Eastern prickley pear. BRIAN SMITH
A monarch butterfly on a flowering milkweed. BRIAN SMITH
Joe Pye weed with monarch butterfly. BRIAN SMITH
A flowering milkweed plant. BRIAN SMITH
New England aster. BRIAN SMITH
Eastern prickly pear. BRIAN SMITH
A monarch caterpiller on a milkweed plant. BRIAN SMITH
There once was a time when a garden would be expected to be brimming with life, from chirping birds to buzzing bees, fluttering butterflies, and creeping caterpillars. Not to mention blooming flowers.
Today, though, rather than teeming, vibrant ecosystems, gardens are often more akin to a bowl of plastic fruit: pleasing to look at from a distance, but of no nutritional value.
With concerns growing over habitat loss and the impact it is having on the wildlife it supports, garden designers have increasingly turned their attention toward designing pollinator gardens. As their name implies, they attract an abundance of pollinators by providing the kind of native plants they thrive on, while deep-sixing the pesticides and other toxins that kill them off.
“The populations of our native pollinators are decreasing because of habitat loss and the use of chemicals — that’s a given,” said Tony Piazza, the owner of Piazza Horticultural, a Southampton landscape design firm. “And one of the problems is that, as a society, we have become so disconnected from our natural surroundings that we have just lost touch with how important balance is and how every organism plays a role in life on earth.”
“We’ve somehow gotten to this point where gardening became gardening for color, and we forgot about the things that were coming into the yard and gave life to the garden,” said Brian Smith, a Port Jefferson master gardener and designer.
Abby Clough Lawless, the owner of Farm Landscape Design in East Hampton, said designers have lost sight of their mission in their attempt to please their clients.
“We feel like we have to make the gardens sing when the clients are in residence,” she said. “We all moved to the Hamptons because of the natural beauty — and in our search for novelty, we threw it out.”
“It’s not to chastise people, because we all did it,” noted Mr. Piazza, “but so many of these plants that are used in a traditional garden need life support to do their thing. Native plants are really the most important.”
So, where does one begin?
For Edwina von Gal, a landscape designer and founder of the Perfect Earth Project, which advocates for toxin-free lawns and gardens, it’s fairly simple.
“People need to understand that pollinators are insects, so if they use insecticides to get rid of pests, they are killing the pollinators, too,” she said. “But people always say, ‘What about ticks? Is it okay if I use an organic tick spray? But there is nothing about an organic tick spray that makes it tick specific.”
She suggested that homeowners treat the ticks’ target — themselves, by spraying repellent on their clothing — and not the entire garden. “You can never napalm your property to the point where you’ll have no ticks,” she said.
“If it kills things, it’s bad. I can think of very few exceptions,” said Mary Woltz, a Sag Harbor beekeeper, who added that, as a rule, it’s best to avoid any product with a name ending in “-cide.”
Although honeybees have become the poster child for the threats — chemical or otherwise — facing pollinators, it should be pointed out that they are not actually native insects, having originated in Asia.
Ms. Woltz added that her bees pollinate crops for conventional farmers who find it necessary to spray to control pests, “but they are far more careful than the backyard gardener who is not necessarily thinking of my girls when they decide to spray at 4 in the afternoon.”
Experts also say gardeners should also chill out when it comes to tidying up their gardens at the end of the season, because clearing away leaf litter under bushes and cutting back hollow stems to ground level to make everything look neat and orderly actually removes critical habitat for pollinators, such as ground-nesting bumblebees and other solitary bee species that over-winter in hollow plant stems.
“When you go over the garden with a gas-powered blower, not only are you blowing away habitat and eggs but organic matter, which could provide fertilizer,” said Mr. Piazza.
“Relax — let go,” said Ms. Von Gal. “You’ll be doing your property a big favor.”
Deb Klughers, an East Hampton beekeeper, urges gardeners to provide water for honeybees and other pollinators. “A shallow tray, with marbles, seashells or rocks, is all you need,” she said.
