Beautiful Native Plants

Blog HOME ***Our team of bloggers writes about all aspects of ecosystem gardening, from native plants to pollinators and wildlife.***

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Mother Nature’s Mysteries

No matter how much we study ecosystems and think we know the answers for which plants will grow where and under which circumstances, there are many instances when there is no obvious answer—they are Mother Nature's mysteries.

Most of The Ravines Conservation Area looks like this: dry soil with longleaf pines, oaks, and low ground cover. It’s managed with regular, prescribed burns.

The magic of the mistletoes

Globes of mistletoe become more evident in the
winter when the host tree loses its leaves.
This is one in my yard that is using
 a black gum (
Nyssa sylvatica) as its host.
Mistletoe played an important role during ancient times in the Old World when people brought evergreens inside so the gods of spring would have safe haven for the winter; and they celebrated the beginning of the return of the sun with various festivals. The European mistletoe (Viscum album) played and important role in these pagan rituals.

You can understand how the ancients must have been mystified by mistletoe. It stays green while the host tree apparently dies over the winter. It never touches the ground, so it must be purer somehow. Some thought that it must be a plant graft from the gods.  See my article, Myths of mistletoe to learn about some of these legends.

It is the synthesis of various legends that led to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe for good luck, fertility, and/or long marriage. While mistletoe has been used for medicinal purposes over the centuries, both the leaves and berries are toxic to both humans and pets.  Unlike poinsettia, that New World Christmas plant, which despite its reputation, is not poisonous. See my article, Poinsettias are NOT poisonous.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

When native plants die…

As readers and writers of this blog, we know that we should plant as many natives as possible for many reasons. Some important reasons are: to reduce the need for extra irrigation, to better support native wildlife, and to create landscapes that are authentic for our regions. But this is not the end of the story…

Native plant nurseries do their best to present beautiful natives to attract buyers. Thanks to Renee Stambaugh for her attractive garden fest display.

Within one year, many of these lovely native plants will be dead!

Ferns in the landscape

Ferns create a soft edge between a wooded area and a lawn. Here you see a mixture of netted chain ferns and cinnamon ferns along with magnolia, St. Johnswort, sweet gum, and more.

Ferns are Living Fossils

Ferns belong to the Pteridophyta Division of the plant kingdom in that they have leaves, roots and stems, but since they spread by spores, ferns do not have flowers, pollen, fruits, or seeds. Today's ferns descended from ancient plants that covered the earth long before the seed plants (the gymnosperms and angiosperms) made their appearance.

Plan ahead!

Plants don’t a have a choice–they
must do the best they can where they are.

Sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t leave enough growing space for her trees and shrubs. Once the plants start growing out in the wild they have to do the best they can with the space they have.
The trio of trees in this top photo, a cherry (Prunus serotina) and two longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) have a problem. The cherry’s major surface roots have a stranglehold around both of the pines and eventually the pines will become weakened at their bases as they try to expand and the cherry tree’s roots expand as well. Right now the cherry tree trunk is about a foot in diameter, but it and the pines will continue to grow. The pines will become a hazard in this suburban yard and are likely to blow over in a tropical storm. It’s possible that all three of them will come down together during a wind event. (Update: several years later, the cherry died.)

Plants have hormones, too

A topped magnolia (M. grandiflora) has produced
several side branches after the terminal bud was cut.
Don't buy this tree!


The terminal buds of plant stems contain hormones (auxins) that suppress the side shoots from sprouting and also encourage root growth. You’ve probably noticed the result of this hormone when you cut off a shoot: one or two new shoots will grow from the next nodes that were just buds before.

The auxins also help with rooting, so much so, that commercial rooting hormone is a mixture of auxins. We all want our plants to survive and prosper, so here’s what you need to know about these plant hormones.

Don’t buy this tree! 

The magnolia is bushy, but an untopped tree with one true leader (and all its auxins) will be much stronger and will not need corrective pruning to choose a new leader. Also the presence of the terminal bud will encourage faster root formation after planting.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Florida’s roadside meadow program

A Florida roadside meadow on 5/1/14 really “pops” and the adjacent farm is planted with wildflowers, too.
I took the long way home from a meeting with my editor at University Press of Florida in Gainesville and Marjorie Shropshire, my illustrator, last year. Marjorie and I stopped to photograph this amazing meadow in Putnam County. (Located in the south central section of district 2 as shown in the map below.)

Chicago’s Lurie Garden: a very public native space

I was in Chicago last month. This self-portrait
was looking into the heavily
 finger-printed reflective bean sculpture.

My husband and I visited Chicago’s Millennium Park a while back and were in full tourist mode taking photos of the reflective bean sculpture, the interesting fountain that spits water at you, the big heads and other famous attractions there. What a pleasant surprise to find Lurie Garden in the center of this very popular space. Designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Piet Oudolf, and Robert Israel, this 5-acre garden provides a sustainable and mostly native plant collection.

Helping to redefine what a beautiful garden should look like

Lurie Garden is in a very public area. How wonderful that it’s planted mostly with natives.
We were there early on a Sunday morning to avoid the crowds. We spent a lot of time walking around the garden. What a wonderful example to help redefine what a real garden is supposed to look like. In a way this is a follow-up to my last post on New York’s High Line Park. (Piet Oudolf was also the planting designer for the High Line Park, so there are many similarities.)

NYC’s High Line Park: a community restoration

NYC’s High Line Park is maintained by a non-profit,
Friends of the High Line,” which hires the gardeners
and organizes the many activities. 

After a long wait…

I’d been wanting to visit the High Line Park in Manhattan (a public park built on an abandoned elevated train platform) since I first heard about it back in 2009 when the first section opened. I finally made it on a recent Monday morning when my daughter and I walked the whole length—1.45 miles. What a wonderful community project!

