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Native Groundcovers and Trees: The Perfect Pairing!

Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

Native groundcovers are becoming increasingly popular, for good reason: even if they have minimal time for gardening, people want to use native plants to support our local birds and butterflies. To avoid invasive non-native groundcovers such as English Ivy, Vinca, Yellow Archangel, and Japanese Pachysandra, they turn to native plants for the same landscaping benefits without the damage to our trees and the rest of the environment.

Equally popular among time-pressed residents are native trees, which are similarly easy to install and which have benefits that far exceed those of any other plants. Not only does the great mass of tree leaves and roots provide food and homes for birds, soak up stormwater, and cool the air, the insects that evolved with native plants are adapted to the chemical make-up of those plants and are able to co-exist peacefully with them. An American Beech tree, for example, is the host plant to 126 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Hickory to 200 species, Black Cherry around 450 species, and native oaks over 500 species. (The numbers for non-native trees are in the single digits or even zero.)

Over 30 species of locally native plants make excellent groundcovers, with options available for any growing condition. Several are evergreen, and many have the bonus of a month or two of colorful flowers. Some form a tight mat on the ground, while others such as ferns and White Wood Aster provide a taller look. Native sedges provide even more options. Some sedges make a beautiful substitute for the invasive Liriope, some look more like a grass that never needs mowing, and still others sport spiky seed heads that add a touch of quirkiness to the garden. Our local conventional garden centers are starting to carry some of these plants, and many more can be found at native plant garden centers.

Encircling native trees with native groundcovers makes eminent sense. Turf grass does poorly under trees because of the limited light. Trees do not appreciate lawn chemicals, not to mention the risk of injury from lawnmowers and string trimmers. A harmful but common practice, especially in commercial areas, is to pile layer after layer of mulch in a “mulch volcano” around trees and spray it with herbicides to prevent grass and weed growth. Not only does this poison the soil, but mulch that is touching the trunk will rot the bark, and compacted mulch prevents rainwater from reaching the roots. Arborist wood chips, which allow the water to run through, are an improvement over shredded bark mulch if applied properly and can protect the tree as it gets established. But in the long run, why not use nature’s alternative to a toxic mulch bed, which is to allow the fallen leaves to remain in place and add a “green mulch” made up of native plants? The trees and the soil will thank you for it.

DIY Insectary Garden

Feature photo:  Last summer the monarda bloomed beautifully! At the top you can see the beginnings of the asclepias incarnata (the mauve colored flower cluster).

Article and photos by FMN Kate Luisa

This story begins at the very end of the summer of 2019. I have a fairly small back yard with a patio and around the patio is a garden area that I was using for growing tomatoes.  Well, frankly,

Spring 2020. This is the garden the following year after the initial plantings which went in at the very end of summer 2019. There is also a sedum (far left) that was already there. This plant is over 100 years old. Literally. It came from my great-grandmother’s garden.

that was just wishful thinking.  The plants got tall and beautiful but every tomato but about five got either eaten by something or split and turned to mush with the rains we had that summer.  It was very disheartening.  I knew I would have to scrap the tomato dream.  So I decided to cut my losses around the middle of August and took them out.  That left an “L” shaped area around two thirds of the patio with nothing.  The area is about 3 to 4 feet wide (from the patio) and the length is about 8 feet on one side and about 6 feet on the other.
I thought much about what I could put there.  I already have lots of coneflowers, culver’s root, agastache, zinnias and rudbeckia.  I just wanted something different….

Then I remembered reading about an insectary garden and found that idea very intriguing.  This would be the perfect area for it!  It is in full sun and just about the right size.  The next big

decision was what to put in it. That spring, along my back fence, I had already put in a long row of mountain mint, a combination of pycnanthemum muticum, p. virginianum and p. tenuifolium that smells heavenly and attracts an incredible variety of insects.  So I didn’t need more of that.  Rather than do copious amounts of research I went directly to the best source of all: the FMN group.  I knew there had to already be native plants that others could recommend for such an enterprise.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.

I received a wonderful variety of suggestions and studied information on each one.  I decided that since the area was not very large, it would be best to stick with just a few selections and to plant them en masse.  I looked at the seasonal blooming times and tried to get plants that would bloom most of the Summer and into Fall.  My overall idea was to have some brightly colored plants that would bloom throughout the season for pollinators and other wildlife. My colors are mauve, yellow and scarlet. I chose Asclepias incarnata, Asclepias  purpurascens, zizia aurea and monarda didyma.  Unfortunately, it was already very late in the season so I could only put in a few plantings before the cooler weather started coming in. I put in the milkweed and a few monarda, figuring I would put the rest in the following spring.

