Native Plant Sales are Booming

Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

Interest in using native plants in our yards has been growing over the past decade, gradually at first, and suddenly exponentially. It has long been known that native plants are critical to the ecosystem, and now thought leaders in the landscaping industry have taken up the cause of promoting them for our yards. Public gardens have set aside sections to demonstrate their value in the landscape, and gardening magazines are touting them in every edition. Garden centers have responded to the increase in demand for natives by increasing the diversity of plants available for sale.

When COVID struck last year, new gardeners flocked to garden centers in droves. As the country has started to open up this spring, sales have soared even higher. A very significant chunk of those increases has gone toward native plant purchases. The landscape designers and owners of garden centers that specialize in native plants have been exhausting themselves to keep up with the demand.

Why are native plants so particularly popular? We may be reaching a tipping point in acceptance of personal environmental responsibility, as the populace is finally facing the reality that our ecosystem is teetering in the balance and that the time to take action is now. Our own properties are a place where we can make a palpable difference by using locally native plants to support birds and other wildlife. Many of the new gardeners are younger and particularly attuned to the value of gardening not just for beauty but for a greater purpose. At the same time, the industry has had time to experiment with native plants and figure out where they do best in a landscape setting. It is now easy to find the plants and choose the ones best suited to a given landscaping need.

Several years ago, representatives of environmental organizations and governmental agencies got together to create Plant NOVA Natives, a campaign to promote the use of native plants in Northern Virginia. One strategy has been to provide a plant guide and resources on the Plant NOVA Natives website, with simple suggestions for every planting situation along with more details for those who are interested and even more details for landscape professionals. The other strategy has been to essentially deputize everyone who hears about the value of native plants to spread the word. One section of the website shows how to reach out to neighbors, community associations and faith communities. The website also lists the garden centers that only sell native plants – an introduction to three of those specialty nurseries is on this short video – as well as twenty-one conventional garden centers where volunteers for the campaign have been putting red “Northern Virginia Native” stickers on plants.

All in all, Northern Virginians are discovering that gardening to support nature has never been easier. Once healthy landscaping practices are adopted, the sight of a yard dancing with butterflies is enough to sell the native plant concept all by itself.

Quantify the benefits of trees with i-Tree and help NASA too!

Article by FMN Kim Schauer

MyTree is one of the many tools within the iTree suite of free online tools that uses peer-reviewed, USDA Forest Service research to quantify the benefits and values of trees,  and iTree’s tools will get a software update on May 3 that will embed the latest USFS science.

You can get an itemized list of ecosystem services (and an estimate of the monetary value of those services) by visiting the MyTree online app and entering details about the species, health, size and location-relative-to-your-home of your specific tree.

For example, MyTree indicates that a 40″ diameter sweetgum in excellent health in full sun within 20′ of a Mt. Vernon home that was built between 1950-80 on its northeast side:
• intercepts 1,594 gallons of rainfall annually
• avoids 247 gallons of runoff annually,
• sequesters more than 13 lbs. of carbon dioxide annually,
• saves 192 kWh of electricity in reduced air conditioning costs annually
• has stored 30,277 lbs. of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

MyTree is a helpful tool to give evidence that just leaving a tree standing and/or hiring a certified arborist to protect and preserve a tree can be a worthwhile investment. This tool is mostly meant to analyze individual trees.

A few of the other tools in the suite include:
   –iTree Design (for parcel-level analysis)
   –iTree Canopy (use aerial photos to estimate benefits of trees)
  –iTree Hydro (to quantify stormwater benefits)
  –iTree Species (estimate the benefits of different species)
   –iTree Planting (quantify future benefits of a new tree-planting project) 

As a side note, anyone who is collecting tree data with MyTree might also be interested in learning about NASA’s very cool citizen science project, GLOBE Observer: Trees. Using the app helps NASA improve and ground truth satellite data and track biomass gains/losses.

