Archive for category Conservation Corner
Kermit the Frog’s well-known song about the travails of being green was about the sense of isolation that comes from being different from other folks. I think it applies equally well to the challenges facing the Green World. These challenges are delineated in detail in Douglas Tallamy’s latest book: Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.
In his book, Tallamy’s frustration with humanity is frequently evident. The introduction and first four chapters provide a vast amount of research-based data on how and why Planet Earth’s ecosystems are in imminent peril. His conclusion is inescapable and direct: the actions of humanity are responsible for the destruction of the natural world upon which all life relies.
In the introduction, he categorizes people into three groups: animal-lovers, plant-lovers, and the utterly indifferent. The categories reflect his strategy for reaching each of the groups. For animal-lovers, he explains their critical dependence on plants. He shows plant-lovers why animals, especially insects, are essential to the survival of most flora. And for the indifferent, “the hardest group of all to engage,” he did his best, he says, “to explain why we will lose humans if we don’t preserve the plants and animals that keep our ecosystems healthy and sustaining.”
Dr. Tallamy’s solution to the ongoing demise of life on Planet Earth is a concept he calls Homegrown National Park:
“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities? Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.”
By restoring functioning native ecosystems to our landscapes, he says, we will be creating a far larger national park system than currently exists, where native animals and plants can flourish. And it is a park we will be able to visit whenever we like by simply stepping outside our homes and offices. It is a wonderful vision, reminding me a great deal of a notion I helped develop and continue to pitch for my region called Piedmont Patch.
Tallamy does not introduce his Homegrown National Park concept until chapter five. His opening chapters provide a brief history of earlier conservation efforts and begin to offer reams of data interspersed with explanations of underlying scientific ecological concepts as he proceeds to build his case according to the standard scientific writing approach. After chapter five, he offers four more chapters full of data-based factoids and solidly reasoned arguments on ways to rebuild carrying capacity and the impact of invasive, non-native species.
Here’s a factoid from chapter six: A massive scientific study called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published in 2005 and concluded then that by the turn of the century (20 years ago), “we had destroyed 60 percent of the earth’s ability to support us.” That factoid should make anyone who loves their children and grandchildren swallow hard. Alas, it is buried in the middle of a chapter, as are many other staggering bits of information, where only a careful reader will ever see it.
Chapter seven is on invasive non-native plants; he calls them alien plants. As someone who has been sermonizing to anyone willing to listen about the negative impacts of these invaders for 25 or so years, I found this chapter helpful, because Tallamy succinctly dissects every point made by those who would have us believe that these invaders are no big deal, just Nature being Nature. Be assured, I will have his well-constructed arguments at the ready the next time someone tries to persuade me about the “benefits” of invasive non-native plants. Here’s just one of his very helpful explanations on this subject:
“Every time a native plant is removed from an ecosystem, or even diminished in abundance, populations of all of the animals that depend exclusively on that plant are also removed or diminished, as are the natural enemies of those species. In sum, then, at the local scale – the scale that counts ecologically – invasive plants typically decimate local species diversity, and claims to the contrary have not been supported by rigorous field studies” (emphasis mine).
It is not until chapter eight, Tallamy’s chapter on the critical need to restore insect species, that he finally offers a key piece of practical information on helping landowners restore native plants to their properties. He explains the concept of “keystone plants,” the species in a given ecosystem on which the greatest percentage of other ecosystem members rely. For example, when looking at which plants support the most caterpillars, the larval forms of moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), he and his research assistant discovered that “wherever we looked, about 5 percent of the local plant genera hosted 70 to 75 percent of the local Lepidoptera species!”
Tallamy therefore advises that it is essential to plant keystone species appropriate to your area when you decide to restore native plants to your property. His research assistant, Kimberley Shropshire, spent a year compiling a massive database that identifies which insect species rely on which plants. This database has been used by two different conservation organizations to develop free applications for the public to use when planning native restorations of their properties. Tallamy buries this important (to my mind, anyway) bit of information in the middle of chapter eight.
After you enter your zip code, these applications generate lists of native plants suitable for your area, and the lists are ordered, so that keystone species – the plants critical for supporting the most insect species – are listed first, encouraging you to include them in your design. A few pages later, Tallamy explains why this is critical to the successful creation of a functioning ecosystem on your property: “A landscape without keystone genera will support 70 to 75 percent fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone genera, even though the keystone-less landscape may contain 95 percent of the native genera in the area.” In other words, you’ll be planting a pretty native landscape of no use to native birds and other wildlife if you omit keystone species from your design.
The two applications based on Shropshire’s research are:
- Native Plant Finder, developed by the National Wildlife Federation, and
- Plants for Birds, developed by the Audubon Society
In chapter ten, Tallamy explains why he thinks his concept, Homegrown National Park, will work. He suggests that reasoned arguments and education will turn the tide with HOAs, which is what I would expect a man of science like Dr. Tallamy to believe. He’s not entirely wrong. I know of a couple of local HOAs that have been slowly persuaded on the merits of native plant landscapes. Scientific arguments were part of the process, but much emotion-based persuasion was also involved. I believe financial arguments are also critical to persuading HOAs and landowners, and Tallamy ignores this aspect entirely. He also doesn’t mention the need to persuade the real estate and horticultural industries that native landscapes can still be money-makers for them.
In his final chapter, Tallamy gets around to explicitly listing ten steps landowners can take to make Homegrown National Park a reality. It is a short chapter, because, I imagine, he expects that readers have already digested the carefully laid out research and arguments in the previous 204 pages. They are solid, easy-to-implement steps. I hope and pray his notions take hold and sweep the nation.
