Native Plant Landscaping: Three Factors for Success

Margaret Fisher, Plant NOVA Natives

For anyone who wants to help the birds and butterflies but is not an experienced landscaper, a few design concepts can help make the difference between a random collection of native plants and a beautiful but manageable landscape that supports our local ecosystem. Three major considerations come into play.

The first is the understanding that basic garden design principles apply to any garden, whether using native plants or not. For example, the human eye has trouble with randomness and will rove around seeking meaning and a place to rest. You can control that process by adding repetition, lines and focal points, which can be provided by plants and also by human-made objects such as pots, walkways, or benches. Since most plants only bloom for a short while, for consistent beauty it helps to choose plants with contrasting size, form and foliage and not just interesting flower colors.

The second consideration is maintenance. Some people are allergic to weeding while others find it a relaxing pleasure. Either way, no one has infinite time to put into it. When adding new planting areas, there is a lot to be said for starting small. For maximum ecological benefit for a minimum or work, you could simply add a small grove of native trees, or swap out the non-native shrubs for native ones. Gardening in the shade is always easier than in the sun where plants and weeds grow so much faster.

The third consideration is the needs of the critters you are trying to help. They don’t care how your property looks, but they do have other strong preferences. For example, the more plant diversity, the more biodiversity in general. It is also useful to provide clusters of the same plant species since that will increase the foraging efficiency of the bees. A diversity of plant height is also important – from the canopy trees to the ground – for critters such as birds that nest at different levels. The closer you can come to reproducing the original plant communities, the more your home habitat will contribute to a functioning local ecosystem.

The above examples are just a few of the many helpful tips you can find on the new Plant NOVA Natives web page on garden design. The campaign is also planning a series of quick virtual “workshops” where you can ask your questions of garden designers – sign up for campaign updates to get notifications of the dates. And be sure to sign up for the August 3 talk by Rick Darke, co-author with Doug Tallamy of The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.

Are You Really Sure You Want to Water Your Plants From the Tap?

Author: Anna Gershenson

Some plants may benefit from chlorinated water, due to its ability to kill unwanted bugs or microbes in the soil. However, chlorine is actually toxic and harmful to plant growth in high concentrations. It injures the plants’ roots and accumulates in the leaf tissue, causing enduring damage.

So, how much chlorine is too much chlorine? And what can we do about it given that most people water their gardens and houseplants straight from the tap, and the tap water in Virginia contains small amounts of chlorine? I have a tip for you based on research that I performed in school.

As a freshman at Fairfax High School, I participated in the school’s Science Fair for my Honors Biology class. For our project, my partner and I designed a project to test the effect of chlorine on Wisconsin Fast Plants, a type of Brassica rapa plant, developed by the University of Wisconsin as a research tool.

We grew four groups of the Wisconsin Fast Plants, from the seeds, and fed each group natural spring water with different amounts of chlorine mixed in. The first group received the water without chlorine (this was known as the control group). We watered the second group with a mixture of water and one teaspoon of chlorine, the third with 2 teaspoons of chlorine mixed with water, and the fourth with 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) and water. My partner and I used powdered chlorine, so before we gave each plant the mixture, we let the chlorine fully dissolve in the water. We watered the plants every two days and measured their heights during those days. We studied the plants for two weeks.

The results were significant. The images below represent the four plant groups at the end of the two weeks. 

As you can see, the group that did not receive the chlorinated water grew the most and looked very healthy. The average final height for the plants in that group was about 5.10 centimeters. 

The plants that received 1 teaspoon of chlorine grew a little bit, but looked unhealthy. The plants looked more brown than did the healthy plant. Their final average height was 1.50 centimeters. 

A small plant sprouted in the pot that got 2 teaspoons of chlorine,, but it did not grow as much as did the previous two. That group’s final height was about 1.00 centimeter. 

And finally, the plants that received 3 teaspoons of chlorine barely grew. Though it is difficult to see the plant, the calculated height of that group was about 0.50 centimeters.

It was clear that even 1 teaspoon of chlorine stunts the growth of plants and makes them lose pigment.

Now, you might be wondering: “What can we do to solve this problem? Buying natural spring water costs extra.”