The GLOBE Observer: Trees app

   1.  Open the GLOBE Observer: Trees app.
   2.  Take a photo of a tree.
   3.  Walk to the tree (so the app can record the distance).
   4.   The app calculates the estimated height of the tree.
   5.  Enter more optional data to add to the value of your observation.
   6.  Contribute to to NASA scientists’ understanding of the world’s canopy!

Below is an excerpt from the GLOBE Observer: Trees webpage:

Tree height is the most widely used indicator of an ecosystem’s ability to grow trees. Observing tree height allows NASA scientists to understand the gain or loss of biomass which can inform calculations of the carbon that trees and forests either take in from or release into the atmosphere. Tracking how trees are changing over time can help us estimate the number of trees that make up an area.  Learn more about the science of trees, and how NASA studies them, on the Trees Science page.

Here’s a 4/21/21 article about it:
Science is Better Together: The Real-World Benefit of the NASA GLOBE Observer Trees

Hikers, listen up!

Article and photo of Sully by FMN Marilyn Parks

Two of my favorite things come together in Ellen Reid’s SOUNDWALK, nature and music.  Ok, three of my favorite things since I get to bring Sully!  

Wolf Trap Park offers two trails that take hikers through the winding, woody parkland behind the Filene Center.  SOUNDWALK is GPS-enabled work of free public art that uses music to illuminate the natural environment.  It has been tailor-made to its setting and encourages calm reflection and introspection as you follow the blue (2.5 miles) or orange (1.5) trail markers.  The sun was gleaming on Wolf Trap Run, the woods alive with spring growth.  Take time to look at the Redbud and Dogwood trees in bloom, the spring beautifies popping up through the forest floor.

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, Mann Center for the Performing Arts in association with The Fairmount Park Conservancy, and the Britt Festival Orchestra.  For more information on specific presentations, visit

Now through September 6, 2021 at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.  Free.  If you go, download the app before you arrive at the park and remember to bring your earbuds – not everyone wants to hear music as they’re walking the trails.

Note that the Ranger Station is closed and due to construction projects, many areas of the park are closed in the interest of public safety.  Face masks are required on NPS administered lands where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

Sustainable Diet, Sustainable World: Community Supported Agriculture Makes Both Happen

In her article on the Knowledge Driven Enterprise blog, Savanna Smith reports that “When you buy your groceries, the best and brightest fruits and veggies have usually traveled across the country and sometimes across the world to get to you. This supply chain bypasses the perfectly fresh produce local to your community. Our traditional market practices have enormously high transportation and carbon costs, create massive amounts of wasted food, and may leave our local farmers with unsustainable businesses.

So what can we do to address these problems?”

Smith discusses community supported agriculture options in Northern Virginia and elsewhere. And she offers a great list of resources for further reading.

Review of Never Home Alone, by Robb Dunn

Review by FMN Kristine Lansing

How much serious thought have you given to the mold in your bathroom, the spider in your stairwell, or the camel cricket bouncing around your basement? Have you ever found yourself wondering what else might be lurking within the four walls of your home, and whether it’s a good thing . . . or not?

As master naturalists, we spend so much of our time observing and interacting with nature “in the wild” that it’s easy to overlook the veritable universe that dwells right alongside us, indoors. In fact, “every house is a wilderness brimming with thousands of species of insects, bacteria, fungi, and plants.”* And it appears new species are being discovered all the time.

In 264 well-crafted pages, Dr. Robb Dun explores the intricate relationships and co-dependencies that some of our tiny lodgers have cultivated not only with us but with one another. Our first instinct may be to get rid of all intruders, but disturbing this delicate balance can occasionally be detrimental to us.

Rather than trying to artificially control the species that surround us, Dunn suggests that we instead “rewild” our homes “to let the wilderness back in, albeit . . . selectively.” Once “the most dangerous beasts” have been tamed, we will be better positioned to “find joy and wonder in the bacteria, fungi, and insects in our daily lives.” Joy? Wonder? After reading this fascinating book you’ll never see your home in quite the same light again!