However, unless many of us who already have a decent grasp of ecology and native plants and animals make Tallamy’s book a jumping-off point for persuasion-based presentations of our own, I fear that the vast majority of Americans in his third category – the utterly indifferent – will not be moved to even read the book.
Let me be clear. In my estimation, there is nothing wrong with the content of Tallamy’s book. His research and conclusions are rock-solid. But as a professional writer and editor of many decades, it is my opinion that this book would have benefitted greatly from a developmental edit that could have shaped its contents into a more persuasive and accessible form specifically targeted to his most challenging audience – the utterly indifferent plant-blind humans who don’t see or appreciate the natural world the way he does, the way I do, the way most of my blog followers do.
Yes, this book gives us Greenies more ammunition for our arguments with HOAs and neighbors; the Frequently Asked Questions section at the back of the book will be especially helpful with that. But will this book persuade the indifferent? I fear it is unlikely.
On this Earth Day and every day, it’s not easy being green, as any plant, hungry caterpillar, or ecologically aware human will tell you. Tallamy’s new book provides us with important information to share with those indifferent to Nature’s wonders. But in my estimation, on its own, it is not a book that will persuade those still blind to the natural world to join the green side. I very much hope I’m wrong.
Wonder Spouse and I have been privileged to live on the same five acres of North Carolina Piedmont for 30 years. When I first saw the land covered in melting snow on a January day in 1989, I knew enough to recognize its potential. A diverse array of mature trees offered clues about soils and microclimates. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the native species that should be present, and others that would do well if I added them.
Still, my little green haven exceeds my expectations nearly every time I walk it. Something — or someone — new is always appearing, and I believe it is because Wonder Spouse and I have deliberately chosen plants that have filled in some of the missing pieces of native ecosystems that I detected three decades ago. As a friend recently wrote to me, “If you plant it, they will come.”
When some birder friends of ours stopped by last fall and walked our land with us, they said they observed/heard about 60 bird species during the course of our walk. The high number is in part due to the growing beaver-built pond and wetland off our property on the other side of the creek. The raised water levels have attracted all manner of aquatic species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Many of those species occasionally wander over to our side of the creek to explore. I know this for a fact now, thanks to the critter camera that Wonder Spouse gifted me with this past January. We attached it to a tree and aimed it at a path along the creek, where we often see deer tracks. Thanks to the camera, we now know that many species besides deer routinely travel that path.
I realize that most folks aren’t lucky enough to live beside a healthy wetland, but even a quarter-acre lot possesses microclimates created by directional exposure and topographic variations. You can instantly serve more native wildlife guests by providing a small water feature, such as an ornamental pond. We have such a feature at our front entrance. Every year, frogs from the wetland find it, chorus lustily, then deposit gelatinous eggs that become tadpoles that eventually morph into new frogs. Amphibians are always on the lookout for such ponds, because they are usually protected from at least some of their predators, raising the odds of success for tadpoles to become frogs.
On this Earth Day 2019, I encourage all my plant-loving readers to revisit your landscape designs for additional opportunities to provide habitat for native wildlife. Rapid urbanization of the southeastern US Piedmont region is destroying many areas that once sheltered our wildlife. Ecological degradation caused by environmental pollution, invasive non-native species intrusion, and climate change-related weather shifts is causing dramatic reductions in our native wildlife from insects to birds to larger animals. Every human home landscape can make a critical difference to the continuing survival of our native wildlife.
You may not see quite the diversity of species my critter camera has captured on my five acres, but you will notice an uptick in beautiful songbirds if you plant native shrubs that provide food and cover and perhaps add a few nesting boxes and a bird bath or two. Those same shrubs will provide habitat for the caterpillars songbirds use to feed their nestlings. But they won’t eat them all, meaning you’ll see an uptick in butterflies and moths.
Your yard will come to life before your eyes. Your landscape will be vibrantly beautiful and healthy. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your small but vital part to keep the blue-green jewel we call Mother Earth alive and healthy.
Gardeners are time travelers. Our ties to good earth, green plants, and all the creatures that rely on them anchor our bodies while simultaneously transporting our minds through a river of time that flows both ways, forward and back. When we plant a seed or a young tree, we see in our minds what that plant will become. When we see a mature oak, its full green branches laden with acorns, our minds travel back to the time when the acorn that became the mighty oak was planted. As I plant and tend a garden, I slip into the timestream, seeing clearly the ripe tomatoes I will pick in a few weeks, ivory flowers that will perfume the air when a Bigleaf Magnolia attains blooming size, and the berry-eating birds that will flock to the holly and viburnum fruits produced by the shrubs I settle into the ground today.
Experienced gardeners and other adept readers of the land, such as ecologists, slip easily into the Green World timestream as we go about our lives. Visions of past and future landscapes unfold with our footsteps; trees and rocks whisper their stories to us.
Such was the case when I first encountered a gnarled tree with heart-shaped leaves standing stoically beside the pond of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site on the grounds of a small church in Chapel Hill, NC. The vicar of that church was eager to show me the tree because she was deeply attached to it, even though she didn’t know its identity. Her parishioners had wanted to cut it down, but she resisted the suggestion. To her, I think, it represents resiliency; despite its apparent suffering, as evidenced by gnarled branches sporting spindly green shoots and obvious dead branches, the tree had not died. The vicar showed it to me that day hoping that I would be able to give her beloved tree a name.
Heart-shaped leaves narrowed down identity options considerably, which helped. It wasn’t a redbud; leaves and branches were all wrong for those species. It wasn’t – thank heavens – an invasive non-native Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa).
