Large or Small Garden Overhaul, Can't Go Wrong With Any of These Natives – The SandPaper

The Newsmagazine of Long Beach Island and Southern Ocean County

VIBRANT: Easy to maintain and tolerant of many different soil types, purple coneflower is among the best native species for any sunny space in the yard. (Supplied Photos)
Making over a space in the yard can be a fun project for the spring. But doing so shouldn’t mean it becomes an endless chore for years to come.
That’s where native plant gardens come in. Once developed, they’re easier to maintain. Natives require less watering and no fertilizer, and save money in the long run.
“If you’re going to overhaul a space and create a garden, go with natives to make it thrive,” said Karen Walzer, public outreach coordinator for the Barnegat Bay Partnership and co-leader of the Jersey Shore chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. “With a native plant garden, the groundwater is cleaner, and you’re developing a healthier yard because you’re not using toxic chemicals. At the same time, it’s mentally healthier for you because you’re creating a space that’s calming and soothing, teeming with life, and without the chemicals. Less watering, less fertilizer, lower costs. It’s a winning formula with a lot of benefits.”
Creating a native plant garden also is “a very good deed for the environment,” Walzer said. Not only will you help to restore some of the native species once lost by development, but native vegetation also supports local wildlife – whether they be insects, birds or even bats (they eat bugs, after all) – by giving them a perennial supply of food and shelter and helps to regenerate your immediate ecosystem.
“It’s actual restoration work,” Walzer said. “You’re restoring to the natural environment some of what had been lost and giving the local wildlife an opportunity to thrive. Pollinators are really important to the environment, so giving them opportunities to do their work is a good thing. That’s the unselfish part of creating a native garden. Then there’s the selfish part – that it’s really fun to watch all the life that comes to your yard.”
So, maybe, you have a space you’re looking to overhaul. What to do, right? Well, it doesn’t have to be elaborate, but a native garden is best when it has some variety. However, before you go scouring the Jersey-Friendly Yards website ( – which has a handy database of the multitude of species native to Southern Ocean County, but can quickly overwhelm the casual gardener who may not know what they’re looking for – take a look at this list of seven plant species Walzer recommends for any native plant garden:
FLAVORFUL: Common Ninebark flowers are delicious sources of food for many pollinators.
Common NinebarkPhysocarpus opulifolius is a spreading deciduous shrub that can grow to about 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide and produces clusters of pinkish-white flowers in later spring, providing a nectar source for bees. Clusters of red fruit provide food for birds throughout the summer. Highly tolerant of poor soil conditions, ninebark is best in full sun but also grows in partially shaded locations.
“Ninebark has a nice shape, with arching branches, and its bark exfoliates to expose a reddish inner bark for the winter, which offers a nice contrast when everything is kind of blah,” Walzer said. “It’s a vibrant plant that really does well in all soil types, and its drought tolerance is really high as well.”
Within a specific space, ninebark can be used as a singular background shrub to other native plants, or multiple plants can be grouped along a property line to create a hedge. Ninebark is a somewhat slow grower.
Seaside GoldenrodSolidago sempervirens is a hardy, salt-tolerant plant that thrives in full sun and can grow in a variety of soil types, including sandy and loamy soils. The dense, deep-yellow flowers of goldenrod are easily spotted by bees and butterflies of all kinds, and their dried seeds provide a great food source for birds. The plants also attract beneficial predatory insects, which eat pest insects in the garden.
“This is one tough plant that blooms from late summer right into October,” Walzer said. “And if there are pollinators of any kind nearby, this is the perfect flowering plant, and they will be there to feed. The one thing about goldenrod is that it is a spreader, but it can be controlled.”
Seaside Goldenrod – it’s OK to go with its cousin, the Showy Goldenrod, as well – is best grown in clusters, and depending on the exact lighting conditions, they can grow to as high as 6 feet, making them ideal as a central cluster or along the rear border of a specific space.
NICE ADDITION: The Dense Blazing Star is a beauty of a native plant that can turn any space into a pollinator’s paradise.