Rob Dunn is a professor in the department of applied ecology at North Carolina State University and in the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen.

  • This and all subsequent quotes are from Never Home Alone, Robb Dunn, 2018, Basic Books.

The Social Cost of Carbon

Climate change is the central issue of our time, affecting everything connected to the natural world.

Economists have calculated the costs of climate change, one of which is the social cost of carbon (SCC). Watching this 3-minute video on SCC is an easy way to understand the reasoning behind the concept and what it means in terms of government decision making that affects all of us.

An additional resource is this explanation by Kevin Rennet and Cora Kingdon of Resources for the Future (excerpted here): “The social cost of carbon (SCC) is an estimate, in dollars, of the economic damages that would result from emitting one additional ton of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The SCC puts the effects of climate change into economic terms to help policymakers and other decisionmakers understand the economic impacts of decisions that would increase or decrease emissions. The SCC is currently used by local, state, and federal governments to inform billions of dollars of policy and investment decisions in the United States and abroad. This explainer reviews how the SCC is used in policy analysis, how it is calculated, and how it came to be.”

The Environmental Defense Fund offers accessible articles on SCC as well as an amazing podcast called Degrees. The host, Yesh Pavlik Slenk, interviews people who use their jobs and their time to make a real difference for their communities.

Want to reduce your own carbon footprint? suggests 7 easy ways to start.

Beat the summer heat with a native plant shade garden

Photo by Plant NOVA Natives

They say shade gardens are the gardens of the future, since it will be too hot to spend much time in the sun. That’s pretty much the case already on most summer days. Although sunny butterfly gardens still provide hours of entertainment, a shady place to relax or play in your yard is a welcome addition. An added bonus is that gardening is a lot easier in the shade, because the weeds grow much more slowly.
There are plenty of native flowers available to provide color in a shade garden. You can see examples of them on the shade garden page of the Plant NOVA Natives website. Many of those species also make excellent ground covers. For example, Woodland Phlox and Golden Ragwort are evergreen and spread to make a mat, with blue and yellow flowers respectively in the spring. April and May are a particularly lively time in the shade, as spring ephemerals such as Virginia Bluebell and Spring Beauty pop up and bloom before the trees and shrubs leaf out, then disappear when the shade gets too heavy. They make perfect companion plants for the ferns and sedges that provide a cooling backdrop all summer long. Contrasting foliage textures create visual interest even without flowers.
Why choose native plants? A plant is native to our environment if it evolved within the local food web and has the intricate relationship with animals and other plants that this implies. Plants such as turf grass and many of the ornamentals that were brought here after the arrival of the Europeans are nearly useless (and sometimes actually harmful) from an ecosystem perspective. Choosing native plants allows us to fit into the ecosystem instead of displacing it.
Most native plants can be planted any time of year that the ground is not frozen or saturated. Spring is of course the most popular time for gardening (though fall is even better.) As consumer interest has grown, conventional garden centers have been providing an ever-increasing variety of native plants. In Northern Virginia, 22 garden centers have red stickers on their native plants, placed there by Plant NOVA Natives volunteers, so all you have to do is walk down the aisles and look for the stickers. In addition, several local garden centers sell only native plants, which gives you the best selection of all.
In some cases, the first step toward creating a shade garden will be to create the shade. A glaring hot lawn is uninviting and can be remedied by simply planting native trees.  Since most trees require full sun to grow, an empty lawn is the perfect location for a grove of trees that will beautify your property while reducing air conditioning costs. Underplanting the trees with shrubs will provide homes and food for the birds.

