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Mini Grants to Beautify Neighborhood Entrances with Native Plants

Water’s Edge planting plan by Hands Dirty; Image and article courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

This spring, Audubon at Home partnered with Plant NOVA Natives to invite homeowners’ and civic associations to apply for funds to beautify their neighborhood entrances using low maintenance native plants. The mini-grant program was funded by Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation’s Environmental Education and Stewardship Grants Program.
 
Interest in converting entranceways to native plants was high, and 35 groups completed the application process which included obtaining authorization from their Boards. Choosing between them was not easy, as they all had good plans. The decisions were made based on the suitability of the site, ready methods to communicate with residents, and the visibility of the new plantings to residents and the public. Six matching grants of $2,350 apiece were awarded to Auburn Village Condo (Arlington), Park Glen Heights HOA, Civic Association of Hollin Hills, and Water’s Edge at Fairlakes HOA (Fairfax County), Cascades Community Association (Loudoun County), and Dominion Valley Owner’s Association (Prince William County).
 
The Audubon at Home organizers are looking forward to working with the communities to design low-maintenance, wildlife-friendly, and beautiful landscaped entrance plantings. Completed installations will receive a high-quality sign that says, “Native plants support birds and other wildlife.”
 
The funds will be used to cover costs of a landscape designer to create a design, recommend native plants, purchase and install the plants, and remove any invasive plants present (such as English ivy, Japanese Barberry, Periwinkle, etc.) Matching funds or sweat equity are required from the neighborhood association to cover part of the costs. Community associations will be conducting educational outreach on the habitat value of native plants to their residents and must commit to maintaining the plantings for five years.
 
It was heartening to see the number of neighborhood associations responding to the call to beautify their neighborhood entranceways with native plants. Whether or not they received a mini grant, all communities are encouraged to invite an Audubon at Home Ambassador to visit and provide advice on suitable, low maintenance native plantings. Residents of Arlington/Alexandria, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, and Rappahannock counties may submit a consultation request at https://audubonva.org/aah.

Planting for the Picky Eaters

Photo courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

Many insects are picky eaters, only able to eat the plants with which they evolved, meaning the plants that are native to their region. Butterflies are a good example, since although the adults can sip nectar from non-native flowers, their caterpillars depend on specific native plants.The majority of bees are more flexible than that, able to eat the pollen and nectar from a variety of species. They are known as generalist species, although even in their case they have their own favorites. The European Honeybee, for instance, is a generalist but chooses certain flowers in preference to others.

Of the approximately 400 native bee species in Virginia, about a fifth are plant specialists. Examples include the Spring Beauty Bee and the Blueberry Bee, which (unsurprisingly) depend on the flowers of Spring Beauties and Blueberries. These bees are short lived as adults, emerging when the plants they depend upon are in bloom, and quickly gathering the pollen they need to store in their nests for their larvae, thus pollinating the plants while they are at it.

Our local ecosystem requires the full spectrum of plant/animal interactions to flourish. It is easily knocked out of balance when too many native plants are displaced by introduced species, something that has happened in many of our yards. We can restore that balance by planting a lot of native plants. One strategy could be to start with flowers that feed various specialist bees from early spring to late fall, because they will also supply food for the generalist bees. Since many of these flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds as well, they make a winning combination. A list of popular native garden plants that feed specialist bees can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. It feels good to help the bees, whose numbers are in decline.

One of the many charms of native bee species is that they are highly unlikely to sting you, assuming you don’t try to grab one or otherwise threaten it. While they are foraging on a flower, you can get your face (and your camera) right up to them, and they will almost certainly ignore you. Gazing at bees brings surprises, as they come in many sizes and colors, including metallic blues and greens. It is particularly mesmerizing to watch bees on plants such as White Turtlehead, where they pry open the flowers and crawl inside, then back themselves out again, butt first. You can get a peek at those and other cute native bees on this two minute video, filmed in Fairfax County.

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.

Plant NOVA Natives Needs Volunteers!

Plant NOVA Natives encourages residents as well as public and commercial entities to install native plants as the first step toward creating wildlife habitat and functioning ecosystems on their own properties. Lots of volunteers are needed!

Please email plantnovanatives@gmail.com if you can help with any of the following positions:

More people to help put their red Virginia Native stickers on plants at conventional nurseries. A very fun way to learn about plants!

For their upcoming five year native tree campaign:

Put on a launch event in September or October– Can you arrange a tree-related events (plantings, talks, walks, giveaways, etc.) during that period? They would like to advertise multiple events all over Northern Virginia.

Help with the legwork for their launch period –  They need someone to correspond with potential event organizers and put it all onto a calendar.

App creator– Can you create a very simple app to pair with the My Trees Count website? They will be asking people to record their tree plantings (in fact people can record them now) on the state website and would like an app to make it more mobile friendly.

Social media volunteers – They need one or two people to take the lead on regular postings on various social media sites.

Someone to send press releases – They need an ongoing “press office” to collect contact info for all the local media outlets then send them occasional press releases, starting with our launch month.

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.

Planting in Pots for Easy Butterfly Viewing

Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

Some of us are deeply into gardening, but the rest of us are content with plopping a few flowers into a pot and calling it a day. This explains a lot of the popularity of annuals, most of which end up in containers and are switched out when they fade. Their colors brighten up our decks and balconies all summer, but their value in most cases is only visual. Native perennial flowers, by contrast, not only look beautiful but actually support butterflies and other life.

Most plants that are native to our area will overwinter in a pot, thus saving us the trouble of replanting year after year. Although none of them will bloom for the entire growing season, they provide interest as they develop. It is easy to get continuous color by planting several species that bloom at different times.

Once blooming begins, the parade of associated pollinators is fascinating. Being able to view the flowers up close on a deck or balcony reveals the variety of critters that you might not notice from afar, from tiny metallic-blue bees to the whole range of butterflies. There are four hundred species of native bees in Virginia, none of which will sting you as they forage for food. Butterflies range in size from the tiny Least Skipper to the classic Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. With luck, you may even see a Monarch Butterfly, especially if you plant any of a number of the several local milkweed species. The milkweed Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is particularly ornamental and just the right size for container gardening. Just as Monarch caterpillars require milkweed to survive, every other butterfly has its preferred host plant with which it evolved. This is why adopting locally native plants is so important. The annuals sold in garden centers are not native and thus do not help butterflies complete their life cycles.

Birds also enjoy native plants in containers, as much as they would if planted in a garden. The seeds of Black-eyed Susan and other Rudbeckias are particularly popular with goldfinches. Of course, you will only see them if you allow the seed heads to remain. The shapes and colors of the dead stalks of native plants add a lot of interest to an otherwise barren deck in winter. You can also draw in hummingbirds when you use the red-flowered plants such as Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) that they prefer.

Shade is no obstacle to container gardening with native plants. Particularly pleasing is the native Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia). The lacy, slightly bluish foliage is beautiful by itself, and blooms keep coming from April to the first frost.

You can learn all about container gardening with native plants on the Plant NOVA Natives website. The soil used in containers is designed to have good drainage, which means you can start planting earlier in the spring than in the rest of the garden, where working the wet soil would lead to harmful compaction.

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.