Another spring brings the excitement of a new garden season. For most of us, that means adding more plants to our landscape. Well, today’s episode is a reminder that your plant choices matter, especially when it comes to supporting biodiversity and wildlife. Guest Uli Lorimer is the Director of Horticulture at the Native Plant Trust. He shared with me his insights and actionable steps any gardener can put into practice.
While in high school, Uli worked for local nurseries and noticed that every company was selling the same types of plants. That led him to seek out work with botanical gardens that specialize in growing and displaying plant species not found in most gardens.
College years earned Uli degrees in botany and horticulture from the University of Delaware. Those propelled him to positions with such notable organizations as the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C., Wave Hill in New York City, and the Brooklyn Botanic garden.
It was during his 14 years with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden that Uli really broadened his native plant knowledge. He became increasingly fascinated by where and how these species grew and how to identify them in the wild. So, joining the Native Plant Trust seemed like a natural fit.
A Deep-Rooted History
The Native Plant Trust was founded 120 years ago as the Society for the Protection of Native Plants. Even then, industrialization and development were taking a toll on the wild spaces of New England. Ancient woodlands were being cut down, marshes were being drained, and prairies were being plowed under.
Those who appreciated nature realized that someone had to take action and take measures to conserve what was being lost or put at risk.
As the years passed and horticultural interests shifted, the organization was known by different names before its most recent transition to its current moniker to better represent the diversity of plant types under the Trust’s care. The current name also incorporates the organization’s extensive conservation efforts.
A Three-Pronged Approach
The Native Plant Trust is located on 45 acres in Framingham, Massachusetts. Its public garden, Garden in the Woods is open to the public from spring through mid-October. Uli explains the Trust as having three primary roles:
- Education (public programming)
The horticulture aspect includes a sustainably managed and extensive gardens area. Uli says that many people come for the gardens, but they stay for the message. The garden displays are intended to drive home the beauty and diversity of native plants, but they also serve as a reminder that we should all garden holistically.
We don’t just garden for ourselves – or for the approval of the neighbors. We are part of the landscape as a whole. We garden for birds, beneficial insects and other wildlife which share our space. An ecologically-minded garden space supports a myriad of life.
All of the plants grown in the Native Plant Trust garden are from seed which has been ethically-collected in the wild. The seeds are germinated and cared for at the Trust’s plant nursery, Nasami Farm. Located in western Massachusetts, Nasami Farm also produces seedlings for restoration projects and for sale to the public.
Recently, the Boston Harbor Islands (a national and state park) was undergoing restoration. Park staff gathered seeds from plants on the islands and provided them to Nasami Farm where they were grown into mature seedlings. Those plants were delivered back to Boston Harbor Islands to strengthen the native population.
The Native Plant Trust conservation efforts have also gathered over 50 years of valuable data on rare plant populations throughout the New England states. They work with other conservation programs in six states – including land trusts, the federal government, and conservationists – to share information and identify collective goals and priorities for the upcoming year. This groundbreaking approach has led to similar collective conservation efforts across the country.
Every area of our country is dealing with unique conditions and challenges as well as distinctive at-risk plant species. For example, the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance works to protect over 120 rare plant species in my rapidly developing home state. In spite of their different challenges, aligning all of these conservation efforts improves the overall success of each individual organization.
The Trust has also trained a group of Plant Conservation Volunteers, currently 1,200 strong. The volunteers monitor rare and endangered plants throughout New England. They also collect seed to be stored in the Trust’s seed bank for preservation. To date, 80% of all the New England area’s rare plant species have been gathered within the seed bank.
The Native Plant Trust’s educational branch offers field studies, adult education, webinars, and advocacy programs to help spread recognition of the important role native plants play in our ecology.
Native Plants At Risk
What do you have growing in your landscape? Odds are very good that your garden is made up of more non-native than native plant species. According to Uli, 5,000 varieties of plants commonly found in the northeastern U.S. have been brought to that area from somewhere else. That translates to one-third of all the plant types there as being non-native.
Unfortunately, we have the horticultural industry to thank for that phenomenon. Kudzu is an all-too-familiar example. It was introduced at a Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in the late 1800s as a desirable, fast-growing ground cover. Well, to claim this species grows fast is a colossal understatement. It can scramble up, over, around, and through just about anything and is now known as the vine that ate the South. Southern gardeners rue the day kudzu was promoted as desirable.
Not all of our plant problems are legacy issues. Even today, you can go to just about any garden center and find not only non-native plants, but species which have been identified as invasive. Asian viburnum, calorie pear, and purslane are still commonly found for sale and installed by professional landscaping companies. Yet, these plants push out native species, reducing ecological diversity and important habitat necessary for native wildlife.
