Daddino and Suzanne Ruggles, pictured at Ms. Daddino’s backyard garden in East
Quogue, are both avid native plant gardeners. BETH YOUNG
Going wild for
groundhogs, bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all work together to create a
backyard habitat of lush splendor in Maria Daddino’s wild natural garden in East
Quogue. The backyard garden, certified by the National Wildlife Federation, is
Ms. Daddino’s personal slice of heaven. “People say it’s like a garden of Eden
here,” she said proudly during a recent interview at her home. A firm believer
in native planting, Ms. Daddino, along with gardener Suzanne Ruggles, who is
known throughout the area as The Barefoot Gardener, said they are hoping that
their choices of showcasing native species will prompt a trend toward native
plants, which are often given short shrift in nurseries throughout the East End.
A lover of plants and animals, Ms. Daddino, who writes the “From Fourth Neck”
column for The Press, is passionate about providing a refuge to the East End
wildlife uprooted by the steady march of human progress and construction. And
Ms. Ruggles, a self-described staunch opponent of “the trophy lawn,” said the
pursuit of unnatural gardening is ruining the environment.
The concept of an expansive lawn began in feudal times in Europe, when a
well-chewed swath of grass in front of a home was a status symbol, a sign that
the owner had a lot of livestock. Now, football field-sized, painstakingly
manicured lawns are the new status symbol for many East Enders.
According to Ms. Ruggles, between 60 and 90 percent of earthworms are killed
when chemicals are used on lawns. She added that the act of creating a
monoculture—an agricultural practice of producing or growing one single crop
over a wide area—of grass makes it difficult for native insects, birds and
animals to call a well-kept lawn their home.
Ms. Ruggles reported that her philosophy is to create biodiversity instead of a
monoculture. As an example, she will grow pots full of plants that are the
favorite foods of groundhogs in order to attract the animals who will then eat
most of the dandelions in her clients’ gardens. Instant dandelion control sans
Ms. Daddino also practices biodiversity and welcomes the wildlife that visit her
“Possums clean up rotting fruit from the trees. They eat slugs,” said Ms.
Daddino. “I’m praying every night that the possum will come.”
went on to explain that all animals are welcome at her house, even the deer that
many East Enders dread. Ms. Daddino’s deer strategy is varied. For one, there’s
enough lush vegetation throughout her garden that it’s hard for the untrained
observer to even notice where the deer have been.
The nature lover said she plants hostas (that she bought on sale) by the edge of
the woods specifically to give the deer a food source that they will prefer to
her other plants. Many of her larger shrubs are eaten around the height of a
deer’s mouth, but are lush both above and below a deer’s preferred grazing
height. Contrary to what many might think, Ms. Ruggles said that a native animal
can actually help stimulate the growth of a plant. She said that most
relationships between native plants and native insects and animals are symbiotic
ones. The animals eat a little bit of the plant, but they also help to spread
its seeds all throughout the garden, ensuring a much lusher and more dense
habitat. Ms. Ruggles defines a wild flower garden as one that is low
maintenance, is established after two years and doesn’t need any fertilizer or
water. Another characteristic of her gardens is that she doesn’t dead-head
flowers after they’ve died, which ensures that the seeds are spread by birds
after the official season has passed.
all the plants around, Ms. Ruggles can say bad things only about Russian olives,
which were once cultivated on Long Island as a plant loved by birds, but have
become incredibly invasive.
“If there’s a native plant, there’s a native bird or animal that depends on it
for their survival,” said Ms. Ruggles.
Ms. Daddino said she is reaping the aesthetic benefits of her biodiversity based
“Nature is a more artistic gardener than we would ever be,” she said. “I always
wonder where the plants are going to pop up this year.”
women recommend the National Wildlife Federation’s website (nwf.org) for advice
on what plants are native to Long Island, as well as a list of native plants
that is available on East Hampton Town’s website (town.east-hampton. ny.us) They
also recommend the native gardening books written by Ken Druse. Local suppliers
of native plants are sparse, according to the two women, but their numbers are
growing, and Ms. Ruggles urges prospective native gardeners to ask nurseries to
stock plants that would naturally be found on Long Island.
Maria Daddino’s East Quogue garden has been certified by the National Wildlife
Fort Pond Native Plants in Montauk specializes in indigenous plants, while
the Peconic River Herb Farm in Riverhead also sells some natives. Marders in
Bridgehampton has its own line of wildflower seeds, which are used to create
everything from meadows to butterfly and bee-friendly gardens.
“What are you trying to achieve with this wildflower garden?,” asked Charlie
Marder, who owns the nursery business Marders. “Do you want something native,
showy, meadowy? Do you want to mix in shrubs? What purpose is this meadow
supposed to provide to you?” He said that wildflower gardeners can use mixes
that have a lot of annuals: cosmos, bachelors buttons—things that have a lot of
color. There’s also a meadow mix, with fescues and native grasses that is
popular at Marders.
Addressing the non-plant parts of the garden, Mr. Marder threw out a few more
questions. “Another level is what kind of habitat do you want to create for who?
Birds, you have to make sure the bees are accommodated. They’re not yellow
jackets. They come with the joy of the garden,” he said.
of the most important things to do when creating a wildflower garden is to
prepare the soil properly, rooting out weed seeds and ensuring a constant ground
cover to keep them from choking out the wildflowers, according to Mr. Marder.
“There’s traditionally a misunderstanding that you take a can of seed, walk
along and throw it over your shoulder and create pixie dust ... And like a Peter
Pan lady with a wand, it turns into a miraculous, forever, always giving flowery
experience. It’s really not true.”
Ms. Daddino’s house, some wild plants that have showed up on their own are
fostered—from burdock to plantain to mare’s tail to a patch of wintergreen on
the edge of the forest encroaching on the edges of her one-acre paradise, all
these plants have found a place in a truly native garden.
She is now working on the edge of her garden, where it dissipates into the
woods, to create a fairy glen. She said she’d like to re-create a place that she
recalls from a horseback riding memory from years ago, saying she envisions it
will be a place where her grandchildren—5-year-old triplets and a 3-year-old—can
create their own natural kingdom.
Ms. Ruggles said that kids can benefit greatly from the joys of Mother Nature.
“If you give a child a toy, he’s limited by the mind of the person who created
that toy,” she said. “Nature is infinite.”
Ruggles explains why a natural lawn can be just as beautiful, and a lot less
work,than a “trophy lawn.” BETH YOUNG PHOTOS