Anthony Marinello has been dedicated to growing native plants for more than 10 years. In addition to learning from independent research, coursework in permaculture and local experts, he has learned from trial and error. Here is his advice — including cautionary tales — for gardeners interested in going native.
1. “Native” isn’t always native
“Just because a plant is native to North America does not make it native to Long Island,” he warns. And a plant may be native, but still be an aggressive grower better suited to living in the wild than your front yard. It might be a heavy seeder, for instance.
“I learned that after planting cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), a member of the sunflower family,” he said, relating a decision he soon regretted. “It was like a tentacle plant! It would die to the ground every year and regrow, and then the seeds would pop up all over the place.” Marinello recommends checking Wildflower.org or the New York Flora Atlas, newyork.plantatlas.usf.edu, to learn whether a plant is native to our area before planting it.
2. Learn botanical nomenclature
Gardeners should know the botanical name of the plant they are looking for to ensure it is the straight native species and not a hybrid from the nursery industry, Marinello says. “Because native perennial plants have evolved within their respective ecosystems, they’re designed to thrive in our climate and soil. They are extremely drought resistant, cold hardy, require no fertilizer, and are pest resistant, besides being highly ornamental.”
In addition, it’s not uncommon for more than one plant to share a common name. American boxwood, for example, is the industry name for a Eurasian shrub, Marinello says. And Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is actually a juniper, not a cedar, while Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is the tree commonly called arborvitae. Although both are native, they aren’t remotely related. The only way to be certain of the plant you are getting is to check its botanical Latin name.
3. Consider butterflies and bees
“I would like to see people planting more milkweeds because they feed monarch butterflies,” Marinello says. “They thrive in wet, dry, shady or sunny conditions and provide a ton of color in the garden. It will make most of the pollinators happy in your garden — bees will be all over it, and you’ll get caterpillars and butterflies.” New England and New York asters, Virginia bluebells, goldenrod and native willows are other favorites Marinello plants to provide a food source for butterflies and bees.
4. Aim for four-season gardening
“We seem to focus more on summer plants, but it’s important that we plant early spring bloomers and late fall bloomers, too,” Marinello says. “Pollinators that emerge early in the season don’t have a lot of options for food, especially in suburban gardens.” Good spring choices include native maple trees — red maples or swamp maples — and native willows, which provide early blooms. For fall, native asters and native goldenrods are good options. In addition, oak trees house 300 types of insects that feed our native songbirds; exotic trees house maybe two or three types of insects.”
Fort Pond Native Plants (26 S Embassy St., Montauk; 631-668-6452; nativeplants.net) is Long Island’s leading native-exclusive garden center, selling mostly plants that have been grown (and bred) in the Northeast, and many right in Suffolk County.
Long Island Native Plant Initiative is a volunteer organization composed of more than 30 local nonprofit organizations, nursery professionals, government agencies and residents who strive to protect Long Island’s native plant population and biodiversity. Visit linpi.org for volunteer opportunities, plant sale information and informative native plant fact sheets.
ReWild Long Island began in 2017 as a local movement in Port Washington that encouraged residents to protect biodiversity in public and private spaces. Some 50 residents and public institutions have been coached through the transition from conventional landscaping to wildlife-friendly native gardens that save water and attract bees, birds and butterflies. For information on starting a chapter in your neighborhood, visit rewildlongisland.org.
Long Island has several hyperlocal Audubon chapters serving nature- and bird-enthusiasts in the North Shore, Four Harbors, Great South Bay, Eastern Long Island, North Fork and South Shore communities. For meeting schedules, sighting locations, contact information and more details, visit nwsdy.li/BirdingLI.
Education and Research Center run by Friends of Hempstead Plains is a 100 percent sustainable, 19-acre nature preserve that aims to “connect to its past by showcasing local history and native fauna and flora.” Visit friendsofhp.org for seasonal openings and special workshop announcements
The Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center and the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County co-hosted a half-day workshop, Using Native Plants in the Landscape, at Tackapausha Museum and Preserve on March 3 in Seaford. Presentations and instructions geared toward landscape professionals as well as anyone interested in gardening were held throughout the event. Email email@example.com to request to be notified when future workshops are scheduled.