By that time, the vicar had told me the story of the land her church occupied. It was a piece of an old farm; they use the old farmer’s home as their parish house. The small pond was part of the farm too, stocked with fish and regularly visited by local fishermen for generations. The church is committed to maintaining the pond for those fisherfolk, even supplying poles for those who care to stop by and try their luck.
As I listened to her describe the history of the pond, the puzzle resolved. I knew instantly that the gnarled old tree was a Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). Technically native to slightly more southern states, these trees have naturalized in North Carolina, likely in part because humans have been planting them beside fishing holes for generations as bait trees.
Southern Catalpa is the host food plant for the caterpillar of a sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae) that is commonly called a catalpa worm. The outer skins of these caterpillars are tough enough to anchor a fish hook, and their insides emit a scent – even under water – that is catnip to catfish and other fish likely to inhabit farm ponds. Practical fisherfolk of earlier generations soon learned to plant Southern Catalpas beside their favorite fishing spots, so that bait would be handy when they got a hankering to toss out a line.
When I had my aha moment of identification, my mind carried me back to earlier times – probably at least 50 years in this case – when a time-traveling fisherman planted this Southern Catalpa because he could see that it would grow large beside the pond, be visited by moths that would lay eggs that would hatch into fat catalpa worms, providing irresistible bait for fish caught to feed hungry families.
I pointed out the tree to a fellow plantsman, who was intrigued by its story. He remembered it when he was acquiring plants at a local nursery and noticed in a corner two very pot-bound saplings of Southern Catalpa that the owners were planning to discard. He asked if he could have them, they happily said yes, and he brought them to me to plant beside the pond that has become the home of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Wonder Spouse helped me plant them last year, not far from the gnarled original. They are growing well, and the vicar was pleased that if her old gnarled friend succumbed to time’s travails, its tale would be carried forward by the two new trees.
Fast-forward to late May of this year, when I was visiting the site to slip in some beautiful donated plants from another nursery, lovingly dug up and delivered to me by a wonderful plantswoman who works there. I had finished my work and was taking a few photos of what was blooming on this patch of piedmont that is transforming rapidly, thanks to the addition of over 1000 native plants added this year by volunteers who support this vision of creating a sanctuary of native plants to feed and shelter local wildlife being displaced by the rapid urbanization of the region.
I walked down to admire the young Southern Catalpas, which now stand near a honeybee hive added this past spring – a fortuitous location, given that flowers of these trees – when they are old enough to start blooming — are beneficial to these pollinators. That’s when I noticed that the elder Southern Catalpa had more fresh leaves growing on it than I had seen since I met it two years ago.
When I approached it for a closer look, I realized it was covered in gorgeous flowers! They reminded me a bit of orchids, hanging in pendulous clusters. My mouth gaped long enough that I was lucky one of the nearby honeybees didn’t fly right in.
Of course, I took photos – lots of photos. When I told the vicar, she was astonished. “That tree has never bloomed!” she exclaimed. “How is this possible?”
I can only speculate, of course, but I do have a couple of theories. My first is that perhaps the tree felt valued again when we planted two more of its kind nearby. That is an entirely subjective explanation I realize, but if you want to put a scientific veneer on it, I could offer that perhaps increasing the plant diversity of the site as a result of the Piedmont Patch project somehow enlivened the plants already growing there.
My second theory has no scientific basis, but as a time-traveling gardener, I have to wonder if perhaps this tree slipped into the Green World timestream back to a time when it was more vigorous. Maybe the work of Piedmont Patch volunteers on the site carried it back to more vibrant times, causing it to burst forth in an enthusiastic flower display more typical of past decades.
Transformation is definitely the motif of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Already, every day brings new wildflower blooms, new birds, and a continuous stream of volunteers bearing plants and offering labor to further the creation of this native haven. Already, it is a place of peace, beauty, and above all, hope.
As I travel forward in my mind to envision this site a few years from now, I see volunteers – the Piedmont Patch Stewardship Team – tending the site. As they pull out unwanted plants and add more native species, work to eradicate nearby stands of invasive non-native species, and document the site’s continuing transformation, I see this site serving as inspiration for new piedmont patches springing up in the region. Every patch will be different – as unique as the group creating it and the site upon which it is established. But all will be growing green havens of native beauty that shelter and feed wildlife, from pollinators to birds to lizards, frogs, and cottontail rabbits.
All will be symbols of hope, refuges also for souls of weary humans who too often lose touch with their connection to the Green World. Perhaps these havens will help more of those disconnected souls regain a knack for time travel, to see what a healthy future for the region – and the planet – looks like. As a time-traveling gardener, I hold on to that hope for transformation. How can I not, when I see a seemingly dying tree burst into spring bloom, and a pond-side full of random weeds become a vibrant assembly of native grasses and wildflowers?
On this blog on past Earth Days, I have mounted what I call my green pulpit to preach about the struggling biosphere on our beleaguered planet. Frankly, I am so discouraged by what humanity is allowing to happen these days that I almost didn’t bother to write anything today. But a recent local event motivated this post.
Wonder Spouse and I have lived on the same wonderful five acres for 29 years. Because we live beside a perennial creek with an adjacent wetland, beavers have moved into our immediate area several times. Photos throughout this post are of the current beaver pond adjacent to our property. The transformations they manifest on the local environment are immediate and mostly wonderful. From a human perspective, though, because they cut down and eat trees and raise water levels to flood multiple acres, they are often considered a nuisance.
About ten years ago, the last healthy 1000-acre stand of forest near our house was erased and replaced with a truly enormous subdivision full of houses packed so closely together that I am sure neighbors can hear each other with the windows tightly shut. Yards are tiny and all look alike, adhering, no doubt, to strict HOA rules. Frankly, the place gives me the heebie-jeebies.
