Sign up for our Newsletter

Spring has nearly sprung and if you’re like me, you’ve been staring out at your yard daydreaming of warmer days and plotting what you’ll add to your garden this year.

Whether you choose a new perennial, shrub or tree, many local horticulture experts recommend opting for a native plant species. 

You may have heard that growing native plants is important and seen a growing selection of natives on trips to local nurseries, but why? 

We asked Taralynn Reynolds, outreach director at Group for the East End, community horticulture specialist Roxanne Zimmer and landscape specialist Mina Vescera from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to weigh in on incorporating native plants into your landscape. 

They also offered a variety of suggestions for plants to choose for your North Fork garden that won’t harm the environment — a timely topic as national invasive species awareness week was observed from Feb. 28 to March 4.

In addition, CCE Suffolk is hosting several spring gardening events both virtually and in person.

Nationally known native plant landscape designer Rick Darke is giving a virtual talk on Saturday, March 19. The following weekend on March 26, Spring Gardening School will include three virtual presentations, one by Vescera, on removing invasive plants, creating native plant lawns and pollinators.

Next month, on April 30, a day of in-person workshops will coincide with the annual Master Gardener plant sale at the Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank. Click here for more information.

What is a native plant?

Taralynn: The definition we use at Group for the East End is any plant that has occurred naturally in that area without human introduction and has co-evolved with other organisms, particularly insects.

What are some benefits of planting native species?

Roxanne: Native plants will draw in native pollinators like monarchs, native bees and others that bring bounty to our gardens. Each of us as individuals can promote biodiversity this way.

Taralynn: They’ve evolved to our local conditions and after initial establishment, they do require less water. 

Mina: You’ll get an abundance of wildlife coming to your garden, from insects and spiders to rabbits and birds. It’s a web of life!

Wildlife is great! But I want to plant a garden that the deer won’t devour. Any recommendations?

Mina: That’s a common concern, but there actually are native plants that deer aren’t interested in like huckleberry and low bush blueberry.

How can exotic plants harm the local ecosystem?

Mina: They establish in our natural areas, persist and spread widely. Over time, they colonize natural areas and push out native plants, squeezing out biodiversity in an area.

Is ‘exotic’ or ‘ornamental’ synonymous with ‘invasive?’

Roxanne: There are some imported ornamental plants that are not a problem. The peony, for example, comes to us from Asia and it’s a beauty. We value it in our garden because it’s so lovely, lasts for many years and is not invasive. Purple loosestrife, on the other hand, is a problematic invasive that can choke out chances for other plants, including natives, to grow especially in meadows and coastal areas.

Mina: Not always. I don’t encourage people to plant natives only either, because there are some wonderful non-native plants that provide habitat, support wildlife and are low maintenance as well. The New York State flora atlas is a wonderful resource. You can input a common or scientific plant name and it will tell you if it’s native to New York. You can even narrow the search to Suffolk County.

Goldenrod and asters. (Courtesy photo)
What’s your favorite native species in your garden?

Taralynn: Butterfly weed. I think the ‘weed’ part throws people off, but it’s beautiful, hardy and does well in a lot of different gardens. The monarchs will find it and given the right space and time, it will come back year after year.

Roxanne: Baptisia, or wild indigo. It’s native to the northeast and produces beautiful blue blooms in early June. It’s also a nitrogen-fixing legume.

What’s a common misconception about native plants?

Roxanne: We’re combatting the idea that natives aren’t as interesting as ornamental horticulture. Milkweed and native hydrangeas are wonderful, colorful options.

Taralynn: That they’re not pretty. I beg to differ! Scarlet and lavender bee balm is absolutely stunning as are native goldenrod species and brown eyed susans. Cardinal flowers are also gorgeous and can attract ruby throated hummingbirds.

How else can I incorporate native species into my landscaping?

Taralynn: It’s not all about the bright, flashy flowers. Replacing our native oak species is one of the most important things we can do for wildlife. The white oak supports 500 different species of wildlife. One tree! Native black cherry trees and sassafras are also important to supporting pollinators.

There have been a few spring-like days lately and I’m itching to get in my garden. What can I start doing now?

Mina: March is the month where everything starts waking up. Wait to clean up the garden until you’ve had several days in a row that are 50 degrees or higher. That’s when critters and insects end their dormancy and move from their shelters in leaves and debris. And if you haven’t been pruning, now is the time!

Taralynn: Resist the urge to get outside! It’s a good planning month. Get your calendar out, plan the growing season calendar, start looking up plants, plug them in and research where to find native plants.

Looking for some native plants to add to your garden? Here are a few spots that feature natives and can help you get started.

Clarke’s Garden and Home (reopens March 7)
416 Main Street, Greenport

The Gardens at Beds & Borders (reopens later this spring)
550 Main Road, Laurel

Peconic River Herb Farm (reopens April 1)
2749 River Road, Calverton

The Brentwood-based Long Island Native Plant Initiative is also a great resource and they host plant sales throughout the year. For more information, visit their website.