For Montclair Local

As spring approaches, you may be getting eager to sink your hands into your garden soil. This is the perfect time to rethink or reevaluate your garden, plan and put together a budget. Most important is to know about your plants and the plants that you are thinking about introducing to your garden. 

Before you decide anything, evaluate what is working and what is not meeting your expectations. Visualize what you want to change. If you have a mature garden, the trees and bushes are now taller and wider than when they were originally planted, and that shade affects the whole landscape. 

Sunlight exposure is particularly important. If you have plants that used to have full sun and are now in shade, you need to move them to a sunnier spot.

If you did not create the garden but inherited it from the previous homeowner, learn about your plants before you make any changes. Then start designing a layout that is more connected to you, reflecting your lifestyle and aesthetic values. 

If you are not an experienced gardener but want to learn the basics, there are some definitions that will help you to make wise decisions before rushing to the nursery to buy plants.

Ornamental plants are classified by the number of growing seasons required to complete their life cycle (growing, blooming and seeding). There are three major plant groups: annuals, biennials and perennials.

  • Annual plants: Any plant that completes its full life cycle in a single growing season is an annual. They are planted in the spring and die in the fall after seeding. In most cases, if you are not preserving the seeds you need to buy new plants the next growing season.
  • Biennial plants: Biennials are flowering plants with a two-year life cycle. In the first year, the plant grows, producing roots, stems and leaves, and in the second year it completes its life cycle by blooming and producing seeds. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is an example of a common native biennial.
  • Perennial plants: A perennial is any plant that lives more than two years. Perennials have a deeper root system than annual plants, allowing them to get nutrients from deeper in the soil, including nitrogen, which is essential for their development. 

Some other useful definitions:

  • Native plants: These are plants indigenous to a particular region. In North America, a plant is considered a native plant if it was present before European colonization. In the case of Montclair, it is best to think of native plants as those indigenous at least to the Northeast.
  • Cultivars: Cultivars are plants that have been developed by horticulturists, who over the time modified the plant for desired characteristics and maintained it by propagation. Cultivars are reproduced through cloning methods such as grafting, cutting, root divisions, layering, tissue culture, etc. Most cultivars, including nativars, are propagated by cloning, so that each plant has the same genetic makeup as the original species of the parent plant.
  • Nativars: A nativar is a native plant variant that was developed from a straight species (naturally occurring) native plant through human intervention. Nativars are propagated for many reasons: beauty, long-lasting blooming, insect or disease resistance, flower colors or forms, compact size, tolerance of certain environmental conditions and more. They are usually developed through a process of artificial selection in which plant breeders grow plants with the desired aesthetic characteristics and eliminate those with less desired characteristics. 

The distinction between native plants and nativars can be important, particularly if the development of the nativar changed important characteristics of the plant, such as color of leaves or shape of blooms, that may diminish or eliminate the usefulness of the plant to the pollinators and other insects that would rely on it in its natural (straight species) form. 

Nativars can be identified by checking for a variety name in the label of the plant or catalog. If you do not have the label, check the profile online and search for cultivars or the native specimens. To avoid being misled at the nursery or plants center, get the profile of the plants that you want from a reliable source. 

I never stop praising the use of native plants and encouraging people to include them in their landscaping. Native plants have an immediate beneficial impact on the environment. They are adapted to the weather conditions of the region and have co-evolved with local birds and insects in a harmonious balance. 

Many are also drought-tolerant and, once established, rarely need to be watered, conserving water for other uses as climate challenges grow. I encourage and support the use of native plants to promote biodiversity and improve the ecosystem health in gardens and landscapes. 

Of course, there are hundreds of introduced species of plants on the market, and people are likely to keep using them to some degree. But before planting a non-native, at least check carefully to be sure it is noninvasive. 

Some very popular non-native plants, including butterfly bush, Japanese barberry and burning bush, escape from gardens and spread into forests and other natural areas, where they crowd out the native species that are essential to support local wildlife, especially birds and pollinating insects. 

Given the environmental challenges we are facing, gardeners play an essential role in supporting native wildlife, and decisions on what to plant should emphasize supporting biodiversity by using native plants and, at the very least, not undermining it by planting invasive exotics.

Gardening does not necessarily need to be complicated, but knowledge is power. Be the Master Gardener of your home garden. And enjoy it!

Jose German-Gomez says he has not seen a more productive vegetable gardening season than this in years.
Jose German-Gomez says he has not seen a more productive vegetable gardening season than this in years.

Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.