April 26, 2011

Native and Local? Not Here

We are starting a new garden.  I have been unsatisfied for a while as I look at the garden islands dotting my yard.  Each is nice, but each exists in an isolated mulch pool in the middle of too much lawn, and it all needs to be better tied together.

Here is an example, a picture from last fall:
late October, 2010: a sea of islands

This spring we dug up some lawn bisecting this area, in a winding, sinewy river of a border that will eventually become a shrub "wall" to enclose a secret garden space in the foreground, surrounded by existing borders.  A stepping stone path will wander through it and out into the garden by the birch trees, thereby tying the spaces together.  I hope.

Here it is with the bones of the new garden dug out:
this spring, the beginning of a new garden

Please do not chortle at the awkward curves.  As I confessed in my interview post, I cannot create pleasing curves in a border garden.  I don't know why, but I can't, and the plant choices I put in will have to disguise this deficiency.

The plant choices!  What fun to shop for an entire border of new plants.

And what frustration if you want anything pretty that is native.

Some choices for a shrub border were easy: I got three nice Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' plants that will be large and woodsy looking, with beautiful spring blossoms and great fall color.  I got evergreen inkberry hollies to flank the stepping stone entrance out into the yard and to the birch trees.  And I will transplant some other things, and tuck some perennials in around everything.

But the one plant I want for the focal point on the extreme left is not so easy.  I want a Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).
Cornus alternifolia from Oregon State
You can't get one.  You can get a Chinese dogwood (kousa) at any garden center or box store, but you can't get a native Cornus alternifolia.

When I asked at one high end nursery I was told "we don't carry it because no one knows what it is."  Okay, but I know what it is.  "Sorry, we just can't sell plants that informed gardeners know about, only the ones that uninformed homeowners have seen in other peoples' yards."  This is your marketing strategy?  The nursery manager cheerfully declined to try to find one for me.

At another high end nursery my name was put on a list with a promise to call if they ever find a source for this plant.  The book with the names and contact numbers was stuffed full and scraps of paper were falling out on the floor; my hope of getting a positive call back is possibly nil.

from Northscaping.com
Broken Arrow Nursery, 40 miles away, has two in their catalog, but they are a golden leaved variety and a variegated form that need more shade than my spot has.  Mail order nurseries will sell Pagoda Dogwoods that are smaller, a shippable size, raised in a different zone, always an iffy prospect.  Besides, I want a large anchor specimen.

A call to Bartlett Tree Experts asking to locate this tree and plant it for a hefty fee went unanswered.

With all of the focus on planting native, wildlife-friendly plants, why is the non-native Kousa Dogwood, so big and rangy and way too large for most yards, the only choice in local stores?

Why is the small, elegant, horizontally-branched bird-enticing berry producing Pagoda Dogwood a plant that no one can figure out how to sell locally?  It's easily propagated from seed, it's gorgeous, it's small enough for the suburban garden.  What exactly are the liabilities to selling this?

Gardeners are urged to go native and buy locally.  Yeah, right.


  1. We've had similar experiences. One greenhouse told us they don't sell native trees because you can get one from someone. OK. Good if you know someone with property that has water and trees growing naturally but not if you don't. Do you have a local extension horticultural program and/or master gardeners who may know of a source you don't. You may have to start smaller than you wanted. Good luck!

  2. Did you try Van Wilgen's in North Branford? They're expensive, but at least they'll answer the phone. I worked for Bartlett Tree Experts once upon a time and you're in the middle of a no man's land between two offices so I'm not surprised they didn't return your call. They'd charge you a ton just for travel.

  3. I have had the same problem around here just trying to get a witch hazel. The nurseries here don't carry any of them. "People" just don't want them. I felt like saying am I a people. Very frustrating. I hope you find your dogwood.

  4. Gardener on Sherlock, Heather and Lisa:
    I finally heard from the Bartlett Tree guy and he had been doing extensive research all along. Apparently, despite the rave reviews on Dave's Garden and Garden Web and lots of blogs and botanical sites, this tree doesn't do well here. Yes, it's native, but it's very finicky about site and shade and water and care and disturbance. So I may pass on it after all. I just wish the literature had mentioned its faults before I fell in love with it!

  5. Yay for the Bartlett Tree guy, but I'm sorry the plant doesn't do well in your area.

    It's very hard if not impossible to get many native woody plants locally. Forestfarm sells a lot of nice natives, although those are usually shipped in foot-long tubes. Not a size that will be a specimen any time soon. I usually end up growing from seed or cuttings, which can mean waiting a few more years to get a sizeable plant.

