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How and Why To Plant Native

The natural gardening movement, with roots in the Hudson Valley three decades ago, is taking on new life to support biodiversity.

by Dalvin Aboagye
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Like many, Millbrook resident Liselotte Vince earned her green thumb as a kid years ago, when beauty was the big goal. Whatever perennials or annuals caught her mother’s eye found a spot in their yard. “I don’t think a lot of attention was paid to what kind of plants we were using,” Vince says. “You kind of just bought what was available or appealed to you at the nursery.” Flowers and shrubs were planted to complement the green carpet of a lawn style that originated with Europe’s wealthy landowners, rolled out here in the late 18th century and has been underfoot across the U.S. ever since. 

Instead of pollen-rich sunflowers that would support about a dozen bee species, precious space in a typical American yard could be taken up by a number of unfamiliar flowers shipped from some far-off locale. The caterpillars that would otherwise eat the wild grasses and weeds of unkempt lawns might go hungry, unable to continue life as monarchs or further fuel the food chain as sustenance for birds. For decades, very few people thought about how the choices they made caring for their front and backyards affected the ecosystem around them. 

Rich in pollen, a sunflower may support up to 12 bee species. (Photo: Liselotte Vince)

The late Hudson Valley resident Sara Stein was among the select few who considered environmental impact. Her 1993 book, Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards, shook the gardening world to its core. She advocated for practices that were anything but widespread in the U.S. at the time, including creating wildlife habitat and and planting native species. On her Westchester property, she maintained woodland, prairie, swamp, and rock barren habitats to support biodiversity. (Though she died some 15 years ago, the buyers of her home carefully maintain her land in its pleasantly wild state, and people can still visit the gardens in Pound Ridge on certain open dates).

Nearly 3 decades back, Stein might have sounded like a voice in the wilderness, but in the past couple years, the natural-gardening movement has taken on fresh life. Douglas Tallamy, a University of Delaware entomologist, has led the new calls to go native with his bestselling book Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. Entire ecosystems have been disrupted, and wildlife and insect populations are declining across the U.S. and beyond. The solution, Tallamy says, lies in a single bit of advice President Teddy Roosevelt gave in response to the proposed mining of the Grand Canyon back in 1908: “Leave it as it is.”

And that’s what native gardening is all about: Choosing and maintaining plants native to an area that co-evolved with the surrounding flora and fauna. It’s what Vince has been doing for several years now, ever since learning about the practice through courses at the New York Botanical Garden. When scouring through her property, she favors planting and keeping native plants like echinacea, coneflower, milkweeds, Joe Pye weed and blazing star while curtailing the growth of invasive species like mugwort, loosestrife and more. 

Pollinators feed on coneflower in Liselotte Vince’s garden. (Photo: Liselotte Vince)

“Not everything does well for me, and I’ve killed plants,” Vince says. “But you keep trying, and you try new things.” A fresh pile of fall foliage might be left as is or shredded to make mulch for the soil. Part of native gardening is being comfortable with what’s not perfect. Her family still has a grass lawn, but she chooses not to spray anything on it. It’s rife with crabgrass and weeds of all kinds.

As a beekeeper, she makes a special point to avoid any pesticides or other chemicals that would harm her hive. The sensitivity both insects and animals show to certain plants or pesticides is something that can’t be overlooked. Something as simple as a lack of nonnative plants can completely throw off the nesting and eating habits of songbirds by repelling the insects they rely on as food and hindering or outright stopping their ability to breed in an area. 

In her lawn and garden, Liselotte Vince refrains from using any chemicals or pesticides, which would affect her bees. (Photo: Liselotte Vince)

“We have gardened and landscaped throughout the last 300 years to encourage alien plants to replace natives and disrupt ancient ecosystems,” says Diane Greenberg, co-owner of the Catskill Native Nursery. “Our ecosystems do not have the ability to adapt quickly enough to remain stable and healthy, and now we are seeing the consequences in form of far fewer birds, amphibians, bats and insects.”

Here in the Valley, you can see firsthand the damage invasive species have caused. The woolly adelgid was likely introduced on ornamental Japanese hemlocks. It leaves many hemlock trunks looking like coatracks as all but the stubs of their branches fall off before the trees ultimately die. And barberry, another ornamental that got loose from gardeners, supports higher tick populations, helping incubate more Lyme disease.

A pleasant tangle of native plants at Catskill Native Nursery in Kerhonkson. (Photo: Catskill Native Nursery)

The mutual benefits of a thriving ecosystem become clear if you think beyond wildlife habitat and view humans as a part of nature. Gardening can encompass growing local food or medicinal herbs and include tangible benefits for the body and mind, says Bryan Quinn, founder of One Nature, a landscape construction, plant nursery and consulting business based in Beacon. “The other side of it is that the garden, and the land in general, is an opportunity for self-nourishment,” Quinn says. “So much of our environmental problems come from our own illness or sickness.”

Inspired to do all you can for a balanced earth in your own backyard, or even on your apartment balcony? Starting online, there are a number of resources you can turn to. The Audubon Society maintains a database by ZIP code of native plants that attract birds, and the National Wildlife Federation hosts a similar model focused on benefiting moths and butterflies. Regional native gardening groups and forums are growing, too. And when you plant native, consider marking your action on eco-nectar, an interactive mapping project started in the Hudson Valley.

Offline, consult books, knowledgeable neighbors, your local native plant nursery or a regional resource like the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College. To deepen your reading, consider a seminar: the Poughkeepsie Public Library is holding one on Nature’s Best Hope this spring. Between all these sources, it shouldn’t be long before you’ll be able to choose the right plants, ID any invasive species and support more biodiversity in your own backyard.

Dalvin Aboagye is a writer based in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. He’s also written for The River and Thrillist.

More in this series

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Centuries-old apple varieties that were almost pushed out by industrialization have started to get popular again in the Hudson Valley...
The poor, acidic, and shallow soil on top of the Shawangunk Ridge was never ideal for farming — but it...
With all the emphasis on native plants these days, you’d be forgiven for shaking your head when stumbling across a...
The Valley may not host showy fields of tulips or bluebonnets. Yet for the hikers, painters, students, explorers, photographers and...
A decade ago, Bryan Meador was an art student in New York City alienated by too much concrete. He felt...

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

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editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
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