Tag Archives: native plants

The Humane Gardener: Seattle’s Kelly Brenner

Why weed when there are spiders to be rescued and beetles to be photographed? Gardening chores take a back seat to the joys of discovery in this Washington naturalist’s city lot. But the distractions haven’t slowed the conversion of her once empty yard into a magical space for wildlife, featured in our fourth dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
Image of sparrows on seedheads
Seedheads left up for the winter sustain American goldfinches and other birds in Kelly Brenner’s yard (above). A syrphid fly visits a fireweed flower (featured image, top). (Photos by Kelly Brenner)

Image of Kelly Brenner

There aren’t any rare birds singing from jungle canopies or lions lollygagging on savannahs in Kelly Brenner’s garden. But in her view, she’s found something even more wild: “moss piglets” living on her Seattle driveway.

Known more scientifically as tardigrades, these tiny invertebrates are thought to be some of the toughest creatures on the planet, withstanding extreme cold and excessive heat. Needing moisture to stay active, they can nonetheless enter a desiccated state for decades and come back to life once rehydrated. Not quite insects, they’re round like bears (which earned them their other common name, “water bears”) and slow-moving like turtles. They’re so unique they inhabit their own phylum in the animal kingdom.

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“Found a tardigrade!!!! My first!” Brenner wrote in her natural journal after making one of her favorite discoveries.

And Brenner found them simply by trading her binoculars for a microscope one day, curious as ever to meet as many species as she could on her 6,000-square-foot city lot. Though small, her property brims with life, from the solitary mother bee laying an egg in a fencepost hole to the Bewick’s wrens lining their nest with fluffy seeds of native fireweed. But it was the discovery of microfauna not visible to the naked eye that gave Brenner, a naturalist and photographer, the greatest thrill in her own backyard.

“We’re not a wilderness—we’re not going to have cougars and all the exotic things, so studying some of the things that we do have is enlightening,” she says. “We can learn from watching the humble backyard bugs and creatures.”

Image of Solitary bee in fencepost hole in Kelly Brenner's yard
When Brenner removed some old privacy screening from a fencepost, a wood-nesting bee quickly made use of the newfound cavity. About 30 percent of native bees in North America lay eggs in logs, trees, stems, and other spots that offer holes for their nests. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)
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Brenner and her daughter enjoy slug-watching together. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

Whether those creatures are snails mating in the “wetland in a bottle” she keeps inside her house, crows picking at moss in the trees of the local arboretum, or slugs making their way from one dandelion leaf to another in her lawn, Brenner continuously documents the fascinating life of other species crossing her path. As the creator of the website Metropolitan Field Guide, her goal is to help people appreciate nature wherever they are (even on an apartment balcony, like the one she filled with plants before moving her garden to more solid ground). “We lose that sense of wonder after we’re children; we don’t have a sense of awe,” she says. “And if we don’t care about what lives in our yards, why are we going to care about the tigers or snow leopards or elephants?”

Image of Anna's hummingbird_Kelly Brenner
Anna’s hummingbirds visit Brenner’s yard in autumn and winter. A common West Coast species, they are uncommonly beautiful—and the males seem to know it, coordinating courtship displays on sunny days so the light catches their brilliant iridescence. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)
Image of Brown elfin on Pacific ninebark
A brown elfin nectars on Pacific ninebark, which also attracts many bees. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

For Brenner, caring about those unassuming creatures also means caring for them. After moving to her house five years ago with her husband and daughter, she laid out the welcome mat for other species’ families too—in the form of broken-down moving boxes that made way for a wildlife garden. By topping the cardboard with leaves and letting it sit, Brenner killed the grass without the use of chemicals. She put down new roots, adding a Douglas fir, a vine maple, a mock orange, and other native species that provide food and shelter for wild visitors. Many other plantings followed, including twinberry for hummingbirds, Pacific ninebark for bees, gooseberry, beargrass, inside-out flower, wood sorrel, red columbine, coastal strawberry, Smith’s fairy bells, tiger lilies, evergreen huckleberry, goat’s beard, paintbrush, and fringecup.

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Brenner filled a neglected side yard with native plants and a gravel path, turning it into a small woodland sanctuary. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

Where once there was only lawn, a forsythia bush, and a maple tree on the property, a succession of flowers provides sustenance for animals throughout the season. Early bloomers like Indian plum are among Brenner’s favorites, as are late-season standouts like goldenrods and asters, which add to the buffet long after other plants have stopped flowering. In the front yard a mini-meadow feeds pollinators on one side of the driveway, and a vegetable garden, also started from cardboard and leaves, provides a bounty of lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, radishes, snap peas, spinach, kale, and other produce for Brenner’s own family.

Kelly Brenner vegetable garden
A front-yard vegetable garden yields food for the property’s human residents (top) and insects and resting spots for Pacific chorus frogs (below). (Photos by Kelly Brenner)

Image of Pacific chorus frog on tomato

Aside from the stinkbugs she occasionally picks off the tomatoes and the neighbor’s digging chickens she gently shoos away from the vegetable patch, everyone is welcome to feast to their heart’s content in this urban oasis where slug-and-bug watching is as much a priority as bird watching. “If your plants are being nibbled on, it’s a sign that you’re doing something right—that you have animals there,” she says. “I would be upset if I had a pristine yard that looked unlived in, that didn’t look like anybody was visiting.”

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An insect hotel made from recycled cans and goldenrod stems provides nesting habitat for native bees. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

So would the spring azure butterfly Brenner spotted landing on a leaf, where she was likely laying her eggs, and the sparrows pecking the ground for morsels shed by seedheads left up for the winter. Nothing goes to waste in the yard, where Brenner has created an insect hotel from an old tree branch lined with recycled food cans. Inside the cans, decaying goldenrod stems invite native bees to nest; parasitic wasps, who show great interest in the abode, are also welcome. “They’re beautiful—they’re shiny and iridescent,” Brenner says. “They were patrolling that up and down this past summer.”

Image of wren with caterpillar
Bewick’s wrens carry caterpillars and other insects to their nest, which is crafted partly from the fluff of fireweed seeds. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)
Image of Crab spider on California poppy
Spiders are welcome guests in the garden, where a California poppy in the pollinator patch attracted this crab spider. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

Brenner’s desire to connect with her fellow species tends to slow her down in the garden, where every chore is a chance to explore. “It’s fun to dig in the dirt,” she says. “The problem is I’m always like, ‘Ooh, I’ve got to stop and take a picture!’ And it takes me twice as long to do any sort of weeding.” Sometimes gardening chores are interrupted by an animal in need of rescue, as when Brenner accidentally disturbed a giant house spider nestled in some burlap sacks while cleaning up the yard one spring. Though some people kill or trap and relocate wildlife they don’t understand, Brenner brings many animals even closer to her own domain. Knowing that giant house spiders prefer the indoors, she transported the startled creature to her garage.

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The ten-lined june beetle makes a hissing noise when disturbed, says Brenner, but it’s “a complete bluff. They are absolutely harmless.” (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

To harmlessly view such animals in close-up with her young daughter, whose child’s hands could inadvertently crush them, Brenner fashioned a DIY aspirator from a jar, a rubber tube, and some fabric; by sucking in air from one end of the tube, they can gently pull a spider, ant or earwig into the jar for temporary viewing. Created last year during Brenner’s “365 Nature Project”—a daily online journal of interesting observations—the tool was one of many that helped her meet the project’s goal of getting to know Earth’s fellow travelers more intimately.

“There’s always something to find—always,” Brenner says, noting the profound experience of observing a beetle go about his routine. “There’s a difference between looking and really seeing what’s going on. Watch how it walks, watch how its antennae move, watch how it acts when it encounters something like a rock. Does it go around it, does it go over it, does it investigate? Is it going to eating something? What’s going on?”

Her lifelong curiosity, nurtured at a young age when she searched for beetles and snakes while camping with her family on the Columbia River Gorge, is infectious. To introduce more people to such marvels, Brenner is now working on a book that will relay the fascinating stories of slime molds, moss, and other wonders of nature in urban environments. In the meantime, she’s also continuing to add more habitat to her own backyard, one project at a time. A large deck built by previous owners for human recreation is long gone, soon to be replaced by something that many more creatures will enjoy: a wildlife pond, one that Brenner hopes will draw more dragonflies and nightly concerts from her favorite musicians, Pacific chorus frogs who’ve been known to lull her to sleep from a nearby wetland.

Tips Inspired by Kelly Brenner’s Garden

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Transferring details to paper changes the way you observe nature, Brenner says. (Sketches by Kelly Brenner)

Image of Nature journal 2 by Kelly Brenner

Keep a nature journal. Already experienced
in drawing from the days when she was earning her landscape architecture degree, Brenner started keeping a nature journal after taking a watercolor sketching class and looking for ideas on Pinterest. Though her camera helps her relay the stories of her observations, creating her own visual details brings new understanding. “By sketching it, you see more,” she says, describing the process of drawing a bird. “You can see how the feathers go together and how they’re overlapping each other and how the beak goes with the feathers. It makes you look closer.”

Seek expert help to learn about fellow inhabitants. In a world where a square meter of soil can contain millions of insects and other invertebrates, it’s impossible to get to know even a fraction of the living beings among us. But a few sources can provide insights about those we do find. Brenner receives identification help after posting her photos to Twitter, and she frequently uses BugGuide (bugguide.net), where experts review uploaded images.

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Starlings are as welcome as other birds in Brenner’s yard. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

Appreciate all the animals in your midst. Brenner resists the urge to engage in selective compassion, appreciating the much-maligned starling as much as she does the rarer species. “They’re pretty, they’re iridescent, they have neat colors, they can mimic and sing,” she says. And in Europe, where she’s traveled several times, they’re in decline and considered a precious bird. “It’s just species bias,” says Brenner. “I think it’s natural, but where do we draw the line?”

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Dragonflies from the nearby wetland have been known to stop by. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)
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Cooper’s hawks also breed in the local wetland and pay regular visits to Brenner’s abode. (Kelly Brenner)

Extend existing natural areas. Many plants now in Brenner’s yard also grow at Pritchard Beach, a nearby park and wetland along Lake Washington where she volunteers to remove invasives and plant natives. Cooper’s hawks who nest at the park also frequent her property, where they perch on the fenceposts. Frogs and dragonflies stop by, and Brenner plans to make her yard even more hospitable to them by adding a rain garden that will divert water from the basement of the house and into the planned pond.