Don’t worry, I have the perfect solution for you!

My mom actually familiarized me with this technique. She enjoys working in our garden and knows all sorts of tricks. When I decided to grow a vine plant in my room, my mom suggested that rather than watering them with tap water fresh out of the faucet, to begin by pouring the tap water into a plastic cup and letting it sit a couple of hours before watering the plant. Letting the water wait enables all of the chlorine to evaporate, clearing it and making it healthy and safe for the plants.

I did the controlled research to validate her advice. You don’t have to subject your plants to extra chlorine, but you can see if letting the chlorine evaporate helps your house plants and garden do better. Enjoy watering your plants chlorine-free!

Anna Gershenson is a rising senior at Fairfax High School.

This post is part of the series Creative Counsel from Students in the Time of COVID-19. Do you know students with research to report on the natural world? Encourage them to direct their proposals to vmnfairfax@gmail.org after reading the instructions in the link above.

Creative Counsel from Students in the Time of COVID-19

Naturalists are at home this summer, and so are many of our teens and grand-teens who may have lost their planned summer activities. The FMN chapter invites them to share their practical and scientific wisdom with our readers. Options include:

  • Writing up or posting a video about the results of science fair projects that touch on the natural world, as Curated Resources.
  • Documenting their experiences with iNaturalist or eBird or another app, either in writing or as a video
  • Reviewing a film or show of interest to naturalists. Yup, in writing or as a video.
  • Producing a short series of related posts or videos

Whatever they choose to do will add their perspectives and learnings to our public presence, and we’ll have the honor of offering engaged, enterprising students a platform to speak with the world. 

Please direct the students in your life to vmnfairfax@gmail.com, and we’ll work together for the good of all parties. All contributors under the age of 18 must have the express written permission of their parents or guardians to post to our site.

See also: Are You Really Sure You Want to Water Your Plants From the Tap?, by Anna Gershenson, Fairfax High School

Social Justice–Centered Science Teaching and Learning

Reposted from Philip Bell and Deb Morrison, at the University of Washington, Seattle, via the National Science Teachers Association:

Some cultures have historically been privileged in particular times and places, and as a result, some ways of knowing and doing science have had more social standing. We work from the stance that scientific ways of knowing and science education are fundamentally cultural and inherently political. All students have a right and a responsibility to learn how science has been implicated in creating many social inequities over time and how diverse scientific knowledges and practices can promote justice.

For example, the ice floe knowledge of Arctic Indigenous peoples was not initially brought into the larger scientific conversation on global climate science until sustained relationship building and deep listening between Indigenous and Euro-Western-trained scientists occurred. This knowledge held within Indigenous communities allowed for refinement of global climate modeling. Tribes and Indigenous peoples are engaged in hundreds of such efforts to understand and respond to climate change (see Chapter 15, Fourth National Climate Assessment for details).

Teachers can foster such cultural bridging in ways that help students recognize their agency to engage in social justice projects in ways informed by the sciences. Specifically, justice-oriented science educators should engage in culturally-based pedagogies that identify and leverage the knowledge and practice resources of students and their communities.

Read more for principles and resources

Nature in Isolation: Fairfax Master Naturalists find things to do during the pandemic, Part II

Sit Spot example

Claudia Thompson-Deahl recommends signing up to start a Sit Spot routine. A Sit Spot is a place on the land that you go to every day or several times a week. It is your special spot that is kind of like an anchor where you get to watch all that is going on in nature over the course of the year. You might sit on a rock, lean against a tree, up on a hill, etc. It is a place where you sit quietly, observe, interact and get to know the land on a deeper level. Subscribing provides daily emails for 14 days. Read the email, then go to your Sit Spot and do the daily nature activity. Claudia observes, “It’s been a really great way to start each day and these posts are a great inspiration.”

Mike Walker: Being confined to my home and having to cancel all time consuming outside volunteer activities, coincided with this long, cool spring and has evolved into a wonderful opportunity to examine closely my quarter acre corner of the universe, just like Thoreau did at Walden Pond. I have lived in my home for over 30 years but having much more time (and newly cleaned windows) has shown me many signs of nature that I had never seen before. By keeping the bird feeder filled into late May, I have been rewarded with visits from many bird species right outside my dining window. Just today a Rose Breasted Grosbeak, tufted titmouse and Black-capped nuthatch had breakfast with me. Maybe they were always around, but more time at the window means more interesting sightings.

