Grow Native

Gardeners have a mantra, “Right plant, right place.” And lately, the “right plant” means choosing one of the many species native to Long Island. Go native and everyone wins: Homeowners get a natural-looking landscape that requires less maintenance, water and fertilizer; local fauna get a little bit of their habitat back and Mother Nature has an easier time taking care of her own. In fact, fall is the ideal season to take action. Warm days and cooler nights make it easier for new plants to establish themselves before winter’s hard freeze.

Organizations like the Long Island Native Plant Initiative (LINPI), Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension and some local nurseries have been promoting a return to native plants, namely those present before European settlement here. Identifying and documenting this greenery falls to Polly Weigand, executive director of LINPI, who combs the Island hunting for seeds, flowers, trees and shrubs to introduce to a retail nursery market saturated with vegetation typically indigenous to Europe and Asia. “We’re trying to encourage the nursery industry and the public to use native plants,” said Weigand. Apparently, buying plants based on the climate zones listed on the tag isn’t always enough.

Stick a native red maple (Acer rubrum), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) or Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana) in the Long Island ground and after the first year it will require less maintenance than a non-native plant. That’s because a native’s root system digs deeper into the soil it’s adapted to, enabling it to handle droughts better than a shallow rooted, non-native. These plants also play a pivotal role in the food chain. Clearing away native vegetation to plant European roses may eradicate the insects that feed on aboriginals. That jeopardizes the birds that feed on those insects and the effects spiral up the food chain from there.

Native enthusiasts understand the passion for all plants, skewing their goals toward planting more natives, not ripping out all recent transplants. “I am by no means saying that non-native plants are bad,” Weigand said. Pick and plant a native based on its beauty and it works smarter, by establishing its roots faster, and does more heavy lifting by benefiting local ecology—that’s beauty and brains.

Half the battle of planting native flora is finding a nursery that carries them. Karen Blumer, ecologist and author of Long Island Native Plants for Landscaping: A Source Book, scoured the Island for nurseries that stock native plants. Among our favorites are:

Atlantic Nursery, Freeport
John Meyer, the manager and buyer, stocks a range of trees, shrubs and perennials and said the native ‘shamrock’ inkberry is a popular evergreen shrub with dark fruit that attracts birds.

Fort Pond Native Plants, Montauk
The stock here is a constantly changing mix of native ferns and perennials like bayberry, sweet pepperbush, chokeberry, winterberry and trees like black tupelo and the harder to find Virginia rose.

Hicks Nurseries, Westbury
The venerable nursery offers a range of woody natives, from oaks to inkberry to hollies, as well as the American Beauties line of native plants.

Martin Viette Nurseries, East Norwich
Donna Moramarco, a horticulturalist and the Marketing & Education Manager at the nursery, likes the highbush blueberry for its flowers, fruit and nice fall color.

Warren’s Nursery, Water Mill
Owner Victoria Bustamante, a strong proponent of native plants, grows her own retail stock at the nursery. Find ferns, ornamental grasses, asters, dogwoods and maples among her inventory.