Going Native: Local Flora are Low Maintenance and Provide Needed Habitat

Native plants used in a Sag Harbor property designed by Summerhill Landscapes.

Native plants have taken root as a prominent part of East End landscapes. Local grasses, perennials, shrubs, and trees have fundamental benefits to the ecosystem, creating critical habitats for scores of wildlife both on undeveloped land and in residential and commercial properties. Landscapers have experienced a notable uptick in demand for natural landscape projects. With their environmental value and low maintenance appeal, even a black thumb can help these plants thrive.

A heightened awareness of how landscapes impact wildlife has led to an increase in a desire for plants that provide the necessary habitats for them to succeed with a particular focus on pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies, as worldwide populations dwindle, threatening not only the species but food production. Solidago and Symphyotrichum novi-belgii, commonly known as goldenrod and New York aster, are bee-attracting perennials, and butterfly weed species like Asclepias, milkweed, are ideal for monarchs. While pollinators help native plant populations increase, they face the threat of garden-loving herbivores — deer.

“As the deer populations grows, the abundance of these plants can become less,” explains Summerhill Landscapes senior landscape designer Michael Donnellan. “Properties not accessible by deer will have more diverse plantings naturally, which is a greater habitat for insects and various other animals. Deer influence what we can plant. Native grasses have risen in popularity because they are deer resistant.”

Local native grasses include Pennsylvania sedge, little bluestem, and switchgrass. Incorporating these and other native plants into residential landscapes is a simple and cost-effective way to improve the population. They are easy to grow as they’re adapted to the soil and climate, don’t require fertilizer or pesticides, and often require less water. Because they are so low maintenance, the cost is primarily upfront for the plants themselves and installation with little to no professional upkeep needed after.

Donnellan has found that within the last year there’s been a strong movement toward natural landscapes over super manicured looks. It’s a trend that particularly complements contemporary structures well. Summerhill Landscapes endeavors to walk the fine line of using natural plants in a refined manner to give the impression these landscapes were “just slightly touched by man,” as Donnellan says.

Monarch butterflies will thank you for planting milkweed in your garden.

Jack Weiskott, owner of Ornamental Plantings, finds native plants have a larger presence in residential landscapes as well as greenhouses. Strong pollinators, like mountain mint, are used to attract predator wasps that keep other insect populations at bay. Butterfly weed is ideal for backyards and a top seller for the added benefit of attracting monarchs. Environmentalists often urge people to plant these to help aid populations, especially during migration periods.

Flowering natives are a favorite of Weiskott’s. “A native that has become more popular that I’m in love with is Amsonia,” he says of the plant commonly called bluestars. “It’s a willow-leaf variety, grass-like plant with little blue flowers that don’t last long. It turns an incredible golden color in the fall. It has a nice, soft look.”

Woody plants much often incorporated in natural landscapes are shrubs. Viburnum dentatum and Clethra alnifolia, known as arrowwood and summersweet, also attract bees. Myrica (Morella), commonly called bayberry, is very low maintenance and thrives with almost no water at all. It doesn’t need a lot of pruning to stay healthy and vibrant. Bayberry is also very tolerable to salt and wind, which is critical to East End landscapes.

Seashore natives are particularly significant for the East End, taking in salt air and sandy soil and even the occasional salt water flooding that would kill off most nonnative plants. Perhaps the most commonly recognized coastal plant locally is beach grass. Dunes are especially fragile, making it important to keep that entire environment sustainable. “People don’t realize when they’re at the beach how important these plantings are and that they should remain undisturbed,” Donnellan says. “They have a vital role in this entire landscape.”

Native plants work with the natural landscape rather than against it, benefitting the environment it becomes a part of. The layered benefits of using these plants is interwoven with the core beliefs of Marders. “The synchronicity continues with the area’s insects and wildlife, supporting bees, butterflies, birds and more,” says manager Jamie Kohl. “Native plants are a vital piece in creating landscapes that are beautiful and healthy.”

While the beauty of native plants is desired in decorative landscapes, in the wild they face many other threats. Invasive plant species, exotic predators, and land disturbance can have a dire impact on various species populations. Planting them in your garden is a simple way of aiding their success.

“Long Island native plants are an integral part of our local ecosystem,” says Owen Brothers Landscape Development landscape designer Mike Pospisil. “Native plants are a vital source of food and habitat for our local wildlife. The fauna of Long Island has co-evolved with native plant species and formed unique and beneficial symbiotic relationships.”

East End Landscapers Share Their Picks for Native Plants

Magnolia virginiana – Sweetbay Magnolia
A native tree with highly fragrant flowers throughout the summer months. This tree also attracts bees.  (summerhilllandscapes.com)


Catalpa speciosa – Northern catalpa Has the huge leaves and shape that make it a great shade tree, but also has usual clusters of white flowers that somewhat resemble snapdragons (marders.com)
Carpinus caroliniana – Firespire
An unusual variety of the native American Hornbeam tree that has fantastic dark red foliage in the fall. (marders.com)
Aronia – Chokeberry
Red fruit of Aronia, Chokeberry, is a native shrub high in vitamins used for ornamental plantings and in food products.
Myrica (Morella) – Bayberry
Native shrub that grows best with little water and will tolerate poor soils. Easy to maintain with little pruning, and deer resistant to date. (summerhilllandscapes.com)