But the California company that erected this monstrosity over fierce objections from the local community was clever. They market this massive people prison as “nature-friendly,” because they left alone small patches of forest around creeks and wetlands (where they couldn’t build houses easily anyway). They built trails through it, and I gather it is used heavily by residents. In fact, many of the residents claim they chose to live there because they are “nature lovers.”
One border of this suburban nightmare is less than a mile from my house, so it is no surprise that the creeks that run through it host a healthy beaver population. Recently, beaver activity there covered one of the expensive pedestrian bridges in their trail system, and the HOA voted to have the beavers exterminated, which created such an uproar from some of the residents that their protests gained local news coverage, and the HOA has temporarily halted their extermination plans pending further review of possible solutions to “the beaver problem.”
On this Earth Day, I describe this to you because I am flummoxed by the ability of the residents of this massive subdivision to see trees but no forest. In other words, they pick and choose what bits of the natural world they like and which parts they dislike, oblivious to the reality that nature is a system of complexly interlocking parts that evolved over spans of time beyond their easy comprehension.
These residents have decided they like beavers. But these same residents team up in blocks to get a group rate on poison applications in their yards to kill ticks and mosquitoes. The poison doesn’t outright kill honeybees, but it is concentrated in their honey. More important, the poison, which is sprayed 30 feet high into the trees, also kills aquatic animals like fish and frogs (big mosquito eaters). Imagine what it likely does to nesting birds!
So on the one hand, these beaver-lovers are fighting to save the wetlands created by these industrious rodents, while simultaneously poisoning that environment, all because they want to be able to sit on their patios without being bothered by the insects that are a key food for that aquatic environment.
These same residents trap squirrels visiting their bird feeders and release them elsewhere. This is illegal, by the way, but also demonstrates ignorance of ecology. If you remove squirrels, more squirrels will move into the vacated spaces. I guarantee it.
Another resident of this suburban monstrosity told me of the big argument she had with a pesticide company over not spraying poisons in her house. She told me that it is apparently a selling point of this subdivision that all the homes are constructed with pipes running through the walls. Once a month a pesticide company hooks up its tank of poison to the outlet to these pipes and fumigates inside the walls to kill any insect foolish enough to consider moving in.
As for ticks — which I readily admit are significant disease vectors — balanced ecosystems are less likely to be overwhelmed by them. White-tailed deer and white-footed mice are two key transporters of ticks. Both species are very happy dining on over-fertilized lawns and shrubbery and beneath messy bird feeders. Adding clusters of native shrubs that feed and shelter birds and reducing lawns in favor of, say, small pollinator gardens of flowers would help dwindling insect and bird populations and reduce the need for supplemental bird feeding except during winter months when food is scarce. Small brush piles provide habitat for birds and opossums — known by ecologists as “tick vacuums,” because when they are present, the ticks they pick up are eliminated by their meticulous grooming habits.
To all these residents who moved here from elsewhere, I ask you to embrace the fact that you now live in the southeastern United States. Our mild climate means insects thrive year-round. We who grew up here know this and long ago adapted to that reality. When you attempt to kill or remove every animal that you don’t like, your choices impact more than just those target species. You hurt the environment you profess to love. You hurt the home of those furry rodents you have anthropomorphized into your friends. This is not an either-or situation. Nature is a system, an orchestra composed of myriad instruments, a chorus of many voices. The richness of the song is diminished every time you exterminate a voice. The viability of the entire system becomes more fragile every time you impose your will onto the environment that supports all of us.
On this Earth Day, I implore my neighbors to embrace all of Nature’s parts, whether or not they inconvenience you. If you can find a way to co-habit with beavers, that’s great. But if at the same time you do not protect the health of the wetlands they create by ceasing to poison and over-fertilize your yards, by replacing biologically sterile lawns with native flowers, shrubs, and trees that support wildlife, by learning the names of all the native plants, animals, birds, and insects in your environment and teaching those names to your children, then you are merely killing your beloved beavers by slower methods than those planned by your HOA.
This Saturday, Feb. 17, the Piedmont Patch Collaborative will host a free lecture in Chapel Hill, NC at 11:00 a.m. Although the warm temperatures have afflicted most of us with spring fever, the weather on Saturday will be an abrupt return to cold, damp conditions — ideal weather for sitting in a warm, dry spot to learn how you can invite native wildlife onto your property by adding native plants.
I’ve been writing about the Piedmont Patch Collaborative for a few months now, most recently in the post previous to this one. We are trying to demonstrate to public and private property owners the benefits of creating patches of native plant sanctuaries wherever they can to help compensate for the devastating losses of native habitat brought about by the rampant urbanization of the Piedmont region. Because most everyone loves butterflies, birds, and flowers, we thought a talk on how to use flowers to attract and feed these native creatures would appeal to experienced, and we hope especially, new gardeners. In central NC, there is no one better qualified to teach about pollinators and pollinator gardens than Debbie Roos. We are delighted that she is the first speaker in our quarterly lecture series that is free and open to the public.
Since 1999, Debbie has been an Agriculture Agent for the Chatham County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension, where she is responsible for programming in the areas of commercial vegetable production, organic production, pollinator conservation, alternative agricultural enterprises, forestry, and beekeeping. Debbie is passionate about pollinator conservation and has planted demonstration habitats and developed resources to teach others about the importance of bees and other pollinators to our agriculture ecosystem. Visit her pollinator Web site here.
