Squirrelly Weather Predicted

By Michael Leach

Photo by Aaron J Hill on Pexels.com

Gardeners apparently weren’t consulted when groundhogs were chosen as prognosticators of winter’s duration. At least not this gardener. 

Personal experience with these creatures is all negative. From chewing up the floor in the old tool barn (woodchuck is a well earned common name), to wrecking havoc amongst the vegetables, this member of the rodent family is unwelcome in my yard. It doesn’t help that the Encyclopedia Britannica defines these pests as one of 14 types of large ground squirrels. Don’t let me get started on squirrels.

Regardless of opinion, there’s a wonderful certainty in Feb. 2. It’s the midpoint between the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, and the spring equinox, when day and night are equal. Days are getting longer, nights shorter.

Soon birds, most of whom are always welcome, will begin singing in the early light, which comes a bit sooner each morning until the longest day on the summer solstice in June.

While several animals were associated with Feb. 2 by ancient Europeans, Germans believed the cute hedgehog predicted winter’s end. If it saw its shadow on Feb. 2, a second winter of six weeks lay ahead, clouds meant an early end.

Lacking hedgehogs, German immigrants in the United States used the groundhog. Definitely a choice lacking in cuteness. This is underscored by Hollywood’s inability to turn groundhogs into appealing animated rodents, such as mice and squirrels. Groundhogs are also called marmots, which almost rhymes with varmints — and that pretty well sums up the situation. Annual rodent family damage totals in the millions of dollars. Food is a prime target, but they sometimes ignite house fires after gnawing on wiring.

Despite the negatives, the celebrated ground squirrels have one trait I envy — hibernation. What a brilliant way to avoid seemingly endless Midwest winter. Just pork out on people’s gardens and snooze till green returns.

At least one groundhog, however, suffers a sleep problem. Since 1887 the western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney has brightened winter by rousing a groundhog for a long-term weather prediction and an excuse for a festive time. 

After such a rude awakening, it’s little wonder the animal’s accuracy is only about 40 percent. Without my first sip of morning coffee, I’m exceedingly fortunate to spell my name correctly, much less predict the weather for even the next six hours.

Best Rx: Real Gardening

A $4 bunch of alstroemeria, plus a few green  branches of kerria japonica and evergreen Japanese yew, combine to make a breath of fresh air in midwinter.

By Micheal Leach

It’s that time of winter when cheap thrills are necessary to survive until planting time. Otherwise, I could succumb to the fuzzy headless and inertia caused by Midwest winter gloom made worse this year by an overload of virtual, isolation and Zoom.

Even before the pandemic, we Midwesterners relied on winter substitutes for  gardening. Seminars, classes, books, magazines and catalogs — the bigger and more colorful the photos the better — were treasured go-tos. We chatted and commiserated with others during the coffee breaks and box lunches of those learning sessions.

Generations of gardeners have relied on catalogs to survive winter.

Whether virtual or physical, surrogates are valuable, but they can do only so much. Long before spring arrives I’ve got to recharge with living plants and physical tools.

Here are some thoroughly tested winter-survival tricks. Perhaps you have some of your own to share. If so, please do.

Quick fixes — Buy a bunch of inexpensive flowers from the florist or supermarket. Buy sprigs of florist  greenery if you lack evergreen shrubs or  houseplants that can handle light pruning.

After gathering your materials, put aside worries about winning a blue ribbon with your design. Fresh flowers have all sorts of positive effects, according to the Society of American Florists. And even better, there’s the chance to play with real flowers.

Weather permitting, you can expand this into winter pruning for a healthy dose of outdoor exercise. 

Chase winter blahs with a bit of pruning.

Those with cold frames or other protected plantings of winter-tolerant vegetables can harvest a few and bring them indoors for a fresh-from-the-garden meal.

Cold-tolerant greens, such as this Joi Choi Chinese cabbage, can be grown in winter under row covers or other protection to provide fresh from the garden harvests in January.

Cleanup — Gather debris from the lawn and search for those beautiful green tips of daffodils and other spring bloomers. Snowdrops and hellebores may be budding or blooming. Hope is inspired — a must for making it through winter and these troubled times.

Travel — If you feel safe enough to visit garden centers, florist shops and conservatories – go! Living, colorful plants are tonics. If you’re tempted to bring home a newbie or two – do!

