Getting your garden to grow

Photo by Jeff Tome Butterflies, like this Silver-spotted Skipper, depend on native plants as caterpillars and eat from them as adults.

Audubon Community Nature Center recently had a plant sale, and native plants flew off the tables. There could have been many reasons for this. Native plants could be in higher demand right now. Native plant gardeners could be happier in the rain, since it was a deluge that morning. More likely, it is simply harder to find native plants, and the people who wanted them didn’t mind coming out on a damp, gray morning to find some.

A lot of folks are adding native plants into their gardens right now, and it’s a trend I love to see. In some ways, planting a plant that evolved in this area feels more patriotic to me than planting red, white and blue plants from foreign countries. The ancestors of native plants have been here for thousands of years, and there are a lot of insects that depend on them.

Insects have a bad reputation. Some people hear the word insect and their brain shuts off. They walk away and want to hear no more. Please don’t do that. Keep reading. It’s important.

Insects that eat the leaves of plants are essential. These tiny herbivores include caterpillars, most of which grow into moths that you will never notice. My moth identification guide has only the 1,200 most common moth species of the Northeast. The thing about caterpillars and other tiny plant eaters is that they make up 96% of what birds feed to their babies. Without insects, baby birds starve.

One researcher, Douglas Tallamy, who has written several books, found it takes 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to feed one growing family of chickadees. That sounds like a lot, but it’s even more amazing when you realize that young chickadees leave the nest when they are 16 days old. Native plants feed native insects that feed the birds in our yards in a way that ornamental plants do not.

This bluebird is feeding it’s young insects, like 96% of local birds do. Photo by Jeff Tome.

Ornamental plants and trees from far away places simply don’t have the positive impact on wildlife that natives do. OK. I understand that no one wants their plants to be eaten, perhaps because of horrible experiences with Japanese Beetles in the past that mow down leaves, but you might be surprised by how little native caterpillars eat. There are many caterpillars on my plants, but the evidence of them is discreet.

The hemlock trees in my backyard have a nest every three to five feet down a row of five or so trees. There may be more, but I haven’t yet found them. There are Blue Jays, robins, cardinals, sparrows, Mourning Doves, grackles and so much more carefully sharing the space. The parents from each nest search all day for caterpillars and insects to feed their young (except for the doves, who weirdly create pigeon milk under their tongue for their babies).

Gardening with native plants is different than other kinds of gardening. Many natives are perennials, coming back year after year in the same spot. Like all perennials, the phrase “One year to sleep, one year to creep, and one year to leap” applies to most natives. They stay in place for a year, slowly spread the second and spread like crazy in the third year.

The thing is, different plants creep and leap at different paces. My Bloodroot is leaping about 2 inches a year. The Jerusalem Artichoke is leaping at three feet a year and only kept in check with a lawn mower. It can be hard to pair plants together until you know how they grow.

My front yard has two gardens in it. One is the combat garden, filled with plants that spread fast and outcompete other plants easily. It has sundrops (foot-high yellow flowers) that bloom in June, followed by bee balm (red and purple) that bloom in July. Both plants spread quickly, but neither one seems to win the battle. One year, it will look like the bee balm is pushing out the sundrops. The next year, the sundrops come back with a vengeance. Recently, I added Purple Coneflower, Obedient Plant, Black-eyed Susans and Butterflyweed to the combat garden mix. May the best plant win! (Well, OK, I may selectively weed out some plants to give the wimpier ones a chance for the first couple of years.)

Virginia Bluebells are a great food for bumblebees in the garden. Photo by Jeff Tome.

The other front garden is a shade garden, filled with a succession of forest loving natives. These tend to spread slower and prefer less light. These include Bloodroot, Wild Ginger, Virginia Bluebells, Wild Geranium and Virginia Waterleaf. These plants bloom in sequence, one after the other, from April through June. Between the two gardens, there is always something in bloom in the front yard for the pollinators. The plants from the two gardens would never mix, since the combat garden plants would quickly overwhelm the slow-spreading plants.

And this is where gardening is tricky. How do you know what plants coexist peacefully and which take over everything? What kind of garden are you creating? When will it bloom? Are you looking for plants to bloom in one season or three? It’s a lot to learn.

Long ago, my parents took a vegan cooking class. They came out of it saying the food was good, but who kept that stuff in their kitchen? The answer, of course, is vegans. Vegans have a different toolkit to work with as they cook. The same is true for native gardening. It’s not the same as plopping a bunch of annuals in the ground, but the reward of creating a better place for birds, butterflies and other animals in the yard more than makes up for it. It is a different way of thinking, and there is some trial and error, but the rewards are incalculable.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.


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