Despite predicted gloomy weather, we are hoping for a big turnout for Debbie’s lecture. If you’re planning on coming, please bring a friend, especially if your friend is new to the Piedmont region or new to gardening. Come learn about the power of flowers that feed and shelter insects and birds critical to the survival of our food crops and our native ecosystems. The middle of February is the perfect time to start thinking about adding a pollinator garden to your property. You won’t be alone. The Piedmont Patch Collaborative Web site will offer a growing list of resources, including how-to articles and videos, an events calendar, recommended plant lists, and, of course, our quarterly lecture series. The site also lists all the details about Saturday’s lecture, including the location in Chapel Hill, NC.
I have the honor of introducing Debbie before her talk. If you attend and have time, please introduce yourself to me after the lecture. I’m always happy to talk about Piedmont gardening.
The cold, icy winter has been remarkably busy for this Piedmont gardener. In past years, I’ve used such winters to catch up on my reading, plan the new growing season’s vegetable garden, and perhaps do a bit of garden clean-up during “warm” spells. But this winter, the big dream I wrote about here a few months ago continues to occupy much of my time — along with a few other plant-related projects I’ll share with you in another post soon.
The group I’m working with has changed its name slightly. We are no longer the Piedmont Patch Project; instead, we are the Piedmont Patch Collaborative (PPC). This change was needed, because we wanted to convey the essential collaborative nature of this endeavor. We continue to welcome new partner organizations and individuals, who are helping us to dream even bigger as they bring additional resources and expertise to our effort.
Five key developments stand out:
- A new partner: New Hope Audubon Society — I am delighted to report that the chapter of the National Audubon Society local to my region has joined the Piedmont Patch Collaborative as an enthusiastic partner. This very active group brings enormous expertise to the PPC, especially with regard to the relationships between native birds and native plants. They actively promote ways to create bird-friendly habitat, even offering a certification program during which they will assess your property and offer suggestions to improve its bird habitat potential.
These are hands-on folks who have already committed to attending our quarterly talks and staffing a table where they can explain their organization and offer information on native birds and plants. They are planning to volunteer on our work days as we begin to add native plants to the landscape around The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, the PPC’s first demonstration project. Most exciting of all, they offered to apply for a grant from the National Audubon Society to fund the acquisition of additional native plants for the site — plants we would be able to acquire and add this year! We’ll know by the end of February if we win the grant; watch this space for updates.
- Continuing help from a partner: North Carolina Botanical Garden — Thanks to the support of the Director, Damon Waitt, and the generosity of the Greenhouse and Nursery Manager, Matt Gocke, the PPC will be able to use an entire bench in the Garden’s greenhouse to grow out plants for our big planting event scheduled for April. I was wondering how and where we were going to grow plants, so this kind offer is truly a boon from heaven.
- Our first free and open-to-the-public quarterly talk on Feb. 17: Debbie Roos on Creating wildlife habitat with pollinator gardens — Debbie is a regionally recognized expert on native pollinators. The demonstration pollinator garden she designed and maintains at Chatham Mills in Chatham county, NC is visited by tour groups from throughout the region. The PPC is very excited that Debbie will be the first speaker in its quarterly series of talks on native plants and animals, because pollinator gardens are one of the fastest ways to improve the native habitat potential of any Piedmont landscape. I hope many people will spend an hour or so with us to hear Debbie’s talk and enjoy her spectacular photographs. The talk will be on Saturday, Feb. 17 at 11:00 a.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, 8410 Merin Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. Please come, and bring a friend!
- Coming soon: a controlled burn of the earthen dam — The earthen dam that contains a one-acre pond on The Advocate grounds is the focus of the majority of the early efforts of the PPC to enrich the landscape with native plants. Our goal is to replace the current mix of invading woody trees (bad for earthen dams), brambles, Japanese honeysuckle, and wildflowers with a mix of native grasses and wildflowers similar to those that naturally occur in Piedmont prairie environments. Ecologically, such environments were maintained by the application of fire, and conservation organizations today often use controlled burns to maintain the ecological integrity of such environments. Experts tell me that the earthen dam is an ideal site for a controlled burn, which should eradicate undesirable plants while not impacting native grasses and wildflowers adapted for those conditions. Our first controlled burn is being planned. Watch this space for updates on the burn and its results.
- Coming soon: The PPC Web site — The group is making steady progress toward the implementation of a Web site that will describe its activities, and offer how-to articles and videos on how to create a Piedmont patch of native plants on landscapes of any size. I’ll post an announcement everywhere when the new site is up and running.
Perhaps you can sense my enthusiasm for this project — a big dream becoming reality before my eyes, thanks to the collaboration of a growing number of groups and individuals who are embracing this vision of teaching southeastern Piedmont dwellers how to create wildlife sanctuaries with native plants, one patch of Piedmont at a time. I think the dream resonates widely, because it empowers us with a way to make a bona fide difference. By acting locally to deliberately create patches of native habitat on urban and suburban properties, we can significantly reduce the dramatic adverse effects on native pollinators and larger wildlife caused by the obliteration of fields and forests by urbanization.
Every new Piedmont patch will help bluebirds, warblers, woodpeckers, hawks, butterflies, solitary bees, honeybees, bumblebees, predatory wasps, praying mantises, salamanders, spiders, lizards, toads, snakes, rabbits, mice, foxes, deer — all the native components of the web of life that comprise a healthy Piedmont ecosystem. Does your home landscape feature a Piedmont patch? If not, please consider joining the PPC in making a direct, local impact on the future of the southeastern Piedmont region’s native ecosystems.
I will admit to having an active imagination. When you combine that with a life-long obsession with the natural world and gardening, I occasionally am struck by big ideas – some might even say wild ideas – pun intended. I am currently deeply immersed in my biggest dream yet. My co-dreamers and I are calling it the Piedmont Patch Project.
