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Native Grasses for our Yards

Photo and article courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

When we think of grass in our yards, the image that arises is likely to be that of turf grass. But there are many other places for grasses in our landscapes, and many other species available besides the European turf grass that is used for lawn. Grasses that are native to our region not only add beauty and texture in our gardens but also provide multiple environmental benefits.
 
This class of plants not only refers to true grasses (which tend to be sun-loving) but also to sedges (which are more often shade-loving) and rushes. Their size can range from tiny to gigantic. Clumps of taller grasses provide structural interest as well as motion and sound as the wind rustles through them. Shorter ones work as groundcovers. Some are evergreen, and all provide winter interest and seeds for the birds.
 
In shady areas with minimal foot traffic, some native grasses can be used as a substitute for conventional lawns, though this would require planting a lot of little plants at 8-10 inch intervals and a good deal of attention during establishment, not just throwing down seed. Deep soil amendment is critical on a typical compacted former lawn area which lacks good nutrition and may have alkaline soil, and it can take a few years for such lawns to get established.
 
Native grasses play a critical role in the ecosystem, providing
• Roots that are deeper than European turf grass and which do a better job at erosion control, breaking up hard soil and capturing stormwater
• Carbon sequestration
• Dense root structures that create a barrier to the spread of aggressive plants, creating pockets where more delicate plants can live
• Host plants for numerous species of butterflies, skippers, moths and others
• Food sources for birds and other wildlife
• Nesting material and cover.
Most of the plant material in a meadow consists of grasses, with colorful flowers tucked in between.
 
Several of the native grasses that are used as ornamentals are widely available in conventional nurseries, including the spectacular Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergii capillaris), pictured above. (Be careful where you plant it, though – it needs good drainage!) Others can be purchased at one of the nurseries that specialize in native plants. For details, check out the Plant NOVA Natives website.
 

Spruce Up your Foundation Plantings

Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

When developers build a neighborhood, they almost always add some shrubs against the foundations of the houses to soften the lines of the buildings. Just as they paint all the interior walls white, they use just a few conventional plant species for a uniform look until all the houses are sold.  The new owners get used to the look and never bother to change it. But the foundation planting area offers a big opportunity to beautify the landscaping, eliminate the need for pruning and help support our local birds and butterflies at the same time.
 
Native shrubs constitute an essential middle layer of the ecosystem, providing food and shelter for songbirds. Providing this layer in our yards is even more important in areas where the deer have eradicated native shrubs in the woods. Unfortunately, at the time when most of our houses were built, the importance of using native plants was not known to the builders, and so most of the commonly used plants are species that were introduced from other continents. Not only do they not provide food for wildlife, many of them have escaped into nearby natural areas, where they proceed to destroy the ecosystem there. Examples of that include Nandina (also problematic because its red berries are poisonous to Cedar Waxwings), Japanese Barberry (also problematic because it harbors ticks), Privet, Burning Bush, Leatherleaf Mahonia, Double-file and Linden Viburnum, and several species of Bush Honeysuckle.
 
Luckily, there are many non-invasive alternatives. Best of all, many of these are native plants and therefore support the birds and butterflies with which they evolved. These plants have become increasingly available at our local garden centers. For the area under a window, it makes sense to choose one whose ultimate height when full grown will not block the view, thus making pruning unnecessary and allowing the plant to assume its own graceful shape. Many have beautiful spring flowers; others have striking red berries that provide interest well into winter.
 
Of course, most people don’t know the names of the shrubs in their yards. This can be figured out by using a plant ID app such as Seek or iNaturalist. Residents can also get a free visit from an Audubon-at-Home volunteer to help identify invasive plants and strategize about alternatives.
 
Shrubs are not the only plants that are suitable for foundations. Small trees where there is room, native ornamental grasses in the sun and native ferns in the shade are all natural choices. For those who like the conventional look that came with the house, there are plenty of native shrubs that can achieve the same aesthetic. Other people might want to add character to their yard by choosing something a little different.  And rather than planting annuals every spring, why not plant a few native perennials just once to get that pop of color year after year? For more details, see the shrubs page and the foundation planting page on the Plant NOVA Natives website.
 

Bringing Dragonflies to Your Yard

Article by Plant NOVA Natives staff

For anyone who enjoys watching birds at a feeder, there is another pastime available that is just as entertaining but less well known: watching the dragonflies and damselflies patrolling your yard. There are over eighty species in Northern Virginia, a few of which are happy to frequent our gardens if we offer the right conditions. Some are hefty and like to land on walkways, making them hard to miss. Others, including most damselflies, are so wispy as to escape our notice if we aren’t paying attention.

Most dragonflies lay their eggs in fresh water ponds and streams, where they hatch and live as little aquatic predators for years before emerging as adults. We can provide a breeding area in our yards by installing a pond, which need not be large and can be a do-it-yourself project. Frogs and salamanders will make it their home as well, and the sound and sight of moving water transforms any garden into a place to sit and watch the whole carnival.

All these pond inhabitants require more than just water. Dead leaves and algae are the basis for a pond’s ecosystem, as the tiny organisms that use them for shelter and food are themselves eaten by larger ones. It is therefore important to treat a pond not as a chlorinated fountain but as a living thing, avoiding excess cleaning and protecting it from insecticides or other chemicals.

Once dragonflies become adults, they spend their time catching large numbers of mosquitoes and other insects and looking for opportunities to mate. The males will find a perch near the water and guard against rivals, waiting for a female to approach. If you are lucky, you may see a female ovipositing, bouncing up and down as she dips the tip of her abdomen into the water to lay her eggs.

Even without a pond, your yard is likely to be visited by dragonflies if it is providing other natural habitat, because that is where there will be a balance of prey and predatory insects. Besides avoiding chemicals, the key to building that kind of habitat is to plant a lot of native species, because most plant-eating insects can only eat the plants with which they evolved. There are hundreds of species of garden-worthy native plants available, including a couple dozen species of native pond plants.

Here is a three minute video about the ups and downs of owning a fancy ornamental pond. The gardener who made that video has since learned that disruptions to the pond critters can be minimized by only cleaning the pond once a year in mid winter, and by leaving most of the algae and leaves in place. Information about native pond plants and how to care for a pond as habitat can be found on the pond page of the Plant NOVA Natives website. It is very fun to learn to recognize the various species. A great resource for that is Bob Blakney’s book Northern Virginia Dragonflies and Damselflies.

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.