FMN Outreach Chair reports on Taking Nature Black Conference

Mike Walker, Co-chair for FMN Outreach, attended portions of this 5 day Zoom conference, representing FMN. This was the third annual “Taking Nature Black” conference and the first to be virtual. The conference organizers, largely led by staff from the Audubon Naturalist Society for the DC region, identified a large panel of speakers, almost a “Who’s Who” of Black professionals working on environmental or natural history programs in various federal and state agencies, like the National Park Service or Fish and Wildlife, academia and non-profits. For many it seemed like a welcome reunion and an opportunity to get refocused and rejuvenated after the pandemic issues of the past year.

The conference featured a number of interesting panel discussions, such as Novel Ways of Protecting Our Waterways, Birding While Black, Agriculture Innovations and Food Insecurity and Democracy in the Parks. Notable keynote presentations featured Dr. Drew Lanham, Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Clemson University, and Dr. Thomas Easley, Dean of Community and Inclusion at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The conference website “Taking Nature Black Conference” is well worth taking a look at.

It was encouraging to see the diversity of interests represented by speakers on these panels, particularly regarding deep seated concerns to protect agricultural and undeveloped rural lands, issues that are also important to Master Naturalists. There was also a heavy emphasis on training for children and youth to appreciate and respect open spaces, particularly in urban settings. It was reassuring to learn that we have many allies in our effort to protect and preserve our natural environment.

Check Out Two Air Quality and Energy Choice Activities for Educators from the Environmental Protection Agency and MIT

Environmental Protection Agency researchers participate in educational outreach to schools, museums, and other locations to teach students about air quality and climate change research that EPA and partners conduct to protect the air we breathe and provide the knowledge and scientific tools to respond to a changing climate. As part of the outreach, researchers have developed several hands-on activities for teachers and others to use in the classroom and other educational settings.

Particulate Matter (PM) Air Sensor Kits

Particle pollution, known as particulate matter (PM), is one of the major air pollutants regulated by EPA to protect public health and the environment. EPA researchers developed a PM air sensor kit as an educational tool to teach children about air quality and air science. MIT extended the work and developed a kit that you and your students can build together. Learn more and order the kit.

Generate: The Game of Energy Choices

EPA scientists developed an interactive board game called Generate: The Game of Energy Choices, which enables players to explore energy choices and the environment and gets students “energized” in some friendly competition. The game is a teaching tool that can be used to understand the costs and benefits of the energy choices we make; find out what happens if the mix of energy sources changes in the future and learn what energy choices mean for our climate, air, water, and overall environmental quality.

Review of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why they Matter, by Ben Goldfarb

Reviewed by FMN Susan Martel

Ever since my close encounter with beavers while canoeing the Bow River in Banff, Canada, I have had a soft spot for the furry critters. So, when I came across Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, I thought I would learn a bit more about Castor canadensis. The read turned out to be a revelation!

Described as having impacts on a continental scale and history-changing in scope, beavers are championed by passionate “Beaver Believers” as the salvation to many environmental ills. Author Ben Goldfarb has written a compelling account of the beaver as one of the ultimate keystone species. He describes how the landscapes of western states, such as Oregon, California, and Nevada, once boasted a complex network of streams, ponds, and wet meadows. Formed by beaver colonies, these wetlands supported a diverse array of plants, insects, fish, amphibians, and mammals. Goldfarb chronicles how trapping beavers to near extinction both in the United States and abroad devastated the natural landscapes and had far reaching effects across trophic levels.

Helping beavers recolonize their former habitats just might hold the key to revitalizing devastated areas and benefit us as well. For example, the book lays out how the restored habitats could be a solution to water shortages and pollution, if we let the beavers do the work for us. Goldfarb’s description of successes stories, cautionary tales, and conflicts associated with beaver reintroduction are populated by an array of interesting characters, both human and castorid.

Even if this account doesn’t convert you into a Beaver Believer, the story will appeal to the naturalist in you. It reinforces the importance of understanding the interconnections of nature, of making thoughtful and science-based environmental management decisions, and of learning “to coexist and thrive alongside our fellow travelers on this planet.” (p. 25)

(2018, Chelsea Green Publishing, 304 pages)