If you’ve read my blog much – especially posts I do for Earth Day, you know that I worry about the future of native flora and fauna – world-wide and most definitely where I live in the Piedmont region of the southeastern US. Ecologists note increasing world-wide threats to biodiversity – the broad array of plant and animal species that comprise diverse ecosystems that feed our planet and impact our climate among other critical functions. To read more about my concerns, search my blog using the term “Earth Day.” However, today I don’t want to focus on my concerns; today I wish to thank my friends, both old and new.
If you read my blog, you are likely a fellow plant-lover, and if you’ve been a member of that community for much time at all, I suspect you have already discovered the generosity of what I think of as Plant People – my people. We are easily identified. Our hands are rough and often dirty, our clothes are stained and perhaps punctured with holes made by brambles. We are known for stopping abruptly when we encounter a plant or animal we don’t immediately recognize. Many of us speak to each other in botanical Latin, because common names are too imprecise. Our hearts lighten and beat faster when we walk through a healthy ecosystem filled with bird song and blooms. Our cars are often dirty from hauling plants and tools. But above all these, one trait is universal among Plant People – their unfailing willingness to share their knowledge, their plants, and often, their help. Today as I dive into the Piedmont Patch Project, I am deeply grateful for these friends.
I have always considered Plant People to be people of deep faith. Whether they are members of an organized religion or not, they all possess an abiding faith in and love for the natural world. You don’t plant seeds in bare soil without faith. You don’t plant an oak sapling that won’t mature for 200 years without faith that that tree will serve diverse communities for future generations. Plant people are visionaries. I believe that this quality is responsible for the unanimous support I have received from everyone in this community who has heard about the Piedmont Patch Project. Like me, they can see the potential of this vision, this wild idea.
But without other people of faith, this vision might never have found a home. I am profoundly grateful for my friendship with the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC. Without her enthusiasm and faith in this notion, the Piedmont Patch Project – which she named – would likely never have been conceptualized. Her faith and the faith of her congregation is even more impressive because I am not a member of this church, and, frankly, most of the members of this congregation are not Plant People – at least, not yet.
I’m foggy on the details, but somehow The Episcopal Church of the Advocate ended up acquiring 15 acres in the northern edge of the rapidly urbanizing town of Chapel Hill. The land was a piece of an old farm. An older brick home where the farmer lived serves as their parish house. A 19th century historic chapel relocated from a piedmont town west of Chapel Hill serves as their church building. A small farm pond sits behind the buildings, and an even-aged pine forest towers behind the pond; furrowed ground between the pines confirms the land is former farmland.
When the vicar of this tiny parish realized my obsession and experience with the botanical world, she asked me to walk the land with her and help her identify and understand the plants growing on the grounds and around the pond, which is contained by an earthen dam about 100 yards long. I immediately began to see possibilities. As I described a growing vision for the front five acres beside the road, the vicar caught my enthusiasm. We began to devise a plan for restoring this land to native ecosystems typical of the area.
I believe I was inspired by the church congregation’s vision for this land. They are working with Habitat for Humanity to build three tiny houses (called Pee Wee Homes) beside the pond that will provide homes for three older homeless men or women. Thus, they will soon provide sanctuary for homeless humans. It was a short leap from that notion to the idea that this church’s land could also serve as a sanctuary for native wildlife – a population being rapidly displaced and/or killed by the rapid urbanization occurring around the church.
In the North Carolina piedmont region, few large expanses of healthy native ecosystems (forests, fields, etc.) exist outside of conservation preserves due to the immense pressure of rampant urbanization. Even relatively small woodlots, which once bordered stretches of highways, are disappearing, replaced by strip malls, office complexes, and mile after mile of new suburbs. Most of these urbanized and suburbanized landscapes are denuded of their native ecosystems before the buildings go up. New “landscaping” is usually sparse, often non-native, and does not begin to support native wildlife (including especially insects).
In talking with the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, I began to wonder: What if we could create patches of high-quality native vegetation in close enough proximity to each other to support native wildlife currently being threatened with displacement by urbanization? And what if we tried implementing this idea on the grounds of this church to serve as a demonstration of its viability?
Much to my delight, the vicar embraced this notion with enthusiasm, and Fortune smiled on us when we discovered that the National Episcopal Church was currently offering Stewardship of Creation grant funds to congregations with projects with positive environmental impacts and strong educational components. We wrote up our proposal and were overjoyed when we recently learned that this idea – the Piedmont Patch Project – was awarded funds!
The amount of planning and work to be done is, frankly, pretty overwhelming. That’s why I am so very grateful for all my Plant People friends who have stepped up already with advice, growing spaces, and plant materials. As word about this project continues to filter through this community, I continue to hear from more people. And I need the help of every one of them, especially with the acquisition of the many, many native plants we need to realize this vision. Most of the small grant award funds are designated for educational efforts. We hope to have the Web page up before the end of the year, and we are planning quarterly talks on relevant topics, work days, and the development of how-to videos and documents. The Web page will include a list of ways to help with the project, so if any of you blog readers out there are interested, check back here in a few weeks, when I should have a new post that includes the URL for the Piedmont Patch Project site.
I am also profoundly grateful for the faith of the congregation of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate. They are small in number but mighty in impact. They are already showing up for work days and presentations eager to learn more about the native environment of the piedmont region. I think more than a few of these people of faith may well also become Plant People, and I think the world can always use more of those.
The ultimate goal of this project is for the Church of the Advocate to be Project #1. With faith and much help and the continuing smiling face of Fortune, we hope the Piedmont Patch Project will evolve into a small nonprofit organization devoted to educating folks on how to turn their urban and suburban landscapes into piedmont patches, sanctuaries for wildlife, cures for plant blindness and nature-deficit disorder, refuges for battered souls.
