maintenance, unless planted in conditions they liked. All gardens, he said, require tending.
One inspiration of the native plant movement is the work of influential University of Delaware ecology professor Douglas Tallamy, who argues endangered wildlife will survive only if disappearing habitat -- the plants they depend on for larval host plants, food and shelter -- is expanded into suburban gardens. His research finds that native plants and trees support far more native biodiversity than non-natives.
Polly Weigand, a leading proponent of locally sourced ecotypes (which are better, she said, than cultivars or natives from other regions) leads the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, and said gardeners don't have to rip out non-natives to help.
Rather, she suggested they "enhance their gardens by including some of these local native species." Examples, she said, include milkweeds, verbena hastata, joe-pye weed, boneset, mountain mint, New York and smooth asters, and "the native goldenrods, which are excellent pollinators."
Suzanne Feustel in Babylon Village was sold on natives before superstorm Sandy and even more so after her yard was flooded: "The plants were stressed and died, but the natives we'd put in bounced back." So she and her husband, Ken, planted winterberry, spicebush, buttonbush, bayberry, serviceberry and arrowwood to join the joe-pye weed, clethra, ironweed and boneset.
Landscape architect Constance "CeCe" Haydock of Locust Valley lauded the regenerative powers of gardens without pesticides. Typically garden insects were considered the enemy, but, she said, "without insects you don't get birds, and I happen to love the sound of birds." She helped create a largely native landscape on a Centre Island estate with ferns in dappled shade, a restored wetland and, with renowned landscape architect Larry Weaner, a vibrant native meadow.
"Once I got started I understood it was giving back to the ecosystem," said Haydock's client, who asked not to be named. "The birds, the turtles, tadpoles and frogs are coming back. They should have been here and now they are."
Chris Kreussling is passionate about his urban lawn-turned-native garden, blogging about it as the Flatbush Gardener. "The good news is that suburban gardeners can make gradual changes that have an impact," he said.
"How we garden matters. Our choices matter."
How to plant a pollinator garden
The most obvious need for pollinating species is a diversity of nectar and pollen sources. Consider the following when choosing plants for your garden.
Choose plants that flower at different times of the year to provide nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season.
Plant in clumps, rather than single plants, to better attract pollinators.
Provide a variety of flower colors and shapes to attract different pollinators.
Whenever possible, choose native plants. Native plants will attract more native pollinators and can serve as larval host plants for some species of pollinators. Check field guides to find out which plants the larval stage of local butterflies eat. Pollinator friendly plants for your area can be found in the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign's Ecoregional Planting Guides.
If monarch butterflies live within your area, consider planting milkweed so their caterpillars have food. Find a list of milkweed appropriate for your area.
Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, North American Pollinator Protection Campaign