Nature, even winter, provides a boost, so head to a park or hiking trail for open air therapy. America In Bloom offers research to prove this helps .

Repot — This may be the winter I’m desperate enough to repot, a chore I find disagreeable in summer’s warmth. The many others of you who enjoy repotting needn’t wait for summer either. Try to hold off on this until late winter, so plants don’t get the urge to start growing too soon.

Harvest hope — Tired of poinsettias or those fading rescued summer plants languishing on dim windowsills? Go out and gather a preview of spring by cutting a few branches of forsythia, quince, witch hazel and other early bloomers to force into flowering indoors. Watching buds swell and open is an elixir. I do this every year as part of seasonal pruning and send a bundle of branches to my sister in Florida. She relishes this token of remembered springs.

Witch hazel’s winter blooms

Focus — We must never forget that spring always comes no matter how bitter and long the winter. Spring is a glorious constant that remains untouched and unchanged by human affairs.

Garden Resolutions

In 2021, we collectively hope to be meeting once again in person and sharing ideas for future blog posts. As we kick off our 10th year for Heartland Gardening, we are grateful for all who have joined us and continue to encourage us on this blogging journey. Happy New Year!

By Michael Leach

The tradition of setting goals and making resolutions for a new year is always fraught with uncertainty, something especially true for 2021. However, as the late comedienne Phyllis Diller observed, aim high and there’s less chance of shooting yourself in the foot. So each year, I aim for the stars.

Focus and finish  —  Surely there are others who start projects with the idea of quickly checking them off the to-do list. But sooner or later the focus blurs, and the projects are set aside (sometimes for years), because even more appealing or demanding issues arise.

Juggling several things is possible. I do this when preparing several different dishes for one meal. Unlike those forgotten projects, meal prep is clearly defined and time-sensitive: Sit down to a plate filled with various tasty foods at x’o’clock.  Perhaps if I see projects “finished” even before starting, just as I do with cooking dinner, more things will get done in 2021.

Ease back in —   I yearn for morning workouts and weekly yoga practice at the local  Y, plus the socializing that goes with such activities. Yet I must resist the urge to go from 0-to-60 when things finally allow.

The garden teaches moderation when digging in. Surely I am not alone when it comes to wanting to accomplish three months’ worth of work before lunch on that  first pleasant day of spring. That’s the day when the urge to go outside and play in the dirt is irresistible. Overdo in a few hours then, and you’ll spend the next 48 in aching misery. So it must be with moderation that I revive whatever routines I choose to bring back from pre-lockdown. Pacing is a must.

Socialize with a vengeance — I plan to share my garden sanctuary with special friends, probably only one at a time, as often as possible, even if it means foregoing working on a few of those first balmy spring days. Socializing happened too infrequently in 2020 and sometimes was foolishly considered too inconvenient before. Friends were so starved for real face time in 2020, we sat for hours talking. When we reluctantly agreed to part, legs were stiff. We gasped when checking the time. We were, however, so glad we did it. Now that I think about it, socializing should be the first and most important goal for 2021 — and all the years to come.

By Debra Knapke

I made a few resolutions with a smirk on my face:

  • To clean out my overfull email Inbox
  • To clean my office and keep everything on its place
  • To download and label all my pictures off my phone.

Then, wrote my real resolutions:

  • To keep my tools clean and sharp, really, especially the sharp part. Tired of hurting my body by working with dull tools.
  • Replacing our gas-powered lawn mower with a battery-operated mower that uses the same batteries as my battery- powered garden tools.
  • To add solar panels to our home to help with the power load of our home, greenhouse and battery-operated power tools.

And, finally, offer a few resolutions to challenge every gardener:

  • To make compost from vegetative kitchen scraps and disease and pest-free cleanings from the garden and add it to the garden whenever I plant or create new garden areas.
  • To sequester carbon by planting more trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, and by putting carbon into the soil through the use of biochar, and compost.

By Teresa Woodard

I’ve always loved reflecting on this day and looking forward to the future. For me, it always seemed to be about the numbers. How many articles I wrote or how many things I accomplished? But after this crazy pandemic year, I’m learning to measure success in quality more than quantity. As Einstein put it, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Here are my 2020 gardening goals:

Grow fruits and vegetables. A highlight of 2020 was planting backyard gardens for families in a food insecure neighborhood. Back home, I gained a renewed passion for planting veggies — no longer looking at it as a novelty but as a privilege to grow and harvest fresh, delish and nutritious food from my own backyard. Bring on more tasty tomatoes, power-packed greens and heirloom beans.

