Archive for category Conservation Corner
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?”
Two weeks ago, Wonder Spouse and I vacationed on Oak Island, NC — a very southern NC beach that is still relatively undeveloped. As a child, I enjoyed family vacations here, so the area holds a special place in my heart.
Thirty-eight summers ago, I spent two wonderful months studying coastal ecology at Duke’s Marine Lab facility in Beaufort, NC, which is a good bit further north of Oak Island. During that summer, I learned the names of numerous coastal ecological communities, and I could identify the plants comprising those varied communities.
Until this recent vacation, beach trips have not given me reason to recall what I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab. But this year, we rented an extraordinary cottage that, while technically ocean-front, had a freshwater wetland pond between the house and the dunes. Native vegetation and wildlife abounded beyond my wildest dreams of what a beach cottage could offer. In short, Wonder Spouse and I were beyond delighted to spend numerous hours on the wooden walkway that crossed over the pond to the dunes watching and photographing some of the wildlife living there.
I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab that coastal ecology is fire-dependent. The various plant communities are healthiest when relatively frequent fires — originally caused by lightning, mostly — burned through the various communities, encouraging seeds of fire-adapted plants to germinate and re-exposing overgrown areas to more sunlight.
The dense mix of low-growing trees and shrubs entangled by myriad vines that grew between the beach house and the pond wetland contained a number of coastal plant species that I recognized, but the composition didn’t quite match the community descriptions I remembered. This may be, in part, due to the fact that I doubt these plants have experienced a fire in many years. Regardless, the low-growing trees and shrubs seemed healthy, and included familiar species such as Redbay (Persea borbonia), Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), Pond pine (Pinus serotina), and Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera) among others.
Growing over, around, and between these woody plants were numerous vines, including Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinqefolia) covered in flower buds, a grape I didn’t identify, Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), and Dune Greenbrier (Smilax auriculata) ornamented with myriad clusters of green berries.
Between the scrub forest and the pond, the ground was variably marshy. The dominant vegetation was a reed that I think was probably the invasive form of Phragmites australis. Closer to the scrub forest, the Phragmites was interspersed with ferns, especially Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), and a few patches of cattails (Typha latifolia), and mats of low-growing plants that I couldn’t get close enough to photograph.
Why didn’t I go charging into the underbrush and into the edge of the marsh, you ask?
We weren’t the only species that appreciated the diverse array of frogs, turtles, insects, and birds that abounded in this small wetland. We didn’t see the alligators the first few days we were there, but we did later. More on that shortly.
Before the alligators showed up late in the week, turtles of all sizes floated and basked in and around the pond. Great Blue Herons, White Ibis, and Great Egrets stalked the shallows and flew in groups overhead. An Osprey routinely hunted in the pond in front of a nearby beach house. Gulls, sandpipers, and long lines of Brown Pelicans flew overhead during daylight hours. Familiar songbirds from home foraged and nested in the scrub forest, including Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, and Brown Thrashers. Red-winged Blackbirds dominated the reeds in the marsh. Feisty males flashed their scarlet shoulder pads at us as they tried to hurry us along the walk and away from their harems of females nesting in the thick reeds. At night, numerous species of frogs croaked and trilled, drowning out the wave sounds of a calm ocean.
In the middle of the week, the turtles seemed to disappear, as did the wading birds. We spotted a large — at least seven-feet-long alligator cruising around the pond. As we stood on the walkway talking excitedly about it, it silently coasted into a position just beneath us. Only its massive head was visible above the water line. It seemed to dare us to dip a leg over the walkway. I got the heebie jeebies and went back to the house while Wonder Spouse took photos. He hasn’t processed them yet, so I can’t show them to you. Trust me, that creature was creepy. The young ones we spotted the next day were a tad less intimidating.
This younger alligator seemed content to float in the shallow end of the pond among the reeds. It allowed us to photograph it for quite a while.
We thought it was barely awake, until suddenly a large, long black snake leapt into the air, reaching for the top of the reeds. We hadn’t seen it, but this young alligator did. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this snake put three feet of air between its tail and the alligator’s mouth in a matter of seconds. We had no idea a black snake could make a vertical leap of that magnitude. It is a lesson I will not soon forget. And yes, the snake escaped; alligators are evidently not great leapers.
