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Welcoming “the Natural” into Our Gardens

by Steve Davis

Over the last decade of landscape design, many more professionals have incorporated native or indigenous species into their plans. This cultural swing is due to many factors, some apparent and some not so noticeable.


The fruit of native plants like Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) invite birds, critters, and humans into outdoor living spaces.

Natives used in conjunction with imported ornamentals has become commonplace in most landscape designs. Landscape designers now have an endless sea of options to choose from when picking the perfect indigenous plants for their projects. The benefits of utilizing a native pallet in cultured landscapes are numerous. Typically, a residential landscape consisting of manicured, over fertilized turf grass and introduced plant material has little to offer in terms of wildlife attraction or overall ecosystem health. Incorporating native plants like Vaccinium corymbosum (highbush blueberry) or Amelanchier canadensis (shadblow serviceberry) often invites birds and welcomes critters to outdoor living spaces. Not only will the birds enjoy their introduction to the landscape, but the fruit is both edible and tasty for the enjoyment of those who plant them.

Mix of native and introduced species displayed in front of Bigelow Nurseries Garden Center. The display includes but not limited to Ilex glabra, Miscanthus s. ‘Gracillimus’, Hydrangea paniculata sp.

A display of mixed native and introduced species includes Ilex glabra, Miscanthus s. ‘Gracillimus’, and Hydrangea paniculata sp. among other plants.

The conservation of our ever shrinking wild spaces has also been a major contributor to the increased use of indigenous species like Clethra alnifolia (summersweet) and Comptonia peregrine (sweetfern). Commissions all over the country have mandated the use of these plants to counter the spread of noxious invasive species and to naturalize areas disturbed by construction. Many introduced plants have now been observed to kill off the naturally occurring plant material in the wild. These introduced species, which were on most occasions imported with the best of intentions, have now been placed on invasive species lists and cannot be sold or distributed in many locations.

Mix of native and introduced species are on display in front of Bigelow Nurseries Garden Center. The display includes Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’, Spirea japonica sp., Ilex crenata sp., Pieris japonica.

A mix of native and introduced species on display in front of Bigelow Nurseries Garden Center includes Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’, Spirea japonica sp., Ilex crenata sp., and Pieris japonica.

Plant diversity is common in natural settings due in part to multi-faceted native plants. A typical New England mature forest or transitional forest often contains many different species co-existing in healthy competition. Everyone has seen the outdated foundation planting that contains three different plants at most; many sites incorporate a single species “pruned” into different shapes to serve whatever needs arise at a given location. Fortunately for those of us who cringe at the latter, the former reflects the modern design climate more accurately. Native plants offer a touch of the wild to what was a far too tame region of our landscapes.

Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’

Autumn fern Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ shines in a combined planting.

Combining plants in our disturbed areas as they exist in nature is a great way to bring costs of our green space maintenance down as well. Many sites are fraught with issues ranging from hot dry locations to dark wet conditions. Looking to our wild landscape for clues about what likes to grow where will lessen the chances of plant failure and will help to reduce “helicopter gardening” – our constant hovering over trouble areas hoping to force a plant to “succeed.”

About the Author

Steve Davis MCH, MCLP, NHCLP is a wholesale salesman at Bigelow Nurseries. Steve is a 2001 graduate of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMASS Amherst. He has over 15 years of green industry experience. Steve is currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Massachusetts Association of Landscape Professionals. He enjoys fishing, camping, and hiking with his family.

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