On November 3, I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of Plant Conservation. This small — but surprisingly effective — North Carolina nonprofit organization was formed to support a tiny program in NC state government’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services called the NC Plant Conservation Program. The mission of that state government program is “to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats, now and for future generations.”
That’s a tall order for a large, biologically diverse state like North Carolina, even if efforts were well-funded. As you might have guessed, they are not. Budgets are tight; staffing is equally tiny, which is why the Friends of Plant Conservation was founded to help support the efforts of the NC Plant Conservation Program any way it can.
Visit the links to their Web sites to learn all the details about what both organizations do. I have always been impressed by how much they continue to accomplish, and most especially by their unwavering enthusiasm for their work. These groups are attempting to create and maintain preserves that will protect healthy populations of plant species identified by experts as threatened or endangered. The locations of these preserves are not advertised, nor are they easily accessible by the public; these rare resources flourish best when undisturbed.
At their annual meetings, the Friends of Plant Conservation receive updates on the activities of their group and the NC Plant Conservation Program. This year, those updates were preceded by a lecture by Wesley Knapp, Western Region Ecologist/Botanist for the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. This is the group in NC state government tasked with compiling and maintaining information on the status of rare species (flora and fauna) and natural communities in North Carolina. Their group identifies the most endangered plant species that the NC Plant Conservation Program then attempts to protect, with the help of the Friends of Plant Conservation.
Mr. Knapp gave a fascinating presentation on extinct plants. These were not tales — at least not mostly — of long-lost plants. Instead, he focused on the continent-wide collaboration he is coordinating with his fellow botanists to attempt to figure out what plants in North America north of Mexico are extinct today. Surprisingly — at least it was surprising to me — botanists don’t actually have a good handle on this important information, but they’ve realized that between climate change and rampant habitat destruction, species extinction rates are rapidly increasing. So botanists across North America are attempting to compile lists for their regions of expertise that represent the best information they have on which plant species are officially extinct. Most extinct plants are fairly obscure and possibly unimpressive — at least to the average citizen. An exception is Franklinia alatamaha; you can find my post on its story here.
Mr. Knapp used Florida to illustrate the urgency of the collaboration he is coordinating. This biologically diverse state contains a number of unique plant species that will likely be obliterated by sea level rise over the next 100 years. From that factor alone, the experts believe 29 plant species endemic to Florida will become extinct during the next 100 years. It behooves botanists to create reliable lists of which species are and are not still with us, so that we can better monitor the expected, likely dramatic, increase in extinction rates.
How does this relate to the work of the Friends of Plant Conservation? One of the strategies for battling rising extinction rates is the creation of preserves, conservation gardens, and seed banks where these species can be protected. It is true that in the first two cases, we are coming close to what Joni Mitchell described as “tree museums,” where these plants will continue to exist, but in the case of conservation gardens, not in the locations where they evolved. The preserves created and maintained by the NC Plant Conservation Program are protecting naturally occurring populations of threatened plant species, which is more optimal, but in, for example, Florida’s case, not always possible. Seed banks are another important tool, where seeds of a diverse array of species are stored; perhaps in the future, they can be used to re-introduce species to stabilized habitats. I found Mr. Knapp’s lecture to be heartening, because I now know that botanists across the continent are working hard to quantify what we have and what we are losing — and disheartening, because we are losing so much so quickly.
It was thus a bit of a relief to listen to the next speaker — Ms. Lesley Starke, NC Plant Conservation Plant Ecologist — who updated attendees on the status of threatened North Carolina plant species and the preserves that protect them. She told us that her group has targeted 486 plant species in North Carolina as significantly rare. Fortunately, some of these species occur in the same habitats, so by preserving habitat, multiple rare species are preserved.
Right now, 24 preserves scattered across the state are being protected and maintained by Ms. Starke’s office, with help from the Friends of Plant Conservation. Two more preserves will be in operation very soon. The 24 current preserves comprise about 14,000 acres and protect 75 plant species. When the additional two preserves are operational, 83 plant species will be protected.
Ms. Starke’s group works tirelessly, but the math behind their problem is not on their side. She did share one exciting story about how they are successfully protecting increasingly rare populations of native wild ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). As you may know, prices for the roots of this species are so high that poachers are a significant threat to populations of this plant on public lands, where harvesting is against the law. You can read more about this issue here.
A scientist working with Ms. Starke has developed a chemical dye that is used to label ginseng roots without harm to the plants. The dye is invisible to the naked eye, but readily identifiable under ultraviolet light, and it persists forever. Most important, the dye is being tweaked so that distinct populations of ginseng each have their own distinct and readily identifiable dye label. For several years now, teams of volunteers have been marking populations of wild ginseng growing on public lands and preserves with unique dye formulations. Before wild ginseng can be sold, it must be assessed by government officials. Now, with a simple UV scan, they can detect whether the roots being assessed were illegally harvested. This innovative system is so foolproof that 100% of criminal prosecutions brought against illegal harvesters who tried to sell dye-marked roots have been successful — a big win for the good guys!
These first two presentations were quite lengthy, and when Ms. Starke finished, the time allotted for the entire meeting had been expended. I had other obligations that afternoon and was forced to leave before the meeting concluded with another speaker from the NC Plant Conservation Program, an update on the status and future direction of the Friends of Plant Conservation by its current president, and an award presentation — all of which I was sorry to miss. I hope that at least the president’s presentation will appear on the group’s Web site, so that I can learn about its future plans.
