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Group seeks to bring native plants to LI gardens

Chris McHugh and Polly Weigand, looking over grass

Chris McHugh and Polly Weigand, looking over grass in Pine Meadow County Park. Weigand collects, cleans and preserve native LI plant seeds to grow and distribute to commercial customers and non-profits. (May 11, 2013) Photo Credit: John Roca

False indigo, smooth blue aster and sweet goldenrod, Indian grass and purple lovegrass, big bluestem and bayberries: These native plants grow wild on Long Island. Polly Weigand collects their seeds and hopes to see much more of them in gardens and landscapes all over the island.

She and her network of volunteers are part of a growing movement advocating wider use of native Long Island grasses and plants that sustain native insects, birds and wildlife.

In the wake of superstorm Sandy's salty, watery destruction of so many coastal garden plants and trees, there is interest in salt-tolerant natives that can better survive such assaults and in the value of flood-absorbing wetlands and marshes.

On June 7, 8, 14 and 15, Weigand's group, the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, or LINPI, will sell native plant seedlings to the public at the Suffolk County Community College greenhouse in Riverhead where the group is based.

Weigand's vision is to also make these local seeds more widely available to local nurseries for habitat restoration and landscaped gardens.

"I'm trying to balance collecting plants that people would find aesthetically pleasing in a garden" with collecting "plants for restorations . . . keystone plants for a functional ecosystem," said Weigand, 36, of Hampton Bays.

Natives sometimes have a reputation for looking weedy and scraggly compared with non-natives such as peonies and day lilies. But Weigand said many are suitable for gardens while others are better for natural areas.

Weigand works for the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, which helped launch the initiative in 2005 when its focus was native grasses, and still provides some funding. She now runs the group in her free time and hopes to expand its staff and resources.

The group isn't alone in wanting to make native plants more widely available on Long Island. Several East End nurseries have been selling them for years.

Victoria Bustamante, an owner of Warren's Nursery in Water Mill, will soon introduce a wholesale native plant line called Provenance, grown from native seeds she collects from Long Island.

"A lot of landscape architects are going gung-ho on the natives," said Bustamante. "They're seeing the value of them. Water horehound, who knew? What a pretty plant . . . and it's not just [for] the meadow look -- they're doing flowing beds with blocks of natives. Big jobs."

Some towns require their use in wetland restorations, which control runoff and filter groundwater. Public roadsides are already being planted with natives to cut maintenance costs.

The Native Plant Initiative has already made a mark, despite its largely seat-of-the-pants volunteer operation and sole part-time employee, Chris McHugh.

"Polly has found a niche among people like myself who need those plants," said Billy Mack, a coastal erosion specialist at First Coastal, in Westhampton Beach, which protects coastal properties with wetland restorations and shoreline structures.

"She has taken a passion, and made it much bigger today than she ever thought it would be," said Chris Kelly, general manager of wholesale nursery The Plantage in Mattituck, which has sourced plants from the group for restoration projects.

Besides providing plants to nurseries, the initiative wants to safeguard native seeds, sending some to the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island for seed-banking.

While some natives grow over a wide area of the United States, local seeds are best adapted to local conditions, Weigand said. In gardens, they'd help replace local habitat that was lost to development and is critical to insects, bees and other pollinators, as well as to butterflies, hummingbirds and migrating songbirds and other wildlife for food and shelter.

Many native plants host specific species: For example, Monarch butterflies lay eggs only on milkweed plants, on which their larvae feed once hatched.

And gardeners get practical benefits as well: "The beauty of the native is they need very little maintenance. They don't need any irrigation or fertilization, they don't need soil augmentation," Mack said. "Native soils will support native plants best."

Little by little, word is getting out. After Sandy knocked down some trees on her Dix Hills acre, Mary Bauer's daughter Cassie, 25, convinced her to go native.

On a recent weekend, the two stepped into the initiative's greenhouse in Riverhead and picked out some northern bayberries, purple lovegrass, Virginia creeper, and big and little bluestem grasses.

They're filling in newly empty spots with natives, to blend with existing exotic ornamentals. "You alter your way of living just a little bit, in baby steps," said Bauer, 60.

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