The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 10: Aug. 19, 2010

KYPP Nugget: Gardening with Native Plants on a Budget

Next Week in The Columbia Paper: "Lab Coat and Artist's Smock"
Reflections on the roles of science and art in our relationship with nature in FEP's next Perspectives on Place column in The Columbia Paper, September 16, 2010. 

Gardening with Natives: Background Exploration

Purple Loosestrife is one of our most invasive plants. Because of its outstanding ornamental value, it is nevertheless still widely sold at nurseries.

Other invasive plants are unfortunately still commonly promoted for their looks and hardiness. Please avoid planting the following most popular invasive species in order to protect the natural plant communities in our County:
Invasive Trees: Norway Maple
Invasive Shrubs/Vines: Japanese Barberry, Winged Burning Bush (Euonymus), Oriental Bittersweet, Privet, and Autumn Olive.
Ground cover: Goutweed (Bishop's Weed).

The New York Invasive Species Council has published the results of their invasiveness assessment for plants on pages 103-108 in their Final Report 2010.

"Bringing Nature Home" by Doug Tallamy has been a great inspiration and motivation for many people to pay closer attention to the plants they choose to cultivate in their yards.

Tallamy reminds us that more land in the US is in suburbs than in National Parks, which means that there is tremendous potential for gardens in suburbs to contribute to the conservation of native plants and animals. Especially the choice of our ornamental trees can make a big difference. Native tree species can feed an enormous amount of moth and butterfly caterpillars, who will turn into such beauties as the Luna moth or the smaller Rosy maple moth. But these caterpillars also serve as the main food source for many song birds and other animals. Native oaks, willows, cherries, and birches rank high in the number of caterpillar species they support.

Judy Sullivan introduced workshop participants to some native plants of high ornamental value.

Designing a garden with native plants might limit ones ability to "paint with flowers". However, increased
attention to the variation in "off-season" leaf/stem color, texture, and plant shape provides new opportunities for pleasing designs. Furthermore, a native plant garden invites designs that are inspired by native habitats. At the Creekhouse, we plan to create a small woodland springflower community around the base of our deciduous shade tree. A bed of late summer flowering native wet meadow plants will replace the lawn area that currently collects the runoff from the parking lot.

Project Native Catalog
The catalog of Project Native is an invaluable resource and quick reference guide to the horticultural requirements and wildlife value of more than 150 native trees, shrubs, perennials, sedges & grasses, and ferns.
8/19 column: "Gardening with Native Plants on a Budget"