Photo by Mike Walker

Two fox families are also in the neighborhood, one a block away with six hungry kits. Mother or dad pass through several times a day, I know of at least 5 squirrels that won’t try to rob my bird feeder anymore.

As I patrol my shrub and flower beds with more time on my hands, I am more aware of individual plant phenology, particularly given the cool spring and chilly nights. Watching the rapid spring growth of cool tolerant shrubs like the hollies and winterberry is amazing. I am in Year 8 of a battle to eradicate the six types of bamboo I cultivated (yes, willingly) for my koi pond. I lost the battle to “control” it and resolved to remove the bamboo before it and my wife and neighbors removed me. I am “down” to about 500 pencil-thin shoots that I trim back daily, finding the occasional 3 foot renegade hidden within a shrub when on bamboo patrol. My goal is to deprive the roots of any chlorophyll. I cautiously hope I am winning!

Photo by Mike Walker

Using instructions from Google, I have made multiple Mason Bee Houses (try it – help our native bees) and my compost bin door is left open so the wrens and chickadees can harvest the many insects for their nestlings. I am hopeful that the many bags of leaves from my yards and my neighbors that cover the perimeter of my property will reap a huge harvest of Fireflies in June.

Like Thoreau or Aldo Leopold, taking the gift of time to watch, be be aware, to listen, puts me closer to the natural world that exits right outside my kitchen door. I am making the most of this gift of time.

Cape May Warbler from mpnature.com

Janet Quinn: I saw my first warbler! After watching Bill Young’s Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s two webinars on Spring Warbler Plumage and Behavior, and viewing his webpage mpnature.com, I traveled to Monticello Park in Alexandria with binoculars and mask. Although I had to ask my fellow birders what I was seeing, I will always remember the brightly yellow-hued Cape May in the honeysuckle bush along the stream. On a second trip, an American Redstart sang cheerfully on a branch right above my head. Although there were many flits and shadows in the bushes and trees I could not identify, I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to learn about and experience these tiny natural wonders.

Beverly Rivera: I am using this ‘calmer’ time to improve other aspects of my life. For years, I have complained that my household throws away too much food, but now with more leisure time, and with my family captive to meal-planning meetings, we are using up everything, spending a lot less on food, and throwing away (or composting) far less. I also repurposed pieces of fabric and sewed napkins and cleaning cloths so that we have cut back on the use of paper towels to almost zero (and the timing couldn’t have been better).

I’ve also come to notice that you can still tell that someone’s smiling even though they’re wearing a mask. Everyone is going through a lot at the moment and a friendly ‘Good Morning’, a smile and a wave can go a long way to making someone’s daily routine more enjoyable.

Porch Sitting

By Jerry Nissley

Porch sitting – A function exclusively characterized by occupying space on a porch in a seat, hence the name. The porch can be a deck, patio, or similar structure but must include a chair or a bench so one can sit. What one does while porch sitting is up to the individual. Recently I’ve seen friends and neighbors getting together for dinner or libations by ‘porch sitting’ while maintaining appropriate distancing.

I use my porch and deck primarily to observe activity in my backyard while enjoying a good cup of coffee. You know, to keep an eye on those rascally birds, squirrels, skinks, bugs and occasional fox that flit, flutter and fly around throughout the day.

As it happened one day last week while I was porch sitting, I observed a blue jay purposefully shuttling back and forth from a copse of trees into a row of massive photinia that line a portion of my back-neighbor’s yard. I figured it was busy catching insects to feed chicks in a nest buried deep within the photinia. A vibrant blue dart trimmed in bright white swooping 25 feet between perches, very eye-catching. As the light of day began to fade, I noticed its brilliant blue coloration fading as well. As the direct sunlight faded the jay appeared to turn a grey-brown. The bright white outline of primary tail and wing feathers was basically all I continued to see as dusk settled in.