Put down spreading roots. Adding spreading species to the ground layer makes filling an empty space a lot more manageable—and provides a bounty of extra plants. In one of the first beds she made, Brenner planted strawberry, false lily of the valley, and star Solomon seal—all low growers that made many more of themselves and have now been transplanted around the yard. Brenner often buys small starts at native plant sales, and this year she’ll add local seeds to her front-yard pollinator garden.

Work on one area at a time. When creating a wildlife garden, “don’t worry about being perfect,” Brenner advises. “Just start with one plant, and then go on to the next.” Even with a landscape architecture degree and a design in mind, she hasn’t been able to implement all of her plans yet—and that’s OK, she says. The ever-increasing number of species moving into her peaceable kingdom seem to agree.

Planting and Wildlife Resources

Seattle nature guide: Brenner frequently updates her website, The Metropolitan Field Guide, with regular observations from her backyard and beyond. Last year, her 365 Nature project resulted in daily posts about interesting finds throughout the city and beyond. The site also offers book reviews and helpful links to citizen science projects, recommended plant lists, and other topics of interest to nature lovers and wildlife gardeners.

Local seeds of change: After attending a Xerces Society workshop, Brenner ordered native seeds for her front-yard pollinator garden from Northwest Meadowscapes. The company focuses on locally adapted species from western Washington and Oregon.

Wildlife protection, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation: Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link is a comprehensive guide to common backyard species, providing advice for protecting wildlife and preventing conflicts with the animals in our midst. PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood cares for sick, injured, and orphaned animals, including marine mammals, with the goal of releasing them back into the wild; the PAWS website provides information about wildlife rescue, conflict resolution, and coexistence with our fellow species.

Container gardening for animals: Do you yearn to put down the roots of a wildlife garden but have only a patio or balcony? No problem! Read these inspirational tips from Brenner and others about how to garden for animals in small spaces.

Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press on April 18 Learn more about the Humane Gardening Heroes series, and tell us your story.

*All photos by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide.

Resilient Nature: A Q&A with Claudia West

Whenever my father returned home from abroad, I couldn’t wait to see his pictures. A plant scientist for the USDA, he visited Australia and New Zealand, Israel and Palestine, South Africa, Costa Rica, Taiwan, and dozens of other countries. In my eyes, he was a modern-day Marco Polo, laden with treats and tales from distant lands.

But in 1980, his journeys took him to a less colorful place: the shadowy landscape east of the Berlin Wall. After driving straight to Dresden to avoid police interrogation, he met his host, the former owner of one of Germany’s largest horticultural enterprises, at the Central Museum. “He told me that I could come to his home for dinner, but we couldn’t talk politics,” my dad, Roger, recalls now. “He was sure there were listening devices planted in the house.”

Later, they retreated to a garden house across the street to drink wine and speak openly. Longtime employees stood on the lookout for trouble as my dad’s colleague described the oppression of the regime, which had taken over his hundred-year-old business and kept him on as manager. A radio under the floorboards provided the only external communication. Everyone lived in fear of the secret police. “It was always this issue of neighbor telling on neighbor; it was very difficult to know who to trust.”

But what made the greatest impression was the patched-together garden at the home of another scientist—a collection of plants my dad’s host deemed his “cultivated wild,” gathered from whatever popped up in the landscape. “Of course, these workers didn’t have much money,” my dad explains. Even nice clothing wasn’t readily available or affordable, much less garden plants. “People in the streets were kind of walking around hanging their heads. It was terrible.”

It was into this world that Claudia West would soon be born. A young girl when the wall fell, West remembers the devastating effects of uranium and soft coal industries in her East German homeland. Entire villages had been dug up for mining to keep the economy afloat, leaving giant craters and air so ashen and chemical-laden that West and her family couldn’t even hang their laundry outside.

Those early impressions of an abused earth devoid of vegetation and a sky thick with pollution made witnessing the subsequent transformation of the land even more awe-inspiring. After less than three decades of restoration efforts, clear lakes now fill the craters, whole forests have sprung from tree plantings, and even European wolves have staged a comeback. “In such a short lifetime,” West says, “I’ve seen nature return with a powerful force to landscapes where we thought all hope was lost.”

In such a short lifetime, I’ve seen nature return with a powerful force to landscapes where we thought all hope was lost.

As the earth around her recovered, West became enamored with American plants she saw in European parks and couldn’t wait to study them here in their native environments. But instead of the vast prairies of wildflowers she’d envisioned, she arrived to find acre upon acre of land mowed down and mulched over. “It was really a huge disappointment coming here, expecting all these great plants and actually seeing so few of them being used in the landscape. And that’s not only an aesthetic disaster and a disaster for quality of life, but it’s also a disaster for ecological reasons. All these animals have developed intricate relationships with these plants for thousands of years, and we took the foundation right out from under their feet.”

West’s desire to heal that scarred landscape inspires her work as the ecological sales manager at North Creek Nurseries in Pennsylvania. It Image of PPWW coverwas also the impetus behind her involvement with the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing plant communities for resilient landscapes, which she coauthored with landscape architect Thomas Rainer in 2015. In this interview, she articulates the urgent need for ecological design—and provides take-home tips for every gardener interested in restoring habitat to damaged earth.

Q: You must have been six or seven when the wall fell?

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Claudia West

That’s exactly right. I was a child, but as a child you see things sometimes even more clearly than adults, who get so used to the environment that after a while you stop questioning it. But I do remember very clearly the heavy industries, to the point where air pollution was really crazy—really thick and unhealthy for people. And the immense scars this industry left on the landscape.

It took a really long time to clean up these landscapes, but not as long as anybody ever suspected. Going back now is like going back into a different world. It took us all by surprise that a landscape that had been so abused can now be the home of such incredible biodiversity and be used by a whole new tourism industry as really the gem of Central Europe.

Q: That’s amazing. So it was a combination of human intervention and nature coming back on its own?

Exactly, yes. So there was a lot of funds coming in—I think from the European Union—to clean these areas up, and a lot of people coming together. It was all planned restoration efforts, with millions of trees being planted and meadows being seeded and fish being released back into the waters. So certainly it was a man-guided restoration, and the results are just incredible. I had no idea that nature can come back with such a vengeance. Now a generation that saw that pollution goes for a walk around the lakes that used to be craters in the landscapes. It’s so powerful how these people can now all the sudden enjoy their home. It was not possible for them for so many decades.

Q: Your parents were in the landscaping industry?

My family—since it was eastern Germany—was not allowed to have a business because of the Communist structure, the regime. After the wall came down, the world opened up for us, and we started a nursery. We really started very small with a few tables at the local market and buying plants from the Netherlands and reselling them. And then they quickly grew into several … stores that my mother was managing. The landscape design build was something my father spearheaded. Many of the plant species that we wanted to use weren’t available yet in the local nursery trade. We started to grow a lot of the things we needed in our designs in the nursery, and that’s how the nursery business started … and with the understanding that plants can make life better, that they are very powerful and necessary for life quality. Not just for ecology but for us, for people.

We are so jealous of the vegetation that the United States has, the incredible diversity and just the beauty of these plants.

Q: Did you see American natives while growing up in Europe? Is that where you first got interested?

We did—that’s the fascinating thing, where I was just completely confused when I first came here that so few of these plants are here in cultivation. Because we adore them. We are so jealous of the vegetation that the United States has, the incredible diversity and just the beauty of these plants. Thanks to folks like Karl Foerster or some of the early nursery visionaries, these plants became available for the European market.

Many of the European plants have a cool season, simply based on our climate, and they heavily flower between spring and midsummer. Our gardens look more or less green, and there’s not as much of a second flowering highlight as there is here in the United States. So American native plants really fill an aesthetic need in Europe, basically create a second show before winter comes. That’s exactly how they’re being used. And that’s why they’re so incredibly popular, because they bloom until frost, and they’re just spectacular in color and structure and in attracting European insects as well—generalist insects.

Q: You’ve described feeling shocked when you arrived here and found a “chronically undervegetated” and overmulched landscape. When did you first realize that? When you stepped off the plane? Or was it a gradual process?

Image of Rest stop lupines in Minnesota
Opportunities taken: A rest stop in Minnesota is lush with wild lupines, a species well adapted to the sandy soil. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Mowed down landscape
Opportunities lost: In what West would refer to as a “chronically undervegetated” landscape near my home, trees provide cover for birds, but there is virtually no ground layer. A matrix of plants growing at different heights and with varying root systems would filter stormwater and provide seed and other delicacies for birds, frogs, and many other animals. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

I think I felt it the second I stepped off the plane, and it just took a while to communicate that better and really understand the extent of the problem and what that means for the ecology. It’s just really a tragedy on such a large scale—the loss of life quality—and what opened my eyes was seeing these opportunities not being taken. And now these opportunities, they have to be taken if we want our landscapes to be continuously the foundation of a healthy ecosystem. Future nature doesn’t live out there anymore, because out there is gone. Future nature lives here in our backyards, in our developments and parking lots or rooftop gardens—or it doesn’t live. That’s the reality.

Future nature doesn’t live out there anymore, because out there is gone. Future nature lives here in our backyards, in our developments and parking lots or rooftop gardens—or it doesn’t live. That’s the reality.

I know that gardens do not replace restoration and conservation of wild lands, and a designed system will probably never have the same quality that a wild or somewhat semi-pristine landscape has in some of the few nature reserves we will still have left that function. But at least a designed garden or landscape can balance some of it. And it may never be as good, but it still can add up and make a difference.

Q: Is there a native plant movement in Germany like there is here?

It’s not really the same, and I think a lot of it has to do with our history. Hitler was very much focused on only allowing European native plants. And there was a very strong push to beautifying the European or German landscape with real German plants. … I don’t think we’re quite ready for a mainstream native plant movement yet because we’re still digesting that past. A lot of very cautious voices come up as soon as anybody goes in that direction. (See “Depoliticizing the Wildlife Garden” for varying interpretations of this history and their effects on native plant advocacy.)

Q: I saw a talk by a scientist who was a little bit defensive about native plants and said the movement is “borderline xenophobic.” I think it’s the opposite because our ancestors came here and killed so many of the indigenous people and their plants. But I can see why there’s a hesitation in Germany.

Well, of course, there’s an understanding that the European native plants are the foundation of our ecology, but it’s not communicated in the same way as it is here. It’s something that lives more in the world of ecology. There’s a very strong push there to collect seeds off European native plants and protect them because many of them are endangered because it’s such a highly dense, highly populated, cultivated landscape over there. So there’s definitely a push to restoration, conservation, and bringing native plants back. But it’s a very different context, I should say—a cautious context.