I’m writing about this project here because I think it shows that when you build habitat areas, even in densely crowded urban areas, that it’s good for the birds, the humans in the neighborhood, and for the economic health of the area. In other words, if you build it, the birds will come and so will the humans. See below for my conversations with 2 of the staff gardeners for the care that is required to keep up the planted areas.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Can you spot the rayless sunflowers in this bed? There are about 20 flower heads blooming.

As I discussed in Adventures in Creating a Native Garden back in June 2013, I’d planted some rayless sunflowers (Helianthus radula) as part of the native garden.  Now that they are blooming, I have to say that I’m a bit underwhelmed.  Their beauty is too subtle to enjoy from afar and they do not stand out in this bed.

6 easy steps to support wildlife

If you’d like bluebirds in your yard,
stop poisoning the bugs.

Tis the season to make resolutions for the upcoming year.  Some are easy to keep, especially when you have firm and attainable goals in mind where the results are so rewarding.

1) Turn your yard into a working ecosystem

If you want your landscape to support more birds, then you’ll need to invite the bugs, reduce the lawn, and plant more natives.  Okay, so maybe this isn’t the easiest item on this list, but it’s important and you can accomplish it in small steps over several years.

a) The first step will save you money: Stop using ALL landscape-wide pesticides. For a detailed explanation of the poison cycle, see my post: A poison is a poison is a poison.

6 easy ways to save time & money in your landscape

As we approach each new year, many people will make resolutions that will probably not be kept for long, but changing to a more sustainable landscape regimen is one resolution that is easy to keep. While you are saving time and money, you’ll also be supporting a variety of wildlife.

Having more birds and butterflies in your yard is priceless!

Here’s a short list of money-saving landscaping resolutions: 

Let the predators in your landscape do the heavy lifting.
A potter wasp found a caterpillar to take back to its nest.
In ecosystem gardening, you cheer for the predators
and would never poison them.

1) Stop the landscape-wide poisons

You can save a lot of money and time when you stop trying to poison pests in your yard. After an adjustment period, the natural predators will get to work on those pests. As a bonus when you stop all landscape-wide pesticides, you’ll be creating a wildlife-friendly landscape that will be filled with butterflies and birds. (See #2 for poison-free lawns.)

See my post, A poison is a poison is a poison, for more details on the poison cycle and how to jump off.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Adventures in Creating a Native Garden

Stage one: Lawn removal & three bunching grasses

Three Elliot’s love grass bunches glow in the early morning sun.
Last September I began this set of garden adventures with the purchase of some Elliot’s love grass (Eragrostis elliottii) at a native plant sale. I knew I was going to reduce the tongue of lawn out into the front meadow and wanted to have the grasses to set the area off.

A well-managed edge hides or distracts from a weedy interior.

Natives Plants for Your Yard: the Next Step

Grassleaf Barbara’s Buttons  (Marshallia graminifolia)
are beautiful Florida natives suitable for a fairy tale garden…

Is native gardening a fairy tale? 

Once upon a time, a gardener decided that she wanted more butterflies and more birds in her yard. She read books and oodles of online material and then she attended classes, conferences, workshops, and garden fests.

After all this education, she found that she really could make a big difference by installing native plants that attract butterflies and birds with their berries and delicious leaves that caterpillars would eat. As a bonus her landscape would be easy to care for since native plants have lived in the wild for eons with no care at all.

After a great quest* far and wide across her realm, she found a local native plant nursery that had the native plants she wanted. She paid the small bounty for the plants and brought them home and everyone (and every bird and butterfly) lived happily ever after.

“Things” are more complex than than a fairy tale.

Supporting wildlife beyond your garden gate

Go beyond your garden gate

On this blog most of us focus on our own properties with ideas and success stories of how our mostly native landscapes have attracted wildlife. But anyone who is concerned about the environment can also become an advocate for Mother Nature. It's a pleasant experience to write for people like myself who also believe that creating more wildlife-friendly habitat is a good idea, but isn't one of our goals reaching out to wider audiences who might not have thought that their landscaping decisions are important?

A poison is a poison is a poison

A working ecosystem means that 
you encourage Mother Nature's predators. 
Here, a garden spider captures
 a polka-dotted wasp moth.

The Poison Cycle

In a balanced ecosystem, predators will be in the minority. In other words, in a natural environment, there are many more prey organisms to ensure a continuous food supply for the predators. In such an ecosystem, there are huge numbers of prey including, aphids, white flies, cabbage worms, leaf miners, mole crickets, spider mites, and others that may be eating your crops, lawns, and landscape plants, but relatively few predator bugs such as praying mantids, assassin bugs and relatively few bug predators such as lizards, toads, birds, and bats.

Let's consider what happens when you attempt to poison pests. A general insecticide (organic or not) will kill the majority of bugs in an area, but more than 90 percent of them were beneficial or benign. Predators such as bats, frogs, lizards, and birds will go elsewhere to feed and even the microbes in your soil may die.

A look back for lessons for the future

A while back, I started scanning the family slides, when I finished my own slides of our kids growing up and various pre-digital life adventures, I started in on my parents' slides. They died in 1995 & 1996, so it was high time to get these images into a digital format. What struck me as I went through my long-ago childhood was how hard they had worked to provide outdoor adventures for us.

I’m looking for birds on a Connecticut beach in the 1950s. Note my leggings and our brand new 51 Ford–we called her the blue flyer.
When we lived in Stamford, I fished in the Rippowam River next to our apartment complex. I’d dig night crawlers from the riverbank for bait and store them in my pockets. While the worms must have been a mess, I was still allowed the freedom to play. Sometimes I even caught something–not sure whether we ate this eel or not. This was 3rd grade–my braids are gone.