Make friends with other gardeners. While gardening can be a welcomed solitary activity, I’ve also found joy in gardening with others. Together, tasks seem to go faster and feel less like work. Plus, friendships made in the garden are some of the best.

Visit other gardens for inspiration and learning. In 2021, I’m taking on a book project that will give me the opportunity to write about garden designers’ own gardens. So, I’m very excited to meet these gardeners across the country and share their garden stories with others.

Plant with a purpose. I love shopping for plants, and this year, I’m challenging myself to be more selective with my choices. Will this flower benefit pollinators? Will this plant persevere in my backyard and even prevent soil erosion or help absorb water in flooded areas? Will this plant offer shade, edible fruits or shelter for wildlife? And, yes, will this plant add beauty, fragrance or joy?

Happy New Year, gardening friends! We’d love to hear your gardening resolutions in the comments.

Happy Gardening to Me!

Deb gifts herself some power tools — battery-powered chainsaw and blower.

By Debra Knapke

First, I have to confess that chainsaws scare the bejeepers out of me. They are loud and incredibly dangerous, and I never thought I would own one. I always figured that If I couldn’t prune a tree or large shrub with a good handsaw, then it was time to call in the professionals. But this year’s drought and the loss of two dwarf conifers – one 16 years and the other 23+ years in the garden – changed that belief.

I planted a 12-inch tall Diane European larch in 2004, and here it is in April of 2019, a 6-foot tall graceful tree. We had several years of too much water in the winter and late spring into early summer. This killed a good part of the thyme lawn, but Diane grew beautifully or so I thought. Then we had drought in 2019 and 2020.  In mid-July of 2020, she turned yellow and dropped all of her needles. New needles appeared at the tips of the branches in early August, but they promptly dried up and dropped. By September, you could snap the branches.

Diane European larch in all her glory

Behind Diane larch, you can just see Glauca Nana Scotch pine I planted in the late 90s. It had been slowly declining due to a combination of water and temperature stress – too warm – followed by recurring infestations of pine needle scale and pine sawfly. By the summer of 2020, only one portion of the tree was “thriving”.

With my handsaw, I was able to prune the trees to their main trunks (see Glauca Nana skeleton), but the wood on both species had very tight rings which made sawing the trunks by hand an onerous task. Calling in an arborist seemed silly for a job this small.

The skeleton of Glauca Nana Scotch pine

I had recently seen an ad for a battery-operated chainsaw made by Stihl. Time to research battery-operated tools! I ended up comparing Stihl, Husqvarna and Makita chainsaws. The Makita chainsaw best fit my needs.

After going over the operation of the chainsaw with the excellent folks at Como Mower in Columbus and my husband, it was with some trepidation that I started her up. Yes, “her”; I have relationships with all of my tools and treat them with respect.

It was really cool and surprisingly empowering.

You can see that I need to refine my technique by the wonky cuts on the trunks below, but I will get better with practice. Never the less, the chainsaw surpassed my expectations on its ease of handling, manageable weight, noise level and cutting effectiveness.

 There are approximately 32 rings in the larger trunk.

I bet you are wondering how a blower ended up in the mix. Anyone who knows me knows I really dislike noisy, gas-operated blowers. However, the Makita blower, being electric, is relatively quiet, and it has a lot of power for its size.

I have three rock gardens that I clean out with a hand rake. This is becoming increasingly difficult and this blower will make that garden task easier to do.

And, there was this promotion that was difficult to resist!

Wishing you beautiful Christmas and New Year’s celebrations!

Spare Me the “S” Word

By Michael Leach

Alas! Once again it’s the season when weather predictions often include the four-letter “s” word. But there’s no cause for undue delight or despair.

This wee word, representing countless minute bits of frozen, white precipitation, is a subject celebrated in poems, lyrics, paintings, ski resort posters and greeting, cards. Yet it also appears in unflattering ways in ads touting warm, palmy places. The commercials generally switch from images of turquoise water and scanty swimwear on attractive bodies to a Dantesque nightmare of pale gray city streets awash with oily slush. Scattered in the gloom are hunched figures, swathed in mounds of drab coats and scarves, staggering against an arctic  gale.