There are garden designers who base their work on working with native plants from Europe, but the aesthetics often limit how far they can go with these plantings. That kind of focus on native plants and ecology often brings with it a very naturalistic planting and style, and that’s just something that here in the United States and in Europe, not everybody feels comfortable with. I think we’re struggling with the same problems, and that’s one of the reasons why Thomas and I wrote the book—to help folks who want to create more ecological plantings and make that more mainstream and acceptable—and to help them make better design decisions so that we can meet in the middle. We kind of wanted to deflate that “native” debate just a little bit.

Q: I thought you handled it really subtly.

We wanted to show a message that yes, a native plant palette [can be applied] as appropriate for a site. We wanted people to be more aware of that and how plants fit together—and take away from “native” as just solely being based on location, where really “native” is defined by a plant’s interaction with insects and ecology.

Q: The alternative language used most often now is that plants should “serve an ecological function.” But when it comes down to it, most of those native plants are the ones that meet that need, right?

Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Q: So it’s just a matter of trying to defuse the labels. I’ve been interspersing “native” with “wildlife-friendly plants” for that reason.

Yeah! I love that. That’s exactly what it means. Because the concept of “native” means very little to the general public. It’s not powerful. But if you can sell the quality—that these plants will bring all these beautiful creatures into your garden and you’ll be able to enjoy them—who doesn’t want that? That’s the purpose of gardening. This is where the hobby and the passion lives. That’s powerful and that’s what we wanted to focus on and not location, location, location. I think that is really an exhaustive debate. And what we need are solutions. We need better native planting design to sell this quality.

Tips: Trusting Nature’s Time-Tested Recipes
Image of Eastern tiger swallowtail on ironweed
Knowing how plants behave – the way they spread and change over time – is essential to creating sustainable landscapes, write West and Rainer. New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is in the lowest ranking on the plant “sociability” scale, meaning it grows singly or near only a few other plants of its kind.

Traditional landscaping is replete with formulaic advice based on appearances and shallow vital stats: Put tall plants in the back, short ones in front. Buy three to five of each kind and place them 12 inches apart. Mulch the remaining earth, add fertilizer and water, and repeat.

But nature is much more imaginative. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, authors Claudia West and Thomas Rainer explain what plants really want—and don’t want—to survive and thrive among us. Here are three top takeaways that can be applied in the home garden.

Plants have social needs.

If you’ve ever watched the proliferation of blue mistflower added to a sunny spot or a Virginia bluebell planted under a tree, you won’t be surprised to learn these species rank high on a “levels of sociability” scale created by German plant researchers, including one of West’s teachers, Hermann Müssel. But while some species are gregarious and don’t mind taking up the whole garden, others are wallflowers, preferring to stand alone or with just a few friends.

Image of Eastern-tailed blue on blue mistflower
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) takes the highest ranking on the sociability scale – at level 5 – due to its tendency to spread expansively.

Mimicking these natural tendencies can encourage long-term sustainability of planned landscapes, especially on sites under high pressure from invasive species. European designers interested in grouping species based on spreading tendencies can turn to Friedrich Stahl and Richard Hansen’s groundbreaking book Perennials and their Garden Habitats, published in 1993. West has been hoping to develop similar guidelines for American native plants. In the meantime, I’ve found it instructive to read the online plant profiles provided by a variety of sites, including North Creek Nurseries as well as these favorites: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database, Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder, and the USDA’s Fire Effects Information System. (The latter offers information on wildlife habitat and plant communities associated with a number of native and nonnative species.) Regional or state-based databases, such as the California Native Plant Society’s Calscape, are also helpful resources for learning more about plant growth habits.

Plants live in a space-time continuum.

Plants’ personalities aren’t solely defined by the number of friends they keep around. Though often thought of as static green backdrops, plants are constantly interacting with the world around them and occupying space in different ways. Some spread laterally by shallow roots, while others anchor themselves deep in the ground. “There are very few plants—things like cattails or phragmites—that grow in monocultures,” says West. “Most other species in the wild are naturally layered. Their entire morphologies are based on that.”

The resulting intermingling of complex root systems below ground can improve storm water filtration, while aboveground layers of vegetative growth provide abundant food and shelter opportunities for insects, amphibians, and small mammals. Blanketing the earth with mulch stymies these natural benefits to the environment, so West and Rainer recommend instead mixing low spreaders among taller perennials to create a continuous matrix. “They are not always the most floriferous plants,” they write of these groundcovers, “but they are the workhorses of designed plant communities. Density is created not by cramming plants together, but by layering a composition vertically with plants inhabiting different spaces based on their forms.”

The way a species changes through time—and especially through one season—also affects the surrounding plant community. Some may roam through the garden in spring but stop spreading in early summer, when taller species begin to shoot up or leaf out and cast shade over the ground below.

Plants adapt to “stressful” conditions.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and the same is often true of plants. Plants in drier climates have evolved creative ways to withstand drought, including by storing more moisture in their waxy leaves or going dormant during the warmest weather. Many woodland species derive more consistent moisture and nutrients from rich soil and fallen leaves. Plants in both environments form intricate relationships with microorganisms in the soil, sharing nutrients and water through underground fungal networks.

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Chalk dudleya (Dudleya pulverulenta) is one of many plants that can die quickly from inappropriate watering. It naturally grows on slopes in its native San Diego, allowing it to quickly shed rainwater from its leaves. (Photo by Will Heinz)

The typical recommendations for starting a garden ignore these community-based strategies and weather-specific adaptations. Quick-growth recipes of compost, fertilizers, and irrigation are best left to the vegetable garden, designed for one-season harvest. In other contexts, too much pampering from the gardener can kill plants outright by overwhelming them with inputs they don’t need.

Rather than altering the texture, chemistry, and moisture levels, gardeners will have better luck using plants already adapted to the topography and terrain—supporting the vigorous responses of individual plants to their environment, the long-term sustainability of broader plant communities, and, ultimately, the wild animals who depend on these landscapes for their very survival.

This is the first in a series of Q&As based on interviews I conducted for my forthcoming book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press on April 18.

*Featured image: A black-throated sparrow surveys his domain from a cholla cactus in a suburban Scottsdale, Arizona, development. Though the species is said to be less adaptive to suburbs than other desert birds, this individual may be faring well alongside humans because the community is brimming with natural areas and native plants. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

 

How to Fight Plants with Plants

What’s to love about native plants that spread like crazy? Everything! Enlist these hardy troopers to help reclaim habitat from invasive species.

Image of golden ragwort early spring pollinator
Pollinators, birds, and many other animals need food – and lots of it. Vigorous natives like this golden ragwort (Packera aurea) provide that. So what are we so afraid of? (Photos above and below by Nancy Lawson)

They were the last lonely leftovers: seven pint-size transplants I couldn’t even give away. Other beauties—boneset, coneflowers, bee balms, asters—had flown off the shelves of my cubicle wall, where a “Free to Good Home” sign invited friends and colleagues to give them a new spot in their own gardens.

But the golden ragworts, still small and fairly nondesImage of golden ragwort flowerscript, had a harder time selling themselves. It didn’t help that their name sounded like “ragweed,” the plant everyone loves to hate, or that I repeatedly responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” when asked: “Does it spread?” My fellow gardeners, trained to panic in the face of plants that refuse to be kept down, backed away in terror, eyeing the pots as they would a petri dish of ebola virus.

So it was that the remaining stash of this underappreciated groundcover—which feeds bees and shelters many other creatures—ended up back in my yard, though not in its rightful place in the ground. Putting the plants aside under some sassafras trees by our driveway, I intended to give them a better home, but life got in the way. As the leaves dropped and the snow fell and one season passed into another, there they sat, neglected and trapped in their plastic pots.

Image of golden ragwort and garlic mustard
Going head to head: The silver-tinged leaves of garlic mustard, an invasive species, once covered the ground layer beneath our sassafras grove. Some renegade golden ragworts took it upon themselves to solve the problem. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

That spring, though, the plants gave me an unexpected gift in spite of my poor stewardship. As I headed past the driveway to tackle the onerous spring ritual of removing garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a persistent invasive species, I discovered the little ragworts had gotten a head start on the task. Refusing to be held captive, their roots had burst forth from the holes in the bottom of the pot and rambled fearlessly into the garlic mustard patch.

To understand what a revelation this was, it helps to know a little about garlic mustard. Originally from Europe and Asia, it’s allelopathic, releasing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other species. It’s a threat to forest understories in the U.S. and Canada and also to the West Virginia white butterfly, which seems to mistake garlic mustard for its host plant, laying eggs of caterpillars doomed to die on leaves they can’t eat.

Image of Eastern box turtle
When my husband was trying to get invasive grasses under control with his power trimmer, he searched first to see if any creatures were making their homes there. Sure enough, at least one, a young box turtle, was hiding in the vegetation, confirming my belief in gentle approaches to invasive species management in our yard. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

But in my yard, garlic mustard has finally met a worthy contender. Watching a habitat-harming plant succumb to an equally hardy native has opened my eyes to a more creative, life-affirming method of curtailing invasives on my property. Since it’s not in my nature to want to fight nature, I find the process of cutting, digging and pulling plants—no matter their provenance—a little heart-wrenching. And because I don’t want to support products that harm the land and the creatures who survive off it, I avoid herbicides. Besides, I’d rather not remove any vegetation that’s providing even minimal habitat if there are few other alternatives for nesting and food. Even my preferred, seemingly harmless method of laying down cardboard to kill grass has its consequences, potentially smothering the homes of native bees and other creatures nesting in the ground.

The idea of adding more wildlife-friendly plants while gradually removing less helpful ones, then, appeals to my sensibilities much more than declaring chemical and mechanical warfare to clear the land—and, in at least some cases, it can be more effective in the long term. Here are a few experimental methods that have proven successful on different types of sites, including my own.

1. Guerilla garden: Insert natives into patches of invasives.
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Winning! By last spring, the sizable patch of garlic mustard had been mostly overtaken by the ragwort, which covers the ground with beautiful round leaves for most of the year  and produces flowers for several weeks in early spring. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Following the ragwort’s unexpected coup, I added more to the 12-by-12-foot garlic mustard patch and watched delightedly as it claimed the whole territory. And it took only three years—about the same length of time a similar experiment played out in the yard of Sue Barton, a University of Delaware associate professor and extension specialist. In her original attempts to eliminate Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), an invasive species that crowds out other plants, she’d tried all the standard approaches—mowing, herbicides, replanting with low fescue, and pulling the remaining scattered interlopers that sprouted. Ultimately, the effort had failed. “It’s now just solid stilt grass,” she says.

