Native plants offer the promise of gardens that naturally thrive and are a snap to maintain.
In a shady place, plant a woodland garden. In a flat sunny spot, plant a meadow.
But there are times when native plants can go wrong, such as when planting a wildflower seed mix, which provided a delightful meadow full of flowers one summer, but a few years later yielded only a giant patch of weeds. So what happened?
Native plants can indeed offer a way out of high-maintenance, chemical-dependent landscapes. But it’s important to match the plants to the location. And there’s more to that than putting sun lovers in the sun and moisture lovers where the soil doesn’t dry out.
The key to success, landscape designer Larry Weaner told the members of the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons during his “Breaking the Rules: Ecological Design for the Real World” talk at the Bridgehampton Community House on Sunday, is to first thoroughly understand the characteristics of the place you want to plant, then to find plants that come from the same kind of environment.
As head of Larry Weaner Landscape Associates in Glenside, Pennsylvania, Mr. Weaner has been creating native landscapes around the eastern United States—including on Shelter Island and various Hamptons locations—for 35 years. His work blends ecological restoration strategies with traditional fine garden design techniques. He has found that observing how plants grow in nature can reveal relationships that can lead to new gardening methods.
Understanding The Community
“What goes on in nature?” Mr. Weaner asked. Why do some plants turn into one thing and others into something else?
The answer, he said, is that plants form communities in which they fill different niches. Some are taller, others are shorter and thrive in the shade of the more vertically gifted plant. Some bloom in spring to attract their particular pollinators, others flower in summer.
Plants in different niches complement one another and form a flourishing system. To create a successful garden of low-maintenance native plants, “you need to understand the inclination of a site,” the landscape designer explained, as well as a knowledge of how the members of the plant community grow and interact over time.
“Just because you trade a Japanese azalea for a native one doesn’t make it work,” he said.
A great difference between plants growing in a garden and those in a natural habitat is that plants in a garden don’t have to compete to survive, but plants in a habitat do. In a garden, gardeners pull the weeds, kill the bugs, provide water when it’s dry and add fertilizer, too. Plants in a habitat must find their niche in the community and must be able to survive in the level of sunlight their habitat receives, the type of soil it has and how much water there is. They also have to survive over time as the community changes.
For example, the first plants to colonize a place after the site is disturbed, by a fire or other event, are generally annuals. The annuals grow for a season, produce seeds and then die. They are then replaced by perennials that are slower to get started but last longer.
All habitats change as different plants succeed one another. When those first annuals die, they leave their seeds behind, waiting for the next disturbance that will enable them to grow once more.
It’s better to understand the habitat, and work with it rather than try to change it. For instance, Mr. Weaner explained, some plants, such as butterfly weed (
) and little bluestem (
), like infertile soil and hot, dry conditions.
When a well-meaning gardener improves the soil and changes the natural habitat, the plants will no longer thrive. But, he said, the weeds will. That little bluestem stands up straight in the wild, but when it’s watered and fed in a garden it becomes gangly and floppy.
Further, habitats are very site-specific. A wet meadow in a coastal plain is different from a wet meadow in the piedmont.
“It’s important to know what habitat you have,” said Mr. Weaner. “And you can’t get that from gardening books.”
When he begins a landscape project, Mr. Weaner first studies the geologic and climatic conditions to gain a thorough understanding of the habitat, he said.
Succeed By Allowing Change
To facilitate a successful community of native plants on a property, the keys are to first understand the habitat, and then to use plants in the garden the way they grow in nature. Depending on the size of the property, there might be several different habitats, each with a different community of plants.