Carolyn Summers, Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East

(Rutgers University Press, 2010)

When Betty Hall, gardener, photographer and WO board member, gave me Carolyn Summers’ book, she said: “I wish I had owned this when I started my native garden.” Indeed! The author aims to inspire homeowners who are considering planting natives in their gardens and to offer them practical help. She covers both the “why” and the “how” of native gardening, and she brings to her enterprise the experiences of a gardener, a keen observer of nature, and a detail-oriented researcher.


As ecologists and preservationists have known for a while, gardening with natives has become urgent for two reasons. First, only native plants sustain the diversity in nature on which life as we know it depends. The digestive systems of our insects and birds, for example, have developed in response to our indigenous flora, and alien plants nourish our wildlife very poorly. Secondly, quite a number of alien plants common in American gardens have escaped and invaded our natural areas where they out-compete and destroy our native plants. The pace of this destruction has quickened in recent decades as a consequence of globalization.


Thus the author’s compelling argument for planting natives in our gardens: they transform our gardens into miniature preserves for the plants whose survival in natural areas is now threatened, and they curtail the risk of introducing additional invasives into our natural environment. So many of our indigenous plants are spectacularly beautiful which should greatly facilitate our transition to native gardening.


Readers of this book may be particularly interested in Summers’ chapter on the botany and terminology of hybridization (called: “Safe Sex” in the Garden).  Haven’t you always wanted to know what the “cultivar” of a plant actually is? And more specifically, as a native gardener wouldn’t you want a thoughtful person’s opinion on the question, whether it is alright to plant cultivars of natives in your garden? This author offers a qualified “yes” after a most instructive discussion of the subject.


When Summers turns to the “how” of native gardening, she addresses two types of landscaping situations: one is the typical urban or suburban property where most of us garden, and the other focuses on “Designs drawn from indigenous plant communities” (the title of chapter 6), which is applicable to larger properties where a woodland or a meadow or an old field may become the basis for a native garden. I find this distinction very useful.


Concerning natives for urban and suburban properties, the author discusses a number of distinct situations in home gardens to suggest how native plants could replace those typically encountered there: a foundation planting; a perennial flower border or cottage garden; the front and back yard lawn (which, of course, she suggests reducing or even eliminating); street trees; natives as pollinators in the vegetable garden, etc. Remarkably, she also has something to say about natives in a Japanese garden design and in a knot-garden design


Often her suggestions for replacement of aliens appear in the form of plant lists. For example, she provides a list of shrubs whose berries have a particularly high nutritional value for birds. In fact, the many lists in this book, including those in the appendix, are among its great virtues and will facilitate its use by gardeners.


Being a gardener herself, the author understands that many gardeners considering planting natives may feel discouraged by the prospect of eradicating all their alien ornamentals, some of which they have valued for decades while others invoke cherished childhood memories. She is not a radical. If you really must have that butterfly bush in your garden, she says, keep it, but be absolutely sure to dead-head it before it goes on its invasive rampage.


Carolyn Summers gardens north of New York City. Some of her plant suggestions are more applicable to our region than others, and some of her advice may not be useful for us in central Kentucky. After all, the whole point about tuning into native plants is to acknowledge and, indeed, celebrate regional diversity and variations in habitat. Nevertheless, I like the fact that the author coherently and succinctly lays out the reasons why we should garden with natives and proceeds to offer concrete advice on how to do it. Owing, among other things, to the clarity of its structure, the book provides a model for thinking about native gardening. It is up to us, who live in central Kentucky, to adapt its specific suggestions to our own environment.


Reviewed by Beate Popkin