By Henry Homeyer
I recently attended a talk and slide show by Dan Jaffe, a horticulturist at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Wales, Massachusetts. Dan Jaffe is a talented and passionate gardener who single-handedly tends 75 acres of woods, meadows and bogs.
Although building self-contained gardens on 75 acres seems like a lot for one man to do, he does it by working with nature instead of trying to shape nature to fit his will. I would like to share some of his ideas, because they make sense to me.
Dan Jaffe began by listing the problems to avoid. First, he says, don’t over-space what you plant. If a plant label suggests planting 24 inches apart, divide that by two or three (8-12 inches apart) to get a mature look in less time. Avoid bark mulch as much as possible – use spreading ground covers like moss flowers or wood phlox that will fill in quickly but won’t overpower other plants.
Trimming plants to limit size and thin out excessive growth is good, but trimming shrubs to “meatballs and rockets” is bad. Limit the lawn in a landscape. Don’t consider all insects pests: your native plants, in particular, are important food for pollinator larvae (which are, in turn, good food for baby birds). Don’t rake leaf litter in the fall – it is home to many beneficial insects. Leave short-lived perennials (like columbine) that set and deposit seeds so they can replenish themselves.
A key feature of a successful naturalistic garden is choosing the right plant for the right place. Start by doing a soil test before you start. And look at what is growing on your site before choosing plants – they can tell you a lot if you pay attention.
If the soil is poor, choose plants that grow well in nutrient-poor soils. It’s hard to get a sun-loving plant that needs a lot of moisture to thrive if you plant it in dry, sandy soil. After the first season, you shouldn’t have to water or fertilize your plants if you’ve selected them well.
So, for example, if you want lemon balm and you have dry, sandy soil, choose spotted lemon balm – Monarda punctata – instead of Monarda didyma, the top-selling variety. Yes, the latter is sold everywhere, but it needs rich, moist soil. It’s true that the common variety comes in many beautiful colors and the spotted lemon balm does not, but if you want a low maintenance garden, choose the right plant for the spot.
Learn that a given genus (a scientific grouping of biologically similar plants) has many species. Goldenrod (genus Solidago) has 53 species that grow in New England. True, some grow very large and spread by root quite aggressively. But there are other species that clump together, don’t run around out of habit, and all of them support pollinators very well. According to Dan Jaffe, goldenrods support 115 species of pollinators in our region.
Crowned goldenrod (Solidago caesia) is a delicate-looking species that I grow and love. It grows in shade or partial shade and blooms in the fall. I bought mine from The Garden in the Woods, a non-profit garden in Framingham, Massachusetts that sells many native plant species.
Another plant that Dan Jaffe loves is one that I also love, goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum). It will grow in sun or shade and does well anywhere except in soggy soils. Two great aspects of the plant are that it spreads politely and reblooms often. The best flowers are in the spring. It spreads by rhizome and can serve as a good groundcover with bright yellow star-shaped flowers about an inch in diameter. The foliage is beautiful and little developed. Dan said it’s easy to make cuttings that will grow if a node is buried directly in the ground. Technically a zone 5 plant, I grew it in cold zone 4 locations.
Shrubs are also good in a natural garden. The one Dan Jaffe loves is fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica). A related species, staghorn sumac (Rhus typina) is well known as a 10 to 15 foot tall roadside plant that spreads vigorously by root and can be a pest. But this one is shorter and better educated. Although its flowers are not showy, the fall foliage is excellent and the leaves are fragrant. It will reach 3 to 6 feet tall and spread, so it can be used as a ground cover.
Another shrub for tough dry, shady places is the maple-leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). Apparently it has fabulous fall color, from reds to dark purples. It only stands 4 to 5 feet tall when mature. It has beautiful white flowers in the spring and glossy black fruits in the fall. It is very cold tolerant, good in Zone 3.
Dan Jaffe didn’t tell us all to get rid of our lawns. He understands that lawns are fun for children and soothing to look at. But a big lawn isn’t the best way to support birds or pollinators. Native plants are.
Dan Jaffe and Mark Richardson wrote a wonderful book in 2018 called “Native Plants for New England” (Globe Pequot Press) which I highly recommend. It includes beautiful photographs and good information on growing trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that you might consider for your landscape. His website is www.dantjaffe.com.
Henry Homeyer can be contacted at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or [email protected]