This smaller alligator was more colorful, which I read is characteristic of this reptile species when it is young. We could almost imagine how someone might think such a creature would be an interesting pet. Almost. The memory of its fully grown relative we had seen the previous day was still much too fresh in my mind to give such a thought even semi-serious consideration.
No, we didn’t spend our entire vacation watching the pond creatures. We made it onto the beach for long walks at sunrise and sunset, when the light was most interesting for photographs. The beach was littered with the bodies of jellyfish, which I was told was normal at this time of year. Intact shells were hard to find, except for tiny perfect ones, mostly overlooked by other beachcombers. I tried to photograph the Brown Pelicans as they arrowed into the ocean after fish.
We found a few young hermit crabs inhabiting tiny shells, like this one inhabiting an auger shell held by Wonder Spouse.
The most wonderful surprise came during a midweek sunrise walk on the beach. We spotted two women in a small vehicle; they were volunteers with the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, and they had just located and marked a new nest deposited by a female a few hours earlier. The tracks of the mother turtle as she laboriously pulled herself up above the high tide line and then returned to the sea were still visible, unmarred by pedestrian foot traffic. And most fortunate of all, I was carrying my camera.
The jellyfish that littered the beach are a favorite food of sea turtles, I’m told; Mother Nature’s timing was once again impeccable. All in all, it was a perfect week filled with natural wonders that this Piedmonter has either not seen often or never seen at all.
I missed my Piedmont gardens while I was away. But there is something deeply restorative about breathing salt air and meditating upon a tranquil sea at sunrise. The re-centering has come in handy now that I’m back in the Piedmont. My return week has been full of weeds, groundhog damage, and amorous black rat snakes. I’ll fill you in on all of that next time.
Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres of green chaos since 1989. We’re not in a subdivision. Our road was a country road to nowhere back then, with mostly small houses set back from the street a bit, adjacent to fields and forest. Subdivisions seem to multiply daily around us now; schools were built, water lines were laid, but our five acres remain — for now, at least — fairly secluded, thanks to the large creek that forms our eastern border. The land on the other side has been logged in the past, but likely because of its swampy nature, no one has tried to put houses on it.
We found our place in January, but I knew enough about piedmont forests and ecosystems to recognize that the snow-dusted landscape was special. Part of our land is an active floodplain; some years, the creek overflows across it up to a dozen times, turning our home into lake-front property for 12, sometimes 24 hours. One edge of our land shelters a remarkably healthy wetland, where Atamaso lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Lizard’s Tails, Cinnamon ferns, Sweetbay magnolias, and other southeastern US wetland natives thrive.
They were here when we moved in, and I’m delighted to report they are still here, and still thriving. The wetland plants are having a spectacular spring this year, likely due in part to a mild winter, and I think the beavers that have claimed the land on the other side of the creek have much to do with the improved vibrancy of the wetland communities.
My area is in a moderate drought, which usually means our creek drops to a trickle. Not this year. This year, the creek is deep, sluggish, and brimming with wildlife. A family of Canada geese raucously argues over the best swimming spots, their calls echoing up the hill where I pull weeds in my vegetable garden.
Mallards complain, quacking their disapproval, and until recently, female Wood ducks shrieked when suitors pressed a tad too ardently. I’m not hearing them anymore; I suspect they are sitting on nests. Every time I walk down for a closer look, I disturb at least one Great Blue Heron stalking the shallow edges of the pond. They rise, croaking in raspy voices that don’t match their elegant forms. Kingfishers patrol the creek, which has more — and larger — fish in it than we’ve seen in many years.
Dragonflies zip through the trees; frogs are less boisterous, likely because tadpoles teem in the shallows. Life abounds. And we get to live next door to it.
Recently, we showed a plant-loving friend our wetland treasure, knowing he would appreciate what some might perceive as a nuisance. His sharp eyes spotted caterpillars devouring willow leaves at the edge of the pond. They turned out to be caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly, a Monarch mimic that needs wetland food trees for its young.
This is my dream come true — living immersed in the natural world, where every day brings a new discovery, or the return of an old friend as another species pops up for the season. I feel deeply blessed to live in this place and this time while simultaneously worrying about how outnumbered my wild friends and I are these days.