Blue Jay – open source photo

I recalled then a science project my daughter did in high school on iridescence, pigment, and color. She used a blue jay feather as an example of pigment and light reflection. That project was more than a few years ago, so I decided to do additional research to refresh my memory on the subject. Research on why a blue jay appears blue has been refined quite a bit since that science fair project so, at risk of telling a group of Master Naturalists something they already know, I thought I would share my findings.

This article is not intended to fully describe a blue jay to you but stirring your mind by way of a sincere reminder is always appropriate for an FMN article. Briefly, according to Cornell Lab Bird Academy the blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is a passerine bird in the family Corvidae, native to North America. It resides throughout most of eastern and central United States and breeds in both deciduous and coniferous forests so it is common in residential areas such as our local backyards.

Color is a theme for this article so its worth highlighting that a blue jay’s plumage appears blue in the crest, back, wings, and tail, and its face is white. The wing primaries and tail are strongly barred with black, sky-blue and white. However, the intense blue we perceive on a blue jay is due to the microscopic structure of its feathers and the way they reflect blue and violet light. This is known as structural coloration.

Source: Cornell Lab

A simple way to experience structural coloration is to hold a blue feather up to the sky so it is back-lit. With sunlight streaming through the feather the blue color vanishes and the feather appears a drab grey-brown. However, bring the feather down so the light bounces off, scattering blue wavelengths of light and the feather appears blue once again. Indeed, for many years scientists thought birds look blue for the same reason the sky does: red and yellow wavelengths pass through the atmosphere, but shorter blue wavelengths bounce off gas molecules and scatter, emitting a blue glow in every direction. But more recently Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University, discovered that the blue in bird’s feathers is slightly different.

Prum discovered that as a blue feather grows, protein molecules called keratin (located within the feather cells) separate from water molecules, like oil from vinegar. When the cells die, the water evaporates and is replaced by air, leaving a specific structure of keratin interspersed with air pockets. This three-dimensional arrangement of the keratin/air layers within feather barbs is what reflects blue wavelengths of light back to our eyes as illustrated in Cornell’s graphic below. Prum also discovered that different shapes and sizes of these keratin/air layers create different shades of blue that we see among various species of birds. However, even though the appearance of blue is a structural color Prum determined the key to this entire phenomenon is the presence of the pigment melanin, because without it all blue birds would look white.

Blue Feather Graphic – Cornell Bird Lab Academy

Visible light strikes the feathers and encounters the keratin-air nano-structures. The size of the nano-structure matches that of the wavelength of blue light. So, while all of the other colors pass through the feather, the blue does not. It is reflected, so we see blue. As further evidence, if the ‘blue’ feathers of a bird are ground up they turn brown. Once the nano-structures are destroyed, you see the bird’s true color.

You can explore the uniqueness of blue feathers by observing a feather in different light conditions. In the shade, a blue jay’s feather will appear gray because the intrinsic gray-brown color of the melanin pigments is visible. Looking through the feather into the light, you’ll see just the gray-brown color of melanin as light passes through the feather. When you place it so that light falls directly upon it and is reflected to your eye, the feather will appear blue. Try the same with a cardinal’s feather and it will appear red each time.

The blue jay is a noisy, bold, and aggressive bird. It is a moderately slow flier and thus it makes easy prey for hawks and owls when flying in open areas. Virtually all the raptorial birds sympatric in distribution with the blue jay may prey upon it, especially swift bird-hunting specialists such as the Cooper’s, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks common in our Northern Virginia area.

Jays may occasionally impersonate the calls of raptors, possibly to test if a hawk is in the vicinity, though also possibly to scare off other birds that may compete for a food source. Because flight speed is somewhat slow it may impersonate hawks as passive defense mechanism. I mention this factoid because of another observation I made while porch sitting. I noticed a resident Red-tailed hawk circling a tall oak in the yard making its unmistakable high-pitched hawk shriek and what I thought to be its mate responded from a perch in the tree. I thought its mate was simply calling back but as the in-flight hawk approached the tree a blue jay fell out of the tree in a directed free-fall from the perch into low, dense bush cover.

