Native Plants in Connecticut

Here in our southern Connecticut environment we are tempted to use a huge variety of plants in our gardens.  And why not, the nurseries offer broad arrays of plants from all over the globe.  But if we take a moment to consider the amount of effort, fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation and soil additives that it takes to maintain these types of gardens we see that maybe there is a better way.   Native plants should be considered as an alternative.

First of all, let's define native and exotic.  Native plants have evolved in a particular region over many thousands and even millions of years. They have adapted to the climate, geography and animal populations of the region.  Exotic or alien plants are any plants that were not in the region before the  Europeans arrived roughly 400 years ago.

Our native fauna, including insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and other animals, is dependent on native plants for food and shelter.  Almost all exotic plants are poisonous to native insects.  As exotic plants replace our native flora, fewer host plants are available to provide the necessary nutrition for our native wildlife. 

Using native plants in our gardens provides an abundance of benefits both for those of us who have to maintain the landscape and to the native wildlife dependent upon native plants for food and habitat. 

More and more gardeners are becoming aware of the importance of using more native plants in the landscape.   They might describe the "sense of place" that is created by using plants that "belong" or they might recognize the costly wastefulness of oversized lawns populated with alien grasses that demand high-nitrogen fertilizers, broad-leaf herbicides, grub-eliminating pesticides and pollution-generating mowers. 

Most compelling to me, however, is the abundance of wildlife that native plants can bring to our gardens which can be bustling with numerous species of butterflies, birds including hummingbirds, and dragonflies.     Finally and certainly not least of all is that the use of native species creates simplified vestiges of the ecosystems that once made this land such a rich source of life? 

Let's take a look at what is happening to our ecosystems.  In following columns I will feature native perennial plants, shrubs, and ornamental trees that you can use in your gardens to support native wildlife, as well as reputable nurseries where native plants can be purchased. 

Just as we saw our charming downtown main streets succumb to the growth of national chains and malls in the 1970's and losing a sense of place in the process, today we are witnessing the equivalent happening to our local native flora and fauna.  What people are just beginning to appreciate is that the wildlife that we enjoy and would like to have in our lives will not be here in the future if we take away their food and the places they live. 

Two trends are converging that is causing the loss of habitat for native plants and the wildlife that they support.  First is the constant growth of residential and commercial development.  Homes have replaced native habitat with ever-larger lawns and gardens that are comprised primarily of non-native species.  The second threat is that a handful of exotic species have escaped cultivation and are aggressively replacing native species in forests, wetlands and other areas.  All of this is occurring with significant costs to the environment and our environment is what makes our location in the New England/Northeast so special.

The optimistic news is that we as homeowners can make a difference and we can do this without trying to invoke government action, purchasing large tracts of pristine land, or limiting ourselves to sending money to national and international conservation organizations.   We can each make an impact individually and almost immediately by increasing the number of native plants on our property.  

Adding native plants to your landscape is a good choice whether you have one-fourth acre in the city, two acres at the edge of town or 40 acres in the country.  Some of the benefits of using native plants are that native plants:

  • Require minimal fertilizer or irrigation
  • Attract beneficial insects that prey upon pests and reduce the need for pesticides
  • Save energy and reduce pollution (limited need for mowing)
  • Improve water quality
  • Provide shelter and food to birds, butterflies and other wildlife, promoting biodiversity
  • Can provide four-season interest
  • Are unlikely to be invasive or overly competitive with other native plants
  • Protect biodiversity and at-risk species

Gardening with natives is our chance to make a positive impact.

A desire to connect with nature on a personal level and limited time to devote to home landscape are reasons to turn to natural landscapes for inspiration.  As you begin to re-think your own garden in terms of functioning in harmony with the Connecticut environment, I leave you with this quote from John Muir, 1915:

"Everybody needs places...where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul."

David Sanders is a local garden designer featuring the use of native plants.

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