Just a quarter mile away as the crow flies, a massive subdivision covering a thousand acres is nearly complete. Whole neighborhoods are getting group rates from insecticide companies that spray “safe” poisons throughout their yards to kill ticks, mosquitoes, and spiders on contact. On contact? Safe? Can anyone hope to touch, much less open, the minds of those so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that they think a dead, sterile landscape is an ideal?
All I know to do is to keep talking and writing about my green world, in the hopes that at least some of the plant blind — those who cannot distinguish, or can’t be bothered to distinguish, between a maple and a sweet gum, an ash and a walnut, a beneficial spider and a disease-carrying tick — will learn to see the beauty, wonder, and essential role of the natural world they so blithely ignore.
I’ll leave you with two final photos of small jewels native to my wetland and currently blooming there. Many of the photos in this post were taken by the amazing Wonder Spouse and his long lens. A number of the close-up shots are mine. Now that the wetland trees and shrubs are almost fully leafed out, we won’t be able to get many more good shots of the beaver pond, so I hope you enjoy these.
Maybe if every lover of the green world could crack open one plant-oblivious mind per month, maybe, just maybe, we could still salvage what is left.
After writing this blog for over 5.5 years, my obsession should be apparent to everyone: I am endlessly fascinated by the natural world, especially the inhabitants of my five acres of green chaos in the piedmont region of North Carolina. Case in point? I’ve been unfolding folded leaves like the one above for years and years. Until a week or so ago, every time I unfolded the leaf, it was empty inside. But I persevered, stopping at every spicebush growing in my yard (a dozen or so), searching for curled leaves, and uncoiling them in the hopes of finding treasure within. Finally, last week, I scored.
Isn’t it amazing? I think it’s so clever of Mother Nature to have had this caterpillar evolve large spots on its hind end. Most entomologists believe the coloration is supposed to make hungry birds think “Snake!” when they find it, and fly away. The caterpillars hide within coiled leaves by day and emerge to feed at night. I knew the caterpillars were there, because I’ve seen many Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies in my yard this year — and many eaten spicebush leaves. But the caterpillars eluded me until now.
When I wasn’t hunting elusive caterpillars or admiring and photographing the numerous pollinators in my garden this summer, I’ve been writing a couple of articles for publication. The editor of the NC Native Plant Society Newsletter asked me to write a piece on native deciduous azaleas for the fall edition. I was happy to oblige.
And the editor of the NC Botanical Garden’s magazine, Conservation Gardener, invited me to write an article for its second edition. The magazine is a benefit of membership, and I think the second edition is even better than the first one.
This time, I was asked to write about winterizing our yards and gardens sustainably. I really enjoyed putting this one together, especially because I was able to interview several staff members at the NC Botanical Garden so I could share their ideas.
If you click on the photos in this entry, you’ll get a larger version that will show a few more details. But I hope this may encourage gardeners in the southeastern US who are not yet members of the NC Botanical Garden to join. The new magazine is relevant to gardeners in the Southeast, even if you aren’t close enough to visit often. And membership rates include discounts for seniors, students, and volunteers.
If you are close enough to visit, I hope I’ll see you this Friday, September 23, for Members’ Night of the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. If you click on this link, you’ll see a link to a printable list of all the plants that will be for sale that evening. I’ll be stationed at a table handing out lists of suggested natives for various situations/growing conditions. All the plants on these lists will be for sale that evening. And don’t forget that as a member, you get a 10% discount on all your purchases.
If you come to the sale, please stop by and say hello.
I know that many of my readers are, like me, dedicated long-time gardeners. We speak fair botanical Latin. We know what we mean when we say “part sun,” or “drought-resistant.”
But we also see plenty of neighborhoods full of houses landscaped with lots of fescue lawns, perhaps a sad little tree or two stuck in the middle of the green expanse, and some evergreen shrubs planted along house foundations, often pruned into geometric shapes not found in nature. Many of you old-pro gardeners may not realize it, but living in many of those regimented-looking, nearly biologically sterile neighborhoods are folks who would like to do more with their yards. They want butterflies and birds, but they haven’t got any idea how to attract them. And they don’t know where to start.
That’s actually why I started writing this blog back in January 2011. And it’s why I volunteer at the plant help desk at the NC Botanical Garden. I enjoy sharing what I know, trying to make that information accessible to folks new to the southeast (They are legion.), or just new to gardening.
