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Befriending the butterflies all winter

Article and Mourning Cloak Butterfly photo by Plant NOVA Natives

Where do butterflies go in the winter? If you are picturing the adults hibernating like bears, that’s actually not that far from the truth for a few of them, including Mourning Cloak butterflies. This handsome creature reappears very early in the spring because it overwinters as an adult in crevices of bark or in leaf litter. Most butterflies and moths overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae, starting off in the tree tops and riding the leaves down in the autumn. Once they land in our yards, what happens next is up to us. To support butterflies, planting the native plants that are their food source is only half the job. The other half is to create the conditions that allow the butterflies and other beings to complete their life cycles.

Many of us were raised to think that dead leaves should be ejected from our yards as quickly as possible. The concern was that they would smother the grass. Green grass all winter was seen as a sign of a healthy landscape. It turns out that we had that exactly backwards, because the natural color of winter in the Mid-Atlantic is golden brown with a sprinkling of dark green evergreens, not the light green of turf grasses that were imported from Europe. But for those who want a green lawn, dead leaves add valuable organic matter to the soil, making fertilizer unnecessary. It is surprising how quickly dead leaves shrivel up and disappear if there aren’t too many of them. If they are piled too thickly on the grass, they can be spread under shrubs or trees where the shade makes lawn a poor choice anyway, or added to a flower bed, or consolidated in a pile to turn into compost. They can also be left in place on the lawn by mowing them over with the lawn mower, although of course shredding the leaves may also mean shredding the butterflies.

Another landscaping misconception that has been turned on its head is the idea that garden beds need to be “cleaned up” for the winter by cutting the plants down to the ground and removing the stalks. If instead the native plants are left standing over the winter and the leaves left underneath, the garden will provide a source of seeds for the birds and shelter for a myriad of other little critters including native bees and fireflies. What formerly might have been a dead landscape made up of empty mulch beds is transformed into a scene of life and growth, even if most of it is not immediately apparent to the human eye.

In some ways, caring for a landscape that supports life means working less, not more, with less work needed for tidying. Admittedly, humans have devised ways to save even more labor (and labor costs) by turning yards into barren landscapes where every weed is suppressed by chemicals or by thick expanses of toxic mulch that have been sprayed with herbicides, barely a step removed from asphalt in terms of ecological value. Fortunately, as a species we are coming to see that welcoming life into our yards benefits us as well as our fellow beings. For some basic tips on how to achieve these benefits, see the management plan page of the Plant NOVA Natives website.

Planning for a Pollinator Landscape, videoconference October 22nd

Thursday, October 22, 2020
11:00am-12:00pm
Register here.

Join Landscape Designer Barbara Ryan as she addresses questions about creating a good design for a pollinator landscape. Submit your questions on the registration page, and please send photos of the area in question to plantnovanatives@gmail.com. This videoconference will be recorded and posted to YouTube.

A New Take on “Curb Appeal”

Article by Margaret Fisher, Photo by Plant NOVA Natives

A strip of lawn is the default landscaping choice for the area right next to a street. But is that the only option? Not necessarily, as gardeners are discovering. In many situations, boring lawn can be replaced with pizzazz.

Lawn has its advantages and disadvantages next to a road. It can be walked on, and short plants help preserve important sight lines. However, turf grass (which is from Europe) does nothing to support the local ecosystem which depends on native plants, and compacted lawn does a mediocre job at absorbing stormwater runoff.

Replacing lawn with native plants is an increasingly popular choice. The results can add a lot of character to a property. Certain native plants are particularly suited to the harsh conditions found next to roads, which often include compaction, salt and reflected heat. Deeper roots soak up and purify water before it ends up in our streams.

There are a number of considerations to take into account before planting. Do you actually own the strip of land next to the street? Does your neighborhood or jurisdiction dictate which plants can be used, or their height? If people park next to the curb, where will the passengers step when getting out of the car? Are underground or overhead utilities in the way? Do you know how to design the plantings so they don’t flop over the walkways? Check out the Plant NOVA Natives page on streetside gardens for details and for examples of how several residents have handled these challenges. Their practical solutions have turned ecological dead zones into an asset for the birds and butterflies as well as for the humans who get to appreciate them.

Making Scents of Your Yard

Photo: Ana Ka’Ahanui

Margaret Fisher

Fragrant flowers can add a whole extra dimension to gardening, and the flowers of native plants are no exception. The scents are there for the sake of the pollinators, but we can enjoy them as well. If you try putting your nose up to every flower you meet, you will have some interesting surprises.

