I’m Brenda and have been gardening all my life, inspired by my grandmother. When I was very young, I would visit my grandparents’ home in upstate rural New Hampshire, and my grandmother and I would walk the roads, riverbeds, and woods admiring the wildflowers. She tended a small native plant garden, and it left a lifelong impression on me.
We moved from Connecticut to Rhode Island three years ago and purchased a home near the southern coast but still in the same Zone 6B and Ecoregion 59. That means I was already familiar with many plants in RI. Our home is over 30 years old and had established gardens.
I retired and fulfilled my promise to become a Master Gardener. As part of a project to graduate, I needed to produce a plot plan of our yard citing native trees, shrubs, and flowers, and I had more than I imagined. Overlaying my new knowledge from Master Gardeners, I discovered Rhode Island natives (wildflowers) and groups of people and projects dedicated to growing and saving native plants and introducing them to gardens and restoration projects. I found my niche!
From the various native plant organizations I belong to, two questions keep popping up: How do I integrate native plants into my garden, and should I get rid of nonnative plants? My short answer was to start planting natives, in as big a clump or drift as I could anywhere I could. The larger the clump, the easier it is for the insects to spot. You would be surprised where you can tuck in native plants!
Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum, Zones 4–9) has a low profile around an old holly bush until late summer, then it bursts into the forefront with all its glory and is loved by bumblebees.
A problem is finding plants and seeds truly native to your ecoregion. Seeds from midwestern states are not true natives to Rhode Island. I have access to native seeds that I was successful in winter sowing in plastic milk cartons on my deck. Many native seeds need to go through the freezing and thawing process of winter stratification. I have winter seed-planting parties in my garage.
I find true beauty in the seedpods around my yard. Collecting seeds gets me excited for winter sowing.
Once mature seedpods are collected, they need to be cleaned of chaff before planting. Some seeds are easy to harvest, like columbine and beardtongue digitalis. Others are challenging, like monarda, Joe Pye weed, asters, and New York ironweed.
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa, Zones 5–9) is not hard to grow, but transplanting it is tricky because of its taproot. It is one of the most popular native plants in Rhode Island.
I have a pink cultivar of turtle head and a native white turtle head (Chelone glabra, Zones 3–8). The white flowers are haggard looking because the big bumblebees claw their way into the plant and damage the flowers. Interestingly, the pink cultivars are mostly untouched by the bees.
Bee balm, or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa, Zones 3–9), is a favorite among pollinators. I found it hard to separate the chaff from the tiny seed on this plant.
New York ironweed (Veronia noveboracensis, Zones 5–9) is tucked in the back of my garden. It contrasts with the native white pine trees (Pinus strobus, Zones 3–8). I will be planting and clustering more of this because its color is so striking.
My yard is simple yet teaming with wildlife. I tuck in native plants wherever I can, and they coexist with nonnative plants. I am not saying nonnatives or cultivars are undesirable, but generally they are not as useful to wildlife.
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