Finding Native-Plant Beauty in the Bronx



While I was visiting New York City earlier this month I didn’t JUST visit the High Line.  Also on my agenda was the Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden, about which I’d read so mucIMG_1729h when it opened this spring.  It was designed by DC-area landscape architect Sheila Brady.  She’s now co-owner of the famous Oehme van Sweden firm, which is credited with creating what they called “the New American Garden,” composed of sweeps of grasses and other perennials, the naturalistic look that’s become so popular over the years – thankfully.

Here’s how Adrian Higgins describes the designs of OvS, from his review of this garden in the Washington Post:

Their designs were not necessarily new or American, but they were using massings of grasses and perennials to create blocks of color and texture in a way that was novel and gained attention. About half the plants were of American origin, although some had been given legitimacy in Europe.

Lobelia cardinalis in bloom.

How to Wow with Native Plants
I think there are great lessons for the eco-conscious home gardener in the success of this new garden, with its use of plants native to “the Northeast,” according to its website.  Actually, Brady and her team avoided a strict definition of “native,” and instead drew on plants native to a huge chunk of the U.S. – from Virginia to Southern Maine and as far west as the Great Plains.

And perhaps more importantly, the garden was designed to be beautiful, rather than to replicate how things would look without human intervention.  Again I’ll quite Higgins:

The garden rejects a conventional idea of presenting native flora as replicated eco-systems and instead gathers American plants with a gardener’s eye for color, texture, combinations, seasonal peaks and other aesthetic ambitions. The planting schemes are complex, and besides the mind-boggling number of plants involved — 90,000 perennials, grasses, bulbs, shrubs and trees in a 31/2-acre area — Brady and her collaborators have used varieties bred for improved garden performance.

So, the third tip for choosing native plants that wow is to include cultivated varieties – because they’ve been cultivated for “improved garden performance.”  I know that stricter adherence to what’s “native” wouldn’t allow cultivars but this garden, with its public role and $15 million price tag, needed to look terrific – and it sure does.   I saw it this month, in its first season, and it wow’ed me.

Goldenrod and Little Bluestem in the dry meadow.

The 3.5-acre Native Plant Garden includes a large water feature, wet and dry meadows, small groves, and over 400 species and cultivars.

New York

The “Split Rock” above is a “glacial erratic” – meaning it’s not found where it’s believed to have originated.  The split was caused by hundreds of freeze-thaw cycles.  Next to it and elsewhere throughout the garden is Milkweed in bloom.

This style of native-plant garden seems to be spreading to other public gardens.  The Brooklyn Botanic Garden recently opened its expanded Native Flora Garden with a more designed and garden-like look than it had originally, when its design goal was to exactly replicate what was there hundreds of years ago.  I saw it a couple of years ago and agree that it wasn’t exactly pretty.

Wild turkeys love these Highbush blueberries.

In conclusion, I think this native plant garden will go a long way to promoting the use of native plants.  Well done, Sheila Brady and the NYBG!


  1. Thanks for posting, Susan. I can’t wait to visit this garden myself so it was fun to get a vicarious trip here!

    I thought this sentence really resonated: “And perhaps more importantly, the garden was designed to be beautiful, rather than to replicate how things would look without human intervention. ”

    A lot of urban native plant gardeners — myself included — have been gardening in this style for a long time now. There’s no way I can replicate the ecosystem that used to exist where I live outside of DC, but I realized long ago that I could at least provide for wildlife through native plants. Its a rewarding way to garden, since you get to experience a lot of wildlife close up in your own urban backyard.

    Plus, those native plants are not demanding and often thrive on my neglect. What could be better for an urban dweller who has little time to spend preening plants?

    Like those you quote here I also have put aside strict definitions for the word “native.” The areas near my brick colonial’s walls are hot and dry and much more akin to a prairie than a woodland. So the coneflowers (a prairie species) thrive…. sometimes you have to be a bit expansive. That said, there is nothing like a really nice Mayapple or Spicebush — both of which do really well in the shade of our maple tree. One just learns to be a bit more flexible and adapt to the management situation at hand in each part of the garden.

  2. Yay and nay. By definition gardens are not natural, and even if we could emulate natural ecosystems, well, we never REALLY could. So I’m fine with using natives in a “garden” way, because that’s what gardeners do. Still, it’s my personal goal to create a native plant garden made up of species plants native to my county and region (plans are in the works for a 1/2 acre garden). That means prairie plants. Now, I might not be making a “prairie” in this 1/2 acre — I will be a gardener, an artist, and interpreter — but those plants will be native natives and not cultivars (plants that were here prior to European plowing). I applaud the NYBG, but I still want to see a better garden — and one that says this is why it’s important to use natives…. does the NYBG do that, too? Gardening with natives is as much an aesthetic issue as it is an ethical one.

    • I’m not sure that I understand what ethical reason you would have for choosing any plant for a garden… A garden, being a man-made thing, should simply be open for interpretation by the artist and not restricted to arbitrary rules of other people’s morality.
      Plants are garden-worthy for many reasons and the reasons you describe aren’t specific to natives and many natives simply aren’t garden-worthy most of the time.
      I’m growing weary of the native Nazis telling me that I am immoral for planting bearded irises – let alone that my local government should legislate the use of only native plants. How is that governing body going to tell me which ones are native and which ones aren’t?
      Lets try to remember that gardening is good and that we don’t have to feel guilty for doing it.

  3. I designed and planted midwest prairie and savanna gardens in my 50 x 125′ lot, surrounding my Sears bungalow, 15 years ago. Fortunately, a native plant nursery was near by and I have used only straight species plants, mostly native to Kane County where I live, but a few from other parts of the Chicago region and a very few not native to our region (Baptisia australis, Callirhoe involucrata). Native plants seed themselves about and increase by rhizomes, as well; so the original design becomes quite muted and more beautiful as time goes by. My gardens are lush and gorgeous; I don’t fertilize, herbicide, or water–the gardens are sustainable.
    Native plants perform other services besides attracting insects and birds: they put organic matter into the soil by the continuous decomposition of their extensive root systems, thereby enriching it; the channels opened up by the decaying root systems allow rainwater to infiltrate. thereby preventing runoff, erosion, and flooding; and the deep roots of the tallgrass prairie sink carbon.
    But planting native plant gardens is not like eating your spinach–the rewards of lavish and colorful abundance is like eating cake and ice cream.

    Check out my website, my blog, and my book–you will see what I mean.

    • I have 1,500′ that I also don’t water or fertilize because I’m using native plants. No one ever believes me. The joy of native self sowing is that you LEARN what they like, where they want to be, who they are. You LEARN how nature works and you evolve with the garden like you would a child — you have to let the garden become what it wants to a degree, and I wish more gardeners worked with this sense of wonder and exploration, instead of maintaining their vista like a lawn-mowing suburban thug (aka my neighbor Mr. Mows All the Time). Every city in this country should be requiring native plants for the very reasons you mention — runoff, erosion control, soil improvement, etc. I’d like to see a city offer incentives to plant native, not just remove lawn (LA).

  4. Thanks for an interesting post, Susan. The connection you mention to “the famous Oehme van Sweden firm” reminds me of Wolfgang Oehme, who died recently (15 Dec. 2011 at the age of 81). I was fortunate to become acquainted with Wolfgang and his family, as we were all members of a community farm in Baltimore County, Maryland. See more about Wolfgang Oehme at


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