Image of Stilt grass and ferns in Sue Barton garden
Ferns inserted into a patch of Japanese stiltgrass, which can produce up to 1,000 seeds from a single plant, quickly began to cast shade that prevented further stiltgrass germination in Sue Barton’s garden. (Photo courtesy of Sue Barton)

When she later confronted a second patch of stiltgrass in the backyard, Barton changed her approach, manually weeding out the space before planting a combination of native woodferns (in the Dryopteris genus) and Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium x ‘Branford Rambler’). By spring, the fall project had taken hold and the plugs were thriving. “But the stiltgrass started to grow, and so that summer, it was like a treasure hunt, looking for the little fern plugs in amongst the two-feet-tall stilt grass,” Barton says. She again weeded the stiltgrass out by hand, and in the third year, the 1,000-square-foot space had filled in entirely with ferns. Disliked by deer, the plants were also large enough to shade the ground and prevent further germination of stiltgrass.

“I don’t necessarily know that ferns would work in every situation—what works in one instance is not guaranteed to work another,” says Barton. “It’s just our best guess.”

2. Employ Defensive Linebackers: Practice preventive planting.

Some native plants can hold their ground even against the most impressive offensive lineup. At one Maryland site, Southeastern wild rye (Elymus glabriflorus) has been observed staking its claim in a garden otherwise overtaken by invasive Canada thistle. Proactively planning for this type of “competitive exclusion”—a term for describing species duking it out for the same resources—is the best way to ensure long-term sustainability in landscapes expected to thrive on their own, says Claudia West, coauthor of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.

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Does it spread readily, even aggressively? I’ll take it! After hearing that wild petunia is a vigorous grower, I knew I had to try it. The flower fly who came to visit the pot while I was at the nursery helped seal the deal. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

“I’m on a consistent mission right now to find highly aggressive and thuggish native plants,” she says. “I am looking for native species that have all the ecological value, that can outcompete some of the invasive stuff we’re dealing with.”

I’d rather have a very thuggish, vigorous native plant take over an area than have it covered in honeysuckle or autumn olive. … We’re looking for plants that can stand their ground. —Claudia West

In planting projects she undertakes as the ecological sales manager for North Creek Nurseries, West sometimes sneaks in tough native spreaders like wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) and native sedges—species that provide food and cover for wildlife who’ve evolved to depend on them. Though some of the plants won’t leave room for much else, the tradeoff is worth it. “I’d rather have a very thuggish, vigorous native plant take over an area than have it covered in honeysuckle or autumn olive, especially for landscapes that we know from the beginning will not receive a lot of care,” says West. “Think about all the storm water maintenance along highways. Think about parking lots. We’re looking for plants that can stand their ground.”

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I’ve transplanted bits and pieces of this original bee balm – one of the first perennials in my new garden 17 years ago – all over our property. It has never let me (or the hummingbirds) down, filling in large spaces with its spectacular firecracker blooms just in time for the Fourth of July. Invasive species don’t even try to get near its dense clumps. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

It’s a useful strategy in many home landscapes as well, especially for gardeners with a heart and mind for helping wildlife but a property covered in turfgrass edged by invasive vines and shrubs. Preventing further encroachment of these plants in my own yard are mountain mint, blue mistflower, bee balm, elderberry, gray dogwood, Pennsylvania sedge and other stalwart defenders. Planted little by little over many seasons in areas where they can freely spread their wings—and roots and seeds—they’ve started to fill in previously barren or invasive-prone spots in our two acres.

3. Recruit Volunteers: Encourage self-starters.

“If I do nothing, what will happen?” asks pioneering landscape designer Larry Weaner in his 2016 book, Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. While not advocating for a cessation of gardening, Weaner encourages readers to use the question as a guiding principle for creating an ecological landscape or restoring a degraded site. In other words, what native plants are already lying dormant in the land, waiting for us to stop mowing them down? What valuable seeds might migrate into the garden on the breeze or in the bellies of birds? Weaner has seen this strategy come to fruition in his planting projects, as when he added Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) to a client’s meadow and later saw it thriving in an adjacent lawn that a neighbor had let go—and grow.

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The joy of discovery: Watching what comes next is part of the fun of letting the lawn go. Above: Turfgrass turned into broomsedge, which then put out the welcome mat for purpletop grass, frost asters, and hyssop-leaved thoroughwort (below) that attracts common buckeyes and other butterflies who greet us on our mowed path leading to the compost pile. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Refusing to be held back, such unexpected visitors are an increasingly common occurrence on my property as well. Learning who they are and how they grow has been one of the great joys Image of Common buckeye on hyssop-leaved thoroughwortof gardening (or what I’m starting to think of as “un-gardening.”) Some are diminutive, like the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) that came up singly in a patch of old turfgrass by our back deck. Others make themselves known with wild abandon, like the hyssop-leaved thoroughwort (Eupatorium hyssopifolium) that shot up high above an old bulb garden we inherited from previous homeowners, beckoning fall-migrating monarchs. An entire field of broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) and purpletop grass (Tridens flavus) graces our backyard where there used to be only mowed lawn, making way for more wildflowers—and eventually trees—with each passing year.

Image of Eastern red cedar in ground ivy
Serving up two invasives with a side of one valuable native: The ground ivy and Bradford pear seedlings were enough to make me want to throw in the trowel. But then I saw these little Eastern red cedars boldly making their way through the morass. We moved a few of the seedlings into more sunlight and surrounded the remaining ones with newspaper and leaves so they’d have room to grow. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Two summers ago, as I pondered how to address invasive ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) in the front yard, my husband stopped mowing there so the bees could feed on the plant’s early flowers and nest in the bare patches of soil between. By fall, when the ground ivy had continued to spread and I was still plagued with indecision, we discovered that nature had been thinking much more creatively. An inspection of the area revealed nine baby Eastern red cedars peeking up through the leaves, humbling me once again: The previous spring, I’d spent $30 on three diminutive plugs of the same species, and here were three times as many coming up for free. They were healthy and strong and ready to provide nesting, cover and fruit for many bird species, as well as food for foxes, rabbits, raccoons, and butterfly caterpillars who call that tree species home.

Ground ivy, the plant I didn’t want, was serving as a kind of nurse plant for the one I did—something that could only have happened when we’d stopped cutting everything off at the knees.

For more tips on working with nature in your garden, check out my new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press on April 18.

Featured image at top: A mountain mint (Pycnanthemum flexuosum) showed up on its own near a patch of golden ragwort. An Eastern tiger swallowtail signaled her approval. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

The Humane Gardener: Texas’s Tait Moring

A fox family under the deck, snakes slithering in the stone wall: This Austin landscape architect welcomes them all, even the rock squirrels who root around his vegetable planters. Learn why in this third dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
Image of roadrunner in Tait Moring's garden
A greater roadrunner, also known as a chaparral bird, frequents one of Moring’s fountains. (Photo above and featured image by Tait Moring)

As thousands of people come and go each day on the busy Texas highway near Tait Moring’s home, many other species navigate a slower-paced thoroughfare just outside his back door.

Among those making the daily rounds is a roadrunner who likes to visit the yard’s most popular watering hole—a fountain Moring built from stone—and snack on some lizards while enjoying his libations. Great horned owls stop in for a chat, and a bobcat’s been known to show up on the back deck to check out the scene.

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Tait Moring

“And for the first time ever, I saw a woodcock!” Moring recently marveled while tallying the list of his favorite visitors. Ground-dwelling birds, woodcocks feed on an abundance of earthworms, often in forested areas with edge habitat. “I had no idea they were even here.”

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A mother fox made her den under the deck. (Photo by Tait Moring)

But given the way he cares for his land, it’s perhaps no surprise that so many creatures want to stop by. Some, like the fox mother who raised her kits in his yard, even make a life here. “She had them under my deck,” Moring says. “It was a lot of fun. They played just like puppies.”

Image of Rock wall in Tait Moring garden
A self-described “rock hound” whose parents enjoyed fossil hunting, Moring had a childhood rock collection that included interesting treasures his grandfather found on his cattle ranch. On his property he has incorporated many into artistic stone walls where snakes find refuge. (Photo by Tait Moring)

Birds, frogs, and many other animals come for the abundant insects, berries and other food provided by the native plants on the 22-acre property just minutes from downtown Austin. They also find other forms of habitat: Bull snakes slither into gaps in the walls made from stones found on site and gathered from Moring’s childhood rock collection. Little brown salamanders proliferate in the zoysia grass lawn that’s occasionally fertilized with compost but is free of the chemicals that can harm such thin-skinned amphibians. Every year or two a tarantula wanders by.

“Years ago, I really didn’t believe the people that said, ‘Oh, if you just go organic, everything is easier,’ ” says Moring. “I always thought, well, that sounds good, but I don’t believe it. But it really turned out to be true.” Once he began replacing roses, azaleas and other exotics with natives, he noticed less disease and more resilience. “With native plants, if you do have a few aphids or something, well, it doesn’t decimate the plant. A lot of people panic if they see an insect or a disease or something, but usually it kind of takes care of itself.”

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A fig tree started from a cutting given to Moring by his father shades the steps from the lawn into the surrounding woodland, where Moring has created trails. (Photo by Dennis Burnett)

A landscape architect with a love of nature, Moring is something of a rare native species himself: an Austin resident who’s actually from Austin. “In fact, I was at a party, and when someone found out I was born here, they’re like, ‘I have never met one of you before.’ ” Raised by parents who appreciated plants, animals, and seasons (his mother grew up on a ranch, his dad on a farm), Moring frequently went hiking and camping with them and gained a head start on his knowledge of wild species.

“When I first started my practice 30 years ago, I was very gung-ho about using natives,” he says. “My parents were big environmentalists and taught me a lot about native plants. Well, you couldn’t find them except for a few things. But it’s much easier now.”

Image of Gaillardia and bluebonnets in Tait Moring garden
Around the property, Moring has constructed fences, gate posts and trellises from Ashe juniper. Wildflowers for pollinators include gaillardia, red poppies and larkspur. (Photo by Tait Moring)

Moring’s own home includes many naturally occurring natives like ashe juniper, red oaks, and live oaks. His innate respect for the interdependencies of plants and animals is apparent when he describes the value of these species to wildlife. Ashe juniper, often thought of as a weed, is critical to the survival of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, he explains, as the birds use the shedding bark to make their nests. Though Moring hasn’t spotted the species, he hopes to one day; the oak-juniper forests of Central Texas are the only place in the world where they breed.

