Bring Home the Beauty of New England
And turn your landscape into a haven for birds, bees, and other wildlife
By filling your garden with New England native plants, you bring the region’s distinctive beauty into your home landscape. You also add a link to the chain of life that connects your backyard to the wilder habitats beyond: native plants provide food and shelter for the birds and animals around you. They also use less water, clean the air, and help to manage the flow of water.
Most of the plants we sell are grown from seed that we harvest sustainably from wild populations throughout the region, which ensures genetic diversity. That’s important, especially because most commercial nurseries sell clones—genetically identical specimens—of plants originally from somewhere else, which means they're not adapted to our region's conditions.
Every clone you plant contributes to an impoverished, increasingly generic landscape that fails to support local wildlife, lacks resistance to diseases and pests, and is more likely to require pesticides. And a garden of clones is apt to look as lackluster as it sounds. Here you will learn more about the stunning native plants that will thrive in your garden. Then browse our classes, webinars, and books to build on the basics.
What Is Native?
The simple answer is that these were the plants likely to have been growing here before Europeans arrived.
For horticultural purposes, we define "native plants" as those that naturally occur in the ecoregion containing New England. Ecoregions are large areas that share similar climates, geology, landforms, and hydrology, giving rise to communities of plants that have adapted to these conditions over millennia.
Though designating a time marker for "native" is complicated, most botanists agree that the arrival of the first European settlers makes sense, in part because that makes it easier to determine which plants migrated on their own and which were introduced from outside the region.
Species migrate constantly; in fact, every plant species in New England has migrated northward since the last ice age. When plants migrate into an area on their own, they do so slowly, typically by natural movement of seed by wind, animals, and water. Natural migration is obstructed by geographic barriers, like oceans and mountain ranges. When people move plants, they can do so rapidly and across great distances, introducing species that may become either naturalized (that is, benignly established in the wild) or invasive.
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How Activists in Somerville, MA, Helped Pass a Native Plant Ordinance
An interview with Horticulturist David Falk
In spring 2021, the City of Somerville, MA (pop. 81,360), passed a Native Plant Ordinance requiring that native species are planted on city-owned land. The required percentage of native plants varies according to the type of public space being planted. Green & Open Somerville, an organization advocating to improve and increase green space in Somerville, focusing on ecological restoration and climate change resiliency, worked for three years with city council members to initiate and draft the ordinance, which the council passed unanimously in March 2021. Native Plant Trust Horticulturist and Somerville resident David Falk, who works at Garden in the Woods, volunteered his time on this initiative and explains how Green & Open Somerville worked with officials to pass the ordinance.
"I became involved in the ordinance when creating a pollinator garden with Green & Open Somerville, an advocacy group I work with. In drafting the ordinance, I was part of the push to require percentages of native species in the city's plantings for various public projects, instead of just making recommendations, as other ordinances do for other cities. In riparian areas, the Community Path, and the Green Line Extension corridor, the city is required to use 100 percent native species. Seventy-five percent of park plantings must be native, as well as 50 percent of all street trees.
"I also helped to come up with a list of plants native as close to eastern Massachusetts as possible, instead of the city’s original list, which included anything east of the Mississippi River. The whole point is ecology, supporting our birds and our bugs. The use of nonnatives is okay, as long as there is no negative ecological impact. Native plants that are native to other parts of the US are not necessarily harmful, but they don’t fully support the native ecology of this area.
"There’s a constant feeling that native plants aren’t going to work in the city. You can see in the press release on the city’s website, their language is still resistant. They have to say 'we don’t know if this is going to work, but you can thank these three people.'
"Stephen Handel, who lectures about ecological restoration at Harvard, came to one of our meetings. He sees the need for ecological restoration, but he understood the city’s skepticism about native plants. It’s true that many native species won’t work. But how about elderberry and sumac and asters and goldenrods, little bluestem—they’re busting out of our sidewalks? If you start looking and noticing, you’ll see native plants all over the place that already are growing here. People either don’t know these plants or think of them as weeds. Those plants could be butterfly habitat that thrives in vacant lots. Steve Handel came around and agreed that there are a lot of native plants that can work. As people come to know those plants better, I think they are going to want to see them in public spaces. Goldenrod, sumac, red cedar—they may seem like weeds when they’re popping up just anywhere, but if planted aesthetically and well, they will look quite respectable in the city.
