The magic of botany. If you love botany, or appreciate nature, you would have loved Uli Lorimer’s Plant Adaptations class at Native Plant Trust. Right down to the molecular level, every feature of a plant is a result of an adaptation designed to afford reproductive, environmental or cultural success. This class explored the myriad ways plants have adapted to different habitats, soil types, pollination and dispersal schemes while co-evolving with other organisms in shared, co-dependent ecosystems.
Some adaptations may make it very difficult for a plant to survive in different environments, cultural and/or ecological conditions than those in which it evolved over time, which is why climate change makes it so difficult for some plants that their populations and distributions have declined, and some are vulnerable to extinction. Other plants are able to thrive and reproduce in a wide variety of situations, and so can overcome and replace vulnerable populations.
Native Plant Trust’s mission is to conserve and promote New England’s native plants to ensure healthy, biologically diverse landscapes, and vision is that through their leadership, New England’s native plants will exist in vigorous populations within healthy, evolving ecosystems, and people across the region will actively promote and protect them in the wild and in their gardens.
As Director of Horticulture at Native Plant Trust, Lorimer oversees Garden in the Woods, a botanic garden in Framingham, MA, and Nasami Farm in western MA, a nursery focused on propagation of and research about New England native plants.
A monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, feeds on the nectar of white snakeroot flowers, Ageratina altissima, during its southern migration in a Sharon, MA garden on September 26, 2019. This pair of natives co-evolved since the retreat of the last ice age, and they depend on one another, and the entire web of life, for their continued existence.
September 26th was like a dream to me. I looked out the kitchen window while doing the dishes, and there were several monarchs in my gardens, all at one time. I’d seen one or two here and there this season, but never a parade of several at a time, like that day. I dropped the dishes and dashed out with my camera.
Later, on arriving at a Sharon, MA client’s gardens, Monarchs flew up every time I turned a corner on the mowed paths that snake around many beds where clouds of white snakeroot are now in bloom. I counted at least two dozen monarchs at least twice, and twice saw four monarchs on one snakeroot. It was like living and working in a dream where the monarchs have recovered and are robust in numbers again. It wasn’t a dream, but it was a remarkable parade of flight and feed that I shall not forget. Of course there were other native butterflies, like spangled frittilaries, and native bees, like Bombus sp., and other native plants in bloom.
THE BEST PLANTS FOR POLLINATORS: We can all make a difference in our yards, our gardens, our landscapes, our containers, one plant at a time, by design. Please join me doing so! These are the native plants that support the entire life cycle of the most butterfly and moth species:
Trees and shrubs:
- Oak trees – Quercus sp. such as white, red, pin, black, bear
- Willow trees – Salix sp.
- Black cherry trees – Prunus serotina
- Goldenrods – Solidago sp. such as blue-stem (axillary), seaside, bog, white, showy, downy, zigzag
- Asters – Symphyotrichum, Oclemena, and Aster sp. like New England, tartarian, heart-leaved, large-leaved, purple-stem, bushy, small white
- Milkweeds – Asclepias sp. like common, butterfly weed, swamp, poke, butterfly, clasping, green
Have fun, and let me know if you need a hand!
What’s so great about a great lawn?
- Do you want a lawn that looks like a lush golf course? It’s going to cost you…and your neighbors, your town’s water quality and other natural resources. The typical best-in-the-neighborhood MA lawns are a mix of bluegrass, rye and fescue turf grasses. These are all cool season, non-native grasses that do not naturally do well here in our summer heat and droughts; these lawns need lots of time, energy and money to look as good as they do for as long as they do.
- The conventional practice is to follow the conventional high-input “advice” of landscape chemical companies’ and landscape vendors’ marketing efforts, including expensive fertilizer, insect and weed killers, bacteria and fungus killers, plus frequent mowing and watering.
- Your resulting “chem” lawn may look good, but it has negative and potentially hazardous impacts on your health and that of others; your wallet and that of others; and the wetland and ecosystems that filter pollutants from your water and mitigates flood damage, pollinates your food (everything we eat was once a plant), and provides natural settings for recreation and relaxation for you and others—among many other free but essential life services.
