Book Review: Native Plants for New England Gardens

Written by Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe

Published by Globe Pequot Press, March 1, 2018

Reviewed by Angela Tanner

As a landscape designer, my clients request low-maintenance gardens more than any other site feature, and I typically recommend native plants as a solution. However daunting the site conditions, there is usually a native plant that has evolved within similar situations in nature. This “Right plant, right place” concept is sound, but not always easy to achieve when your designed landscape caters to people. The plants have to entertain as much as they have to function, and although great gardens are often formed with trial and error methodology, you cannot always afford to experiment. Plant catalogs provide the basics, but not always the details I need. Before I recommend a plant, I want to know what experiential qualities it will bring to the spaces I’m creating. Which species will solve unique site challenges? Are the plants seasonal work-horses, or are they ephemeral delicacies that briefly enchant before leaving an unsightly bare patch for most of the year? If they are the latter, what companion plantings will ensure an interesting and dynamic landscape without invading the entire garden?

Dan Jaffe and Mark Richardson’s new book Native Plants for New England Gardens offers creative answers to my questions. Their book begins with a brief explanation of how native plants are defined, and the ecological and economic benefits to using them in the garden. With native plants, you can create inviting landscapes that are full of vitality without disappearing into a black hole caused by excessive maintenance. The less time you spend mowing, watering, pruning, and weeding, the more time you have to enjoy watching the wildlife native plants tend to attract.

The majority of the book consists of concise observations for each species, organized in alphabetical order by Latin name within general plant groups. Jaffe and Richardson draw upon years of experience working with plants at Garden in the Woods, home of the New England Wildflower Society in Framingham, Massachusetts. Their expertise shines through with the practical advice they offer, but for me, the most compelling pieces are the descriptions of plant personalities. The authors convey, through photographs and anecdotes, ways in which the plants can add dimension and character to create a sense of place. While reading, I found myself wanting to plant drifts of Actaea pachypoda just to experience “a cluster of eyes watching [me] wander through the garden.”

This book has much to offer to both landscape professionals and beginning gardeners. It describes integral roles native plants play in the ecosystem, identifies supported pollinators and other wildlife, and delves into culinary benefits. The authors even offer cooking tips and opinions on palatability. If you love asparagus, you could plant King Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and nibble on the stems. They offer planted alternatives to lawn and mulch beds, and suggest transitional plant choices for long-term management strategies. For example, which species of Rudbeckia spreads quickly to suppress weeds, only to gracefully retreat when more slowly establishing plants decide to take center stage? If you don’t know, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

About the Reviewer

Angela Tanner has worked within the intersections of the built and natural worlds for over 15 years. With a background in both architecture and landscape architecture, she strives to create environments that are beautiful and functional for the people, plants, and wildlife that inhabit them. Angela is an Associate Designer at Jenick Studio, a Cape Cod based landscape architecture firm specializing in the integration of ecology and modern design.


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