Me and My Fast Moving Fingers
I left a comment on a blog the other day that generated a long, but gentlemanly response to follow. My comment was pretty vague, yet one sentence stood out. I suggested that we leave meadows where they belong and not bring them into urban neighborhoods. Also, I implied that we think about our design choices and make informative choices based on the character of a neighborhood. I proposed that what a front yard meadow may be is just a well designed facsimile. And my reasoning is based on the ability of an urban front yard to be a working ecosystem and habitat.
The images to follow are from my front bed through 2011, which if you remember from a previous post, is a holding bed at this point until the Concolor can be removed. And an update on that. The nurseryman and farm owner I always talk about is coming to dig it up for resale. He was impressed with how shapely I kept it, so it gets a new home instead of being an indoor Christmas tree. Plus, there are meadow images from the farm.
On with the Meadow Story
The question becomes, are we really talking about the same thing? It was a post essentially imagining a front meadow rather than a front lawn. My observation – is it really a meadow we are talking about or a carefully selected group of common perennials and ornamental grasses just substituting for turf grass? By the images shown and books cited on the blog, I have a meadow in my front yard, even though I would never characterize it as such.
There was a beautiful yard shown filled with Allium and iris for instance, very similar to my own front planting, and it was noted as a meadow. I certainly would not question that beauty in my neighborhood, but it did not read meadow to me. Again, my opinion.
Another point the author made was that I may be used to meadows in a can as bad examples. But, as a designer, commercial meadows planted have very specific combination of both annual and perennial seeds and are pretty expensive to purchase. Most mixes include self-sowing species and annuals to kick-start the meadow. They come in burlap or heavy brown paper bags not cans.
Where we spec these meadows is often in open areas to avoid planting turf grass or around intentionally excavated drainage basins and ponds. The mix changes the deeper you plant into the catchment. These gardens come up the following year in all their beautiful flowering glory with gorgeous Spring and Fall showings.
I never thought to photograph them at the commercial sites, but I will next time I am in the area to show you these pretty turf grass replacements. Why they are planted is as much for the function and economics of the upkeep (less mowing) as the visual and environmental concerns of the designer and owner. Environmental and functional also includes erosion control. There is also a slope on these drainage ponds.
This sloped area was planted with wildflowers many years ago and now it has regenerated into what the area dictates. Notice in the images, the meadows are surrounded by, or neighbor next to forested areas.
The natural meadows include a variety of pretty indigenous wildflowers and grasses. The mixes include plants like New England Aster, baby’s breath, Black-eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Shasta Daisies, foxgloves, corn poppies, Gaillardia, wallflowers, penstemons, evening primrose, among many other pretty flowers. My garden has seven of these planted. But what is different, is I planted plants, not seed and the flowers did not have to out compete to reach maturity.
In my garden, I have asters, bee balm, Leucanthemum, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, lavender, iris, penstemon, Veronica, grasses, Salvia and much more for my front ‘meadow-like’ beds.
Few of my selections are native to New York in the varieties I have planted, and in my opinion, meadows consist of naturally occurring indigenous plant species. In fact, the dominant plants of meadows are native, rather than the cultivated. They are often interspersed with very common species found in neighboring habitats.
On the farm, the meadows get interspersed with cultivated varieties of perennials which self-seed by bird or air. The black-eyed Susan were not planted in the above image. This is way out on the farm, not near the potted perennial plants waiting to go to job sites.
And to further the point, one grass is not the same as another to caterpillars. The caterpillars prefer the native farm flowers and grasses, and that is one reason why we have hybrids.
My Zebra grass is unlikely a food source, since I never saw a caterpillar on it. Scabiosa, dandelions, Asclepias, Achillea, nettles, clovers, vetches plantains, docks, knapweed, thistles, vetches, and the list continues for plants the insects adore.
Safe to Assume?
You can go to USDA Plants Database and look for your state to check for natives in your area. Here is the list for New York. The list includes those desired for gardens also, but check the varieties. I am guessing there are databases in your countries too if you are not a US resident.
People everywhere assume if you grow, say a Monarda, that it will automatically be a native if some originally were growing in your locale. That is an important factor too. When you select a plant in the database, make sure to get the distribution map and pinpoint it more precisely. Monarda covers NYS so not much of a problem.
But there is Monarda didyma ‘Petite Wonder’ and ‘Petite Delight’ in my garden. Both have a warning for Unauthorized Propagation Prohibited. Do you think this nine-inch tall Monarda is a native? Well read on.
As much of ‘ turn your grass into native plants’ insanity that is out there with proponents from both sides exceedingly verbal, I never wanted to jump on the band wagon and get in the middle of this argument. I do have personal and professional opinion on this subject and they are not always in agreement.
My work involves, at times, bidding State Park jobs that require native plantings and I have lists of native plants from which to choose. No problem, easy peezy, the choice is made by NYS. And many of the choices for the park, you would not want in your front landscape. They would just not be suitable.
But when a client insists on natives only, this is where it becomes foggy, because, I am not sure there is a definitive answer on what is actually a native species indigenous to our area. It is hard enough trying to fulfill State planting requirements, let alone those for someone’s front yard. I do not design small jobs normally, so it is unlikely I would be called for an urban front yard, but again, how do you differentiate what is actually native?
Is a Native Really a Native?
To me this debate seems more a matter of someone’s opinion than anything else. It just might be the insect’s opinion that really matters, because a sterile variety of a plant does not contribute to the ecosystem. Many more plants are being developed to be sterile for consumer’s convenience.