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An Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) claims center stage in Moring’s drought-tolerant lawn. Like other native juniper species with vigorous growth habits, this one has long been maligned for its interference with grazing land for cows. But the tree’s berries feed many birds and small mammals, its foliage is a larval host for butterflies, and its bark provides essential nesting material for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. (Photo by Tait Moring)

Texas natives on the property also include prickly pear cacti, red yuccas, native sedges, bigtooth maples, big Muhly grass, and mountain laurels—a bush with beautiful purple blooms and a fragrance Moring likens to that of grape Kool-Aid. (It’s not the mountain laurel in the Kalmia genus that East Coasters would be used to, he notes; the scientific name is Sophora secundiflora.) To help butterflies and other pollinators, he seeds Texas wildflowers and vines, including bluebonnets, gaillardias, wine cups, salvias, blackfoot daisy, primrose, coreopsis, and passionflower. He has an affection for Virginia creeper vine, another species often thought of as a weed despite its gorgeous fall color and abundant berries for birds.

“I like survivors,” he says. “I just like things that are natives because they’re much less likely to have problems.”

Image of Virginia creeper vine in Tait Moring's garden
Often confused with poison ivy, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a beautiful vine native to the eastern and central U.S., with berries relished by birds and squirrels. Moring lets it grow naturally and trains it on columns in his yard. (Photo by Tait Moring)

Though many Tait Moring & Associates clients embrace natives, Moring has to use his powers of persuasion with others. “I always know if I’m going to put a mesquite tree in somebody’s landscape that I’m going to probably get cussed at,” he says. “I have to talk them into it and try to convince them. It doesn’t always work. I think the last guy said, ‘Over my dead body.’ They’re a beautiful tree, and it’s just that because ranchers have had to fight them for their rangeland, they think they’re an awful tree.”

The turkeys, quail, javelina, and small mammals who take cover in mesquites would agree with Moring, as would the rabbits and coyotes who consume the pods and the bees who pollinate the flowers. And though the species stands accused of interfering with livestock production, it actually provides shade for cows and can enhance soil fertility.

Moring’s defense of mesquites recently persuaded a satisfied customer to add them to a courtyard. “But we still get people that move here from other areas, and it doesn’t matter where they come from; they often want what they had back home,” he says. “I try to gently educate and change minds.”

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The property provides perfect habitat for rock squirrels, who use stone walls for lookouts, food storage, and cover for their burrows. They also love juniper berries and the pods of mesquite trees. (Photo by Tait Moring)

Moring knows that while humans can easily relocate across the continent, many other species have evolved to make a life only in certain ecological niches. Even those with broader ranges can’t just hop on a plane and relocate when their homes are razed. That knowledge informs his attitude toward all the creatures in his yard, including those others might fear or dismiss. When he finds poisonous coral snakes, he ignores the common advice to kill them and simply moves them deeper into the canyon. When yellow jackets take up residence, he lets them be, remembering the helpful role they play in preying on plant-eating insects.

In nature, there’s a pretty masterful design … Once you get a balance going, everything sort of seems to take care of itself.

Rabbits often graze, sampling the buffet but never decimating anything. Occasionally when Moring has left the gate open to the cultivated area of his property, deer stop by, and recently a coyote came through. His own cats enjoy the great outdoors from a caged-in area. “They think they’re in the wild,” he says. “It protects them from the coyotes and it protects the birds from them.”

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Chicken wire helps protect vegetable harvests from rock squirrels. Moring also grows the Texas bluebonnets from seed. (Photo by Tait Moring)

Rock squirrels have presented a bit more of a challenge for Moring, whose vegetable planters built from rock just happen to be their preferred habitat. “They’re really cool to watch,” he says. “They can wreak havoc on the vegetable garden, and so the only way that I’ve figured out to deal with that is just to cover everything with chicken wire and little fencing stuff.”

“The squirrels have driven me a little bit crazy,” he says, “but everything seems to have a place. In nature, there’s a pretty masterful design … Once you get a balance going, everything sort of seems to take care of itself.”

Tips Inspired by Tait Moring’s Garden

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Made of limestock, granite, thin soils and plants adapted to low moisture levels, the Texas Hill Country, seen here from Moring’s property, has its own kind of lushness. (Photo by Dennis Burnett)
Recycle on-site materials into functional art.
Image of Vegetable garden gate Tait Moring
Ashe juniper wood supports a gate to the vegetable garden. (Photo by Tait Moring)

Moring works not just with the plants indigenous to his property but also with the stone and wood he’s collected there over the years. Rocks left over from client projects have supplemented those found on site to create stone walls and planters. Carved stone found at an abandoned quarry have become columns for holding plant containers and supporting climbing vines. A stock tank made of recycled hardware provides water for wildlife.

Befriend experts.

Texas gardeners and naturalists—especially those in the Austin area—are lucky to be so close to one of the nation’s best resources for wildlife gardening, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. But most places have botanical gardens and arboretums where you can observe the growth habits of different species. Garden clubs and birding experts can also be wonderful resources, Moring notes, providing information about plants that attract birds and other wildlife.

Celebrate local flora and fauna.
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Pearl milkweed vine (Matelea reticulata), so named for its beautiful, pearl-like flower, is unique to Texas and northeastern Mexico. (Photo by Tait Moring)

The limestone, granite and thin soils of Texas hill country make for a rugged but lush landscape across 25 counties in the central part of the state.  Plants there are uniquely adapted to survive periods of hot, dry weather. Wherever you live, local flora and fauna have evolved for millennia to adapt to soil, moisture and temperature conditions. “To me, every region has its own beauty, and that’s the fun of going somewhere different,” says Moring. “It’s great if Texas looks like Texas and Maryland looks like Maryland, instead of having this homogeneous [landscape] where everything looks the same everywhere.”

Rather than trying to create a dream home for yourself from species originating in distant lands, encourage the ones who’ve already been making a life in your region long before you arrived. “Don’t try to force something that wasn’t meant to be in your region. Embrace your local region as much as you can,” says Moring. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have a favorite plant or something that your grandmother had, but don’t try to recreate the whole environment.”

Texas Resources

Native plant resources: Showcasing native plants of Texas, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin is also a national treasure, operating the Native Plants Database of species native to the United States and Canada. Searching by scientific or common name, gardeners can access detailed fact sheets about a plant’s natural habitat, distribution, soil and light needs, and benefits to wildlife.

With more than 30 chapters across the state, the Texas Native Plant Society offers a Native Landscape Certification program introducing Texans to best practices for creating habitat using native species.

Wildlife gardening: A helpful guide produced by the Texas Parks and  Wildlife Department, Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife, provides a basic primer on creating wildlife habitat as well as more specific information on Texas native plants and animals. Though a section on conflict resolution occasionally mentions less humane methods such as trapping and relocating certain species, the book generally  encourages conflict prevention and compassion for wildlife living among us.

Pollinator advocacy: The Texas Pollinator PowWow helps communities and individuals protect pollinators and their habitats. Serving as a hub for education, resources, networking opportunities, and information about the latest research in pollinator conservation, the Texas Pollinator PowWow also organizes yearly conferences. Speakers and steering committee members include scientists, horticulturists, natural resource professionals and advocates from universities, government agencies, private institutions and local communities.

Wildlife rehabilitation and humane conflict resolution: Lost, injured and orphaned animals are cared for by rehabbers and organizations around the state, including Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in San Antonio, Austin Wildlife Rescue, and the Houston SPCA. Many provide advice to callers who are unsure if animals are truly in need of help (for example, young wildlife thought be orphaned are often “rescued” unnecessarily by well-meaning people). Some sites also provide helpful resources for humane conflict prevention and resolution.

Though Austin is famous for its mass gatherings of bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge, the animals still face a host of challenges, from disease and development to human fear and misunderstanding. Information and resources are available from Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation and Austin Bat Refuge, which also cares for bats who are orphaned, injured or otherwise in need.

Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press in April. Learn more about the Humane Gardening Heroes series, and tell us your story.

Depoliticizing the Wildlife Garden

I welcome human immigrants to my community, but my botanical preferences are for natives. Some people think the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Here’s where they’re wrong.

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All the gardening guides advised me to rip out pokeweed and goldenrod (above) when I first began landscaping my yard. Eventually I rejected that advice – not because of some arbitrary adherence to “nativism” but because wild animals need them. Perching on a sunflower leaf, the silver-spotted skipper (featured image, top) represents just one of millions of other species who share the planet with us. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Two years ago while attending an entomology lecture, I was surprised to hear the professor describe native plant advocates as “borderline xenophobic.” The comment seemed to appear out of nowhere, a defensive-sounding remark delivered amid a heated discussion about pesticides.

Since then I’ve learned that this type of characterization is nothing new. In a 1994 New York Times essay titled “Against Nativism,” Michael Pollan called for a kind of “multihorticulturalism,” portraying native plant advocates as goofy and misguided at best and racist at worst. Sociologists, ecologists, and historians have since written extensively about the politicization of native species, echoing Pollan’s reflections on what he described as a dangerous cultural obsession with European plants in Nazi Germany.

Whether or not Hitler really had an opinion on the provenance of plants is subject to debate; at least one researcher offers compelling evidence that cynical landscape professionals jumped on a political opportunity, attempting to garner attention by cloaking their agendas in the sentiments of German superiority. Nazi authorities, he writes, appeared somewhat indifferent to the whole matter.

Image of monarch caterpillar by Nancy Lawson
Perhaps the most famous example of a specialist is the monarch butterfly, who eats only milkweed species at the larval stage. Unlike humans, many other animals have highly specialized needs that can be met only by certain plants. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Whatever the case, a fear of repeating history (or even interpretations of that history) is often invoked as a way to discredit the ecological case for native plants. Especially in this age of sweeping anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by the new U.S. administration, some wildlife-friendly gardeners and horticulturists are struggling to find new ways to describe native plants in an attempt to distance themselves from the semantics of hateful ideologies.

