Why Native Plants Will Boost Your Garden Design

Landscape architect Christopher LaGuardia shares his insight.
Modern Indoor Outdoor Pool House

Photograph by Anthony Crisafulli

HC&G sat down with Christopher LaGuardia, founder, LaGuardia Design Group, and author of the brand-new book Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons (Monacelli Press) to discuss his compelling garden designs. Inspired by his local surroundings, LaGuardia is keen on incorporating native plants. Landscape design isn’t all about finding the most beautiful plants, but choosing those that will thrive in their environment.

Why use native trees and shrubs in garden designs?

Christopher LaGuardia: I use natives because I know they are going to do well in our environment and not look like some random plants from who knows where. Plants native to the Northeast are particularly useful near the ocean because they are salt tolerant, hardy, and often deer resistant. They also provide habitat and food for insects, pollinators, and birds and in some cases even create biodiversity where previously there may have been none.

What is your go-to native tree or shrub?

Bayberry, without a doubt, is the most versatile plant on the East End. It can be used in hedges or as small trees or shrubs, it’s deer resistant, and it grows in full sun to partial shade. It has wonderful green foliage in the summer and very clean branches in the winter. I am also very fond of shadblow, which has beautiful flowers and a windswept, “Montauk look.”

Huge Lake House with Inground Pool

Photograph by Anthony Crisafulli

How do you see gardens evolving in the future?

Early in my career, there was a big shift from woody plants to blocks of perennials, in the style of Oehme, van Sweden. There was an economy to their designs because for the price of one tree, you could plant a whole garden of perennials. More recently, we’ve seen Piet Oudolf’s perennial matrix: a base layer of grasses with drifts of flowering perennials, exemplified by his firm’s work on the High Line in New York City. This approach to gardening is both sustainable and beautiful.

When is it okay not to use natives?

We sometimes do hybrid plantings of natives and non-native ornamentals. It’s all about finding the proper mix and plant material that works. On the ocean, for example, crape myrtles flower and are salt tolerant. And you can also count on ‘Torulosa’ junipers and California privet to perform well.

Norman Jaffee Sagaponack Home

Photograph by Michael Donnelly

Is there a new Holy Trinity of East End plants?

Hydrangea, boxwood, and ‘New Dawn’ roses have given way to osmanthus, crape myrtle, and ornamental grasses. Osmanthus is deer resistant and a good replacement for holly; crape myrtles are hardy, with interesting bark; and ornamental grasses and other fountain grasses, such as autumn moor grass, require little maintenance.

What is the future of the great American lawn?

The lawn is over as a sign of entrepreneurial power. It’s diminishing to smaller, more functional areas, such as lawn terraces or panels, which make attractive substitutes for paving. A smaller mown lawn might transition to Pennsylvania sedge and then a taller grass meadow beyond. Lawns will become passé, and soon enough they’ll be imperfect like the ones I grew up with, full of clover.

The print version of this article appears with the headline: Native Insict.
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