Now that you are ready to go, you’ll probably head straight to the garden center to stock up on flats of impatiens and petunias, and maybe a butterfly bush or two. The problem, according to Mr. Smith, is that many popular plants are sterile or bred to create such dense flowers that bees can’t gain access to their pollen and nectar. As to butterfly bush, while they may attract butterflies, they provide nothing in the way of nutrition for native pollinators.
Instead, Mr. Smith suggest that would-be natural gardeners think about plants like the good, old milkweed.
“I would recommend the orange butterfly weed and the swamp milkweed,” he said. “These are great host plants for monarch butterflies,” he said, “and you can get a month’s blooming out of a butterfly weed.”
Another plant he recommends is goldenrod, whose yellow flowers are often blamed for causing allergies. Not true, said Ms. von Gal, who explained that goldenrod has sticky pollen and requires insects to pollinate. “It’s not going up your nose if it’s sticky,” she said. “Only wind-dispersed plants cause allergies.”
She added that goldenrod is a valuable native plant, because there are varieties that bloom at different times in the season.
Mr. Smith also recommends eastern prickly pear, a native cactus that can provide a steady stream of blooms in summer, and taller plants like Joe Pye weed, which has pinkish-purple flowers, or New York ironweed, which easily can grow 6 feet tall and has purple flowers. Both bloom from August to September, providing pollinators with a late-season food source.
Mr. Piazza suggested gardeners consider clethra, which he described “as intensely fragrant and attracts all sorts of native pollinators like bumblebees, native wasps and butterflies.
“And any of the native asters are really good, because they flower really late and provide a last source of pollen and nectar for pollinators before they go into winter hibernation,” he added.
Ms. von Gal said gardeners should not overlook mountain mint and grasses such as sedge and panicum.
She said gardeners should consider shrubs like viburnum, high bush blueberry, and shad, but suggested it will probably be necessary to fence off such plants to protect them from browsing deer.
Ms. Clough Lawless said to not overlook trees and shrubs. “You can plant something that provides no nutrients, versus an oak tree, which provides food for hundreds of types of caterpillars,” she said. “So if you decide to plant an oak tree, you are supporting an entire community, as opposed to holding a Memorial Day flower show.”
“A native tree will provide more food for pollinators than an acre of wildflowers,” added Ms. Klughers, who suggested that property owners consider a mix of trees that bloom at different times to provide a continuous source of food.
“Trees and shrubs have more surface area than your basic flowering plant,” added Ms. Woltz. “They provide diversity in the garden and opportunities for stacking different levels. It’s important to think both vertically and horizontally. Not only are they helping pollinators, they are helping other critters, like birds, by giving them options.”
Of course, one of those critters that is drawn to many native plants is the white-tailed deer.
Deer are already cursed for the destruction they cause to traditional gardens on the large lots common on the East End. “They have the keys to the candy shop and a good place to hide when the police come,” said Mr. Piazza.
There’s a sad reality, he added: “I don’t think there is anything that can be planted that is a pollinator attractor that a deer won’t eat.”
“It’s a hard topic. They are wild animals, and they are going to eat anything they can to survive,” said Mr. Smith, although he added, “they tend to stay away from my native plants, because they are more interested in the lush greens of ornamentals.”
There is no easy answer, they say, other than to coexist and target your response: If deer have heavily browsed a part of the garden, fence it off for some time to allow the plants to regenerate, Mr. Smith said.
Besides trying to coexist with deer, Mr. Piazza sees another problem.
“A lot of people say natives aren’t pretty,” he said.
To get around that, he suggests to clients that they plant one-third of their garden in traditional ornamentals and devote two-thirds to native plants that will attract pollinators, caterpillars and birds. “That still leaves you with a third of your property where you can have a couple of exotic plants, he said. “You don’t have to go cold turkey all-native, but if you do two-thirds, you can do a lot to help.”
Mr. Smith said it was important to temper “expectations of what you are going to accomplish and what Mother Nature is going to let you get away with.”
Still, he said it was important to encourage people to turn to native plants: “If they really want to enjoy their backyard and see different varies of songbirds and bees and butterflies, that’s where the proof comes.”
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