Finding native plants, helping wildlife, amending soil, and more

Ask the Expert Gardening
Flowering does drop off in shade, but there are still many jewels that bloom in such a setting, including phlox, wood asters, foam flowers, and even hostas (pictured here). Associated Press

Q: I want nothing more than to have my backyard be a sanctuary for birds and critters. How, though, do you keep them from chewing through your siding and moving into your attic? Right now there is someone who has taken up residence, and on holidays and weekends, he seems to invite the relatives in to party. Help?

A: Animals want to be in your home, and who could blame them? Shelter from the elements and all that. The best practical steps are to physically exclude them with caulking, wire netting, and repairs to any holes, paying attention to areas under decks. My general advice is for people to adopt a more relaxed attitude about this problem. I’m not discounting the harmful effects of some wildlife, but we can’t, and shouldn’t, get rid of them all or think that we can. Certain animals, namely rats, require a stronger response.

Q: My backyard is full of trees, mostly shaded. Two large trees shade much of the front yard, though part gets afternoon sun, and one side yard gets afternoon sun. Can I create pollinator gardens in these conditions and still maintain curb appeal?

A: Wooded lots, front or back, present fabulous opportunities for beautiful shade gardens, which rely on layering of plants and replacing acres of mulch with ground covers. Flowering does drop off in shade, but there are still many jewels that bloom in such a setting, including phlox, wood asters, foam flowers, and even hostas.

Q: What are some good shrubs for a shady, somewhat dry area? For context, I want to transform my backyard into a natural-looking bird-, butterfly- and bee-friendly area.

A: Many shrubs will take dry shade, though they need to be watered in periods of drought for a couple of years to get their roots established. I can think of yews, plum yews, hemlocks, box, sweetbox, callicarpa, Cornus mas and Cornus officinalis, viburnums, and even hawthorns.

Q: How can people treat their yards as wildlife sanctuaries unless the big-box stores stock the necessary plants for the average person? My yard is filled with native plants that I have ordered, but most people can’t or won’t do that. How can we change the big-box mentality?

A: Mass retailers and, to a lesser degree, independent garden centers will alter what they offer only if they are confident there’s a demand for it. For more unusual native plants, you have to do some more work to find sources, but they are out there on the Internet. Check with local public botanical gardens and native plant societies; they host plant sales, especially in the spring, where you can find plants and also leads for other sources.

Q: I live in Washington and signed up for a plot in a community garden in New Hampshire, where I will be living part time. I have a lot of cut bamboo that I have been using as horizontal supports for pole beans in my D.C. vegetable garden. Is there any problem with moving this to another state, along the lines of not taking firewood from home to a camping site?

A: Dead, cut bamboo in itself is not a problem, but the bamboo might be harboring some awful pest that you might then introduce, so I wouldn’t. I’m not sure bamboo is hardy in New Hampshire, but if not, there will be other material for trellising.

Q: We would like to make our backyard garden into a natural habitat for local plants and animals. The neighbors and homeowners’ association are resistant to the idea. They seem to prefer stereotypical lawns and gardens (heaven forbid a weed-like plant be allowed to grow freely). What talking points could we use to sway our critics?

A: Some of the homeowners’ association’s apprehension is warranted because a lot of “meadows” or “prairies” are done inadequately. A convincing wildflower garden does not mean neglected areas; they require care and skill to create and, most of all, to maintain. I would start with a smallish area, define the boundaries neatly, and put in native plants that are obviously appealing, such as echinaceas, baptisias, rudbeckias, asters, and liatris.

Q: Any suggestions for a deer-resistant ground cover (or small bushes or easy perennials) for shade?

A: Leucothoe comes to mind. Karen Chapman has a book called “Deer-Resistant Design.”

Q: I’m trying to beat back the invasive plants in my yard (porcelain berry and some others), but what about the more chilled-out nonnatives? Should I chop down the saucer magnolia? What about the useless ornamental roses? (I don’t really like roses and don’t want to take care of them, so please tell me it’s OK to get rid of them.)

A: I don’t subscribe to the native-plant-only perspective. It’s important we not plant known invasive plants. Saucer magnolia is a lovely tree; I would never chop that down. Roses can get old and sick, and there are better varieties to try. I have no compunction ripping out a rose that no longer works for me.

Q: I have a beautiful six-year-old daphne shrub that flowers each year and surrounds our home with its wonderful fragrance. I know it is very sensitive, so I don’t prune it, touch it, or disturb it. It has well-drained soil and lives in a corner with morning sun and afternoon shade. I am dismayed because about a third of it has begun to turn yellow and thin even though the branches are flowering. What has happened to my little introverted daphne?

A: They typically just decide to exit stage left. You could remove the damaged branches to prevent the spread of this. Be patient. If it does croak, the conventional wisdom is not to plant another daphne in the same soil.

Q: I tested the soil in my flower garden, and it’s basically zero N, P, K. No wonder my plants were leggy and almost look like they are trying to escape. What do you suggest I should do to amend the soil this spring? I was thinking Leafgro and manure. Is this a good idea, and at what ratio?

A: The old approach would be to load up the soil with chemical fertilizers, but, thankfully, we now know that adding organic matter to the soil will over time create the soil biology that makes plants healthier and better fed in a relationship with beneficial fungi and bacteria. So, yes, add leaf mold and homemade compost, recognizing that the latter may introduce weed seeds to the mix. You can generally tell when you have added enough, but mix it up with the native soil. Once you have attracted organisms to the soil, it will break down quickly, so adding material is a continual step.

Q: Why are native varieties harder to find?

A: Because they were considered not garden-worthy in comparison with exotic plants developed for garden use. When East Asian azaleas came here a century ago, people were clamoring to plant them. Ironically, there are beautiful but less over-the-top native azaleas that deserve greater use.

Q: I am interested in increasing the trees in my yard, and thanks to nearby oaks, many acorns fall there. Should I just cultivate some of the volunteers? A friend who is knowledgeable about plants suggested that I may not be getting the best cultivars that way.

A: If you have an acorn that has germinated, you could dig it up (carefully) and move it to where a tree should go. There’s no reason to think a cultivar or clone would be any better than a seedling. You don’t grow oaks for their flower display, for example.

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