Why go native? The simple answer is that native plants are the ones that thrive without human intervention. Hardy natives require little artificial life support, which means fewer chemicals in Stamford streams, less draw on our water supply, and more free time for the gardener.
• No chemicals required. Because native shrubs evolved here, they do act as host for a variety of native insects and smaller organisms. However, as long as the native plant is situated where it has its familiar light, drainage and soil conditions, it will fight off the small critters on its own. There is seldom a need for pesticides, which can kill off the good bugs with the bad, and which can be very dangerous if misused. A balanced insect population is desirable since insects pollinate the plants, clean up decaying material, and feed the birds. Also, many insects are predators which keep the other bugs in check.
• Likewise, there is little need to spend money and labor on concentrated fertilizers, organic or otherwise, which can wash off the lawn and into that irreplaceable resource, the Long Island Sound. Our native plants are happy in plain local soil, rocky as it is, with a top dressing of organic mulch such as wood chips or compost.
• The wild creatures need it. Fifty years ago, it was said that we shouldn’t feed the birds and small furry critters because they would get “dependant”. Today, so much of their habitat has been taken over by humans that, like it or not, the small ones are dependent on us to provide food and shelter.
• Many non-native plants are an environmental threat: The caveat, though, on feeding the wild folk is that what the birds and squirrels eat, they spread into our remaining wild areas. If the plant comes from a foreign source, then the foreign plant’s seeds will end up in Mianus Gorge, Rosa Hartman Park, Cove Island, and Stamford’s other nature sanctuaries.
• Seed-bearing non-native plants sold as “fast growing, hardy, spread quickly” often end up out-compete the native plants in the wild. Invasive foreign plants are a huge local issue. Gardeners can help by planting native. Yes, we could save the wilds by planting only sterile things without seeds, nuts or fruit, but what would the critters eat?
How to choose? The ideal bush would a native that provides bird food and shelter, looks good all year, survives heat, cold, droughts and floods, self-prunes, stays the desired size without much work, and is pest-resistant. While that sounds like a lot to ask for, there are actually over two dozen good choices.
Start with a survey. If an area is planted with too many of the same plant, the environment suffers and so does the plant. An over-abundance of one kind of plant (called a “monoculture”) allows the plants’ predators, including insects and diseases, to have a field day, and, before you know it, the plants are all suffering from some dread disease.
Likewise, no plant is a prefect source of food and shelter for all the critters, or beauty for us, all the time. Creating the greatest possible mix (what the environmentalists call “biodiversity”) naturally controls the pests and gives the garden and our wildlife the best of each plant. Also, when the plants flower, fruit, and shed leaves at different times, gardening work is spread out into manageable pieces.
So check around your neighborhood to see what’s missing. If there are already productive nut trees; seed-bearing herbaceous plants; thick hollies, rhododendron, and conifers for winter cover; and clover, common blue violets, and other greens to keep the rabbits out of the garden; then berries for the birds and squirrels would be a good addition.
Check the site. Matching the plant to its preferred light, moisture, and soil conditions is the most important part of gardening. Put “the right plant in the right place” and the rest easy. Fortunately, the plants come labeled at the nursery with their light and moisture requirements, but you need to know your site. If necessary, delay choosing your shrubs until you are sure about your growing conditions. While shrub planting can start as soon as the ground has thawed, planting can go on until early June, and still give the new shrub time to adjust before mid-summer heat arrives.
• Light: Some plants need full sun; many native shrubs like the partial shade of the forest understory; a few are happy in full shade. Since the sun’s angle changes, since trees grow and shed leaves, and since structures cast shadows, understanding the light in your garden can be a bit trickery. The right question is: when does the area get sun in the summer? “Full sun” means that the area gets direct sun for the entire 6 hours between 10:00 A.M. to 4 P.M., even in midsummer when the trees are leafed out. “Full shade” means no direct, unfiltered sun between the same hours.
• Between full sun and complete shade, there are many degrees of part shade but most part-shade plants want 3 to 4 hours of direct light. The soft morning sun from the east is better for the understory forest types that don’t do well in full sun; the bright sun of mid-day and the often harsh western afternoon sun are better for plants that can handle either part-shade or full sun.
• Moisture: Why invest time and money in a plant that will die the next time we have drought-related water restrictions? One of the best parts about native plants is that they are adapted to local moisture conditions. They generally don’t need supplemental water, after their first two years.
• Some of local plants, though, have adapted to drier open forest and meadow conditions and others to the moister swamp and stream-side conditions. Most native plants can tolerate more moisture in spring but only the bog plants can survive standing in water for any length of time.
• Soil: Generally, if the soil is the right PH, and well mulched, native shrubs require no further fertilizing or soil amendments. Stamford soil is naturally acidic and high in organic material. However, your yard may consist of imported top soil or the soil may suffer from past abuse. It is surprisingly easy and inexpensive to get a soil test. The UConn Master Gardeners at the Bartlett would be glad to walk you through the process. (See below for contact information).
Check your yard to see how much light and moisture you actually have. If you are very lucky, your yard will have both moist and dry places, each with both sun and shade. Then, you can have every native shrub that suits your fancy. If the whole yard has only one set of conditions, you can plant for those conditions. Alternatively, you can improve your bio-diversity by, for example, making part of a dry area into a rain garden, or shading part of a sunny area with fence or trellis.
A note on mulch: Mulching is the best thing that you can do for your plants. Mulch holds in the moisture, cools and protects the roots, and the small soil critters break it down and mix it into the earth to feed your plants.
Now, pick your plants: Keep in mind that the most important consideration after matching light and moisture is variety. What will look best year around, and be best for the critters, is variety in height, color, blooming time, fruiting time, leaf color, etc.
Garden design: The standard garden design practices that keep variety from becoming visual chaos are: have at least 3 of most plants (unless the garden is very small); plant in groupings that repeat in different parts of the garden; and limit the flower color of half the plants to any third of the color spectrum. For a natural look, group plants together, plant in odds numbers, and add a few rocks. If you’re not blessed with the right rocks, you can buy them from the stone and brick yards south of town.