- Add it all up and you may realize what many others already know: that a “chem” lawn is actually more expensive and damaging than you ever thought. So ask yourself, “Is it really worth working and paying for a perfect lawn?” “Why should I care?” and, “What are healthier alternatives that save me money and time?”
What’s a sustainable lawn and why would it benefit you?
- SOIL AND WATER: Turf grasses naturally want to send their roots down about 6-12 inches into loamy topsoil that contains about 10% organic matter, such as compost. Established lawns want to be watered deeply (one inch of water) once a week, or one inch twice during hot weather. That way, their roots never dry out for extended periods and thus they don’t go into summer brownout/dormancy. Most irrigation systems are not programmed to water lawns on this kind of schedule. Instead, most water lightly several times a week, never delivering enough water to penetrate fully to the whole root system, so the water is largely wasted. What if you don’t have appropriate soil to support a robust lawn? See three bullet points below.
- TEST YOUR WATERING SYSTEM: You want one inch of water per week for established laws, so how do you find out how much water is actually being delivered? Before you turn on your sprinkler or your irrigation system comes on, put out a bunch of clean cat food or tuna fish cans to collect water. (Ask your friends and neighbors if you don’t have your own supply). After the system runs, use a ruler to measure how much water is in each can. If it’s not a little over an inch—the ruler will displace some water and increase the reading on the ruler—increase the run time and test again. Repeat adjustments until you get about an inch.
- SOIL TESTING: Get your soil tested to find out what kind of soil you have, your pH, your organic matter, and what amendments you can add to make your soil more ideal for your turf grasses. The most crucial part of soil testing is getting a truly representative sample. UMass has easy to follow recommendations for soil sampling, and they test soil for a reasonable fee. Learn more at https://ag.umass.edu/services/soil-plant-nutrient-testing-laboratory
- IF YOU DON’T HAVE IDEAL SOIL:
- Follow the recommendations from your soil test.
- Adjust your expectations and know that any lawn is a living work in progress.
- Good or poor soil, add ¼ to ½ inch of compost to your lawn every year late in the fall, after your last mowing. Over the winter it will improve your soil quality and improve lawn health. Do this every year, along with allowing your mowed grass clippings to fall and decompose in place, and you will not need to spend time and money fertilizing.
- Lime in the fall only if your soil test results call for it.
- If you feel you must fertilize, NEVER FERTILIZE WITHIN 100 FEET OF A WETLAND, VERNAL POOL OR POTENTIAL VERNAL POOL (or according to your local bylaw specifications). Beyond 100 feet (or according to your local bylaw specifications) of a wetland, vernal pool or potential vernal pool, apply an organic, slow release fertilizer just one time—and never just before or during a heavy rain—to your lawn between April 15th and October 15th. Limit that application to a maximum of 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.
Organic fertilizers have non-water soluble nitrogen that releases to the soil at a steady rate over time. They help to build a healthy soil food web, as compared with conventional chemical fertilizers which are water soluble and result in nutrients (and your money) washing away as pollution into our waterways before they’re needed by your plants. A couple of readily available organic fertilizers are Espoma Garden-tone and Espoma Plant-tone. These are typically made of ground up feathers and bones rather than conventional petrochemicals.
- Consider lawn alternatives
- Instead of turf grasses, use native, low-input sedges. Pennsylvania sedge, for instance, needs mowing only once a year and is drought tolerant after getting established.
- Add white clover to your lawn seed mix. Clover moves nitrogen from the soil to the ground and makes it available to green up your lawn
- Turn part of your lawn into an ornamental planting bed. Include native plants that are well adapted to our native soils. If well planned and designed, you’ll be saving time and money, supporting pollinators, improving water quality and the environment.
- SUN: Pay close attention to how many hours of mid-day sun each area of your lawn gets. Get a high quality grass seed mix to match the sun exposure. You can do many things to improve your soil—but changing the amount of sun your lawn gets is usually a bigger undertaking.
