By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Neat is not always better, especially when it comes to your lawn.
Lawn-care professionals and amateur green thumbs dump pesticides and fertilizers on lawns and soak them with water in hopes of creating lush, green carpets of neighborhood envy. But lawns coated in chemicals are bad for human and pet health, pollute local waters, deter wildlife, and degrade the environment.
However, plants native to New England have evolved to thrive in local conditions and survive the region’s harsh seasons. A new book, Native Plants for New England Gardens, culls the expertise of the New England Wild Flower Society to help anyone create a garden that will tolerate drought, resist disease, and encourage biodiversity.
The 233-page book, co-authored by Dan Jaffe and Mark Richardson, features 100 native flowers, ground covers, shrubs, ferns, and grasses that thrive in New England. Jaffe is the propagator and stock-bed grower at the Framingham, Mass.-based New England Wild Flower Society; Richardson is the director of the organization’s Botanic Garden.
According to the New England Wild Flower Society, “native” refers to plants growing in New England before European settlement, and includes woody plants such as trees, shrubs and vines, and non-woody plants such as flowering perennials, ferns and grasses.
A yard with a diverse mixture of native trees, shrubs, and plants is cheaper to maintain, easier to take care of, environmentally beneficial, and is more interesting. Native plants support native wildlife and insects, are accustomed to the weather and soil, and are pest resistant. They support the pollinators of our food crops, clean the air and water, and help regulate the climate. They also make good natural buffers, which capture rainfall and filter stormwater runoff.
“Native plants are better for the environment than lawns,” Jaffe said. “They bring in pollinators. If you replace your lawn with, say, wild strawberries you don’t need to mow, fertilize or water again. Native plants really bring maintenance costs down. They also can be good-tasting edible plants.”
Jaffe noted that there is a growing trend around going native. He said clients are asking their landscapers for local plants. And he’s seeing more landscape professionals in the classes and workshops he runs.
To create this type of easy-to-maintain, environmentally friendly habitat, buy native trees, shrubs, and plants from local nurseries that grow their own stock. It’s important to layer the different species, cluster the same ones together — it creates shelter for wildlife — choose plants that produce pollen and nectar, and have an equal percentage of evergreen and deciduous species.
Ground cover also is important. A layer of decaying leaves and other organic matter, for example, is one of the most productive elements in a natural system, as bacteria and insects continually break down the material. Native plants attract the insects needed to do that work. Nonnative species introduced from, say Europe, may host hundreds of insects in the backyard of a Spaniard, but may only be suitable for a handful of insects in a Cumberland, R.I., garden. (The Rhode Island Native Plant Guide features a detailed list of some 230 native plants that thrive in Rhode Island, and Rhody Native notes places to buy local species.)
Besides slashing expenses for lawn care, going native also helps local species take root, as 22 percent of New England’s 2,400 native plant species are in danger, according to the New England Wild Flower Society. Also, according to the Massachusetts organization, 62 of these species are globally rare, 325 are regionally rare, 96 no longer exist in New England, and 10 grow nowhere else on the planet.