Image of squash bees by Megan Leach
Squash bees are also well-known specialists, relying on the pollen of squash flowers to feed their young. But many other bee species have similarly refined tastes, collecting pollen only from the plants they evolved with. (Photo by Megan E. Leach)

Aside from the obvious point that our country’s agricultural and horticultural history has brutal roots in the colonization and extirpation of indigenous people, plants, and animals, there’s a more fundamental flaw at the core of all these discussions: By projecting our own politics onto the millions of other creatures with whom we share the planet, we are comparing not just apples to oranges but one apple to all the other fruits across the globe.

Here’s what I mean: We humans are all of the same species. We are all mobile, and we can all technically survive in a variety of habitats around the planet. We are generalists on a global scale. But we are only one among nearly 1.5 million known animal species, many of whom have evolved to be specialists, surviving on or in certain flowers, leaves, rocks, and waters. These animals and countless other organisms (up to an estimated 1 trillion when accounting for microbial life) often need certain plants that in turn have evolved to grow on certain topographies, in certain climates, with certain rainfalls or dry spells or soil profiles. From bees to butterflies to birds, many creatures can live only in regions or even narrow niches in which they evolved.

We are generalists on a global scale. But we are only one among nearly 1.5 million known animal species, many of whom have evolved to be specialists, surviving only on or in certain flowers, leaves, rocks, and waters.

That’s why I plant Maryland species in Maryland for the animals who depend on them, and it’s why I hope gardeners in Oregon will plant species that have coevolved with animals in the Pacific Northwest, and those in Japan will plant species native to their regions, and so on. Conversely, it’s also why I can and do welcome all humans to my community: My habitat is their habitat, my home their home. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we all need the same things to survive. And we can’t meet those needs without protecting and restoring the healthy ecosystems we, too, depend on for clean air, water, and soil.

Image of English yew (Taxus baccata) by Mark Robinson/Creative Commons
In its native lands, English yew (Taxus baccata) nourishes blackbirds, song thrushes, and other birds; squirrels and dormice also eat the fruit, while satin beauty moth caterpillars nibble on the leaves. But animals who don’t share their evolutionary history with the plant don’t always know to avoid it; in December, a bear family in Pennsylvania died after eating yew fruit. (Photo by Mark Robinson/Flickr.com, Creative Commons license)

When Pollan wrote his article, we didn’t have as much data on the value of native plants to wildlife and the harm caused by some nonnatives, which can displace habitat and even poison animals unfamiliar with vegetation from outside their historic ranges. But now an ever-increasing body of research supports the case for planting as many natives as we can, not for selfish human reasons but on behalf of all the other life forms now dependent on us to nurture their last remaining habitats.

Image of Nandina domestica by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) is native to Japan and other parts of Asia but has few natural controls here. In the U.S., it has displaced native plants in natural areas, and cedar waxwings have also died from eating its berries. Most of the invasive species displacing wildlife habitat were introduced by the horticultural trade, and many are still being sold. Why not plant native hollies, junipers, spicebush, elderberries, viburnums and other species that provide needed nutrition without harming animals and their habitat? (Photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org)

Does that mean those advocating for wildlife-friendly landscaping want a return to the exact plantings that grew in some nebulous, pre-human era, as detractors so often claim? No. Such claims feel like cheap shots from tired playbooks that attempt to discredit compassionate, progressive, science-based causes by portraying them as extreme. Even if such a state were desirable, we all know it’s outlandishly unrealistic. You don’t have to be a gardener for long to understand that. My yard still has turf grass that was here when my husband and I bought the house 16 years ago, and it still has plants that threaten wildlife habitat. But it also has hundreds more native species than it did back then. I look at it as a lifetime project—and a lifeline project for the many more creatures who have now made a home here, simply because they can find what they need.

Far from being mutually exclusive, environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the new administration appears to care little about either, implementing policies detrimental to both humans and animals. Wildlife don’t recognize geopolitical borders, let alone those demarcated by impenetrable barriers that restrict their movement and may destroy their last remaining habitats. They’re already deeply affected by climate change, the science behind which our president chooses to ignore. Some of their last refuges, our public lands, are under siege by silencing orders, corporate pressure for oil and gas drilling, and threats to further defund their operations.

It’s more important than ever that we do what we can in our own communities for both animals and people—and that we ourselves pay attention to the science, not political rhetoric, behind native plants and other critical habitat needs. We can’t take care of the planet in the long term unless we take care of each other now. And we can’t take care of each other in the long term unless we take care of the planet now. I believe in human rights, and I welcome the other citizens of this earth with open arms. I believe in the rights of our fellow species to make a home here, too, and I welcome them with the plants they need to survive. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

For Further Pondering …

Many journal articles, essays, books, interviews, and discussions with friends and colleagues have informed my thoughts on these issues over the years. Countless words have been written and spoken on the subject. Here are just a few of those writings that may be of interest to you.

Journal Articles: The Native Plant Debate

Those who conflate native plant advocacy with xenophobia often cite articles by Gert Gröning and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, including The Ideology of the Nature Garden and The Native Plant Enthusiasm: Ecological Panacea or Xenophobia? These and similar essays contain virtually no discussion of the ecological role of native plants, as ecologist Daniel Simberloff points out in Confronting introduced species: a form of xenophobia? Researcher and author Frank Uekötter also challenges contextual references to Nazi policy, arguing in  Native Plants: A Nazi Obsession? that many attempts to discredit the native plant movement ignore evidence that Nazi policy was far from settled on the matter—and that a continued focus on human political history “threatens to poison an important cross-disciplinary debate” about the ecological value to other species and the planet.

In Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants, published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, three social scientists explore the history of displacement of indigenous people and plants following European settlement. Communicating Invasion: Understanding Social Anxieties around Mobile Species is a fascinating look at public reaction to scientific and media-generated communications about negative impacts of  invasive plant species in Switzerland. And when a group of scientists called for evaluating plants based on their function in a Nature essay, Don’t Judge Species on Their Origins, a counter-group issued a helpful rebuttal, Non-natives: 141 scientists object, that concisely lays out the arguments for continuing to protect native species and monitor nonnatives for potential harm to local ecologies.

Books: Understanding the Science Behind Native Plantings

Bringing Nature Home by entomologist Doug Tallamy provides well-researched proof of the value of native landscaping to wildlife, particularly birds who rely primarily on insect specialists to feed their young. His second book, The Living Landscape, written with Rick Darke, adds helpful ideas for applying this knowledge. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, Claudia West and Thomas Rainier explain why ecological plantings have long been unfairly cast as difficult to establish and maintain, outlining a roadmap for more successful cultivation through greater understanding of plants’ natural growth habits. Carefully explaining their view that natives are an important but not exclusive part of sustainable landscaping, they attempt to defuse what they view as loaded terminology by emphasizing the need to evaluate a plant’s ecological function just as much as its origins.

 

Night Beauties: 4 Ways to Help Moths in the Garden

Image of brown hooded owlet moth caterpillar on heath aster

For every documented butterfly species in North America, about 15 times more moth species inhabit our gardens and natural areas. Yet they’re far less known to us than their charismatic day-flying counterparts, perhaps because most moths are active long after we’ve hit the sack.

Though they often escape the notice of humans, moths are essential to many other species, including plants that depend on them for pollination and animals who eat them for nourishment.  As caterpillars, they’re a mainstay of the diets of baby birds. As adults, they feed everyone from bats to bears; in fact, researchers have found that grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park eat up to 40,000 miller moths (adults of the army cutworm caterpillar) each day.

Our judgment of an animal’s worth should not be measured only by their potential to be prey for other species, though. Like all our wild neighbors, moths have intrinsic value of their own and deserve just as much respect, appreciation, and freedom from harm as butterflies do. Here are a few ways you can help these unassuming creatures in your garden and neighborhood.

1. Put down the spray bottle

Image of grape leaf folder moth
As caterpillars, larvae of the beautiful grape leaf folder moths do exactly what their name implies, spinning silk to tie leaves around themselves and nibble without being seen.

Much of the easily accessible information about moth caterpillars is confined to academic and agricultural sites that refer to these animals as “pests” because they dare to chew holes in leaves. All sorts of chemical potions are recommended for destroying the supposed enemy. But everyone has to eat, and I rather appreciate nature’s vegetarians. The grape leaf folder moth pictured above has likely taken up residence in our yard because this year we have an abundance of wild grapevines, their larvae’s favorite food.

image of tiger milkweed moths
Tiger milkweed moths like to hang out in packs on butterflyweed and other milkweed species.

Tiger milkweed moths also set up shop at this time of year, though the caterpillars are more gregarious than the adults. Sometimes gardeners are upset by the voracious appetites of these fuzzy creatures, worried there’ll be no food left for the monarch butterfly larvae, who also depend on milkweed. But these two winged species tend to have different palates. Tiger milkweed caterpillars join the buffet when plants have aged a bit, while monarch caterpillars prefer young, fresh milkweed leaves.

2. Plant native species they recognize

Image of brown-hooded owlet caterpillar
A brown-hooded owlet caterpillar munches on a heath aster, a white-flowering native that volunteered in my garden a few years ago and has since spread.

Plant names are sometimes embedded in the common names of some moth species or their caterpillars. There’s a good reason for that; like butterfly larvae, moths in the teenage phase often nibble only on vegetation they coevolved with. Common oak moth larvae eat oaks, locust underwing moth larvae munch on locust trees, and caterpillars of the hickory horned devil—whose more appealing adult name is “royal walnut moth”—dine on hickories and walnuts.

Image of bicolored pyrausta
A bicolored pyrausta (we think) visited a cutleaf coneflower by my patio last weekend.

But many moth names seem to bear no relationship to the plants the animals depend on: Brown-hooded owlet moths eat asters and goldenrod, and Pandora sphinx moths eats Virginia creeper and grapes. The larval host plants of some species aren’t even yet known; after moth expert Dr. David Adamski helped me tentatively identify a small orange moth in my garden as a bicolored pylautus, I searched references for her preferred foods only to learn that scientists haven’t yet figured it out. The lesson for me? Plant even more native plant species! You never know who might need them.

Yuccas and yucca moths provide an exquisite example of the fascinating mutualistic relationship between animals and plants. The yuccas receive the benefit of pollination from the moths, and the moths lay their eggs in the flowers, where larvae hatch and eat the abundant seeds. Wondering why I’d never witnessed moths among the many yuccas scattered around our gardens, I finally ventured outside around 10 p.m. earlier this summer and found more action than I’d ever imagined. It really gets going at the 27-second mark in this video taken by my husband:

3. Let there be dark

Image of giant silk moth
A polyphemus moth in our neighborhood appeared to be on her last legs – or wings – when my husband scooped her up from the road and placed her in the grass.
image of polyphemus moth caterpillar
A polyphemus moth caterpillar, brought to a presentation at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., rests on an oak leaf.