This is now the second full summer of my garden. The asclepias incarnata went gangbusters last year! The purpurescens has not done well but is coming up this year

Various ladybug species on the milkweed (and aphids in lower right).

and looks a bit more robust. Somehow, lobelia got into the garden (I had some lobelia cardinalis in another place and I think the birds must have distributed the seeds) so these also made a wonderful surprise appearance. They are coming up again this year and I planted more seeds for them as well.

Last year I noted many different kinds of bees and other flying insects, ladybugs (as well as aphids which I left for the ladybugs), lacewing eggs and monarch caterpillars on the milkweed. Hummingbirds loved the cardinal flowers and the bee balm as well. I harvested the milkweed pods in the Fall and gave to people to create their own insectary gardens.

Lacewing eggs on underside of milkweed leaf (upper right).

The garden is now coming alive again as the spring unfolds. The milkweed is almost a foot tall and the bee balm is spreading. The golden alexanders are in bloom, and I watch tiny bees climb all over the bright yellow flowers. I am so glad I have planted this garden!

 

Butterfly Gardening with Native Plants, May 5th

Photo:  Virginia Native Plant Society

Thursday, May 5, 2022
2 – 3pm
Tyson-Pimmit Regional Library, Meeting Room 1
7584 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church
No signup is required.

Most people know that monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed plants, but many aren’t aware that other caterpillars have similarly restricted diets.

Margaret Chatham, a local native plant gardener and long-time member of the Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS), will share photos and lots of information about the native plants, known as larval host plants, that various species of caterpillars can digest. Learn how to create a butterfly-friendly habitat In your own yard by planting a variety of native larval host plants. Enjoy beautiful photos of the butterflies and silk moths that you can look forward to seeing in your own butterfly garden. Adults.

Spring Native Plant Sales

Photo courtesy of Virginia Native Plant Society

Native plants provide better food for insects, which in turn provide food for birds. You can make a huge difference for wildlife by planting native species on your property.

Virginia Native Plant Society maintains a list of native plant sales in the area.

Not on the list, but worth considering is Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s Native Plant Sale, which takes place on April 16, 2022 in Morven Park in Leesburg.  More information is here: www.loudounwildlife.org/event/spring-native-plant-sale

Stop Mowing, Start Growing: Native Plants for Beginners and Beyond! February 12th

Photo courtesy of Virginia Native Plant Society

Saturday, February 12, 2022
9 am – 2:30 pm
Online
Fee: $15
Register here.

Whether you are new to native plants and what they can do for your property or you are looking for alternative landscaping ideas, this event is for you! Native plants can:

Create a beautiful yard
Save time so you can enjoy other activities
Create habitat for birds & pollinators
Save money on fertilizer & pesticides
Improve Water Quality
Curb Erosion

Keynote: Natural Plant Communities, Native Plants, and You, presented by Matt Bright of Earth Sangha. Natural Plant Communities exist all around us and are the fundamental way plant species arrange themselves in a natural setting. By understanding these arrangements and mimicking them in our own gardens and built environments we can maximize ecological value and retain a sense of place in the landscape. Matt will introduce the many resources that exist to decode the natural landscape around us including Earth Sangha’s Native Plant Compendium, Glenn Tobin’s Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage program and other resources for regions farther afield.

See the whole schedule, learn more or register here.

Spring Spectacles: When & Where to Find Jaw-Dropping Birds, Blooms & Beasts in the Mid-Atlantic, March 15th

Photo (c) Barbara J. Saffir

Tuesday, March 15, 2022
7 – 8 pm
Webinar
Register here.

Learn when and where to find some of the Mid-Atlantic’s most jaw-dropping plant and animal life, with nature photographer and Virginia Master Naturalist Barbara Saffir. In this joyful spring jaunt, she’ll reveal wildflowers worthy of Monet; a bounty of beasts; and close-up encounters with cobalt-blue, sunflower-yellow and ruby-red breeding birds that visit the DMV each spring. More than half of this “virtual safari” will focus on birds, with award-winning photographs of migratory and resident birds that capture their cool behaviors. Other animals and wildflowers will also make an appearance. You’ll learn about curious critters—such as backyard squirrels that “fly” and dazzling bugs typically overlooked by their human neighbors—and wildflower spectacles, including acres of blush-pink blossoms; pink, yellow, and purple native orchids; and miles of perky bluebells meandering along curving creeks.

