Master Gardener: What you need to know about incorporating environmentally-friendly plants into your garden | Lifestyles

Most serious gardeners are interested in supporting our environment. What’s confusing is how to go about this, where to begin. There are many excellent garden writers on this topic, each with their own niche. There is a complex interplay of soil, weather, plants, what to do and not do.

It’s not a good idea to rely on the garden memes of Facebook. Most of these are misleading, based on an over-simplified premise. Gardening should be a thoughtful endeavor, filled with both joy and sorrow, like the rest of life. Gardening is often an experiment, with numerous variables, some (especially weather) out of our control. If you do your homework so you can match your plants with their planting location, and follow established planting practices, you will receive some joyful rewards.

In response to the native plant conversation, I decided to research via Google the plants in my garden to see what was native. I was delighted to discover that about half of my approximately 170 plant species were native. Many common plants including Purple Coneflowers, Brown-Eyed Susans, Blazing Star and Bee Balm are native, so you also could be growing more natives than you previously thought.

I mentioned the work of Thomas Rainer and his landscaping partner, Claudia West in a recent column. While they respect the high value of plants that support our ecosystem, he acknowledges that the concept of native plants is dependent on flexible boundaries of geography and time. It’s important that a selected plant be provided with the environment that supports its needs; native plants are not easier to grow than non-natives. A plant will do even better if it is surrounded by a familiar plant community. I recently listed to a brief interview on YouTube with him, where he describes how he works with other landscapers to implement his gardening philosophy.

Wisconsin landscaper Roy Diblik also embraces the concept of plant communities, and additionally incorporates ideas to reduce maintenance labor in his book, The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden. His plant list includes only 74 plant species, with each plant photographed and needs described in the book. He also includes 62 garden planting plans, labeled for sun or shade, to illustrate his concepts. Readers might be unlikely to follow any of the plans exactly, but they can replicate the sustainable plant communities. Maintaining this kind of landscape can take less work, but requires more knowledge about the care of the plants.

This conversation wouldn’t be complete without bringing in the work of entomologist Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home and his newest book, Nature’s Best Hope. He has great concern about the changes we are experiencing in the ecosystem, a far wider view than just our gardens. He advocates for native plants to enable the continued existence of our insect population, and has developed an amazing resource for trees. According to his research, “Oaks support more life-forms than any other North American tree genus, providing food, protection or both for birds to bears, as well as countless insects and spiders, among the enormous diversity of species”. His website,, encourages people to make their property into a park with native plantings, as he has done, in the section “Gardening for Life”.

Julie Brocklehurst-Woods has been a Master Gardener Volunteer with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Livingston County since 2002. She enjoys helping all gardeners become successful gardeners, especially helping people identify tools and strategies to prioritize and simplify their gardening tasks. She will answer gardening questions by email:

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