Olney’s Flowers co-owner Will Olney candidly admits that when he and his wife, Emily, began their horticultural business almost five decades ago, his predilection for growing native plants and grasses made him the “laughing stock of the community.”
No longer: Their greenhouse, located at 2002 Black River Blvd. in Rome, attracts scores of environmentally conscious customers eager to follow his example.
“We need to think outside the box to find ways to save the environment that do not involve a huge investment of time or money and are fun to work on,” Olney states. His number one recommendation? Planting a “native garden” in small, less-than-fertile plots, which provide natural habitats for wildlife and food in the form of nectar, pollen and seeds. Additionally, the plots don’t need mowing and grow in either shady or sunny areas; environment-sensitive gardeners can cultivate serviceberry, winterberry holly and dogwood, which thrive on less water.
“Plants that are edible and decorative work extremely well in landscaping,” he notes. Blueberry bushes receive his five-star rating for their seasonal impact: The plants flower in the spring, yield summer fruit for humans and wildlife, and their foliage turns a blazing burgundy in the fall. He also suggests planting environment-friendly native species – elderberries, dogwoods and grasses.
Rosanne Loparco, Master Gardener Volunteer at Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County, also endorses using grasses – with this caveat: “Check what the mature size of the grass species will be. Some large grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis have been found to be invasive and should never be planted. “
For that reason, she vetoes plants such as burning bush, Japanese barberry and Euonymus fortunei (wintercreeper), in favor of highbush blueberry, American elderberry, and maple-leaf viburnum, plus big bluestem, a personal favorite native grass with showy plumes that attract birds, butterflies, and other pollinators, augmenting a sustainable food supply.
According to Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s publication, “Alternatives to Ornamental Invasive Plants,” invasive species rank high in causing international biodiversity loss. Many states, including New York, are taking steps to slow the spread by encouraging gardeners to grow alternative species.
Loparco recommends introducing one or two native plants in established gardens; if designing the landscape from scratch, she suggests using 70 percent pollinating plants. That way, the plantings provide year-round beauty, are cheaper to maintain in the long run, adapt more easily to the soil, and preserve the area’s biodiversity by attracting diverse insects and wildlife. Native plants also produce an estimated 50 percent more food for birds, plus attract twice as many native bees.
Nature conservationists express grave concerns regarding the survival of the majestic Monarch butterfly, which lays its eggs exclusively on certain species of milkweed. To mitigate this threat and nourish the insects ahead of their arduous cross-country migration, gardeners can start milkweed from seed if the plants are unavailable; online suppliers include Ernst Seeds (Pennsylvania), Select Seeds (Connecticut), and Prairie Moon Nursery (Minnesota).
Both Olney and Loparco note the benefits of hardscaping – adding decorative items including birdbaths, rocks and boulders – which translates into fewer plants to purchase, reduced maintenance overall, and added aesthetic interest.
As Olney notes, “The use of natural stone in landscaping is becoming increasingly popular. Depending on the part of the country where they are quarried, the stones have varied colors and texture. “
Olney advises purchasing plants from a reputable garden center and paying special attention to recommended soil amendments such as fertilizer, peat moss, compost and mulch – gardening tips gleaned from his long-standing experience in the field. He adds, “Choose plants you like and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Professionals like me are happy to share our expertise with dedicated landscapers as well as newcomers to the joy of gardening. “