Modern day humans are good at identifying human-made smells such as suntan lotion or diesel fumes but are pretty oblivious to the smells of nature.  This may be partly from lack of practice and partly because of our species’ tendency to run roughshod over the planet which includes the olfactory environment as well. If we pay attention, though, we can experience some of the sensations that are so important to other animals. Can you sometimes predict a rainstorm by the smell of the air? You already have developed some skill at interpreting nature’s cues. That slightly metallic odor is ozone, pushed down by atmospheric disturbances. If you have a dog, he or she may have introduced you to the scent of foxes, which is surprisingly strong and similar to a skunk. Once you learn to recognize it, you may find yourself spotting foxes that would have sneaked by you otherwise. The smell released by rain after a long dry spell has its own name – petrichor – and is created by a combination of chemicals released by plants and soil bacteria.

As you walk along in the woods, you will notice that the scent of life and decay (which is actually just more life) is subtle and complex but distinct enough for you to know when you are passing from one layer to another. In this unusual year when so many people are out walking their neighborhoods, one local resident has watched as folks stop in front of the Common Milkweed that volunteered itself near her sidewalk. Some people comment on the beautiful flower, one person only noticed the bees, but many were brought to a halt by the intoxicating fragrance. So many people inquire about it that she plans to put up a sign.

Why not create a natural olfactory landscape in your own yard? Planting fragrant native plants is the perfect way to do that while simultaneously pleasing the butterflies. Many have sweet smelling flowers, some faint, some strong. Some are a little unusual. The tall white spires of Black Cohosh, for example, smell simultaneously sweet and barn-like. Wild Bergamot smells like, well, bergamot, which gives Earl Gray tea its flavor. The flowers of American Holly trees are tiny but fill the air with sweetness for many weeks in late spring. Arguably the winner of any fragrance competition would be the aptly named Sweetbay Magnolia, with its large, soft flowers that smell of lemony rose. Plant one by your front door and you can inhale a lungful of beauty whenever you pass by.

For a list of fragrant native plants and where to buy them, see the Plant NOVA Natives website. The site index will point you to sources for signs. Let your neighbors in on your secrets! Why should the bees have all the fun?

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.

Lawn Care for Earth Renewal

Article by Plant NOVA Natives staff

Let’s say you want to have a nice lawn, but you also want to be a good steward of the environment. Can you do both?

It turns out the answer is “yes.” Healthy yard practices can mitigate many of the problems caused by lawns. Because turf grasses are nonnative, lawns are ecologically useless and best minimized, but they have many uses such as human and pet playing surfaces and pathways for walking, and from an aesthetic perspective they make a nice contrast next to more complex plantings. It is possible to make small lawns neutral rather than actively harmful to the ecosystem.

The first thing to know is that turf grasses are native to Europe, which means they are poorly adapted to our local conditions. The conventional but destructive way to compensate for that is to add a lot of chemical inputs. The healthier alternative is to take a step back and realize that turf grass is a plant like any other, doing best when given good growing conditions. So we can start out by using turf grass only in areas where we can arrange those conditions without too much trouble and without harming the other beings that share our yards. Grass needs plenty of sunshine. To achieve good coverage in moderate shade requires reseeding it every year or two. You may be better off allowing shady areas to gradually reforest or creating a garden with shade tolerant native plants. Good coverage is more than just an aesthetic issue, since bare soil will erode and send sediment down to harm our waterways.

In sunnier areas, low-input lawn practices can yield excellent results, if not as regimented as a golf green. Here are the key steps to take.

