Taking care of our native plants

The same good gardening practices used for non-native plants also make sense for native plants. The difference, though, is not much care is needed.

And the good news is that natural landscaping requires much less work, too, since an informal natural landscape doesn't require perfect plants, straight lines of flowers, and so on.

The right plant in the right place

Right place ©Janet AllenAn example of the right plant in the wrong spot

Putting a plant in an appropriate place always makes sense.

For example, we bought this juniper (Juniperus) of some kind (back in the days before I knew the difference in species) and planted it near the garage door on the east side of the house. It got morning sun, but none the rest of the day. Notice how much better the part above the garage roof line is growing. Once it had some sun, it was much happier.

Unfortunately, though, by that time the plant was so weak that one day it just tipped over onto the ground. With nothing to lose, we replanted it even at this stage of growth. We staked it and tied it to the fence in the back of the yard in a much sunnier location. To our surprise, it took hold and is now twice the size and very robust.

This was a vivid lesson in the need to put the right plant in the right place. If a plant has the right conditions, it will just grow; if it's in okay conditions, it may grow but probably not as robustly (which may be a good thing if it's otherwise an aggressive spreader), but in the wrong conditions, it will steadily decline. We try to provide at least okay conditions for plants, though ideal conditions aren't always possible.

Cutting back

Cutting back ©Janet AllenCutting back herbaceous plants in early summer (Note the cut above the leaf node)

After experimenting a season or two, I've concluded that cutting back some of the tallish herbaceous plants in early summer is a good idea. Some of these plants become very tall, taking up a lot of space and looking out of proportion in a small yard.

I've found that it has habitat benefits as well. Not only does it create a bushier plant, but it prolongs the season of bloom (assuming some plants are left to grow normally) since it delays their flowering somewhat. I've tried this with joe-pye weed, New England aster, and New York ironweed, and they've done very well. I'll be trying this also with stiff goldenrod this year, and maybe some other plants, too.

Pruning ninebark ©Janet Allen
Pruning ninebark in late winter

We try to select plants that will look good growing in their natural shape. Still, though, while not strictly necessary, we sometimes prune certain plants to keep them looking their best—still in a natural shape, but tidied up a bit.

In this case, we're rejuvenating this ninebark so it will produce more flowers and seeds and will be a little more controlled-looking in this very public part of our landscape along the roadside. We have three ninebarks, and so (when we remember) in late winter we cut back one of the three each year so that the space is never empty. Theoretically, this would mean that each plant gets cut back every three years, but we rarely remember to do this every year.

Insect damage

Dogwood sawflies ©Janet AllenDogwood sawflies munching on pagoda dogwood leaves

When people know I'm an "earth-friendly" organic gardener, they often ask me what I do about various insect problems. That's easy to answer. Nothing. (We do, though, hand-pick a few invaders such as the Japanese beetle.) For the most part, though, it never occurs to me to do anything when I see some leaves with holes.

One example, shown in the photo, is the dogwood sawfly. The damage this native insect inflicts doesn't improve the appearance of the tree, of course, but it doesn't risk the tree's health. Many poisons are available to "treat" this problem, but if it doesn't harm the tree, why put all these poisons into the environment?

Sawflies seen from top of leaf(Enlarge) ©Janet Allen
Sawflies seen from top of leaf—an intriguing arrangement!

Sometimes, as in the case of flea beetles some years, I get annoyed, but what doesn't kill plants just gives an opportunity for an insect, bird, amphibian, or other predator to have a feast. Over all, there's very little leaf damage to my garden and everything looks very healthy. Who cares about a little leaf damage to individual plants?

(Note: Non-native predators are a different story, since plants haven't evolved defenses against them.)