Recently while researching a magazine column about gardening for bats, I was alarmed to find that some experts support leaving lights on to unnaturally attract moths for an easy food supply. Light pollution negatively affects giant silk moths and has led to the decline of other large species, including the royal walnut moth. “The preponderance of lights where there used to be forest is taking a heavy toll on these wonderful animals throughout their range,” writes entomologist Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home. “Royal walnut moths have already disappeared entirely from New England.”

image of hickory horned devil
We felt lucky that our garden was home last year to the royal walnut moth’s caterpillar, called the hickory horned devil, a species threatened by light pollution.

As adults, these moths live for only a few days and don’t eat; lacking mouth parts, they survive only on the energy they stored up as caterpillars. Their primary function is to breed, but if they spend their nights circling the security lights in someone’s front yard, they run out of energy to mate and lay eggs.

Though bats are declining in number and face many threats themselves, it doesn’t make sense to harm one type of animal to help another–not to mention the fact that hurting species that serve as bats’ main food supply will only exacerbate the plights of bats, too. To save these moths from further decline, turn off outdoor lights at dusk, or install motion-detecting lights that don’t burn throughout the night.

4. Don’t equate tidiness with godliness.

Image of hummingbird moth
When not flying among our flowers, hummingbird moths rely on the garden’s leafy layer as caterpillars, taking shelter there in the winter.

We’re used to seeing hummingbird moths enjoying the wildflowers in our gardens, but they’d never reach this beautiful adult phase if we raked out too many leaves from the understory. These creatures overwinter as pupae in the natural ground layers, emerging in spring and summer as adults.

In fact, many species of butterflies and moths take shelter there, along with toads, queen bees, and countless other creatures who need to wait out the winter storms in decaying plant material we too often blow and rake away. This fall, leave the leaves and other natural material in place, and watch how many more species begin to take up permanent residence in your humane garden.

Photos by Nancy Lawson. Video by Will Heinz. Featured image: A Datana moth rests on a spicebush leaf.

 

 

 

Peekaboo! Who’s Hiding in the Plants?

Image of baby rabbits in golden ragwort
This spring, we grew bunnies in our garden! Though its leaves are said to be toxic to mammals, golden ragwort (Packera aurea) provides wonderful cover for nesting animals.

Last year, a friend emailed to say she thought my proposed title for an upcoming presentation—”Creating a Wildlife Garden”—was a little silly.  “If a vegetable garden grows vegetables, then a wildlife garden grows wildlife,” she wrote. “It sounds like you’re planting the seeds of baby rabbits!”

She was a marketing director with expertise in areas I hadn’t even thought about, so I certainly wasn’t going to question her. Besides, she had an interesting point.

In some sense, though, we do “grow” animals when we garden for wildlife. By adding plants and other habitat elements where they can eat, take shelter and raise their young, we are nurturing entire life cycles of species who may otherwise have nowhere else to go in the surrounding grass-dominated landscapes of suburbia. It’s just sometimes hard to see them. More often than not, my camera picks up on treasures I’ve failed to notice with my own eyes, serving up wonderful surprises in magnified images on my computer screen.

Often it feels like a game of hide-and-seek, adding to the joy of discovery in my own backyard. “Peekaboo!” I like to whisper when I do catch them diving into the flowers and taking cover under the brush. “I see you!” But mostly I keep my distance, grateful for a camera that allows me to watch them without disturbance. As these photos show, simply observing native plants provides a wonderful glimpse into the quiet worlds of animals who make their homes among the leaves and flowers.

Image of silver-spotted skipper on wild bergamot
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) obscures this silver-spotted skipper, one of many visitors to the nectar-rich plant.
Image of pink turtlehead and bee
A tiny metallic bee exits the all-you-can-eat buffet of a turtlehead (Chelone lyonii).
Image of earwig in coral honeysuckle flower
An earwig becomes much more intimate with this coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) than my zoom lens ever could.
Image of bee in Virginia bluebells
A bee commandeers the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), an important nectar source early in the season.
Image of swallowtail on ironweed
A female Eastern tiger swallowtail isn’t exactly hidden by this New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis). But a closer look finds someone much smaller–a skipper–sharing the flowers beneath her.
Image of swallowtail butterfly on hibiscus
A male Eastern tiger swallowtail has better luck being a wallflower behind the giant bloom  of Hibiscus ‘Lord Baltimore,’ a hybrid of native hibiscus species.
Image of katydid on common evening primrose
Katydids are hard to distinguish from the leaves of common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).
Image of northern pearly eye on garage door handle
A northern pearly eye spends a long time extracting something (minerals? rain drops?) from the screws of the garage door opener before traveling to the keyhole to find more treats.
Image of hummingbird moth on verbena
A hummingbird moth samples the menu in a pot of verbena on my deck. (Once I realized why this nonnative is so attractive to pollinators with long proboscises–because of its accessible corolla–I planted more varieties of native phlox that would bloom throughout the season in the garden.)
Image of slug on swamp milkweed
A slug is more than welcome to show up on the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Sure, he’ll ooze a little, but who am I to judge? Our species leaves much slimier, less natural, and more harmful substances in our wake all over the planet.
Image of baby bluebird in house
Young bluebirds try to stay invisible until their hungry bellies get the best of them.
Image of monarch on sassafras
A monarch butterfly enjoys basking for a while on a sassafras leaf and doesn’t seem to be  in any hurry to get to the milkweed. Perhaps he has just hatched and needs to dry his wings–or maybe he’s as curious about me as I am about him.

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Image of hoverfly on Virginia rose
Unlike many of their nonnative cousins, Virginia roses bare their reproductive parts and entice pollinators like this hoverfly. A bee foraging on a nearby “Knockout” rose was not so lucky.

The sweat bee circled the perimeter, casing the rosey joint before nose-diving into the outer layer. Finding nothing, he tried a different tack, going around the bend into adjacent petals. Coming up short again, he reappeared head first and ascended the protective border of the inner circle.

Just a few steps from the anthers, he was on the verge of finally reaching his destination. But the flower remained stubbornly closed to visitors, and my friend flew off on an empty stomach.

The scene was akin to watching a child trying to open a child-proof container, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The bee’s chosen restaurant was a Knockout rose, bred for its hardiness, disease resistance, long bloom times, and just about everything else that humans desire but bees don’t give a damn about.

If there’d been a Yelp category for bee-friendly establishments, the dejected rose visitor would have found reviews from other pollinators with similar experiences. And he would have steered clear of this unwelcoming hedge and instead joined the hoverfly dining on my new patch of pollinator-friendly native Virginia roses in our backyard.

A rose by any other name, it turns out, is sometimes not so sweet at all when gardening for wildlife. Many modern and highly cultivated types provide little for our animal friends, their shapes and colors and structures so altered as to make finding food an exercise in frustration. In short, these manicured flowers may be a convenient and over-the-top feast for our human eyes, but they often fail to nourish our fellow species.

Image of sweat bee on Knockout rose

Image of sweat bee on Knockout rose
Around and around this sweat bee went on a Knockout rose before finally abandoning his mission.

Introduced with much fanfare in 2000, the same year my husband and I moved to our 2-acre property, the Knockout line once seemed like the perfect plant for a flower lover who’d been raised with a healthy fear of unhealthy roses. My pragmatic mom had occasionally expressed a quiet longing for the voluptuous blooms, but always with a note of regret about how difficult they were to grow. My plant scientist dad acknowledged the otherworldly aspect of roses but preferred species that required far less coddling.

My parents are from Portland, Oregon, where seemingly anything grows and entire festivals are devoted to celebrating the ancient floral symbol of love and death and regret. But they settled near Washington, D.C., a region with its own kind of lushness that hasn’t forgotten its muggy wetland roots and powdery mildew-filled, black-spot-tainted atmosphere. It’s great for some plants—like those that evolved here and thrive on the humidity—but not so accommodating of flowery fussbudgetry meant for cooler-headed climates.

Which is why much of America—its median strips, its parking lots, its storefronts and libraries and post offices and parks—ended up with ubiquitous hedges of the flamboyant and seemingly carefree Knockouts. In our own space, they quickly became a centerpiece of our front yard, needing nothing from me but a little water in the beginning and a lot of admiration in successive years. Even a vole who cut them off at the knees with his teeth didn’t manage to do any permanent damage.

Image of Knockout rose
This was the first of six Knockout roses I planted more than a decade ago. Most are now dead, likely from a virus, and I’m replacing them with more native plants that sustain wildlife.

They were roses that could stand on their own, without support from toxic chemicals, and that was why I’d bought them. What was not to love?

Over the years, though, I realized that the only other creatures who shared these affections were my one-time vole visitors. As I watched sparrows eat the seeds of the switchgrasses I’d planted nearby and bees collect pollen from the wild senna that volunteered between the bushes, I was dismayed to realize that, in spite of their gregarious-looking ways, these roses were at heart a very lonely species.

This year, as the Knockouts nearly succumbed to either extreme cold or the rose rosette disease virus that’s now known to attack them—possibly a combination of both—we cut the dead branches back to the ground and made way for more senna and switchgrasses  to take over. And I went on a mission to find roses that were meant to be here. Planted two weeks ago on a gentle dry slope in our backyard, the five Rosa virginianas are already thriving. Native to much of the eastern United States, they aren’t just disease-resistant and beautiful throughout the year; they also provide nectar and pollen for native bees and other pollinators, nutrient-rich hips and cover for birds and mammals, and foliage for caterpillars and leaf-cutter bees.

Image of Knockout rose center

Image of Virginia rose closeup
Maybe the bashfulness of modern roses is a relic of the Victorian era. To see the anthers of the Knockout rose the sweat bee had visited (top), I had to pull back the petals and hold them for the camera. Native roses (above) are not nearly so reticent, their perfect five-petaled blooms showcasing the heart of the flower for all to see.

Though we’ve been trained  to think of the fluffy-bloomed peacocks of the rose world as the most exquisite, to my eyes there’s something much bolder about our single-petaled native roses. Unapologetically baring all their reproductive parts, the flowers’ contrasts of pink and yellow beckon animals to come feed. And when the animals respond, it’s clear that flora and fauna are old friends who know precisely what to do when they meet again. Like any good host, the flower offers its tasty treats in just the right-sized cup for the tongues of its visitors, who return the favor with the gift of pollination.

