Beyond Planting Native

Bringing home native plants and putting them in your garden, and encouraging those already there are great ways to start connecting to your environment. Here are some more simple ways to have an even bigger positive impact:

Stop using –icides! Pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides all have bigger effects than you intend. A very important way to help our ecosystems recover is to stop attacking them. Allow the bluets and violets into your lawn. By forgoing these expensive additives, you’ll be helping the environment and your wallet. And don’t worry, you won’t get overrun by pests, loosening your grip on your yard will allow predatory insects and birds to keep them in check. And until the balance kicks in, there are lots of natural ways to deal with pests encroaching into homes.

Plant dense and bare! Plants grow much closer together in the wild than we often allow them to in our garden. By planting plants more closely together and not mulching between them, you more closely mimic the natural environment, retaining soil moisture and providing space for ground nesting bees and other pollinators.

Mow less!  In both meanings of the phrase! Try to mow no more frequently than every two weeks, so that lawn plants can grow and maybe even bloom to provide food. And consider if there are areas in your yard that you can let go fallow and not mow at all; maybe that awkward side yard or the area that’s always wet.

Remove invasive species! Many of our invasive plants were brought here for horticultural, medicinal, or culinary uses. If you moved into a house with preexisting shrubbery, you probably have some invasives, to say nothing of those who have arrived uninvited. This can be a big task, so start by just stopping them from blooming or setting seed.

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Why Native Plants?

Populations of native pollinators and other beneficial insects are on the decline, and plants introduced by the nursery trade and individuals are invading our wild areas and yards. Both of these problems can be begin to be tackled by planting and encouraging native plants. There are many benefits of native plants, both to you and the environment!

Good for the Environment!

          More food! Many ornamental plants are of little benefit to beneficial native insects. Even if they provide nectar or pollen, that’s not all the insect world needs to survive. Pollinators need more than just nectar, and monarchs aren’t the only ones who rely on just a single group of plants to nurture them as juveniles. Some species are just as picky as adults. The berries and seeds of many plants serve as food for birds as well.

          Places to live! Many insects eat where they live, so by providing food resources, you’re creating a habitat for them to call home, even in a small planter. Leaving dead plant material increases the usefulness of the habitat, as many overwinter or lay eggs in dead stalks. Larger areas provide shelter and nesting spots for birds and other beneficial critters.

          Restoring the food web! Many of our native birds rely on caterpillars and other insects, so encouraging them will encourage birds as well. That’s to say nothing of all of the predatory insects and fascinating fungi that live with our native plants.

And Good for You!

          Fewer inputs! Native plants only require watering until they’re established, or maybe in the case of extreme drought. They’ve evolved with the soil here, so they don’t require the high nitrogen fertilizers that garden plants do. Unless your soil is very depleted or you’re harvesting a lot, native plants don’t require amendments. If you do, compost is great.

          Discover your Community! As you invite native plants into your yard, you’ll learn to recognize them and their relatives in the wild, and you’ll learn more about the biology of the world around you in the process. Discover beautiful insects and experience the awe of nature-in-action that you feel in parks and reserves in your very own yard.

Why not to buy (state-listed) endangered plants

When the restoration gardening bug bites, it can be easy to get dreaming big. “What if I sourced down the plants that are in the most trouble and plant those in my yard, won’t that be the best way to help them? I’ll only go to reputable dealers, I know it’s bad to dig stuff out of the wild! The state puts out a list, and hey look, Purple Giant Hyssop (Agastache
scrophulariifolia) is endangered, and I can order that from Prairie Moon!” Slow down. Like many things in life, it is not always that simple. If something is on our state list of endangered species, that means that it is endangered here in Connecticut, not necessarily in its entire range. Here, sitting on the coast of the Atlantic, most of our endangered species were already the edges of their populations, long before they became endangered.

Many of our endangered plants’ native ranges stretch out to the Mississippi River and beyond even to the Rockies, but what is endangered are the unique genetics of the populations that evolved here in Connecticut. Many of these plants are much more common in the Midwestern and Prairie states, and common in native plant nurseries from those areas. But planting those plants comes with a big risk. Since the genetics are different, when you plant a non-Connecticut variety of a species that is rare here, you run the risk of causing something called genetic swamping. If you live near enough to a population of the same endangered plant that you plant, pollinators (or the wind!) could enable the non-Connecticut variety to interbreed with the rare Connecticut wild-type. Since they are still the same species, they will be able to reproduce easily, but the offspring will be a blend. This means that, over generations, while your planted population is thriving in your garden, the genetics of the wild population will be changing. Instead of the unique Connecticut genetics, the new plants are somewhere in between, and since only foreign genetic information is being added to the population, they are becoming more and more like the non-Connecticut variety.