- MOWING: Set your mower to cut no lower than three inches. Use a mulching blade and let the clippings fall onto the lawn, where their nutrients will recycle right back into your soil, increasing your soil’s organic matter for free. Also, save time and money by not raking your leaves in the fall. Just mow them with a mulching blade and without a grass catcher, and leave them to in place to decompose. Again, free organic matter. Note: If mowing leaves a thick layer of leaves, though, spread them out with a rake so the grasses can still get some sun.
- WEEDS: Weeds don’t stand a chance if your turf grasses are robust, aka appropriate for where they’re growing and therefore nice and dense; grown in good deep soil with proper nutrients, organic matter, soil chemistry, water and sun.
- INSECTS: Most insects, approximately 99% by number of species, are native insects that play a crucial role in the food web that supports our environment, that in turn supports people. Properly identifying and learning the life cycle of pests is the most important step in managing them. Many are beneficial. If you don’t want to learn about it, get help from a natural or organic horticulturist to learn if you have a normal amount of bugs or an infestation that needs management.
- BACTERIAL AND FUNGAL CONDITIONS: Most bacterial and fungal conditions in lawns occur because the lawn’s cultural conditions—including soil nutrients, pH and organic matter; sun exposure and water—do not favor a robust lawn planted with non-native, cool season grass species. You can spend lots of hazardous chemical resources and still not get the results you want.
- AERATING YOUR LAWN: Most lawns do not need to be aerated annually. Lawn areas that have high traffic have compacted soils that make it very difficult for grasses to thrive. Most of us are familiar with the fact that plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, but this is only what the plant does above ground. Plants’ roots do the opposite, taking oxygen from the tiny spaces between tiny soil particles. If the lawn soil is compacted or constantly wet, your turf grasses’ roots cannot get the oxygen they need to thrive, and the above-ground portion of the grasses will not do well. If you choose to aerate, do not use any device with a solid spike shape, as these will only compact your soil further. Instead, use a tool or machine that has cylindrical-shaped fittings that will remove plugs of soil. These greatly reduce compaction and bring oxygen into the soil for the roots.
- WHEN TO TOP DRESS OR INSTALL A NEW LAWN: The single best time by far is September, for a long list of reasons.
- ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
- Do not use Wikipedia
- Use the site that searches only state extension service sites that provide peer-reviewed scientific information: https://impact.extension.org/search/
- Town of Falmouth, MA Healthy Lawns, Health Waterways document on how to grow a healthy lawn without fertilizer: http://www.falmouthmass.us/DocumentCenter/View/950/Fertilizer-Facts—Falmouths-Nitrogen-Control-Bylaw-PDF?bidId=
If you care about your chickadees, what does this range of numbers mean: 350 to 570? My environmental and social justice pal Ellen Schoenfeld-Beeks let us know at her “Why We Need a Garden Revolution” talk at the Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA on May 3rd. The answer is, 350 to 570 is the number of caterpillars one pair of chickadees needs every day to nurture their chicks from hatching to fledging. That’s just one pair of one kind of bird! Ellen inspired us to think and be mindful about every plant and practice in our gardens, and whether and how each helps or harms the natural systems that support all living things.
Ellen, who manages the church’s extensive gardens, showed examples of native plants at the church’s gardens and at her own home through the seasons, and how they support or harm our native pollinators, wildlife and local ecosystem at large. She even talked about plants she introduced to her gardens on purpose, only to find out years later that they were actually exotic invasive look-alikes of native plants. For example, she thought she was planting yellow marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), but they turned out to be fig buttercups (Ranunculus ficaria, or, Ficaria verna), which are on the MA list of plants that are prohibited from sale.
After about three years they had spread like a spring carpet of yellow, in part because they aggressively reproduce by three different mechanisms. Once she realized her error, Ellen took responsibility and removed them by hand, an intensive but organic gardening practice. It took three seasons to bring their numbers to a reasonably manageable level.