by Claudia Knab-Vispo

I don’t have much of a track record as a gardener. At heart, I am a botanist who loves to study which plants like to spontaneously grow together and what habitat each species tends to most associate with, when free to choose. But now that our program has moved into its new home, the Creekhouse in Harlemville, we have become stewards of a piece of land that bears the scars of recent excavator activity and needs a helping hand to become beautiful again. But how are we going to define beauty? We did enjoy the scattered peony flowers that unexpectedly rose above the weeds earlier this year in a neglected ornamental bed along the roadside. And I am very tempted to sow the seeds of the multi-colored Columbines that grow so prolifically in my parent’s garden in Germany. However, after long deliberation and research, we decided to define beauty in our future garden by more than the size and color of the flowers or by their sentimental value.
We are embarking on a quest to showcase the beauty of the plants that have grown in this region before European settlement and the resulting arrival of many new plants from the other side of the Atlantic. Some of the showy ornamental plants we had originally invited into our gardens have become invasives, which means they escaped from the gardens into natural communities and are so prolific that they have a serious impact on the native plants and animals. The gorgeous Purple Loosestrife that currently graces so many wetlands in Columbia County (and beyond) with its abundant, deep purple flowers, is an example of such an escaped ornamental plant. As conservation-minded people, we feel a responsibility towards the natural heritage of each place, the plants and animals that have evolved in each particular region. In Germany, my sympathy is with Purple Loosestrife. It has evolved there, belongs to the natural heritage of Europe and has lost much of its habitat to the “improvement” (i.e. drainage) of wetlands. Here, I feel responsible for Swamp Candle, Turtlehead, and Monkeyflower, some of the native plants that used to live in the swamps of Columbia County now dominated by Purple Loosestrife.
So, what does that have to do with our choices for ornamental plants? Well, for one, we definitely don’t want to introduce any more invasives into the landscape. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to predict which exotic plant is going to be the next invasive. Sticking with native plants who have co-evolved with the other plants and animals in this region avoids the danger of releasing the next invasive into the wild. Favoring native plants in landscaping has other advantages as well. In his book “Bringing Nature Home”, entomologist Doug Tallamy reminds us of the inter-connectedness of all things wild. Many insects eat plants. Native insects tend to prefer native plants because, over evolutionary time, they and their digestive systems have become accustomed to dealing with the unique chemical composition of certain species. Most native leaf-eating insects, including many butterfly and moth caterpillars, utilize only a single or a few closely related native plant species and are extremely slow in adopting novel foods.  Before we can enjoy the colorful butterflies nectaring on the showy flowers in our gardens, their caterpillars had to be eating the leaves of suitable host plants. Similarly, before we can enjoy the birds eating seeds at our bird feeders, these birds had to be raised by their parents on the protein-rich diet of insects. So, why not think about our yard as a place of beauty where we not only try to attract colorful butterflies and birds, but where we also provide some of the resources these creatures need during their less colorful phase?
Landscaper Ruth Dufault of Bittersweet Garden is helping us with the design and implementation of our native plant garden. We also frequently consult with Judy Sullivan at Project Native. Their first advise: inventory what you’ve got. Then start envisioning different areas of your yard as different habitats: dry and sunny; moist, but sunny; cool and shady. Next, decide who is to stay and who has to go. In our case, the peonies and day lilies along the road were dug up, while the Beardtongue and Three-lobed Rudbeckia, as well as a clump of native Wild Rye, were marked with little red flags as “keepers”.  Finally, shape the beds around the “keepers”, prepare the soil for planting, and add native plants who you think will feel at home in the particular habitat provided by each bed. The catalog of Project Native is a great resource to learn about the habitat requirements of native plants. The plants will tell you if you got it right…
Now, a word of caution. You might think “if use native plants, why buy them, if I can go to the meadow or forest and just dig up what looks good?” Please don’t! One of the reasons for gardening with natives is to bolster native plants that are no longer very common in natural habitats. If you were to dig up a specimen that has found a suitable spot in the wild, you would deprive the wild community of one of its established members, reducing the likeliness that its kind can maintain itself at that location. Even more, transplanting is a risky business and you might not find just the right spot for that wild plant in your garden, and it will perish. Nursery-raised plants are much more forgiving. Happy to finally be released from their pots, they can adapt well to a spot in the earth of a garden bed. We have decided not to use any transplants from the wild in our native plant garden. But we are planning to collect seeds from abundant wild native plants and seed them in suitable locations in the garden.
This is going to be a project over several years, but please do stop by the Creekhouse in Harlemville any time and have a look at how the native plant garden is coming along. I hope we will all be able to learn from each other.
We invite your observations of the landscape, your comments, and your questions ( If you would like to participate in designing and installing the Native Plant Garden around the Creekhouse, please let us know.

Claudia Knab-Vispo is a botanist with the Farmscape Ecology Program at Hawthorne Valley Farm. The Creekhouse is located at 1075 Harlemville Road, just east of the Taconic Parkway.

Gardening with Natives: Background Exploration (cont.)

For more ideas about great reads, please check out the list of favorite books, internet resources and nurseries for the native plant gardener. The books available in our reading room are marked with an asterix on that list. Consider coming on any Thursday, 5-8pm to "Browse in the Reading Room at the Creekhouse". Simple food, book browsing, natural history inquiries and conversation.  Walk-ins are welcome and there is no charge.

Native Plant Gardening Workshop led by Ruth Dufault

Ruth Dufault (second from right) leads a workshop that allows participants to witness and contribute to the planning and implementation of the native plant garden around the Creekhouse.