“But wait, if these endangered species are so special, won’t I know if my local park or wild area has them?” Not necessarily, in fact, no so by design. In order to protect these populations, the locations are kept quite secret. The fact that the plant is endangered may be precisely why you don’t know it is living right next door. So focus your efforts on planting the more common native plants, especially those that you can buy local wild-types of, and you may be surprised what other native plants find their way into your yard.

Euthamia graminifolia

Euthamia graminifolia at Curtis Woodlands in Durham, Connecticut caught in a rare moment with no pollinators

Common names: flat-top goldenrod, grass-leaved goldenrod, lance-leaved goldenrod

Unlike its more common cousins, this goldenrod bears its yellow flowers in flat-topped groupings, rather than spikes or pyramidal cascades. The leaves are narrow and linear. It usually ranges between two and three feet in height, and thrives in the open sunlight of fields of a variety of moisture.

It is an attractive plant to many pollinators, dozens of bees, wasps, and flies, which feed on the nectar, pollen, and tissues of the plant. Like some other goldenrods, Euthamia graminfolia has been shown in laboratory studies to have some degree of allelopathy or the production of chemicals to inhibit the growth of other plants, however, field tests show that this does not have an impact on the overall diversity or turnover of a meadow, in fact a 2010 study actually showed a slight increase in biodiversity where goldenrod were present.

Like other goldenrods, it can be used to produce dyes of varying shades of yellow, orange, and green, depending on the mordant. It has also had a variety of medicinal uses.

Works cited:


Nikki L. Pisula and Scott J. Meiners “Allelopathic Effects of Goldenrod Species on Turnover in Successional Communities,” The American Midland Naturalist 163(1), (1 January 2010).

https://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/prairie/plantx/gr_goldenrodx.htm

https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Euthamia+graminifolia

http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/flower_insects/plants/gr_goldenrod.htm

Asclepias incarnata ssp. pulchra

Common names: Swamp Milkweed, Pleurisy Root, White Indian Hemp, Rose Milkweed, Marsh Milkweed, Swamp Butterfly Weed

With more slender leaves and deeper pink flowers than its near celebrity cousin, Asclepias syriaca, Asclepias incarnata is also more discerning, preferring a much wetter environment. It is shorter than A. syriaca, the populations collected from were mostly around four feet tall. It is also a somewhat woodier plant, often branching, though not quite enough to give the appearance of a shrub. The subspecies pulchra is distinguished by soft hairs on the stems and undersides of the leaves. Its fluffy seeds begin break free from the smooth pods in the fall, and continue to disperse throughout the winter months.

This perennial plant is native along the eastern seaboard of the United States and inland to Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as in disjunct populations in Michigan and Texas. As one of the common names hints at, the bark of the stems can be made into a hemp-like cordage. Flowers, and young shoots, leaves, and pods can all be eaten when prepared properly. The floss of the seeds is also versatile: it can be used as batting, as well as to absorb oil after spills, and it has even been used in life jackets! Historically, it has been used by the Haudenosaunee, Chippewa, and Meskwaki for a variety of medicinal uses, and these practices continue today among tribal members and herbalists alike, although there has been very little scientific research done on this topic, and the plants are known to contain many toxic compounds. Please seek additional information and experts before consuming a plant for any reason.

Just like its cousin, indeed like all species in the genus Asclepias, is it a host for monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many species of butterfly. However, it is bees and wasps who are responsible for most of its pollination. The domestic honeybee is an effective pollinator, as are native carpenter bees, Xylocopa virginica, a tiphiid wasp, Myzinum carolinianum, and Sphex ichneunomeus, the great golden digger wasp.

Like most milkweeds, it quite bitter, making it unpalatable to larger herbivores, such as deer and most livestock, although caution should be taken with sheep, as they appear to be more sensitive to the plant. This, however, should not be an issue, as it grows in wet habitats that are both not suitable for, and far too fragile to withstand, most livestock grazing. It spreads both by seed and by rhizome, a horizontal, underground stem, and will readily grow in clayey soil, thus it can be a useful pioneer in improving soil retention and quality in damaged or man-made (rain gardens or results of construction, to name just two) wetlands.

