Enormous peonies. Dazzling irises. Towering lilies. Ten years ago, these magnificent and colorful flowers might have played a starring role in your local garden tour.
But according to members of several local garden clubs who are hosting tours this spring, many people no longer want to gape at carefully cultivated blooms from faraway places. They want to understand how to dress up their gardens with flowers indigenous to New England — or at least plants with a long tradition of thriving here.
In other words, along with eating local and buying local, you may now feel some pressure to grow local.
Perhaps indicative of this trend, even the venerable New England Wild Flower Society rebranded itself earlier this year as Native Plant Trust — a name chosen, according to Executive Director Debbi Edelstein, “to clearly convey our identity as the nation’s first plant conservation organization and the only one solely focused on New England’s native plants.”
Native plants are by definition more likely to thrive, pointed out Kerry O’Donnell, co-chair of the Rockport Garden Club’s “Rockport In Bloom.”
“Rockport is built on granite and native plants tend to be shallow rooted,” O’Donnell said. “Here, gardeners face the challenge that gardens are often oceanside. So in addition to having to be able to survive harsh winters, they contend with sea water spray. Native plants are better equipped to endure these locations.”
Mark Richardson, director of horticulture for Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, coauthored a book on this subject. “Native Plants for New England,” published by Globe Pequot Press in 2018, is a guide to 100 native flowers, ground covers, shrubs, ferns, and grasses that thrive in New England.
“People are interested in gardening not just for aesthetics’ sake but for what horticulture can to do improve environmental quality,” he said. “Garden tours are a great way to gain inspiration and learn about new plants. I always have questions for other gardeners when I see their gardens: What source of mulch are you using? Where is it produced? Are you spraying plants with insecticides?”
There are other reasons to favor indigenous horticulture as well, Richardson said. “People are hearing that honeybees are threatened, and there’s increasing interest in supporting pollinators. One of the best ways to do that is to use native plants.”
Joeth Barlas is the coordinator of the Carlisle Garden Club’s early June tour. “Our gardeners are using plants we may not have featured 10 years ago,” she said. “For example, they are starting to replace invasive vinca groundcovers, which tend to form aggressive monocultures, with native ginger colonies that play nicely with other plants. Gardeners are looking for mosaic carpets of bloom, mixing plants with shallower roots such as Canadian anemone to suppress weeds while tap-rooted plants such as butterfly weed that bury carbon dioxide deeper into the soil, feed butterfly caterpillars, and attract pollinators across a broader season.”
Native horticulture is a priority not only on the Salem Garden Club’s upcoming tour but in the club’s programming, said Meg McMahon. “Environmental issues are increasingly important to our members, just as they should be.”
McMahon is one of several garden tour organizers who emphasize that their tours feature gardens maintained by their owners, not by professional landscapers. “When I go on a garden tour, I want to see things that I’m able to reproduce myself,” McMahon said. “The gardens we showcase are not maintained by professional landscapers but by homeowners who enjoy getting out there and digging in the dirt.”
In Marshfield, Carol Keaveny, co-chair of the Clift Rodgers Library’s upcoming garden tour, sees a trend toward gardening with a smaller carbon footprint. “After last summer’s drought, more of our home gardeners are using water barrels to catch rainwater off the roof for watering their plantings,” she said. “And there’s more of a focus on vegetable gardening, also.”
Cathi Hill, whose property will be featured on the Marshfield garden tour, calls it “a labor of love” to maintain the garden she inherited from her home’s previous owners.
“I’ve had a lot of help from friends,” Hill said. “We want to respect the previous owners’ love for this property. When I buy new plants for the garden, I look for native plantings and also things that catch my eye that I know will thrive in this environment.” One of her favorite features of the property is a wildflower field that blooms in late spring.
More than anything, variety plays well with garden tour patrons in Marshfield. “It’s fun to see a professionally landscaped garden on a huge piece of land, and we do have some of that, but tours also attract elderly people who might want to look at many different plantings without having to do a lot of walking, so smaller gardens have their place as well,” Keaveny said.
So do plants that don’t take a lot of experience to cultivate but thrive under natural conditions. “Most people like to see both ends of the spectrum,” she said.
And just as prize gardens are no longer only about what’s biggest and brightest, garden tours are no longer just about looking at flowers. At least two upcoming regional garden tours — Rockport in Bloom and the Lexington Field & Garden Club’s event — will include pleine air artists painting the flowerbeds as visitors walk through.
Garden variety tours
Here is a sampling of garden tours taking place around Greater Boston:
“A Stroll Through the Gardens of Salem” sponsored by the Salem Garden Club. Saturday, July 13, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $20 advance/$22 same day
“Lexington Gardens Blossom” sponsored by the Lexington Field & Garden Club. Saturday, June 15, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. $25 advance/$30 same day
“June Garden Tour” sponsored by the Clift Rodgers Library. Tuesday, June 18, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. $15
“Rockport in Bloom” sponsored by the Rockport Garden Club. Friday, July 26, and Saturday, July 27, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $25 in advance/$30 after July 1
“Old Favorites and New Treasures” sponsored by The Museum of Old Newbury. Saturday, June 8, and Sunday, June 9, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $30
“Come to Your Senses” sponsored by the Carlisle Garden Club. Friday, June 7, and Saturday, June 9, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $30 in advance/$35 at door
Scituate, Norwell, and Hanover
“Through the Garden Gate” sponsored by the South Shore Natural Science Center. Saturday, July 13, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $25 in advance/$35 after July 7
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.