What so many books out there call native plants, you may not find on lists put out by each state. The genus and species might be correct, but through hybridization, the plant becomes unacceptable. So where does that leave the homeowner going to Home Depot or any other big box store for plants? Even most nurseries are not versed enough in native planting.
They will give you asters, Echinacea and bee balm, but look at the tag and see if there is a variety behind the genus and species and what that might be if you are a diehard practitioner. And do you need to be a diehard practitioner, really?
Big Brother and the Plant Police
The Federal Native Plant Committee, (whoever the heck they are, well, actually I do know), states that, “a native plant species is one that occurs naturally in a particular region, state, ecosystem, and habitat without direct or indirect human actions.” Now this is a pretty definitive definition. And one with no leeway, as using native plants helps to restore a previously fragmented ecosystem. A very good thing because, they provide for a place for birds and wildlife. This is why people want them. And who are these people and do they all want the same thing?
Who are These People
Environmentalists grow native plants for the health of the environment, ecologists use them because they are concerned with keeping the natural order of habitats and balancing ecosystems, horticulturists see natives as having commercial and landscape promise and possibility, and gardeners grow native plants because it makes them feel worthy about their contribution to all of the above.
There really is a surprising lack of consensus as to what a native plant is as I stated already. Many plants naturalize here and have made themselves so at home that we almost view them as native. Pollinators love them and depend on them, like Queen Anne’s Lace, ox-eye daisy and Japanese honeysuckle.
Native plant enthusiasts try to preserve native plants in any way possible, or so you would think. But, many are only interested in preserving the habitat where the plants are growing and this has an economic gain associated. If the plant is outside the habitat, tough cookies for that plant.
Some time ago I read an article where an arbitrary Department of Transportation was denounced by some native plant groups for not planting enough native plants along the roadsides. It happens in every state I am sure.
The arbitrary DOT in turn decided to save the seed from Echinacea laevigata, collected from the roadside because it was federally endangered. They proposed to grow the seed and plant the plants along road sides and highways. Seems like a plan right? The DOT was told that since the plants could not be grown outside their specialized habitat, this would not be a possible use of the plants. Oh really?
Not deterred and deciding to continue with the project, the DOT grew hundreds of plants to put back into the native landscape. But with all the groups that had special interest in this project, they were met with powerful opposition and told that “they would contaminate the natural gene pool of the native Echinacea laevigata if they planted the propagated plants back into the wild.” The moral here is that you have to anticipate your adversary. And believe it or not, there was an adversary just waiting to pounce. And it was one of economics.
The money that ecological plant groups apply for is federal and state grant money. It is appropriated for the counting and study of the native endangered plant populations. So here lies the rub. Since the money is to count the endangered plants, and if more plants are put back into the native landscape, this means they are no longer endangered and funding is stopped. A catch 22 it seems and a conflict of interest. So these native groups, wanting more natives, do not really want more natives planted if it affects their funding. Yet, they were the ones complaining that the DOT did not plant enough natives, meaning natives not in their studies. So when I said insanity surrounding native planting, I think you get my point.
So in short, keep a plant endangered means you get to keep the native habitat preserved, or if the plants are no longer endangered, then there is no means to preserve the native habitats where the plants grow. See the logic? If environmentalists grow only native plants, then only native environments are the place in which they grow, and nowhere else. This is the conundrum for all groups interested in seeing endangered plants flourish and become un-endangered. So back to what is considered native. Do we have a clue yet?
The Feds are Watching
And a number of federal laws have been created to prevent endangered plants from being propagated and distributed. See a problem here on getting them off the endangered list. Remember the Petite Wonder? Well that is covered by another government agency, The Plant Variety Protection Office, protecting a patented variety of the plant. In New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation has the law listed on their site.
So how does all this affect the home owner? Can a home owner get true native plants? Well the answer is no if you plan on making new ones. Yes, if you are willing to purchase them from specialized nursery sources. There are places to get them like I said to fulfill a plant list for a job, but are many of these really what the home owner is willing to install in their front yard? If you are not confused yet, I am amazed. I wanted to show a plant list for a State job, but I am not legally allowed to do that by my profession. I could make one up but then it is not the actual job specification and one could argue I am not being true to the spirit of the argument. Conundrums everywhere.
All this because I did not want to get involved, yet had to mention keeping meadows actually in the meadow. Does that make me one of these eco wackos, or just a sensible designer differentiating what is a meadow and what is a well designed and livable facsimile?
I have so much more I could say on this subject, because like so many, do have strong feelings on the subject. I am for native restorations. I am for native planting where it makes good sense to do so, but I am not for creating these isolated little patches of pseudo meadows in an urban front yard. Would I ever throw out these seed mixes in my front yard, no. So call them what they are, nicely designed gardens, suitable for attracting wildlife, using meadow like plants, but hybridized for plant size and growing patterns suitable to your design.
Lucky for them, I live right next to the Niagara Gorge, their habitat. At the end of the month wrap up, you will see all of the plants in action, like the ones above. Doing what I intended, attracting the critters. So if that is the criteria that is used to define a meadow, I guess I have one.
The Answer is No Answer
In summary, I am still as unsure about natives as most people. I talked this over with a horticulturist and Cornell agent and we both concluded, there is no definitive answer to the native plant issue, other than what the States designate as such. And as for the meadows, he agreed, but then he is not a designer, just a guy who loves nature, fields and meadows.
And please see the post Lexicons of Sustainability if you did not already. This is a group of informed individuals really making a difference, and all with words.