Works cited:

Ivey, Martinez, and Wyatt, 2003. “Variation in pollinator effectiveness in swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata (Apocynaceae)”. American Jounal of Botany https://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.90.2.214

Kirk, S. and Belt, S. 2011. “Plant fact sheet for swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)”. USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Norman A. Berg National Plant Materials Center. https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_asin.pdf

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center
https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=asin

Plants for a Future
https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Asclepias+incarnata

USDA Plants, https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ASINP2

Ungardening your lawn: Why your grass might not be as green as you think it is

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The vast expanses of uniform lawn opposed to the dynamic and diverse possibilities that could exist in their place//magazine photo on paper, 2018

There are just over 49,400 square miles of lawn in the United States; that’s larger than the entire state of Mississippi, a mere 48,430. An estimated 23% of urban space is lawn. Why do we devote so much space (and time, and money) to lawns? Undeniably, they have some social benefits – they are an open space that can be used for almost innumerable activities. But more often than not, rather than serving as a functional, multi-use space, they exist in an entirely passive state. Take a drive down any highly peopled area – a neighborhood, business center, university – and take note of the lawns. Most serve primarily to fill the negative space in and around human structures: forming greens, surrounding buildings, flanking roads. Very few are used for any kind of activity that would require the utilitarian space that they provide. Instead they serve as a default; as what should exist when there’s no need or desire for something more complex.

But there’s no inherent reason why lawns should be the default, and it didn’t happen by accident. Lawns have existed in many times and places throughout history, and they have often been tied to the wealthy, or the leisure class, but the American lawn as we know it today arose shortly after World War Two. Many things about the social climate of postwar America helped to contribute to the popularity of the lawn, but two factors drove its spread. First was the suburbanization of America, which quickly created a large number of middle class landowners with small yards and lots of neighbors. Second was conversion of chemical companies from wartime to peacetime production. These companies had increased ammonia production to meet the wartime explosives demand, and they now sought for a way to maintain production. Since nitrogen fertilizer can be made from ammonia as easily as explosives, they found this demand in the home lawn care market. Newly created suburbs were the perfect setting for a campaign of fertilizer, pesticide, and work intensive landscaping. In the following decades, many chemical companies, notably DuPont, worked alongside the home garden industry to promote the idea of a lush, uniform lawn – an ideal only possible with substantial chemical inputs and specially formulated seed mixes, not to mention elaborate care regimes and irrigation systems. The perfectly manicured yard quickly became an inseparable part of the American suburban ideal, and it has remained dominant ever since, only losing stride in the western states in the last decade because of the unprecedented drought.

Despite its incredible popularity, the lawn did not remain an unquestioned good for long. By the late 1950s, home lawn care was already being linked to eutrophication, blooms of plant and algae productivity, in lakes and ponds. Eutrophication occurs when excess nutrient-rich chemicals (fertilizer and sewage are two common sources) are washed into bodies of water, in a process called surface runoff.  Once in the water, the excess nutrients act just like fertilizer, ramping up plant production. While a bloom of productivity may sound beneficial, any benefits are soon outweighed. When the blooming organisms start to die, a second bloom begins. This second wave of productivity is the decomposers, which consume the algae and plants, using up nearly all of the oxygen in the water in the process. This can eventually lead to an anoxic dead zone where nothing can survive. Lawn care is only one source of contaminated runoff, but it is substantial, and it is one of the most substantial sources that most people are in any position to do anything about!

To make a disappointing story even worse, that contaminated runoff often contains a lot of lawn amendments other than just fertilizer. Any chemical put on the ground is most likely eventually going to wind up in runoff, and while you might not want mushrooms and bugs in your lawn, they are a vital part of natural systems. Although it is nearly impossible to quantify how much pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide are used by homeowners, the breadth of products available at any home improvement store or garden center are a sure sign of a thriving industry. In addition to their label uses, these synthetic chemicals run the risk of bioaccumulating in organisms; meaning that chemicals present in fairly small amounts can become concentrated in the bodies of predatory animals as they consume contaminated organisms lower down in the food web. Since the 1960s and 1970s, alternatives to chemical intensive lawn care have become more and more common, but they still remain in the minority, and the lawn has continued to entrench itself as a necessary part of the American landscape. In fact, in many neighborhoods and communities across the country you can be fined, or even jailed, for refusing to maintain a “proper” lawn. (An aside: the podcast 99% Invisible did a great episode about lawn law and related issues: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/lawn-order/)