I’ve been telling my readers about the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale for several weeks now. It’s the weekend after this coming one, by the way. That sale can be a bit overwhelming to some folks, because an enormous array of native species is offered for sale — table after table of pots of various sizes, all organized alphabetically by their Latin names. There are signs for every species with photos of mature plants and their flowers, information on how big they will grow, what growing conditions they need. But, still, it can be hard to know where to begin.
Thus, I am delighted to share with you that, this year, the folks at the NC Botanical Garden will be making it a bit easier for less experienced gardeners to pick out plants suitable for their yards with two new features. First, I am working with the staff to develop lists of suggested plants for certain situations. For example, at a table on Members’ Night, you’ll be able to pick up a list of suggested natives — all for sale that evening — suited for a sunny pollinator garden to provide blooms throughout the growing season. This list won’t contain all the possible options; we intend these lists to be starting points. With the pollinator garden list in hand, you can find a plant on the list, read more about it on the sign on the table, and decide if it is something you want to add to your garden. There will be lists of plants that like moisture (as for rain gardens or pond or stream banks) and ones for dry areas too. Again, these lists won’t be exhaustive, but they will give you a place to start.
The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has come up with one other new feature that any gardener trying to add native food sources for our pollinator and other insects will appreciate. As Douglas Tallamy wrote in his now-classic Bringing Nature Home, without the native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses that insects eat during their larval stages, their adult stages will not be available to pollinate our crops, and birds and other animals will die if they don’t have these immature and/or adult insects to eat. An entomologist by profession, Dr. Tallamy compiled lists of which native insects rely on which native plant species. Many insects only eat one species of plant. If it disappears, so do they.
That’s why I think it’s wonderful that the staff of the NC Botanical Garden has created the sign above to inform customers about how many insect species rely on particular plant species. These numbers come from Dr. Tallamy’s research, so you won’t see these signs for every plant at the sale. But when you do see one, you’ll know that the plant in question plays a key role in our local native food chain. When you buy a native blueberry plant, you’ll get a beautiful addition to your landscape that will produce berries and lovely fall color; but you’ll also be increasing available food sources for native insects, birds, and other wildlife — a win-win all around!
I hope I’ll see many of you at the plant sale on Sept. 23-24. The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has worked hard to contextualize their offerings to make it easy for you to figure out what will work best for your landscape. Please come out and pick up some plants to feed your local natives — and to support the only public garden in piedmont North Carolina with the central mission of educating folks about the beauty and importance of native plants.
A Perfect Opportunity to Fill a Landscape Gap – or Two: The NC Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Festival on May 21
If you’ve lived in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States for long, you’ve probably heard the oft-repeated phrase, “fall is for planting.” And it is a guideline worth taking seriously. But every spring, many gardeners get itchy planting fingers. I know that after my vegetables and ornamental annuals are planted, my eye begins to spot those places in my landscape that would benefit from a new plant or two. Or three – self-control is a challenge for me, I confess, when it comes to new plant acquisitions.
The reason we mostly plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall around here is because the heat and often drought of our summer season can be very hard on newly added plants. So if you see a spot in your landscape that is crying out for a few choice additions this spring, follow two simple rules:
- Give the new plants extra attention throughout the summer and fall. Of course, mulch them well, and if we go into a drought, these new plants will need extra water, because their root systems will not have had a chance to grow deeply before the heat hits. If we get an exceptionally prolonged heat wave, consider shading the new additions if they appear to be adversely impacted by the searing sun.
- Add plants that are native to the southeastern United States. The reasons for planting natives are myriad. I’ve enumerated some in a previous post here. But from a purely practical perspective, native plants are best adapted to our growing conditions, so you can expect them to weather our summers better than non-native choices – as long as you site them correctly, of course.
It’s not too late to even build a whole new bed or two. Do you have a sunny spot you could turn into a pollinator garden? How about a spot where all the water drains in your yard? Such areas are ideal for rain gardens that can contain flowers, shrubs, and trees that benefit from extra water and can tolerate occasionally flooded root systems. Is your yard one big shade garden? There’s always room for a new fern or two, a new shade-loving wildflower, or one of the many great native shrubs that will provide four-season interest for you, and food and cover for native wildlife.