This webinar will be recorded! By signing up on Zoom, you’ll be able to watch the live event and receive a link to the recording a few days after it airs. Closed captioning will be available at the live webinar and on the recording. The Earth Optimism lecture series through the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) airs live on Zoom every third Tuesday of the month.

See more past and upcoming SERC science talks.

Fewer Inputs to your Landscape, More Butterflies and Birds

Photo: Plant NOVA Natives

As more and more people buy native plants to beautify their yards, control stormwater and attract birds and butterflies, they are discovering additional opportunities to harmonize their property with the local ecosystem while maintaining a beautiful landscape. They are dropping some of their standard yard chores in favor of a slightly more relaxed approach.

Maintenance of native trees and shrubs is little different from maintenance of non-native ones, but chemical fertilizers are not generally recommended, and of course pesticides would be counterproductive, as they destroy the very ecosystem that the native plants were installed to enhance. The value of the native trees and shrubs is greatly increased if their fallen leaves are left in place. Within that leaf layer is where fireflies, butterflies, and many other interesting and beneficial insects complete their life cycles. Leaving the leaves where they lie has the added benefit of eliminating the chore and the incessant racket of gas-powered leaf blowers that disturb humans and songbirds alike.

Flower gardens with native plants also can be treated much the same as any other, as long as the gardener recognizes that most of these plants are perennial and not annual. The advantage of perennials is that they only need to be planted once. The disadvantage is that weeding will be needed, along with the ability to distinguish emerging weeds from emerging desirable plants, a task made easier for beginners by limiting the number of different species planted to three or four or by sticking to native groundcovers. These gardens cannot be handled the way maintenance crews typically deal with the plantings in public spaces. That method requires no knowledge of plant identification and consists of removing all the plant material each season, installing new annual plants, mulching heavily, then spraying any bare mulch with herbicides to kill everything else. (This practice explains the expanses of empty (and chemical-laced) mulch beds that we see in so many business areas.)

Of course, leaf mulch can be used in flower beds without applying herbicides and is a valuable addition to new plantings, cooling the soil and adding organic matter. In time, though, as the plants fill in, mulch becomes unnecessary and just an aesthetic choice. The plants themselves will shade the soil, and their dead foliage and stems if left over the winter add habitat for frogs and nesting areas for native bees. The days of “cleaning out” flower gardens in the fall so that only empty beds remain are rapidly fading away, as gardeners are learning that this is an unnecessary and somewhat harmful practice.

The watering requirements of native plants are generally light, if appropriate plants are chosen for the site. Unlike turf grass, which evolved in Europe and is poorly suited to Virginia summers, and annuals which start out the summer with very few roots, well-established native plants are adapted to our climate. Watering is needed right after planting, and for the first year or two in the case of trees larger than seedlings, depending on the size. Native plants in medium or large pots will need continued watering primarily when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees. Beyond that, supplemental watering may actually be bad for some plants.

Details on low-input yard maintenance can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. For those who don’t want to do the gardening themselves (which is most people, after all), there are landscaping companies that specialize in maintaining naturalized landscapes and who have workers who can identify the native plants and protect them. The website has a list of Northern Virginia companies that have self-identified as having the requisite expertise. Manuel Rivas, the owner of one of these companies, volunteered to be interviewed to explain the process in English and in Spanish. Three versions of that video are available on YouTube, in English alternating with Spanish and in the two languages separately.
English and Spanish version
Spanish only
English only

Audubon Afternoon: Mt. Cuba Native Plant Trial Gardens, September 26th

Sunday, September 26, 2021
3-4:30 pm
Online
Register here.

Join Audubon Society of Northern Virginia for their fall Audubon Afternoon! Their guest speaker will be Sam Hoadley, Manager of Horticultural Research at Mt. Cuba Center. You’ll learn about the amazing native plant trial gardens at Mt. Cuba, how they evaluate plants and related cultivars for horticultural and ecological value. Sam will highlight the ecosystem services that native plants provide.

Earth Sangha seeks Volunteers Six Days a Week

6100 Cloud Dr. Springfield, VA
Sundays- Fridays
9 am to Noon
Must sign up here.

Just in the first 5 weeks since Earth Sangha opened up its Wild Plant Nursery for the Spring season, they’ve supplied over 325 curbside pickup and Self-Service Sunday orders.

As they send out their local-ecotype native plants to their permanent homes, they’re just as busy growing new ones to take their places. Of course, these take some time to get ready: to sow the seed, pot seedlings up, or divide overcrowded pots.

Volunteers can help with a wide variety of tasks and do not need to have any previous experience!

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.