  6. Your garden looks amazing, both before and after. Good call on the shrub wall to break it up, I look forward to seeing the end result because I may need to borrow that idea! Re the trees- this is frowned upon in Australia, but I contact growers directly rather than through a nursery, and the vast majority are very very helpful and do sell to me.

  7. Laurrie, that tree is native to us. Let me see what I can find down here on the shoreline and into Warwick, Rhode Island. I'll be in touch.

  8. If you find a source, let me know. The Pagoda has been on my want list for a long time and, like you, I've had trouble finding one.
    Have fun with your new planting area!

  9. oh Laurrie, feeling a little guilty as I have plans to purchase one of these in the coming weeks from our local native nursery. Unfortunately the nursery doesn't ship either. I feel your frustration. We keep hearing that native plants are the way to go but very few places sell them. Even more frustrating that they won't even consider special ordering for you. Even those of us trying to make good choices are thwarted so why would the ordinary consumer even bother with native plants?

  10. I feel your pain!! I tried to find a native New Jersey Tea shrub (ceanothus americanus) last fall at our local high-end nursery but they only had hybrid cultivars. When I asked why they didn't have the native shrub, they replied that no one wanted it but me because it wasn't showy enough. Apparently, I like boring plants! But glow-in-the-dark polka dotted petunias born in a lab?? They have millions!!

  11. Try these places:




    Good luck!!!!

  12. Cornus alternifolia is in the current catalog for Project Native in Housatonic, Mass. www.projectnative.org. They focus only on natives and are located in southwestern Massachusetts.


  13. Laurrie, you've hit on something that my friend and I have noticed while plant shopping in recent years--the choices of plants seem to depend on what the big suppliers, like Proven Winners--not that I have anything against them--want to push. Choices, too, have been dwindling. I can get a few native perennials from the local Prairie Plant Society, but they have just a small sale in the spring, which I'm going to miss once again this year.

    I hope you find your Pagoda--maybe we gardeners should start lobbying the nurseries!

  14. Sweetbay, I order a lot from Forestfarm, but because they are grown in Oregon and transplanted to New England, I've had mixed results.

    Green Mama, thanks for the encouragement on the shrub wall to break things up. I will post on the end result!

    Wendy, thanks so much for your offer! But I am going to pass on trying the Pagoda after all. It's just not a strong grower for my conditions I think.

    Joene, Broken Arrow does have them if you want variegated or golden leaves and if you have shade for those types.

    Marguerite, that's exactly my concern... if native plants can be hard to find and finicky to grow, gardeners are going to get discouraged trying to use them consistently!

    TS, I just planted New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) last year and they are showy enough for me! But the winter was tough on them and only one is coming back. Thanks for the references for the Pagoda.

    Anonymous, thanks for the great source in Mass.

    Rose, many gardeners are frustrated by the supply of "popular" plants. It takes some doing to find anything else it seems.

  15. I've had good luck with Forest Farm, sorry you haven't. My witch hazels and some other special shrubs are from there. When I want something special I check out the Dave's garden plant profile and they will list people and vendors who have the plant to exchange or sell. This page lists 5 vendors, one in Geneva NY. http://davesgarden.com/products/ps/go/1771/
    Good luck!

  16. Your garden is looking great. I think you did a great job with the curving. I also run into this problem...I will check back to see if anyone has some ideas.

  17. Laurrie, I think you might want to revisit your decision NOT to use a pagoda dogwood. As noted, Broken Arrow in Hamden is selling them as is White Flower Farms which makes me think they are fine for CT. I think they are just starting to become popular with the increased interest in natives that's why many people (even arborists) don't know them. One of the major wholesalers in CT also stocks them so I wouldn't shy away from it. If you site it properly, you should be OK. It's on my to-buy list too and I'm thinking of heading to Broken Arrow soon to get one.

    Good luck.

  18. Laurrie, I am sorry you are having such a difficult time finding the dogwood that you want. I know a great nursery for dogwoods here but I think Canada is a just a bit far to travel even for the perfect dogwood.
    I have to admit that when I saw your opening picture my first thought was to join the three islands into a single, irregular crescent moon bed. Then, I would move the chairs into the shelter of the crescent. You could even create a circular patio retreat there. Just an idea.
    I like your idea to create a bit of mystery with the wall of shrubs. Have you considered adding a doorway through the shrubs, by way of an arbor?

  19. Cyndy, I've actually had mixed results from Forestfarm, lost a few trees, but have had success with others. They have absolutely every plant ever known!

    Sage Butterfly, thanks! I'm especially glad to hear you like my curves..... um.

    Debbie, I hope you do plant one and report on its suitability. You're a zone warmer than me, but I'd like to know first hand how a Pagoda dogwood does in CT.

    Jennifer, I like your idea for linking the beds and had thought of something similar too. And an arbor is on my list for the future!


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