Ellen also reminded us that one of the Unitarian Universalist Church’s guiding principles is respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. She urged us to think carefully and learn about the impact of each of our plantings, as every plant in our landscapes matters, and your landscape supports, or doesn’t, those chickadees who need all those caterpillars every day to raise their young.
The design of her home garden, also in Sharon, features primarily native plants with mowed and gravel paths that sweep around her layered ornamental planting beds and stone walls, leaving the visitor wondering with curiosity what lies just past the next curve. Each of her beds have themed names, such as Mountain Laurel Hill, the Meadow and Old Rose Garden. Some of her favorite native plants are mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia – obviously – with an area named just for them; apothecary rose, Rosa gallica, which though not a native has been cultivated by people since the MIddle Ages; and various goldenrods, which support at least 115 species of butterflies and moths.
Help Massachusetts communities and wildlife thrive by joining me at the annual Grow Native Massachusetts Plant Sale. You’ll find over 2,000 plants covering 120 varieties, and I (and other experts) can help you make smart selections for the particular conditions of your planting area. Just look for me in a blue volunteer apron from 8-11. Shop early for best selection.
From 9-2:30 at the UMass Waltham Field Station at 240 Beaver Street, Waltham 02452, you may find:
- Perennials sorted by sun, shade and part-shade, and all types of soil conditions
- A large selection of evergreen and deciduous ferns
- Grasses and sedges, both cool and warm season
- Trees and shrubs at small sizes so you can take home in your car. Native trees and shrubs do the most to increase biodiversity and to enhance the wildlife value of your landscapes.
AND new for this year: sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) and spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata)—custom grown just for this sale, as these are top native herbaceous plants for supporting the entire life cycles of our butterfly and moth pollinator friends, and a whole lot of bees’, too.
All plants are native to the eastern United States—the majority indigenous to New England
Learn more: https://www.grownativemass.org/programs/plantsale
Download a list of the species available at the 2019 Native Plant Sale
You can hardly beat winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata, for its winter show of bright red berries. The berries are coveted this time of year by migrating birds and holiday decorators, so why not have one of these hard-working native shrubs for your own personal supply of winter delight and support birds, too?
The one pictured here serves as a screen between driveways in Sharon, MA. The screen design includes a variety of shrubs and a tree with different bloom times and colors, deciduous and evergreen, including Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), viburnum, lilac (Syringa vulgaris), and a juniper tree.
The winterberry prefers moist, acidic soil and full sun, but can do well in part shade and tolerate some dryness if the soil is rich organic matter. As with all hollies, there are male and female plants, so you’ll need one male nearby to get berries on the females. Most nurseries are good at labeling the sex properly. When in bloom, you can tell the sexes apart on your own by a close look at the flowers.
When a Sharon homeowner wanted to meet about redesigning her front yard gardens, Garden-911’s Carol Lundeen suggested expanding the vision to include improved circulation from the driveway to the front door, adding ease of use and curb appeal at the same time.
Last night, international award winning landscape architect Matthew Cunningham presented Revealing a Sense of Place at Grow Native Massachusetts’ Evenings with Experts talk at the Cambridge Public Library. The humble, approachable Matthew presented before-and-after profiles of several design projects he’s taken on, from a rocky, tide-swept cove in Maine to suburban West Newton and Brookline. In all cases, he borrowed concepts from nature, incorporating native plant communities into his designs, creating a sense of privacy and wildness for his clients.
The most thrilling part for me was his satellite photo of Cambridge, MA pointing out his first client there. The next slide showed that the neighbors have caught on, and now his clients are dotted all over town, creating a growing quilt of properties that support wildlife and pollinators, manage and filter rain water, and provide numerous other ecosystem services that only native plants can provide…including services for clients who disdain tree huggers and care primarily for aesthetics.
Keeping up with the Joneses now means people are investing in native plants, and it turns out that native plants don’t make a mess in your yard. They actually create a robust landscape system that hums on its own. This is the kind of news that inspires and delights me, and we could all use good news these days.