The Perfect Place to Score Some Choice Native Plants
Next Saturday, May 21, the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) is making it easy for us to find all the special natives we might need in one convenient location. The Garden is hosting their first ever Native Plant Festival from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Of course, the Garden will have many of its wonderful native plants for sale. But to make the event irresistible, they have invited several local nurseries that specialize in growing choice native plants to also sell their wares at this event. Several of these growers are not open to the public, so this is a unique chance to see and purchase native lovelies that you’ll never see at your local big box store’s “garden center.” Specifically, these nurseries (in alphabetical order) will be selling at this event:
My planting fingers are getting itchy just from typing that! These are all wonderful local growers, and I believe I am growing plants from all of them, except S&J, and that’s only because I just don’t grow that many carnivorous plants. These growers will be offering locally grown natives, and much of their stock comes from local sources. Yup, they often gather seeds and cuttings from natives growing in our region to ensure the plants will be best adapted to our local conditions. That is never the case at the big box stores.
But wait, there’s more!
This event isn’t just for gardeners. Bring your spouses, your kids, and your grandkids. There will be live music, food trucks, tree-climbing and giant bubble making, a sale of gently used gardening books, a raffle, and eleven local conservation organizations will have tables staffed with volunteers who can answer your questions about their groups. So while we gardeners are fondling our native options, our families can be enjoying all these other activities.
The event lasts until 8:00 p.m., but if you want the best selection of plants, I suggest you get there when the doors open at 4:00 p.m. You can grab what you want, then enjoy the music and food, and mingle with your fellow native plant lovers.
Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manager extraordinaire at the NCBG, was kind enough to share with me the list of goodies he’ll be offering for sale from his greenhouse at this event. Here are a few highlights.
- If you want to begin or add to your milkweed collection for your Monarch butterfly habitat garden, he’ll have five different species for sale: Clasping Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Longleaf Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Milkweed. Growing conditions vary for these species, so you should be able to find at least one that will do well in your landscape.
- He’ll be offering several interesting native vines, including Climbing Carolina Aster (Ampleaster carolinanus), Potato Bean (Apios americana), Leather flower (Clematis viorna), Large-leaved Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla), and Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
- He’ll have a really nice selection of native ferns, grasses, and sedges, gazillions of great native wildflower options, and some choice native shrubs and small trees ideally suited for tucking into empty spots around your yard.
So, my fellow native plant gardening enthusiasts, spend some time this week pondering your home landscape. Now that everything has leafed out, it will be easier to spot any gaps where a native azalea might dazzle the eye, or a bed of ferns might soften a shady spot. Then tell your families about the great event you’ll all be going to on May 21. Food, music, and plants – it doesn’t get much better than that.
I’ll see you there!
I admit it. I can be a bit of a curmudgeon. As I’ve grown older, I find it more challenging to have faith in humanity.
What keeps me going – what gets me out of bed every day – are the wild ones – the animals and plants that share my five acres of southeastern piedmont green chaos with me.
But as much as I love my green world, I am also deeply worried about its long-term survival. Climate change is undeniable and accelerating rapidly. Massive deforestation due to the invasion of concrete and asphalt throughout the world – and definitely in my region – grows every day, leaving the wild ones nowhere to live.
I am wondering how long my native wonderland will hang on when the world it evolved to inhabit disappears. As dramatic temperature swings become increasingly common, as record snowfalls are followed by record drought followed by record rainfall, how will the tulip poplars that prefer evenly moist ground and relatively cool – but not cold – sites survive? How will tadpoles that rely on ephemeral spring pools to shelter their metamorphoses become the frogs we rely on to devour summer’s abundant insects? What will the berry-loving bird species – that also dine on myriad insects – eat if the native food plants they rely on don’t set fruit because of late killing freezes? Where will the deep-rooted oaks, pines, hickories, and maples find water when prolonged 100-degree summers don’t deliver significant rain for months?
I am worried, because most of the people around me don’t seem to care. Most of the folks I meet at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, even at the public garden where I volunteer to answer plant-related questions from visitors are plant-blind. Most cannot distinguish an oak tree from a maple, much less determine if the species is native or non-native. And they see nothing wrong with that. They are oblivious to the environmental context in which they live – the context they share with native animals and plants that struggle to survive in a world made increasingly hostile by the utter indifference of the humans that have intruded upon their habitats.