I encourage all lovers of native plants, especially those in North Carolina, to consider joining the Friends of Plant Conservation. This group has an impressive knack for stretching its nonprofit dollars in ways that maximize benefits for threatened plants. Volunteer opportunities abound; the group is always looking for local folks to keep watch over their preserves, assistance on work days for tasks like invasive species removal, and as a perk, members are given opportunities to tour these special, protected places — usually when the rare species are in bloom.
Those of us who care about the natural world, especially current assaults to it from all sides, have long been worried about the short- and long-term effects of pesticides and herbicides on native flora and fauna. And, of course, we also need to be worried about the effects of these chemicals on humans, especially more susceptible groups like children and women in their child-bearing years. A study released in the October 6 edition of the journal Science provides alarming evidence that agricultural practices throughout the world need to be re-examined. Immediately.
You’ll find a good description of this study in this recent article in Nature. In this new study, scientists collected 198 honey samples from around the world. They detected at least one of the five common neonicotinoids they tested for on every continent with honeybees, including remote islands with very little agriculture.
Neonicotinoids target the central nervous systems of crop-destroying insects, but — theoretically anyway — do not have the same effects on humans. However, an increasing number of studies are demonstrating how these pesticides are negatively impacting non-target insect species like honeybees — and wild bees. Increasing evidence shows that our well-documented decline in pollinator populations is associated with the massive increase in the use of these poisons by the agriculture industry.
It is true that in all samples, levels of these poisons were below the minimum levels established by experts to be safe for human consumption. However, I would argue — strenuously — that these determinations were not the result of rigorous science. Heck, I would argue that the presence of any amount of these poisons is dangerous to humans. Were cumulative effects considered, for example?
I ask because of the results of another alarming study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine led by Harvard scientists. This one notes a strong association between women struggling with fertility issues and their high consumption of fruits and vegetables laden with pesticides. These women are no doubt trying to improve their nutrition by consuming more fruits and vegetables that they are buying in their local supermarkets. But some of these crops (not organically grown, of course) are so coated in pesticides that when eaten frequently, show up in the bloodstreams of those consumers. I submit that it is only a matter of time before scientists produce evidence of similar effects specifically associated with so-called “safe” neonicotinoids.
What can we do? I think we need to make it a priority to increase the availability of organically grown produce to all of humanity. In the US, we must speak with our wallets and refuse to buy poison-laden produce. As the popularity of organically grown produce increases, prices for it will fall. Every other corner of every neighborhood — suburban or urban — should showcase a community garden where organically grown crops are produced by neighbors for their local consumption. Every able-bodied suburbanite with a yard dominated by a poison-laden, non-native lawn should convert that waste of space into small, beautiful gardens full of food and flowers — all grown without pesticides.
Organically grown produce and flowers do not look as pristine as poison-coated ones, but, my friends, you get out what you put in; you get what you pay for. And future costs to future generations must immediately become a significant factor in this calculation.
Last year, with help from some young folks with strong backs and arms, Wonder Spouse and I removed the overgrown loropetalums that had overwhelmed our front garden, and replaced them with a pollinator garden consisting almost entirely of native perennials. For a first-year garden, I think it turned out rather well aesthetically, but that is not why I felt compelled to transform an area that many folks would probably have considered to be perfectly fine.
My part of the southeastern US piedmont region is growing exponentially. Like so much of the southeastern US, this is resulting in suburban sprawl. Beautiful, healthy forests and fields are erased nearly daily, replaced by another strip mall with a gas station and fast food joint or another housing development filled with nearly identical new houses with stretches of non-native lawn and a couple of landscaper-standard foundation plantings.
I can see and feel the difference on my five acres of green chaos, where Wonder Spouse and I have lived and gardened since 1989. We are losing the battle with invasive exotic species, because our land is rapidly becoming an island of green in a sea of asphalt and concrete. We are under assault from all sides. Native wildlife is affected most dramatically. Habitats used for generations are obliterated overnight by bulldozers. It is especially brutal to watch the suffering during the spring and summer, when nests, dens, and families are destroyed in the name of human progress on what seems to be a daily basis.
In light of daily devastation of the wild lands that once surrounded me, I look at my landscape choices with new eyes now. Every choice I make is an answer to one question: How will this serve the native environment?
Many of what I think of as my “plant pals” — ecologists, botanists, avid gardeners, birders, lepidopterists, and others deeply attached to the value and beauty of all members of native ecosystems — are increasingly discouraged. Some have confided that they are going through the motions at this point, continuing to try to demonstrate and educate the millions of humans who are unaware of the consequences of their choices on the continuing viability of our planet, while in their hearts believing that the battle is already lost. I confess I have moments where I feel similarly, but then I see another miracle unfold on a flower or tree in my yard, and my spine straightens. I feel obliged to carry on the crusade. It feels to me to be the very least I can do.
The folks who read my little blog and/or follow me on Facebook are I am certain already aware of how close to the tipping point of ecological disaster humanity is teetering. We can’t control the choices of others, but we can control ours. That’s why those biologically inert loropetalums in my front yard are gone, replaced by an increasingly vibrant patch of wildflowers that has already attracted more species of butterflies, native and honey bees, parasitic wasps, praying mantises and other beneficial insects, not to mention insect-loving warblers and other birds than I have ever observed before so close to my front door.
I built it (with lots of help), and they have come, more with every passing year. My five acres is a sanctuary now, a haven for as many displaced native species as it can handle.
Even a tiny yard can be a sanctuary. During winter’s quiet, ask yourself what kind of beautiful, vibrant native sanctuary can you create by eradicating your biologically sterile, poison-filled, water-wasting non-native lawn with native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers? Before every new landscaping decision, ask yourself, “How will this serve the native environment?”