  • Test the soil, if your lawn or landscape is underperforming or if it has been three years since your most recent soil test. An inexpensive soil test will let you know the pH and any macro or micronutrient deficiencies that need correcting. Libraries and Master Gardeners booths have soil testing kits which you can submit to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, or you can use a private company.
  • If the soil test indicates a deficiency, add organic matter. Like all plants, the roots of turf grass depend on the soil, including the fungal filaments that transport nutrients. The topsoil in many of our yards was stripped away during the construction process, leaving only the compacted clay subsoil. Adding compost (usually done in the spring, but any time is fine) restores the loose soil structure, nutrients and soil microbes that grass needs. A healthy soil (proper pH, nutrition, moisture and air levels, etc.) maintains a healthy and desirable microbial population. By contrast, adding chemical fertilizer kills the soil microbes and depletes the soil of its nutrients.
  • Adjust the pH, if needed. If the pH is less than 6 or 7, nutrients will be less available to the cool season turf grasses. If the soil test results indicate a low or high pH, adjust as recommended.
  • Maintain the height at 3.0 – 4.5 inches. Over 3.5 inches will look a little shaggier than we have come to expect but can help the plants thrive in challenging conditions and shade out undesirable weeds.
  • Do core aeration once or twice a year to provide essential oxygen to the root zone.
  • Overseed, if needed, after aerating in the fall. Shadier areas can be seeded spring and fall to maintain thicker turf cover.
  • Water new seedlings regularly. If you can’t keep them watered, they may die.
  • Avoid watering at other times. Overwatering makes the grass grow the juicy roots that grubs prefer.
  • Leave the clippings on the ground to provide organic material.
  • Leave the leaves when possible. A thin layer won’t hurt the grass, as some types of leaves will break down quickly and disappear over the winter. Thicker layers up to a point can be mulched and left in place to feed the soil. Try not to chop them up right away, though: give the butterfly pupa a chance to make their way to the ground. Wherever possible, leave the fallen leaves whole and in place to shelter the critters over the winter.

Of course, just because you can create a relatively harmless lawn, doesn’t mean a yard filled with lawn will support life. To give our birds, butterflies and bees the best chance of surviving, we will need to make native plants the default choice. But a judicious amount of lawn can be included in a strategy for creating habitats that are welcoming to all of us Earthlings. The Plant NOVA Natives website has details on how to manage lawn for a healthy ecosystem.

Sustainable Landscaping Solutions for Faith Communities, June 14

When: June 14, 2:00-4:30 pm

Where: Either via videoconference or St. Peter’s in the Woods, Fairfax Station, VA

Join Plant NoVa Natives as they discuss how and why faith communities are using their places of worship to demonstrate stewardship of the Earth. Learn more.

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.
 
 

Local Native Plant Sales in Full Bloom

Native plants help baby songbirds, butterflies, our ecosystem and support clean water. They need no fertilizer, no extra watering once they are established,no pesticides and no lawn mowing.

Check out this list of native plant sales and start digging!

Gardening for Earth Renewal

Article by Plant NOVA Natives staff

How does your garden renew the earth? Vegetable gardens, flower gardens, conventional landscaping and even container gardens can all contribute to a connected landscape that supports our local birds and butterflies. By restoring native plants and avoiding chemicals, together we can heal the damaged landscape we have created with our buildings, sterile lawn, and green-but ecologically-useless plants from other continents.

The wildlife of the East Coast evolved in concert with the complex mixture of trees and understory plants that covered most of the land in the past, plus smaller areas of meadows and wetlands. Turtles, birds, frogs and fireflies all suffer when those hundreds of species of plants are replaced by a monoculture of lawn and a few specimen shrubs. And biodiversity all but disappears when those few plants consist of species that were introduced from elsewhere, as is the case with turf grass (which is from Europe), Japanese Barberry, English Ivy, and many other commonly sold plants, some of which have become invasive and taken over our remaining natural areas.

The antidote is clear: plant more plants, and make sure they are native species! The first step is to look at any nearby natural area and figure out how your property might expand its habitat value and reduce the fragmentation that interferes with the movement of animals. Are you near woods? How about adding more trees and shade-loving shrubs and ground cover? After all, they say that shade gardens are the gardens of the future, because it will be too hot to want to spend much time in the sun! Or perhaps your yard receives your neighbor’s runoff which can be turned into an asset by deep-rooted plants that soak up the excess water and recreate a butterfly-filled meadow. Or perhaps you are lucky enough to have a lawn in full sun that could be used for a raised vegetable bed. Those vegetables are unlikely to be native plants, but the bed will absorb runoff much better than lawn, and you can improve your crop yields by adding a nearby sunny flower garden that draws in the pollinators.

It doesn’t matter whether you want to change or to keep the general appearance of your property – if you prefer, you can achieve the same general look by simply substituting native plants for introduced ones. What we should change is our understanding of how our land functions. You need not settle for a yard that is an empty hole in the map that excludes its natural residents. Rather, your home can become part of what Doug Tallamy, in his newly-released Nature’s Best Hope, is calling our future “Homegrown National Park.” If enough of us make some relatively easy changes to our yard practices, we can knit together our properties into a thriving environment where people and nature live in harmony. Now, in this time of trouble, we can renew the Earth. Find out how at www.plantnovanatives.org/gardening-for-earth-renewal.