Research into the phenomenon of mimicry revealed blue jays are able to make a large variety of sounds and individuals birds may vary perceptibly in their calling style. Like other, corvids (crows, magpies, ravens, etc) they may even learn to mimic human speech. Their most commonly recognized sound is the alarm call – a loud, almost gull-like scream. There is also a high-pitched jayer-jayer call that increases in speed as the bird becomes more agitated. I have seen backyard blue jays use this call to band together to mob potential predators such as crows and drive them away from the jays’ nests.

OK, so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – back to my porch I go. As Satchel Paige (or A.A. Milne, et al.) once said, “Sometimes I sit and think and other times I just sit.”

Interview with Dr. David Wilcove, Author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations

Alison Zak, the very talented education associate supporting The Clifton Institute in Warrenton, interviews Dr. David Wilcove, professor at Princeton University and author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.

Is there hope? Dr. Wilcove says, yes, and urges us to persevere. This is a stimulating, positive, worthwhile use of 24 minutes.

Access the video here.

Penguins and Seals and Whales, Oh My!

Shawn Dilles

A short time ago, in a world that seems far, far, away, my wife and I decided to visit the end of the Earth. We spent January on a large, now infamous cruise ship traveling from Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina by way of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Falkland Islands. The natural beauty of the near-pristine landscape was monumental, made even more special by the volcanoes, glaciers, icebergs, and the most clear dark skies I have ever seen. The most wonderful part of the trip was getting (somewhat) up close and personal with the delightful wildlife of the region.

Magellanic penguins in Chile. Photo: Shawn Dilles

Penguins are, simply stated, a joy to watch. Maybe their shape makes them easy to anthropomorphize, and once you start thinking that they are small versions of people, their behavior is often hilarious. These highly evolved birds come in a variety of sizes and colors, with many of the species living side by side. They are amazing swimmers and seem to fly through the water, occasionally leaping through the air for a quick breath. The Straits of Magellan and the Darwin Channel in Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, house large colonies of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. In the Antarctic Peninsula there are even more colonies of Gentoo, Adélie, and Chinstrap penguins. Emperor’s – the largest penguin species – also live in Antarctica, but none were sighted on this trip. In the Falkland Islands we saw Rockhopper, Magellanic, Gentoo, and a King Penguin.

Although penguins are relatively easy – even for me – to identify, I cannot say the same for other birds. The variety of novel species was obvious, and for the average birder visiting the region would undoubtedly be a very memorable experience. We saw hawks, shags, and geese (along with many other species) in Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, and two types of Albatross and countless petrels and other types of seabirds in the Drake Passage en route to Antarctica.  

South American Sea Lions are common on uninhabited small islands in the Beagle Channel – named after the H.M.S. Beagle, the hydrographic ship that carried Charles Darwin to explored the region in 1833. Both Chile and Argentina have set aside large areas of the tip of South America as national parks and reserves. 

What seals do on an ice raft. Photo: Shawn Dilles

Weddell and Crabeater seals live all along the shore and waters of the Antarctic Peninsula and on the icebergs and ice rafts there. The seals feed on krill, crabs and fish. One way to tell what the seals are eating is to look at the color of their ice rafts. If krill is a large part of the diet then the digested remains of the meal will tint the ice a pink or red color. 

Humpback whale. Photo: Shawn Dilles

Sighting a whale for the first time is a thing of wonder. We logged hundreds of sightings of humpback whales, a handful of killer whales and also dolphins in eight days of cruising around the Antarctic Peninsula. The humpback whales travelled in family units of two to six. A common sight was a mother and calf lazily travelling along the surface and occasionally diving to feed. A common way of feeding for humpbacks is for a small group to spiral through the water releasing bubbles that isolate then concentrate their prey. This so-called bubble feeding creates a net of bubbles that allows the whales to eat more efficiently. It is fascinating to think that one whale may have developed this strategy and passed it along so that humpbacks (and some other marine mammals) now do this around the world.

Two months after our cruise, the ship became internationally notorious for a corona virus outbreak. Eventually, the ship was allowed to dock, and the passengers disembarked. While I may not be ready to take another cruise now, there are many destinations, such as the south Pacific and Arctic, where ships provide the most practical – or only – access. I definitely will not rule out one in the future. 