The next time I visit my new Virginia rose patch, I hope to find Mr. Sweat Bee and his friends there, enjoying themselves at the open bar instead of wasting their time on roses that refuse to serve their kind. Those plants are manmade constructs that have little to do with the needs of the natural world. I don’t blame people for not knowing this; it took me years to figure it out. But once you know, you can’t un-know, nor should you try. The plants and animals have taught us that lesson over and over again. It’s our job now, as fellow citizens of this beautiful but degraded planet, to stop ignoring them, start turning down the volume on all the marketing ploys that encourage us to carry on ignorantly in our human-centric ways, and act in the best interests of all species. It’s not hard. We just have to restore our humility enough to follow their lead—to whichever flowers they take us to.

DSC_0323

 

5 Gorgeous Reasons to Go Native Plant Sale-ing

If my recent post about chemicals lurking in mass-produced plants wasn’t enough to persuade you, here are five more reasons to do your spring garden shopping at native plant sales and nurseries (like the ones listed here).

Yes, this is shameless eye candy. But it is eye candy with a purpose, supporting a bounty of life in the landscape.

1. Swamp milkweed
Image of swamp milkweed

Why I love it: Aslcepias incarnata is one of four milkweeds in my garden. Each comes into its own at slightly different times of the season, providing a continuous supply of foliage for the monarch butterfly caterpillars who depend on milkweed leaves for survival. The blooms host a pollinator party every day.

Who else loves it:  Swamp milkweed also feeds queen butterfly caterpillars, hummingbirds, and bees. (For more on milkweeds native to your region, see this helpful list from the National Wildlife Federation.)

2. Beautyberry DSC_0100

Why I love it: I often lament the undeserved names native plants were saddled with centuries ago. But beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is one bush with a label worthy of its radiance. Purchased on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my beautyberries are at the edge of my front garden. They’re also at the edge of their native range, a broad swath of the southeastern U.S. that reaches the coastal plain of Maryland but not the Piedmont. This might explain why they stay rather small here, since native plants grow best in the local soils to which they’re adapted. (I’m OK with that; it likes it here well enough, and I like it here, too!)

Who else loves it: High in moisture content, the berries are food for more than 40 bird species, including the northern bobwhite, American robin, brown thrasher, purple finch, and eastern towhee. Foxes, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, deer, and armadillos also eat the drupes.

3. Coral honeysuckle Image of trumpet honeysuckle

Why I love it: Why doesn’t everyone love it? That seems a more appropriate question. Lonicera sempervirens, native from Maine to Florida to Illinois to Texas, is a hometown hero with exotic flair, adding color all summer long to my garden. In warm years, it starts as early as April and flowers until November. (By the time this photo was taken on May 3, 2012, in Howard County, Maryland, the vine was in full regalia.) Unlike the invasive Asian honeysuckles, trumpet honeysuckle blooms prolifically where planted but does not take over habitat. Instead, it creates it!

Who else loves it: Also called coral honeysuckle, its flowers feed hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Its fruits attract quail, purple finches, goldfinches, hermit thrushes, and American robins. And its leaves are a larval host for spring azure butterflies and snowberry clearwing moths.

4. Possumhaw viburnumDSC_0033

Why I love it:  I never thought I’d love berries as much as I love flowers, but this bush changed my mind. As the fruits ripen, the colors change from light pink to deep pink to blue. Viburnums don’t typically flourish in the baking heat of my yard. But Viburnum nudum is adaptable in a variety of conditions. Near the treeline that borders our property, it gets a little of everything—some sun, some shade, and varying levels of water, depending on the season.

Who else loves it: As the name implies, opossums eat this fruit, as do raccoons. Many birds, including cardinals, woodpeckers, and robins, feast on it, too. In May and June, the white flowers host bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

5. Golden ragwortimage of golden ragwort

Why I love it: I bought a single pot of Packera aurea about 12 years ago. If I had to count them now, it would take me days. We have thousands. But that doesn’t mean this plant is invasive—quite the opposite. Its shallow roots are easy to pull, and it spreads only where it’s planted. After it finishes blooming in early spring, the leaves stay lush all summer and provide a natural groundcover.  In lieu of seas of barren mulch, we grow golden ragwort under chokeberries, dogwoods, and in the bare spaces between meadow plants. When flooding forced me to rip out my beloved fern garden where I’d planted that very first ragwort, it took only one season to bring it back to life in another spot.

Who else loves it:  The flowers attract early pollinators, including little carpenter bees, cuckoo bees and various Halictid bees.

One last tip: When choosing plants, look for ones that match your yard’s light and moisture conditions. As hardy as they are, many natives need to be in the right spots to thrive (though some will have a party just about anywhere). Also be on the lookout for affordable deals, such as bulk offers on small plugs for grasses and perennials or special sales of bareroot trees and shrubs. Young plants can grow into mature specimens just as quickly as older ones, and buying more than one will help you create more cohesive, natural plantings for wildlife.

Happy gardening!

Go Wild for Wild Bergamot

Image of hummingbird flying toward bee balm
As a replacement for butterfly bush, wild bergamot fits the bill—and the beak.

There isn’t anything shy about wild bergamot. It likes to take up space. It doesn’t just bloom where it’s planted but flourishes wherever it feels like spreading or seeding itself. No matter if you’re a carefully coiffed rosebush or a scruffy patch of coneflowers, Monarda fistulosa is content to plunk down next to you as if it’s known you all its life.

And that’s why the animals and I love this pollinator powerhouse. Though its adaptability has earned it the dubious title of “aggressive” in some circles, I view such labels with suspicion. Appropriate when describing, say, a driver going twice the speed limit, the word is loaded with bias when enlisted simply to denigrate the things we didn’t prescribe: the woman who dares to express an opinion when she wasn’t asked to, the dog who growls to protect his food from a wayward cat, the plant that grows in new directions we couldn’t have foreseen.

DSC_0238
A carpenter bee holds on tightly to his breakfast.

It’s true that many plants are aggressive outside their home ranges; it’s why we now have long lists of invasive species we should never put in our gardens. But plants native to a given area are subject to natural checks and balances, including other jubilant natives competing for space and tiny nibbling creatures.

“Abundant” is how I would prefer to describe my beloved bergamot, also known as bee balm. Originally purchased 14 years ago to satisfy my own taste for wild beauty, one seed pack from Seeds of Change has created a perennial feast for the many animals in our yard. If ever there were an alternative nectar source to the invasive, nonnative, inappropriately named butterfly bush, wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) fits the bill—and the beak and the bee tongue.

But don’t just take my word for it. Let the animals in these photos persuade you. And don’t miss the video encore below!

Image of eastern tiger swallowtail on wild bergamot
Eastern tiger swallowtails flock to this plant …
wild bergamot and silver spotted skipper
… as do silver-spotted skippers …
Image of great spangled fritillary on wild bergamot
… and great spangled fritillaries. (Depending on the season, sometimes bergamot in large patches like this gets a little mildew. It always comes back good as new for me the next year, but if recurring mildew bothers you, you can create more air circulation by digging some of the plants up and relocating them.)
Image of butterflies on wild bergamot
It’s a veritable gathering place for butterflies. At first you may think there are only two in this photo. Can you spot the third?
Eastern tiger swallowtails on wild bergamot
It’s the plant that keeps on giving from mid-summer to fall.
Monarch on wild bergamot
When many other plants have passed their peak, some of my wild bergamot are just getting started, providing much-needed food for migrating monarchs.
Image of bee flying toward wild bergamot
There’s a reason the plant is also called bee balm.
Image of sleeping bees on wild bergamot
It even provides a protective umbrella under which bees lay their weary heads each evening—upside down—before waking up to breakfast in bed early the next morning. (Photo by Will Heinz, my fellow bee lover who happily woke up early with the bees to take this beautiful shot! Thank you, Will!)
Goldfinch on wild bergamot
Long after the flowers have died, the plant provides food to goldfinches and sparrows when little else is available to our birds. Its stems are sometimes used by indigo buntings to build their nests.

Can you count the number of butterflies in this video? (Please excuse the human intrusion at the 18-second mark; I decided not to edit the sound out so you could enjoy the magic of long-missed insect and bird song.)

 

Ice Parade

This morning Nature served up a cold drink on the rocks. She was kind enough not to thaw until I’d had a chance to capture the icy beauty of our native plants.

Image of iced redtwig dogwood on ice
Redtwig dogwood
Image of bergamot on ice
Bergamot and echinacea seedheads
Image of iced redbud
Redbud branch
Image of Eastern white pine with ice
Eastern white pine
Image of American holly with icicles
American holly
Image of Joe Pye on ice
Joe Pye weed
Image of lichen with ice
Lichen on fallen log
Image of robin in icy tree
Robin singing, “It’s time for spring!”

 

A Winter Backyard Buffet

Image of goldfinch on bergamot
Native plants are the best winter food for goldfinches and other wildlife.
Image of goldenrod seedhead in snow
Goldenrod seeds feed birds, and the stalks shelter insects the birds eat.
Image of cardinal in tree in snowstorm
But in snowstorms, it’s harder for animals to reach natural food sources.
Image of echinacea seedheads
Even the seedheads are less accessible.
Image of cardinal in snowstorm
It was so cold yesterday this cardinal took refuge under the eaves.
Image of cardinal in snowstorm
He liked the warm water we put in birdbaths for feather cleaning.
Image of Will feeding birdfeeder
My own male cardinal, Will, helped the birds through frigid temperatures.
Image of squirrel eating birdseed
The squirrels were also grateful for his assistance.
Image of rabbit near front steps in snowstorm
A rabbit came to visit but quickly left for the chokeberry grove.
Image of rabbit under chokeberries in snowstorm
To survive, rabbits eat their nutrient-rich droppings and woody plants.
Image of rabbit footprints
This one left only footprints, but I’m sure we’ll meet again.

The “cardinal” rule of bird feeding? Don’t feed when it might cause harm. That’s the recommendation from my friends at The Humane Society of the United States. While they and other experts believe it’s generally safe given proper precautions, some evidence points to negative impacts. Based on the research, a moderate approach is wise. Provide as many native plants as possible, ease up on feeding in warmer seasons when natural food is abundant, and supplement when sources are scarce or buried in snow. If you feed birds in a remote, cold region such as rural Maine—where there may be little natural food and few feeders for miles around—ask someone to fill your feeders if you leave town. This helps birds who may have become dependent on your supply, says HSUS senior scientist John Hadidian. Read more tips here.