"In drafting the ordinance, we needed to tie human value to overall ecology, because trees are so important to the human landscape, in addition to being the foundation of the ecosystem. In communicating with city officials, you always have to put humans front and center, because they need to make that point to their constituents. However, when we are talking about trees, whether it's for human benefit or not, trees already are front and center to all the other life that shares our land. The decisions we make about our trees and how we treat them have a huge effect on the ecosystems around us.
Undeveloped site of pollinator garden at Somerville's Morse-Kelley School playground, corner of Summer and Craigie Streets, ©David Falk
"We drew on ordinances and plant lists other cities have done, including Lexington, MA, and Seattle, and parts of New York City. It all comes down to public education and involved citizens. One of the sticking points, which appears at the end of the ordinance, is that we wanted to add a list of prohibited invasive species, such as Japanese Zelkova trees (Zelkova serrata [Thunb.]), that are now listed as invasive farther south, though not yet considered invasive here. The city argues that they need to plant trees from farther south based on warming temperatures, but on the other hand argues against banning species that are on the invasive lists in those places. This doesn't make logical sense. It will take more time to work this out.
"At the time we started working on the ordinance, the group was trying to get the city to think outside of the box about their choices of street trees, both the species and the size. I think only about 60 percent of Somerville’s newly planted street trees have an average life span of five years. In attending public meetings and having discussions with city officials, I learned a lot about why this happens, and also about the city’s process of choosing plants for public spaces. The city has to observe several requirements that limit their choices, including the size of trees they plant, which have to be three-inch calliper [diameter], mainly so they won’t be hit by trucks, or so they will appear in scale with their surroundings. But planting a tree that size is very problematic for the tree, because its roots get pretty damaged when it’s taken out of its original location, even in a nursery. Also, they can plant only trees that will survive in ball-and-burlap, which limits the species of tree they can use. For example, white oak and hickory, which would be great street trees, develop a tap root early in life and won’t survive a transplant at a three-inch caliper size, because the tap root gets damaged.
"By the way, a three-inch caliper tree is a big tree, costing more than $1,000. People responsible for planting the street trees justify the cost because they envision them being there for hundreds of years. That might have been true a long time ago, but with today’s planting techniques, these trees will never live that long, because too much damage has already been done to the roots. Why not plant shorter-lived species that can take more stress and grow faster and plant them with smaller specimens of the long-lived species? This could save money as well as energy used to grow them and get them to the site. That’s just an example of how we could do things differently and be more likely to get better results.
"Also, for many reasons it would be better to not use mulch in our tree wells—better for the trees and the environment. Mulch is used now partly because of public perception—people think that’s what’s best for the tree. Using ground covers would do a lot more to help the health of the tree. Some people still think planting other things with the tree would be competition for the tree, because that’s how we used to think plants worked. Now we know that additional plants build life in the soil, help with rain- water infiltration, and help insulate the ground from the sun and wind, keeping the soil at a more consistent temperature and reducing evaporation. We’ve been working on a list of preferred plants to mix with street trees that actually feed the tree, such as legumes that fix nitrogen, though almost any plant would be an improvement over mulch.
"The city also must take the lowest bid, and they can’t control where the plants come from, which means that plants they buy may be treated with systemic pesticides. Established relationships with contractors make it difficult to push past that. The ordinance can’t do much about that, but it does call for the city to work toward finding sources of plants that haven’t been grown with pesticides.
"Another issue is that no one oversees the contractors during planting, and sometimes trees are doomed because they are improperly planted in an already harsh environment. The city is trying to do better by encasing the roots in giant iron cages that prevent compaction and using soils engineered especially for street trees. These techniques are expensive, so you can’t use them everywhere.