This little word has divided Americans in northern areas far longer than political parties. Some love it, while others are rational and disdain it. I’ll grant the first snow transforms my garden into something of a living landscape painting. This view from the sunporch enhances morning coffee time and breaks between shoveling.

The ”s”  divide extends to weather forecasters. No matter how they attempt dispassionate predictions, It’s easy to tell who loves “s” and who doesn’t. Not so subtle clues give them away.

Those who can’t wait until the world becomes a floured mess are pixilated when the computer spews out parameters that include only the tiniest hint of “s”. From this, they paint scenarios maximizing the potential misery in terms of inches, duration and wind chill. Their lust for heavy frozen precip blinds them to the downsides: snarling traffic, slipping pedestrians and aching backs from shoveling. To be fair, there are a few winners, tow truck and plow drivers for instance. Oh, and let’s not forget that sales spike for heavy winter clothing to warm hunched figures in arctic gales.

The “s” enthusiasts put too much confidence in computer models. Sure, science tells about the inner workings of the atom, and Seri tells me where to go, but how about telling me what the weather will be 24 hours from now? Hmpf! It’s easier to predict the trajectory of a startled cat.

Such variability is especially true of winter weather. A wind gust here, a dry spot there, some 50-mile wobble in the path of a storm stretching across half the Midwest and voila! We can have an icy glaze or a few drops of rain or 12 inches of “s” or some combination of all the above or nothing. To put this in gardening terms — during a drought, would any of us  skip watering the wilting tomatoes when a 100 percent chance of an inch of rain is forecast? Not hardly. Such experience keeps panic at bay no matter how dire the weather prediction.

Plus, I’ve learned a coping mechanism that can help you regardless of your weather preferences. Check TV channels and scan weather websites to find a forecast echoing your desires. After discovering such a prediction, believe it. At least until something better comes along.

The Native, Not Native Plant Debate: Is It Valid?

By Debra Knapke

Late fall is my time for contemplation, for this question and so many more. The leaves are down, the garden beds are put-to-bed – as much as I do that anymore. The days are moody with short periods of transcendent blue skies bracketed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets.

I look out into my garden and consider… what delighted me? what did not? what worked? what did not?

My ideas and gardening have changed considerably over the years. From collecting and figuring out where everything could fit to needing to understand how nature works. It isn’t about the quantity, but the quality of plants, plant communities and soil – the foundation of everything.

Purpose – the concept that must underlie all garden creation and maintenance. Why are you doing it? For these times when our climate is changing, our food systems are insecure, and we know that we must support each other and the Earth. My garden’s purpose is to support all life that comes to it, and to supplement our diet. These are my primary gardening intentions.

For the first intention, using native plants is essential. Native plants – those that belong to an ecological niche, have not been introduced by humans and have been here longer than us (I’ll let you determine who “us” is) – native animals, and soil systems have evolved together. At every step of the way, change has been a part of this relationship, so the native plant of 500 years ago may not be the native plant of today, but the relationships remain.

For the second intention, many of us would be hard-pressed to live off the land in Ohio. There are too many of us and we have become accustomed to having luscious tomatoes, spicy basil, and our pick of culinary delights. Fortunately, many of these food plants from other lands also have relationships with their animal counterparts, and often, these relationships work for our native insects and others.

Yes, there is the question of fitness: does a non-native plant offer as good a resource to our animals? I believe the jury is still out on this question. We have studies (Mt. Cuba, Cornell, and other institutions) that show that our native insects prefer our native plants as shown by their visitation rate. But I am waiting for the brilliant researcher who is able to figure out how to ask a bumblebee the question: “Which of these offers the best nutrition for you, false sunflower or Black Adder anise hyssop?”

Bumbles on our native false sunflower (Heliopsis sp.) and on Black Adder anise hyssop, a hybrid of our native Agastache foeniculum and European native A. rugosum

So, my title and question: the native, not native plant debate: Is it valid? My answer is yes and no…  It depends on Why You Garden – a topic for another time.

To  help you figure out where you stand in the native/non-native debate, I offer a rating scale by the brilliant J. C. Raulston who looked for plants that performed well in the landscape and who may have introduced plants that are in your garden.

Enjoy!