Not only are lawns problematic with regard to the amendments they require, most lawns are comprised primarily of non-native species. Many of the common grass varieties used in lawns – tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, Bermuda grass, timothy, creeping bentgrass, to name a few – are not native to the United States. In a well maintained lawn, grass plants should rarely go to seed, but this always a risk, and many grasses can spread aggressively through their roots. In many parts of the world, introduced grasses have become pest species; both when I worked in a Duke University research forest in North Carolina and an Indiana University research forest in Indiana, we had to contend with patches of invasive Japanese stiltgrass (Microstigium vimineum). The risks of invasive species in gardening and landscaping are multifaceted and deserve their own post, but there is another impact of using non-native species that is often overlooked.

Introduced grasses work together with lawn amendments like herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides to create a shell of an ecosystem. They occupy space in the natural world, but they hold it in a sort of limbo. They take the place of what could be a functioning part of the environment and instead attempt to domesticate it. By their very design, lawns are not natural environments, and just by existing they occupy land that would otherwise host much more life. But nature is persistent, and our yards are never fully under our control. A lawn is a commitment to engage in a struggle for domination that will never come to an end. And for what? Yes, mown backyards are awesome places for kids to play, but so many lawns serve no such redeemable purpose. The vast majority of lawns are completely unnecessary.

Consider your own yard: are there areas that you maintain as lawn that you rarely use? What would happen if you restored that area to a native ecosystem? Would you miss your turfgrass, or would you enjoy the new plants that grew there and the birds they attracted? With the right effort, and depending on the topography and microclimate of your yard, any natural ecosystem could be encouraged to take the place of a lawn. However, in Connecticut, and much of the northeast, we have a deficit of grasslands and other early successional habitats. Currently, Connecticut has somewhere between 4-6% grassland, much of it fragmented by human development. Most estimates figure that precolonial Connecticut had a much higher proportion of grassland, somewhere around 15-20%. This dramatic reduction in grassland areas is not only the result of development, but also the return of farmland to forest as the center of food production moved further west. As a result, many of the species most at danger of extinction in Connecticut are grassland plants and animals, especially birds like the eastern meadowlark and the grasshopper sparrow. Since the early 2000s, grassland conservation has been a major goal of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, supported by research from the Connecticut Audubon Society. A special concern of conservation in the eastern part of the US, however, is the high proportion of privately owned land, and the fragmentation of that land. But even a small plot of native meadow can support far more wildlife than a managed lawn, and it can serve as a stepping stone to connect other, larger areas of meadow, building a healthier and stronger ecosystem not only in the meadow itself, but also in the greater environment!

By ungardening an area of your yard, that is, introducing native plants and allowing them to interact and compete freely with each other, you are laying out the welcome mat for grassland dwelling birds, butterflies, bees, and more! As these visitors come to your meadow, they may bring with them other seeds, or even the spores of mushrooms and ferns! Unlike lawns, which require continual maintenance, native meadows can be left to develop nearly on their own to become even more complex and vibrant ecosystems. A native grassland meadow is a way to dismantle the idea we exist as separate from our environments. Instead it acknowledges that we can work alongside the plants and animals we share our world with. By turning a lawn into a meadow you are choosing to live with the environment, not on it; choosing to work with nature, not against it. And you might even get to see some cool birds!

 

Sources:

https://clear.uconn.edu/tools/habitats/grasslands.htm

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Lawn/lawn2.php

Covell, Darrel. “Chapter 1: Introduction” Managing Grasslands, Shrublands, and Young Forest Habitats for Wildlife: A Guide for the Northeast. 2006. pp. 1-6. The Northeast Upland Habitat Technical Committee. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/habitat/grassland_shrubland_management/Ch01_Introduction.pdf

Ignatieva, Maria et al. “Lawn as a cultural and ecological phenomenon: A framework for transdisciplinary research” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, vol 14. no. 2, 2015, pp. 383-387. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2015.04.003

McCarthy, Gina. “Grassland Habitat Conservation Initiative” 2006. Connecticut  Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nongame/grasshaboct06.pdf

Whitney, Kristoffer. “Living Lawns, Dying Waters: The Suburban Boom, Nitrogenous Fertilizers, and the Nonpoint Source Pollution Dilemma.” Technology and Culture, vol. 51, no. 3, 2010, pp. 652–674. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40927990.