Just for fun, I’m going to post an irregular series on native planting in NYC. I originally posted it at Medium but I’m duplicating it below. Calling all fellow gardeners and lovers of pollinators in these parts and beyond—advice, corrections, general shooting of the shit welcome. The first installment includes Virginia rose, arrowwood viburnum, various kinds of creeping phlox, some native grasses, and more, including a passing mention of false indigo, about which more soon.
For the past seven years I’ve been educating myself, little by little, about plants and trees native to this land of the Lenape people that we call the New York City Borough of Queens. I’ve experimented with containers, raised beds, and streetside plantings. Inevitably some attempts have been less successful than others. My “pollinator garden” in an old sidewalk tree bed — which I wrote about in a local paper several years ago — hasn’t worked out so far despite a few different gambits. But the Virginia rose I started in a large backyard container a couple years ago is big enough now that it’s newly transplanted to the front yard, along with a native blue wild indigo (baptisia australis) and a couple of (non-native) Zephirine Drouhin and a dwarf lilac.
A hardy native rose on a list of plants recommended by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and considered a native plant in significant decline by the NYC Native Plant Conservation Initiative, the Virginia rose is similar in appearance to the swamp rose, which is increasingly common in the city’s official streetside plantings near my beloved Forest Park. Both the Virginia rose (virginiana rosa) and the swamp rose (rosa palustris) have gorgeous pink blooms with yellow centers that provide nourishment for pollinators in summer and give way in the fall to shiny red rosehips that offer food for songbirds long into the winter. Virginia rose prefers full sun and slightly acidic sandy or loamy soil, but judging by what I’ve read and all the places I’ve seen it flourishing, it’s pretty adaptable. It’s salt resistant and has some level of drought tolerance. Last summer’s extended dry spell didn’t seem to faze mine at all. These plants grow to be four to six feet tall, so that’s something to keep in mind. A small container won’t work, and pruning will be necessary over time in a larger container. You’ll want some heavy-duty rose gloves to navigate the thorns.
As I was writing this, I decided to get another rosa virginiana for my next attempt in the old streetside bed. So I ordered one from Wild Ridge Plants, which according to the website grows all its own plants, and doesn’t use neonicotinoids (harmful to pollinators) or synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. I’ll let you know how it goes.
In the early months of the pandemic, I planted a dwarf arrowwood viburnum in a large backyard container after the novelist Emily St. John Mandel posted a photo of her own viburnum (also beautiful, but a different type entirely) on Instagram. The arrowwood viburnum (scientifically known as viburnum dentatum) is, according to a 1993 New York City Parks Department publication on Forest Park, so named because it was used by Indigenous people for arrow shafts. The first variety I picked up back in 2020 — Blue Muffin Virburnum — is freely available in major garden departments, but just make sure they don’t use neonicotinoids. The plant produces pretty clusters of delicate white flowers and will fruit if a companion is planted nearby. In 2021, after researching for another variety that could grow in a container, I ordered a companion plant from Classic Viburnums. Their “Little Joe” cultivar blooms at the same time as Blue Muffin, and this is the only place I’ve been able to find it. (You’ll have to email or call them to place an order, but in my experience they respond within a few days.) The foliage takes on a purplish hue come fall.
One caveat is that (as lifelong residents know far better than I) arrowwood viburnums were widespread in these parts until the viburnum leaf beetle began having its way with them about fifteen years ago, quickly skeletonizing the leaves and ultimately killing plant after plant across New York City. If you’re looking for a native species of viburnum that’s less susceptible, the maple-leafed fiburnum (viburnum acerifolium) withstands the beetles a little better and can still be found (to my amateur eye, at least) in Forest Park, and the nannyberry (viburnum lentago) is considered resistant. Both are recommended by the New York DEC.
Over the past couple of weeks, these two viburnums moved along with my lanceleaf coreopsis (naturalized in New York but not native), creeping phlox, some coral bells, and more into their new home: the smaller of two large raised beds designed and built by the team from Dig It Sustainable Landscape Design. Angeles Mojica, the owner, came up with our new backyard plan, which involves the beds — and most importantly a fence to block copious Round-Up spraying from the neighboring complex that has resulted in the loss of many plants over the years.
Last summer alone, between the herbicide and drought, I lost a forsythia, some dwarf bearberries, assorted wildflowers, and a couple of (non-native) dwarf cherry bushes (all grown in large containers). A gut punch, all of it. My common milkweed was pretty far from the open chain-link fencing but withered and grew stunted, as did my surviving (non-native) climbing roses growing in the raised bed along the fence. I was afraid to eat the berries, herbs, and tomatoes growing out back, all of which seemed affected even though they were several yards away. Now I won’t be. And I’m excited to get to know the other native plants Angeles has introduced into our yard. I’ll tell you about those in a future installment.
For native plants that work in both smaller and large containers, I recommend creeping phlox (phlox subulata), which grows easily in sun or part shade, blooms abundantly in spring, and is cultivated to produce flowers in a variety of colors, including blue, purple, white, pink and a “candy stripe” pink and white. If you’re thinking of a shady container, another type of creeping phlox (phlox stolonifera) is a good option, also available in a variety of colors. I grew “home fires” — a bright pink — for about six years, until it succumbed to drought last summer. In my experience, it was more prone to spreading and grew taller than subulata, which might be welcome, depending on your needs. Both varieties are excellent groundcover, good for preventing erosion. The stolonifera foliage holds its color a little bit in winter. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center, most varieties of phlox subulata are cultivars these days.
Herchera americana plants, often called coral bells, are also versatile, good for containers and yards. You can find varieties that produce the large festive leaves in various colors. I have a burgundy cultivar, with pretty light pink flowers, that came from Bluestone Perennials many years ago and has withstood all the Round-Up thrown its way since. Angeles put my coral bells throughout the new planters. These plants tend to prefer part shade or filtered sun, but in some varieties are receptive to full sun or larger amounts of shade. They flower in late spring or early summer.
Native grasses can also be a solid container addition. Pennsylvania sedge is a shorter option on the state’s recommended plants list, and the only one I personally have tried in a small container, until this year. Little bluestem is a taller grass, but you’d have to prune it and keep the roots trimmed. I’m trying the “standing ovation” cultivar in some smaller mixed planters out front this year, along with some yarrow. Birds like the seeds of both, and little bluestem is said to attract butterflies. For full shade containers, Christmas fern does well. And on the larger end of things, this week I was excited to discover berries on the American holly planted out front a couple of years ago. The birds will have options this winter.
Walking around my neighborhood, I’m heartened to see a few yards with wilder grasses and clover and native plantings here and there, but they’re still pretty rare in this part of Queens. I’d love to connect with other people planting natives, and also share some of my experience for anyone who’s interested in growing for pollinators and ecosystem support, so I thought I’d post about my plantings periodically. Whether starting with a small container or two or digging up tangles of invasive English ivy and pondering local natives that we might substitute for Japanese yew (or maybe I’m thinking of what needs to be done in my own front yard), we’re all in this together. Please bear in mind that I’m not an expert, just an interested amateur. Feel free to reach out with any corrections, or suggestions of your own.