EXOTIC VS. NATIVE PLANTS PHILOSOPHY SCALE (1-10) 

By J. C. Raulston – 1996

To help understand where others (and you) stand in the very wide spectrum of the horrific and unending native vs. exotic plant “mud-wrestling debate” – the following scale is offered tongue-in-cheek for humor to laugh at ourselves on this admittedly serious issue. Where are YOU in this range??

1-2: Encourage maximum population growth; burn, bulldoze and kill all existing vegetation and build everywhere; plant only those ugly aggressive noxious exotic plants with no redeeming values (e.g. – hybrid tea roses, Leyland cypresses or ‘Bradford’ pears); eat only kiwis, mangos and rice; live in rosewood lumber homes with plastic furniture; demand “Chemplush” (TM) lush iridescent green lawns everywhere and in all seasons.

2-4: Burn, bulldoze and kill most existing vegetation – but save old historic trees slept under by great presidents; maintain cryogenic tissue samples of native flowers germplasm just in case someone ever wants to sample for a pimple cure; eat olives and figs, with one bowl of beans a month; live in a redwood home with a basket woven of local reeds; weed and feed lawn monthly and mow weekly.

4-6: Live life in moderation; plant and enjoy useful plants; protect native habitats; eat everything in sight regardless of origin (Raulston’s Rule); recycle paper, homes, and other products – and use local plantation grown lumber to build; weed & feed lawn annually and mow monthly if it needs it; worry endlessly about everything ’cause you don’t have a final perfect answer to Earth’s problems like everyone else seems to.

6-8: Eliminate aggressive invasive exotic plants; work politically and financially to protect native habitats; urge population control; use low maintenance native plants appropriate to environment and culture; eat beans, corn, blueberries and an occasional cantaloupe in season; live in hand-hewn pine cabin from lumber you grew yourself; use all native oak furniture built from lightening killed trees and enjoy a mahogany rocking chair inherited from your Indonesian great-grandfather; let goats graze whatever grass or other stuff comes up out front – then eat goat (if not vegetarian or animal rights).

8-10: Eliminate all plant species not growing when and where they existed as colonists arrived; remove all physical construction not in use in 1492 and reduce human population levels to that time with appropriate attention to native American ethnic purity; eliminate all travel and exchange of products and/or technology; eat only the foods botanically existing on your specific habitat (no cheating with imported Mexican corn or Maine blueberries) – mushrooms are recommended as they don’t reproduce easily or spread aggressively; live in caves to protect trees from destruction; wear no clothing or use any tools; if there is no tree removal, there is no sun, and therefore no summer grass = no lawn maintenance sweat.

Back-to-School Challenge

Crowd-Sourcing Native Plant Ideas for School Landscape

By Michael Leach

Please put on your thinking caps. We’re looking for plants native to central Ohio that meet several requirements. The goal is a more environmentally friendly and educationally enhanced school landscape.  Yes, we have our native go-tos – I adore oaks, Deb loves royal catchfly, native ferns and spicebush, and Teresa is a fan of coneflowers and Joe Pye weed. But, for this project, we’d love to hear from you.

A new middle school is to be built near my home. Fortunately plans call for preserving a 200-year-old oak tree. Already there’s an orange, plastic mesh fence around this grand tree.

The schools superintendent is open to my making suggestions to the landscape planners for native Ohio plants that may be used on the site. We discussed the possibility of white pines to screen the football field and track. These trees have been used before on school sites. It’s a toehold.

For now there’s little chance of doing more than a few trees and perhaps some shrubs, the typical local school landscape. Low maintenance — primarily mowing — is preferred. So no pollinator strips, recreated prairies or woodland preserves need apply.

Plant parameters are:

Toughness — Have to tolerate full sun, wind, little care and Midwest extremes common in Central Ohio, Zone 6;

Coexistence — Must be able to handle competition from lawn and withstand mowers running over root zones;

Visual appeal — Seasonal interest, such as fall color, a plus, because people are using the school, but no  messy fruits;

Acquisition — Be readily available in 2-inch caliper plants;

Education — While school gardens offer diverse learning opportunities, these tend to flourish only with teachers who are also gardeners. No outdoor classroom is on the horizon at the moment. Ideally trees and shrubs should be those that: had/have a variety of uses for Native Americans and/or European settlers, support a range of wildlife, and have other qualities that make them resources for creative teachers.