Dense Blazing Star – Now, let’s talk eye-popping beauty for a moment. Liatris spicata is just that – a stunning perennial that will make any garden space into an attractive location for all sorts of pollinating insects as well as various birds, particularly hummingbirds. With a bloom time of summer, the plant develops thick stalks that ultimately burst into fluffy purple flowers.
“It’s a very attractive native species, and its flowers start at the top of the stalk and slowly work their way downward as the season moves on,” Walzer said. “It has pretty good tolerance for drier soils, but it’s best to use it with moist soils and in full sun.”
Another species that can grow to 3 or 4 feet, Walzer says it’s one of those you want to grow en masse – they don’t spread much, so don’t skimp on their numbers, because the more ground they cover, the better off your native garden will be.
Butterfly Weed – In the milkweed family, asclepias tuberosa is a long-blooming, drought-tolerant and highly beneficial perennial with lovely, clustering orange flowers that often attract bees, hummingbirds and multiple species of butterflies, including the Monarch, Queen and Gray Hairstreak. Once the flowering season of June into August is complete, the plant develops attractive seed pods that can be cut and used in dried flower arrangements.
“It’s such a great plant for pollinators, and it’s really tolerant of drought and various soil types,” Walzer said. “The thing to remember with butterfly weed is that once you put it in place, you have to leave it there. They have a deep tap root that doesn’t do well with transplanting.”
Another slow grower that is best in clusters, butterfly weed maxes out at about 3 feet, and its spread ranges between 1 and 2 feet. Make sure it has plenty of sun as well.
Purple Coneflower – Acquiring a variety of coneflowers from several farms throughout the region is easy, but Walzer recommends the truest native of the bunch, echinacea purpurea, with its drooping, pinkish-purple rays extending from its prominent, nectar-rich centers – a favorite for all kinds of pollinators, especially butterflies and bees.
“You just can’t go wrong with adding purple coneflowers to your garden,” Walzer said. “They’re interesting flowers. They’re long bloomers, extending into the fall sometimes, and they support a large range of pollinators. But the best part with coneflowers is you can put them in the ground and forget about them. They’re easy to maintain.”
FINE AND DANDY: Little Bluestem is a small, ornamental grass perfect for all sizes of native plant gardens, helping to control erosion and giving birds a feeding source during the winter.
Also best in clusters, coneflowers grow up to 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide, but they can grow in any soil type, even clay. Full sun is recommended for maximum growth and flowering output, but they do quite well in partial shade as well, giving the local pollinators some hardy flowers to enjoy for months.
Little Bluestem – Want to accent the corners of a space really nicely while helping with erosion control? Shizachyrium scoparium is a solid choice. This relatively small, ornamental grass is a beauty, with blueish leaf blades at its base that turn green at its tips. During its bloom time in August, Little Bluestem delivers purplish-blue-bronze flowers, and eventually its dried seed heads turn silvery-white for the winter.
“Little Bluestem doesn’t get big, it’s not too thick, and it’s very complementary to other native species,” Walzer said. “It’s also a very well-behaved type of grass. It stays contained to a space and doesn’t spread more than a couple of feet, and its seed heads offer food for birds into the fall and winter. It’s a great plant.”
Little Bluestem grows best in full sun and has a high tolerance for drought, but it can grow in loamy, sandy or clay soil without problem. Maximum height is about 4 feet.
American HollyIlex opaca is an evergreen tree best known for its spine-tipped leaves and bright red berries, which only female hollies bear. The tree blooms with tiny, greenish-white flowers in late spring, typically May or June, and provides a nectar source for honeybees and butterflies. These trees also serve as a host for caterpillars, and the berries serve as food for birds throughout the winter months.
“It’s just a lovely tree,” Walzer said. “It does well in different light conditions and grows in dry or moist soil types. You have to be careful with them because they can get tall, up to 40 feet, but they’re very slow growers, too, so it will take a long time, decades, before they get to full height.”
When planting, it’s best to do so in groups of three or four and, because these trees are dioecious – meaning the species has separate male and female plants – make sure a male is nearby to multiple females. Once they start growing, they can be pruned in a variety of decorative shapes without harm.
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