I hear it all the time. “Should I pull this plant? I’m not sure if I like it…” The answer usually is….it depends. I have some clients who are passionate about restoring their landscape with native plants in order to help rebuild lost or damaged local ecosystems. For them, the answer is easy. If it’s not native, yes, pull it up and replace with a native plant. But what if your property already has many nice (and expensive) landscape plants and you’re not sure whether they’re worth keeping? As a habitat gardener, you can decide whether to keep or remove a plant by answering a few key questions:
– is it listed as an invasive plant in Massachusetts? If yes, definitely remove it to make room for native plants, who may be capable of recolonizing the area. Or, replace it with a native plant suitable for your garden conditions. Invasive non-native plants are a major threat to biodiversity and environmental health. Even if you don’t see a plant behaving aggressively in your own yard, many invasive plants are spread by birds eating their berries or seeds and pooping them into nearby natural areas, where they quickly form colonies that crowd out the native plants essential to local wildlife. See IPANE (Invasive Plants of New England) for the plants that are invasive in New England.
– is it healthy without needing fertilization or regular watering? If so, it’s well suited to the spot it’s in and won’t need your constant fussing to keep it looking good.
–Does it attract birds, butterflies or any other forms of wildlife? Do its flowers provide nectar and pollen for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators to use as a food source? Does it form nutritious berries, seeds, nuts or cones that are an important food source for many birds? Does the plant’s foliage feed caterpillars and other insects that most birds rely upon to feed their young? Does its structure and foliage provide shelter, protection and nesting sites for many birds and other wildlife?
If the plant supplies at least 2 or 3 of these last few attributes, it is wildlife-friendly and you should probably keep it. Its presence supports declining populations of birds and pollinators who help keep our environment in balance.
On our property, we have several areas planted with Cotoneaster, (right) which is a low shrub often used as a groundcover planting in New England lanscapes. It’s not native here, and it’s not what I would call a spectacular plant, but I have never considered removing it because it has its benefits…it thrives along a brick walkway in dry, hot blazing sun without any care or attention from us except for a bit of occasional weeding. Its dense twiggy branching structure, especially when it’s pruned, is a safe place for overwintering songbirds to dive into when they visit our winter bird feeders. Its tiny pink flowers are a magnet to spring pollinators, who are in turn an abundant food source for migrating birds newly arrived from the south. In the fall, pollinated cotoneaster flowers form large red berries, which although I have never seen birds eating them, the berries persist right through winter and disappear in about March, so some hungry creature is eating them when food is scarce!
For a foundation or walkway planting, you can prune cotoneaster into an attractive low hedge that satisfies even the most formal-style gardeners. My own hubby, who loves a crisp, clean Zen-garden style of landscaping, that often – um – clashes with my own more natural style of gardening, loves our cotoneaster hedge because it gives him that controlled look he craves while satisfying my requirement that a plant in such a visible location should not just look good, but also support the wildlife we invite into our backyard habitat.