"Most of these limitations stem from the fact that the city has to make the public happy, and the public wants to see a tree of a certain size. But that is bad horticultural practice. This is largely a public-education issue.
The Morse-Kelley School pollinator garden after planting, ©David Falk
"Our group has already started talking directly to the public about plantings in public spaces. We go to farmers markets, provide pamphlets, and talk to people. Trying to influence officials is one way to go, but when they’re under so much pressure from the public, you need people in meetings, writing letters. It’s all training and education. We have started making some signs that talk about these issues in the pollinator garden we did for the city, but we’d like to do more. There are programs to have people adopt trees and water them, but we still need more education out there about how to keep trees healthy, for dog walkers, for instance. They probably don’t realize how toxic dog urine is for trees. I take care of a little public park that I designed and replanted. When I’m out there working, people ask me questions, so there is obviously interest. There’s still the need to have educators involved. Particularly when we are talking about native plants and ecology there just aren’t that many people out there with much experience. People may know gardening, but the techniques are different when you work with native, wild plants.
"In conversations with all officials during the ordinance project, I’ve tried to encourage people to think about the city’s trees more as a managed forest, composed of trees in different stages of succession, with varying life spans. In a forest, tree mortality plays a huge part in the health of the overall system. A landscape that is maintained to exclude natural mortality is an unhealthy system. And that’s what our urban landscapes are. Without branches and leaves on the ground, soil can’t develop. Without healthy soil, no tree will have a long, healthy life. If we really want healthy city trees, we need to manage our landscapes differently, and less intensively.
"Again, we come up against public perception—if a branch lies on the ground, most people will see it as messy, and they are going to complain about it, and they are not going to care if it is a healthy mess or not. There is also room for improved management practices that can appeal to more people. As a professional gardener, you learn quickly the need for a landscape to look cared-for. If the city were simply to process the raw materials of the urban forest that are so important to the health of the system, such as by shredding the leaves and chipping the branches and then placing them back on the site, instead of trucking them off someplace out of sight, everyone would benefit—people, trees, life generally. I’d argue it would be cheaper and look better too. It would look cared for and healthy in a way that it doesn’t now, and that would be an inspiration rather than an issue. So there is both a public-education component and a management component to improving the city landscape.
"I’m not experienced in politics, and what’s so amazing to me is that people in the city government were willing to talk with us. That has been really educational for me. I’ve been going to meetings with various officials and members of the public for three years. I brought what technical knowledge I had, but that knowledge wouldn’t have gotten the ordinance passed. The real energy to get it done came from Victoria (Tori) Antonino and Renee Scott, cofounders of Green & Open Somerville, who went to and set up a lot of meetings and created those relationships with the officials who ultimately passed the ordinance.
The Morse-Kelley School pollinator garden, summer 2021, ©David Falk
"Of the elected officials, City Councilor Katyana Ballantyne worked most closely with us. She wanted to see this happen and invited us to meetings and listened to our information. Everyone wants to do the right thing, but it’s very hard to accomplish. Somerville is not a wealthy city, and jobs and affordable housing take precedence over trees. At one point in the process, we were getting discouraged. Then Katyana Ballantyne got involved. She helped us tweak the language and come up with something that could appeal to more people and get passed. For instance, for now we might have to allow popular plants like Buddleia [davidii] that are becoming invasive farther south, in order to get some goldenrod planted. At least we get some positive experimentation out of the compromise.
"It was also fascinating to learn how the city works and to develop a relationship with city officials, particularly the city landscape architect and arborist. Having attended meetings and asked questions about horticultural practices, I learned that neither of these professionals knew much about the importance of using natives. They have to work with construction workers and more industrial projects, so their focus is elsewhere. At times it was hard to work with them, though they are both great and care about what they do and about improving the city. They sometimes resisted our suggestions and were skeptical of the feasibility of using native plants— whether they would survive in the city or whether the city could even find them for sale. Eventually, we made progress and built a relationship. They even have contacted me for planting suggestions and plant lists a couple of times, which was a welcome surprise."