Please send your suggestions and comments by August 20. 

Rain, Rain Come Play Today

By Michael Leach

Splish! splish! Rain drops in the night were surely a dream that would fade with the sunrise of another white-hot day.

The rain, however, wasn’t a dream. A haze of drops, blending into the pale gray clouds, still fell when the alarm rang. It was a special rain that conjured summer memories and inspired daydreaming. 

Such rain comes without wind or sizzling lightening. I savored this delightful precipitation from the comfort of a rocking chair near a screened window. A porch swing would have been ideal, but even this perch afforded leisurely coffee sipping and unexpected peace.

All the flowers in the garden are bejeweled with rain.

When my sister and I were small, and such a rainy day came along, Mother had us change into our bathing suits to go “swimming” in the backyard. Raindrops and the wet, silky grass weren’t at all like the community swimming pool we went to most summer afternoons. Didn’t matter. We romped and screamed delightedly.

Turning faces skyward and mouths open wide, we tried to catch rain drops on our tongues. We did the same thing in winter for snowflakes. Usually we tired of such exuberant play long before the saturated clouds drifted further east. Then came a dry bath towel, a change back to play clothes and renewed efforts at Monopoly or other indoor games. At least Mother got a reprieve from complaints about the missed day at the swimming pool.

As a gardener, this particular morning was even more rewarding. Several chores were scratched off the do-do list the night before, never mind the fatigue. There were check marks beside everything, from tucking in some transplants to spreading weed preventer in the cracks of the brick paving. One more thing would have made this morning perfect — having the houseplants outside. But the rain wasn’t predicted, hadn’t been for days, and wasn’t foreseen for several more to come. A last look before bed showed nothing on radar. It was only my hunch (hope?) about rain.

Rain polishes houseplant foliage.

Still, it would have been good to put the houseplants outside. There’s nothing like rain to bring freshness. Dust washes away, along with tap water salts in the soil (particularly in downpours). But this morning was too fine to spoil by a soggy chore, no matter how beneficial. Same with attempting more transplanting. No!  The rain washed away plans for the morning walk, gardening and errands. 

From the window, I watched the narrow leaves on phlox and other towering perennials bounce up and down, as if played by invisible fingers making music too faint to hear. On the west window, where a bit of breeze had spattered rain, some of the crystal drops slowly  zigzagged their way down the glass. 

Crystal droplets decorate the window pane.

By making me pause during the busy season, this rainy day refreshed the gardener as much as any houseplant fortunate enough to be outdoors. The next day’s weather was to be bright and hot again, with perhaps a few popup storms. What better reason to spend moments of cool peace and ease, while making a new memory of a rainy summer day?

So Many Reasons to Plant Trees

By Michael Leach

The mention of Arbor Day brings visions of shovels, holes and little sticks with balls of soil at their bases.

Trees are planted for many reasons. But they do more than provide lumber or counter climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon and the heat island effect. They also offer food and shelter to birds and a host of other animals. Sometimes trees become part of local history, childhood memories, voices in the wind or heirlooms. This is the story of five sugar maples.

Perhaps it was Arbor Day in 1912 when the spindly plants were dug from a woods less than a mile from the front lawn of a small Victorian farm house, which was a mere 22 years old. Four of them were transplanted along the country road, the fifth near the house.

The Titanic sank in 1912. It was two years before the start of the butchery of World War I,  and a decade prior to the publishing of  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, Tales of the Jazz Age that helped define the 1920s.

Frivolity and bathtub gin gave way to the Great Depression decade. In 1939 The Wizard of Oz was released to sing and dance its way into the fabric of American life. Then came the horrors of World War II. 

By late1952 the first  hydrogen bomb was tested, prosperity raged in America. Tiny-screen televisions mesmerized millions with their  black-and-white images. The road in front the now dilapidated frame house was no longer rutted dirt, but shiny black asphalt. The maples, meanwhile, had grown and thrived. 

Their tops were well above the story-and-a-half house, when two small children, a girl and boy, moved there in 1952. With their mother’s help, they quickly learned to climb a fat-branched apple tree. After a year or so, they were tall enough to scale the nearby sugar maple. It was the tallest and closest to the house. Their mother was ok with them climbing trees, but not playing near the road, which carried more cars every year.

