A recent visit to the Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary (CIWS) in Stamford, CT was truly a feast for the senses. It was a dull, dreary day and I was the only person walking around CIWS. But the garden was teeming with activity. The sounds of birds and insects were all around me, a steady buzz that filled my ears. Birds and butterflies were flitting about, sampling the late season feast. And who know what kinds of local wildlife was skulking around in between the lush, tall grasses.
CIWS is a relatively new habitat garden here in Stamford. The 11-acre sanctuary, formerly used as a dumping ground by the city, has been transformed into an oasis for both native plant and native wildlife lovers. It truly is a birder’s paradise, it was even the temporary home last year to a wayward South American bird, the Fork-Tailed Flycatcher, who somehow lost its way while migrating.
Here’s a quick look at the autumn splendor of this native plant garden…
But as I was walking around CIWS, initially looking at it from a habitat gardener’s perspective, I realized there were some important garden design lessons to be learned here, too.
Mix It Up
I’m sure some of the native plant purists reading this post are about to yell at their computers, but I think it’s perfectly acceptable in home gardens to mix native plants and non-invasive non-native plants, including annuals. As you can see from this photo, the simple introduction of the bright red annual Saliva coccinea ‘Lady in Red’ adds not only visual interest to the garden but also some late season nectar.
‘Lady in Red’ acts like a beacon, you can see her from the parking lot, beckoning you to come closer and take a look at her treasures. Every garden needs a few drama queens to spice things up. Using annuals let’s you mix things up and try out new color schemes without making a lasting commitment.
Plant in Multiples
I remember when I first starting gardening, I lusted after so many different plants and I just had to have them all. So I bought one of everything and planted them all in my garden. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my garden looked, well, silly - there was no continuity, no rhythm, no sense of balance or symmetry.
From a garden design perspective, it’s best to choose just a few different plants and then plant them in multiples. Instead of choosing three different coneflower cultivars, do some research, find the one that will perform best in your garden and then plant three different plants of the same cultivar together. Not only will your garden look better, the local wildlife will appreciate that arrangement, too.
A quick look at this photo shows the perennials, grasses and even the conifers in the distance are all planted in multiples. The garden flows better than if there were one of this and one of that planted all over the place. It’s easy to translate this design principle, even on a much smaller scale, into your own garden.
Wildlife gardeners understand how important it is to include native plants that offer fall fruits and berries in their gardens. They are an important food source for an array of wildlife after all. But if you look at the same native trees and shrubs purely from a landscape design perspective, they still deserve a place in your garden. They offer a much-needed pop of color and add another layer of texture to your garden at a time when, let’s face it, many of your other plants are declining.
And don’t forget, those same native trees and shrubs also flower in the spring, so you get at least two seasons of interest from them. Many also have attractive, brightly colored fall foliage, adding another season of color to your garden. These multi-seasons trees can have a major impact on gardens of all sizes, but especially in small gardens where each plant must earn its keep.
The next time you’re in a large-scale native plant garden like the Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary remember to slow down and look around with your garden designers’ glasses on. There are so many lessons to be learned here that you can take home and make your own wildlife garden beautiful.
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