Every day, I see examples of this profound indifference/ignorance. Recently, a woman on my neighborhood chatlist posted a recommendation for an exterminator company that she employs to spray insecticide all over her yard once a month, ostensibly, to kill ticks and mosquitoes.
Perhaps she recently relocated to my area from a part of the US where the summertime insects are less prevalent. Folks who grew up in my region understand that summer bugs are the price we pay for mild winters and lush forests. She wants, I imagine, to enjoy her outdoor patio in the summer while wearing her summer outfits, and she doesn’t want to get bitten. She thinks she’s being environmentally sensitive, because the exterminator says the poison used doesn’t kill bees.
I went to the exterminator’s Web site to learn the name of the pesticide they use, then researched it. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide database, the insecticide in question does not kill bees outright, but the poison does accumulate in their beeswax. I doubt that’s a good thing, but there was worse news. The insecticide in question – at any concentration – is known to be fatal to all aquatic life – that’s anything that lives in our creeks, ponds, rivers, ephemeral streams, etc. That’s a lot of frogs, dragonflies, salamanders, and fish that won’t be around to eat the insects this woman is apparently so worried about. In exchange for being able to sunbathe without being possibly bitten by a bug, this woman is absolutely willing to kill all aquatic life within range of the monthly poison being applied to her yard – which the exterminators spray 30 feet into the treetops, by the way, because, they say, that’s where the bugs hide. I doubt it’s great for the insect-eating nesting birds that are probably in those trees too, however. Or the squirrels, possums, bats – you get the idea.
Unless we all begin to understand that the battle cannot be Man versus Nature anymore, both sides are going to lose. Some experts I know believe we are already teetering on the edge of an avalanche of cascading impacts that – once begun – will be unstoppable. Some people may believe humanity can outwit Nature with technical innovations. But if the climate becomes unpredictably erratic and most ecosystems die, how will we produce food? What will pollinate crops? Where will the clean water come from? How will healthy soil chemistry be maintained when the life that controls those processes mostly dies?
So often these days, I meet people who distrust science. They seem to think it is a belief system, equivalent to religious ideology. They therefore feel entitled to reject uncomfortable scientific facts, such as what climate change is doing to our world. Or they think the natural world exists to serve as accessories to their outdoor “decor.” Not infrequently, I am asked questions like, “What tree can I grow in my yard that will only be 15-feet high, produce red – not pink – flowers in July, and have evergreen leaves?” They seem to think they can place an order for a plant in the same way they order a new outfit, or a refrigerator.
I believe that our last hope for a healthy Earth can only come in the form of a transformational paradigm shift – a fundamental change in the thinking of every man, woman, and child on the planet. It requires that we all accept the reality that we inhabit complex ecosystems that are not infinitely resilient. They require constant nurturing.
And there is one thing that any human who owns/controls a piece of land can start doing today. If you’re not growing crops or raising livestock (ideally, sustainably), populate your land with mostly (or all) native plant species. Even if you only own a quarter-acre lot, you can contribute to the health of our ailing planet by providing places for dwindling native insect, bird, reptile, amphibian, and plant species to survive.
In my region of the southeastern US, eliminate or reduce your ecologically inert fescue lawns. Dig out the boxwoods, English ivy, Asian wisteria – all the non-natives – and replace them with some of the beautiful, well-adapted shrubs, trees, and wildflowers that evolved in our region. When your yard is a balanced system of native plants, insects will not overrun you, because the insect-eating animals will appear to devour them. Restoring balance to your home landscape by welcoming in native species will transform the environmental health of our region, and ultimately result in less work and lower costs for land- and homeowners.
Going native is not about being “politically correct,” or “green,” or “liberal,” or whatever pejorative term the defenders of the status quo use this week to characterize this strategy. Going native is now about ensuring the physical survival of plants and animals upon which we rely directly and indirectly. In my curmudgeonly opinion, it is time to paradigm-shift – or die.
I know that the kind folks who read my ramblings here (and I appreciate you all), already understand how imperiled our world is. I know most of you are like me – lifelong gardeners and lovers of the natural world. What I don’t know is how we can persuade the plant-blind, the bug-phobic, and the rigid, traditional landscapers to see the need for this planetary transformation to a world that preserves and restores every sliver of green we have left into vibrant native ecosystems. I do know that if we don’t come up with paradigm-shifting solutions very soon, there won’t be much world left to care about.