Fast forward another half century. Space travel was ho-hum, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan underway and the little girl’s children were graduating from college. They had grown up far away and had few chances to climb trees, certainly none like the maples. The traffic on the road was almost constant. Semi trucks increasingly rumbled by, hundreds of motorcycles growled on balmy weekends of spring and autumn. The woods where the trees sprouted became a housing tract and only a few gnarly giants remained. 

It was about this time the maples began receiving regular visits from an arborist, because they are not good street trees. Corrective pruning, cabling to help them weather storms, and regular fertilizing became standard care. Despite the remnant of a hurricane, ice storms, droughts and deluges, the trees continued to grow, but less vigorously. Yet their autumn show of golden leaves rivaled the effects of peacocks when it came to  dropping jaws. 

The trees continued filling their various roles, plus they shaded pedestrians and a swath of pavement. They were a source of free mulch when those glorious leaves fell.

About five years ago the tallest and most beloved maple was diagnosed with a rotten center. It  was a threat to the nearby house and the front porch, where the children’s mother had come out to look up into the dense, green cloud and shout, “Kids, supper’s ready. Come on in.”

All that remains from of a beloved sugar maple.

All those years disappeared in three hours. Only scattered sawdust and a smooth, flat shelf of wood at ground level remained. Last fall, the second of the “hospice” maples, as the arborist described them, was cut down. During its last three or four years, this tree displayed ominous signs: little if any new growth, early coloration and leaf loss in fall, and a shower of dead branches and twigs after every wind storm.

Sugar maple blossoms add beauty to the spring scene.

Because the maples are profligates when it comes to seeds, a few sprouted and quickly grew in the landscape beds. The next generation was well underway when the boy, following in the footsteps of his great uncles, transplanted a spindly maple to mark his college graduation in 1970.  Every autumn it puts on a show and then carpets the ground with brilliant leaves.

No wonder some wise people created Arbor Day to celebrate and plant trees. 

Natives and Beyond

Discover Nativar Plants to Bring Beauty and Eco-Benefits to Your Backyard

By Teresa Woodard

Flopping grasses, no-show flowers and unruly plants. Many home gardeners say “no thanks” to such “wild” native plants for these reasons and others.  But, thanks to the flourishing native plant movement, the market has responded with a new and improved plant palette of “nativars.” It’s an industry buzzword for selected, hybridized, or crossbred varieties of native plants that offer more compact sizes, cleaner foliage, better color, or tidier appearance especially for home landscapes.

‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem and ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ coneflowers at Kingwood Center in Mansfield, Ohio.

Nativars like ‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem or ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ coneflower offer many of the eco-benefits of their straight-species cousins but also behave and show better in the home landscape.

A bonus is these nativars are more widely available through garden centers and big box stores, unlike native plants that are often exclusively sold through specialty growers or occasional native plant sales.

Planting more nativars would seem to be a plus for pollinators, but some purists challenge nativars don’t equally benefit insects and birds like straight-species natives. Research shows not all nativars are equally beneficial when it comes to pollinator appeal. For example, a change in leaf color or flower shape may dissuade pollinators. Several trial gardens across the country are taking a closer look.

Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ (Photo by Mt. Cuba Center)

At Mount Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, the botanical garden’s team trialed 66 varieties of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata which is native to much of eastern United States) and found  the mildew-resistant nativar Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ was a winner with 530 butterfly visits. They also trialed 40 monarda selections and named two nativar winners — Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ and Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline.’ For a complete list, see https://mtcubacenter.org/research/trial-garden/ Other nativar pollinator plant trials include Penn State, Chicago Botanic Gardens and Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens.

The bottom line for me is nativars are making a positive impact for their beauty, ease of care, accessibility and ecological integrity. And, the more variety of natives and nativars we can bring to our backyards, the better. So, when shopping for new plants this spring, give nativars a try. Plant a few (see 10 perennial favorites below), run your own experiments and watch to see if pollinators show up. Even consider sharing your results with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s BudBurst citizen science research project.

  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’)
  • Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’, Cheyenne Spirit’ and ‘Ruby Star’)
  • Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium dubium ‘Baby Joe’)
  • Giant hyssop (Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’)
  • Aster (Symphyotrichum ‘October Skies’)  
  • Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’)
  • Beebalm (Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa `Fireworks’)
  • False indigo (Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’)
  • Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’)

For more ideas, see “All About Our Native Plants” at Proven Winners.

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