Native plants: Two books outline what to grow and how to grow it

DID YOU KNOW? Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury is acquiring all three books mentioned in this article on why and how to use native plants in our gardens.
We often hear of the importance of using native plants in our gardens.
First and foremost, native plants are extremely beneficial for the wider environment. In addition, since they are adapted to our climate, they should be easy to grow. And finally they help us create gardens with that elusive feeling of “belonging” in the wider landscape.
But a little thought tells us that casually introducing a profusion of wild plants into the garden is not necessarily that straightforward. For instance, since most native plants are tough enough to endure competition in the wild, some species may be too aggressive for most gardeners. Conversely some species only grow in very unique habitats (such as on limestone bluffs) and are unlikely to survive in a garden that cannot replicate their special environments. Finally, it takes knowledge and skill to harmoniously integrate wild flowers among more highly bred companions.
But there are hundreds of native plants that will work beautifully in our gardens. To help us get to know which ones to grow and how to grow them, two great new books describing the best native plants for our gardens have just arrived on the scene.
Both books are incredibly informative and beautifully illustrated. They will help you right now as you plan your garden for the coming year; and they would also make great additions to your long-term collection of reference books. Let’s look at each in turn:
‘Native Plants for New England Gardens’ by Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe
Both authors have worked for decades at The New England Wildflower Society’s legendary Garden in the Woods — a two-mile botanical garden in Framingham, Mass. — thus accumulating a wealth of practical experience on growing native plants to their best advantage in a garden setting.
This book has four sections, all describing plants that will continue over many seasons:
            1.         Herbaceous perennials that produce colorful flowers each season and then die back to the ground in winter.
            2.         Trees and shrubs with woody skeletons that remain above ground in the winter, adding to the winter garden scene.
            3.         Ferns, grasses and sedges — a mix of plant types which collectively add delicate textures to our garden compositions and also often make great ground-covers.
            4.         And finally a small group of vines and other climbing plants.
As the title indicates, this book covers plants that grow naturally at least somewhere in New England, which includes areas where the winters may be quite a bit warmer than those we experience in Vermont. Much of Vermont is rated as Zone 4 (meaning that, once in a while on the coldest nights, the temperature may drop as low as minus 20 to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit) whereas in parts of Massachusetts it is unlikely to go below 0 F.
Accordingly, a few of the plants listed in this book will not be hardy enough to survive our Vermont winters. Check the hardiness zone where you live and then just be careful to choose plants that are rated for your zone or lower.
Interested in a particular plant type? Plants are organized by Latin name or genus in this book, so most of us will use the index of common names to get to the right page.
Once you land on the page of interest, you will find a detailed description of those members of the genus which the authors recommend for using in the garden, plus words of advice on how to grow them. Equally important, they also note other members of the same family that gardeners might want to avoid. In addition at least one plant in each genus is illustrated with a lovely photograph taken at Garden in the Woods.
The authors have a delightfully chatty style which tells me they are totally familiar with how to actually grow all these plants successfully and use them to best advantage in a garden.
And, even though the book is organized alphabetically, their chatty style also makes it thoroughly enjoyable to read from cover to cover. In doing this, I become acquainted with some lovely plants that I had never even considered for my garden. For instance the Wreath Goldenrod and the Downy Goldenrod are both well-behaved diminutive plants that bloom at the same time as New England Asters — and completely different from their tall thuggish cousin, the Canada Goldenrod which always seems to arrive in my flower beds uninvited.
They also offer useful lists of plants for specific conditions — such as sunny, shady, boggy or dry; and for various needs — to attract pollinators, songbirds or wildlife and for fall color or winter interest.
‘Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States’ by Tony Dove and Ginger Woolridge
If you love trees and shrubs, then this the book is for you — it is readable, informative, extensively cross-referenced and, of course, beautifully illustrated. Together the authors have years of horticultural experience, one as a public garden manager and the other as a landscape architect. They too have drawn on their combined practical knowledge to select just those native woody plants that will work well in a garden setting.
Woody plants are the permanent members of our gardens — providing year-round beauty and structure, as well as shade for people and food for wildlife.
Typically it will be many years before a tree or shrub attains its full size — when you see an immature plant in its nursery pot it can be really hard to visualize how big it will eventually grow. They are also relatively expensive and, once planted, they can be extremely hard (or impossible) to relocate.
All this tells us we need to choose and position trees and shrubs with considerable care so that, as they mature, they will still be an asset to the garden and not outgrow their allotted space.
The book is organized into three parts for easy access and detailed reference:
Part 1: Site Conditions and Plant Attributes offers 40 individual lists that take you directly to the plants listed in Part 2.
Start here if you are looking for trees or shrubs with particular attributes, for instance plants with showy flowers or evergreen leaves, or for those that will tolerate shade, wind or salt, or even deter deer. There are also lists of shrubs and trees that will mature at different heights and many others.
Part 2: Primary Trees and Shrubs, organized alphabetically by genus, is the core of the book.
Here you will find a detailed and easy-to-understand description of each featured plant, including its landscape attributes, seasons of interest, size and form, texture and color, cultural information, wildlife benefits and recommended companion plants, as well as favorite cultivated varieties (cultivars).
In addition you will find several photographs showing the plant during different seasons, as well as two invaluable charts:
            •           A drawing showing the plant’s height and shape at maturity alongside a human figure for comparison.
            •           The range of hardiness zones which the plant can accommodate plus its soil acidity and moisture requirements.
And, while the geographical scope of this book covers a relatively large geographical area — east of the Appalachians from Canada to the Carolinas — do not let this deter you. A quick look at the hardiness zone chart for each plant will tell you whether it is hardy in your garden.
Part 3: Secondary Plants, provides a brief description of those trees or shrubs that the authors felt might work is certain situations, but they also felt had some limitations for many gardens.
Thinking outside the box
Back in 2007 Douglas W. Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, published his ground-breaking book “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.”
Here he summarized a considerable body of academic research demonstrating how a variety of native plants together form the bottom layer of the food-web, this is the layer that feeds the pollinators, butterflies, birds and other wildlife that we treasure.
We all know that the landscape does not stop at our property boundaries; our gardens truly are part of the wider continuous ecosystem. So it behooves us to look for ways that our gardens can make a positive impact on this wider environment.
Incorporating a variety of native plants among your plantings is a great way to create a beautiful wildlife-friendly garden. And, as all three books show, we literally have hundreds of choices of garden-worthy native plants to start our journey.
Judith Irven and her husband Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She writes about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see his photographs at The Brandon Artists Guild and at northcountryimpressions.com. You can reach Judith at [email protected].

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