Not only are these aggressive species still being intentionally added to our urban landscapes, but they rapidly spread beyond their intended location. That’s what qualifies them as invasive. They quickly make their way into wild spaces and outcompete native plants for space, nutrients, and light.
The pressures of climate change have only made matters worse. As rain patterns and average temperature ranges have shifted during the past few decades, it’s the bullet-proof invasive or non-native species which tend to win out over the usually more delicate native varieties. On top of that is displacement from urban development, where non-native (and sometimes invasive) plants are the go-to choices used in new landscape installations. The cycle continues.
The Native Plant Trust is working to save those at-risk plant species through habitat restoration and by propagating plants to sell or display in their gardens. They’re also involved with research projects to determine which control methods are most effective against invasive species. It’s a tall order but important work.
Steps for the Home Gardener
Conservation organizations like Native Plant Trust are making a difference, but plant biodiversity and wildlife habitat restoration requires the efforts of individual gardeners to really have a far-reaching impact.
Our collective garden choices can help solve these critical problems, while still providing the aesthetic beauty we long for. Uli shared five changes you can begin to make this year:
Talk to other gardeners you know about the value native plants hold. No matter where you live, there are more species and varieties available than you know. Native plants can suit every garden style. It’s all about educating ourselves on the options.
Find out who is involved in the planting choices for your local parks and other public spaces. Taking steps to make those organizations aware of the valuable role natives play and how to incorporate those options could transform your whole area.
We are a society of convenience. Too often we walk through the sea of choices at the garden center and pick something up just because it’s immediately available and catches our eye. Just as in any large-scale industry, the plants that are easiest to produce and most likely to sell are the ones that hit the shelves.
The plant selection available for us to buy is determined by demand. Learn which native plants fit your garden goals and, then, request those plants from nurseries and garden centers. As more gardeners voice their preference for natives, the horticultural industry will take note and respond.
Take a Holistic Approach
We tend to gravitate toward the plants that are the prettiest, without taking into consideration the role they will play in our landscape. Think about the bigger picture – what the plant does or doesn’t provide for the creatures who share our space. Will it provide a food source for pollinators? Will it offer shelter for the birds in your area or the elements beneficial insects require to reproduce? Take a little time to do the research and find out.
I get it. We’re all busy, and we want what we want right now. Just remember that the option sitting on the table at the big box store might fill a space in your garden, but it probably won’t fill the gap in your area’s ecology.
Ask questions at your local nursery. Staff there can usually offer worthwhile suggestions and are often willing to special order native plants they don’t keep in stock.
Know the Source
When it comes to our food choices, more of us than ever have begun asking those all-important questions like: Was it produced locally? Was it produced without chemicals? Well, we should be asking the same questions when buying plants.
Find out where the plant was produced and whether it was treated with harmful pesticides like neonicotinoids. Ask if it was grown from seed or propagated with a cutting.
Large-scale plant production tends to start with cuttings or asexual propagation. That means every resulting plant is a clone of the parent plant. Imagine a vast nursery full of clones. That’s the reality of today’s bulk horticultural industry, and it results in very limited genetic diversity, which weakens our ecology.
Propagation is cost-effective, but it’s also driven by our buying choices. After all, every clone will look the same. They will all share the same qualities of form and growth. Our culture tends to see that as desirable. We look for that perfect aesthetic.
Instead, let’s learn to value diversity – the unexpected that comes from allowing nature to take charge. Native plants do that in spades. That quality of a little bit of unknown will provide you with greater learning opportunities and a higher appreciation for the characteristics unique to each individual plant.
There are native plant societies and botanical groups all across North America. Find those that are near you and get involved. Some of the greatest lessons Uli learned didn’t come from his horticulture classes at the University of Delaware. They came from interacting with his co-workers at the botanical gardens.
The other members of your local organizations will trigger a greater excitement and help you learn more about the plants in your area than any research you will do on your own. Plus, you’ll spread your enthusiasm and knowledge with others too. We are all stronger when we come together in a common interest. That’s more true today than ever.
Be sure to check out the Native Plant Trust website, and if you’re able to make your way to the Massachusetts area, I encourage you to plan a trip to their gardens. I hope you’ll also listen in to my conversation with Uli by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. I believe our discussion will ignite some excitement to encourage you to broaden what you look for as you add to your landscape. Your garden and our world as a whole will be the better for it.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy Three popular online courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
Master Seed Starting – My newest online course teaching you how to master the art of starting your own plants from seed and seeding care! Registration closing soon, so don’t miss out!