“Look out the window, what do you see? I see a robin in that cherry tree.” It’s a game we used to play as kids, but 50 years ago there really was something to see out the window. Toads, frogs, salamanders, and snakes – we caught them all right down the road from our suburban homes.
By Mary Raho Julian
“Look out the window, what do you see? I see a robin in that cherry tree.” It’s a game we used to play as kids, but 50 years ago there really was something to see out the window. Toads, frogs, salamanders, and snakes – we caught them all right down the road from our suburban homes. Today, down the road is just more road. And although we may think we still see nature out our windows, what we actually see is a sea of grass dotted with one or two Norway maples, a kousa dogwood, a weeping cherry, azaleas, and boxwood. Not one of these plants is native; not one supports native fauna. And without our native insects, birds, and mammals the view out our window is barren.
There is a way, however, to change that view. By bringing native plants back to our gardens, we are inviting nature back to the suburbs. If you have the space, plant an oak tree. One oak tree supports 534 butterfly and moth species. The larvae of these butterflies and moths is a key food source for baby birds. If your space is more constricted, consider an Amelanchier instead. Growing only 20 feet tall (versus the oak tree’s 100 feet), this beautiful native tree produces clouds of white flowers for the bees, and berries loved by the birds.
A group of native shrubs is another wonderful way to support biodiversity in your garden. Most birds nest in shrubs, and by giving them native shrubs for nesting you will provide them with both a home and food. Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) is a very pretty native with intoxicating white or pink flowers in summer, and golden fall color. The species can grow to 8 feet tall, but there are cultivars that are more compact and easier to integrate into the garden. American cranberry bush viburnam (Viburnam trilobum ‘Bailey’s Compact’) is another shrub beloved by birds and insects. Late spring flowers, followed by red fruit, and fall color makes this a must-have in any garden – especially a native one. Plant blueberries (Vaccinium) instead of burning bush (Euonymus alatus). Even if you don’t harvest a single berry for breakfast, you will feed flocks of birds and 288 species of butterflies and moths.
Do you love monarch butterflies? Plant milkweed and butterfly weed (asclepias incarnata and asclepias tuberosa) rather than butterfly bush (buddleia davidii) — a non-native and invasive plant. Asclepias is the only plant that feeds the caterpillar of monarchs. As more and more wild areas are cut down, the monarch has suffered. But don’t think you have to have a wild area in order to grow Asclepias. There are stunning cultivated varieties of this plant with pink or bright orange and yellow flowers. Plant it, and both the caterpillars and the adult monarchs will brighten the view out your window. New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) is another native plant that butterflies and hummingbirds love. It stays compact and neat so it can fit into even a formal garden space.
It’s easy to make the move toward a native garden once you start to focus on it. Consider using inkberry (Ilex glabra) instead of privet, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) instead of English ivy, trumpet creeper (campsis radicans) instead of Japanese or Chinese wisteria. These plants are available through commercial growers but if we don’t ask for them our garden designers will continue to use exotic species. Additionally, some garden centers now have native plant sections and there are native plant sales hosted by garden clubs and organizations each spring. The Little Garden Club of Rye, in conjunction with the Rye Nature Center, is hosting a native plant sale this month. Most of the plants mentioned in this article will be available for pre-order. Pick-up will be May 5 at the Nature Center, where LGCR maintains a native plant garden. For more information, check the Rye Nature Center website (ryenaturecenter.org) or the Little Garden Club of Rye website (lgcofrye.org).
Planting native plants is the best way to promote diversity in our gardens. Native shrubs and trees are especially important because they provide food, nesting, and breeding areas for native insects and birds. This spring, replace a couple of your “exotic” plants with their native counterparts. Better yet, decrease the size of your lawn and create a native area in your garden. Just make sure your new garden can be seen from your window, because your eyes will feast on the nature you see.