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Publication: The Southampton Press - Eastern; Western; The East Hampton Press

 Date: Jul 2, 2009;

 Section: RESIDENCE;

 Page: R13

 

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Maria Daddino and Suzanne Ruggles, pictured at Ms. Daddino’s backyard garden in East Quogue, are both avid native plant gardeners. BETH YOUNG

 

Naturally Beautiful Gardens 

Going wild for native plants

 By Beth Young 


Deer, 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 pesticides.

Ms. Daddino also practices biodiversity and welcomes the wildlife that visit her property.

“Possums clean up rotting fruit from the trees. They eat slugs,” said Ms. Daddino. “I’m praying every night that the possum will come.”

She 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.

Of 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 philosophy.

“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.”

Both 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 Federation.


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.

One 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.”

At 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.”

 
Suzanne Ruggles explains why a natural lawn can be just as beautiful, and a lot less work,than a “trophy lawn.” BETH YOUNG PHOTOS
 

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