Not ready to hop on a cruise ship any time soon? You can still see Antarctic penguins up close while contributing to citizen science as part of the Zooniverse Penguin Watch project at: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/penguintom79/penguin-watch

Zooniverse has dozens of other nature-related citizen science projects, and I encourage you to check some out.   

Seals in Tierra del Fuego. Photo: Shawn Dilles

Stay-at-Homeschooling for Grown-Ups

Article by Plant NOVA Natives

We have all heard of naturalists such as Charles Darwin and James Audubon who undertook long and fruitful journeys of discovery. But did you know that many naturalists made their famous discoveries in their own yards? For example, Jean-Henri Fabre spent decades at his home in France on a small plot of hard scrabble where he documented numerous observations of insect behavior that are still read today for their wit as well as their fascinating conclusions about instinct and intelligence. The same opportunities for adventure are available to any of us who have access to any space – however small – where plants can grow.
 
You might think that by now the millions of human beings who live in our region would have figured out all there is to know about the local flora and fauna, but that is far from the case. Not only are new species being discovered all the time, but there is very little known about many of the ones we do recognize. Why not try your hand at natural science? Unlike Jean-Henri, who mostly had to go it alone, we have the ability to crowd-source our learning process by way of a giant citizen science project called iNaturalist. Who knows, you may be the next to discover a new species!
 
For most of us, however, the adventure will lie not in rarities but in finally noticing the common plants and animals in our yard which have been there all along. The joy will come not so much from our contributions to science – which are real if we document life on iNaturalist or on any of a number of other citizen science projects – but from witnessing how many more things there are in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our philosophy.
 
The main tool needed for this exploration is patience. A small yard may be home to hundreds or thousands of species, but they will not all present themselves at once. Plants of course emerge and develop over the growing season. Animals also emerge at different times, and many remain hidden from view. As you amble around your yard, take a close look at every little moving object. You will find that what you had assumed were identical little specks are in fact many different species going about their business. A camera, even a cell phone camera, can show you the details of pattern and color that your eye cannot register during your brief encounters. There is something irresistibly calming in watching this world at work.
 
If you have the opportunity to compare your yard to a neighbor’s, you may notice a pattern. Yards that appear lush to the modern eye are sometimes just Potemkin landscapes, ones where humans have labored to exclude nature by substituting ecologically useless (or even harmful) plants for the natives, removing the life-giving detritus, and attacking the remaining residents with chemicals. Even in yards such as those, signs of life will be stirring. But where such chemicals are avoided and where native plants are encouraged, a yard will support a cornucopia of animation, from tiny beetles to nesting songbirds. It is not difficult to create a yard with these happy conditions. To borrow a quote from suffragist Sarah Grimké, writing in 1837, “All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.”
 
Between April 24 and 27, people all over the world are coming together to document life on Earth. These are the four days of the annual City Nature Challenge, which in previous years has included a friendly competition between metropolitan areas but this year is simply a celebration of life and unity. We can contribute to the festivities by snapping photos of any wild plants or animals and uploading them to iNaturalist. How many native plants can you spot in your neighborhood? How many bees, birds and other critters can you spot taking advantage of them? Once you have caught the nature bug and find yourself longing for more, you can learn how to add those native plants that support the life on your property by visiting www.plantnovanatives.org. Garden centers – including several that specialize in native plants – are open and ready to help you choose the best ones for your situation.
 
The education we can soak in from the ecosystem of our yards goes far beyond a science lesson. We may observe that the natural world is at least as much about cooperation and accommodation as it is about tooth and claw. To recognize our fellow beings as individuals, each with the same claim on life as our own; to witness the interdependence of us all in our unfathomable complexity; to start to see our place in the universe – all these experiences wash away our tension and plant in us the seeds of compassion. It goes without saying that it is not just grown-ups who can benefit from these lessons.
 
 

Letter to My Great, Great Grandchild

For those of you able to enter the physical natural world through poetry, J.P. Grasser has published a poem that may resonate with you. The work of his fellow poets, living and gone, is also accessible on Poem a Day.