In the spring of 2017 I moved to Toledo, Ohio. I bought a house with a lovely yard where I would finally be able to experiment with native plant gardening. I’m beginning a series of posts to document what I’m doing — the plans, the failures, the successes — and to provide information about why native plants are important. This is a learn-as-I-go project, so it might be messy (and maybe even embarrassing) but I figure that will still be entertaining for you. 🙂
This series will be intermingled with my usual posts about dragonflies and birds, but you can always find the posts in this series by choosing “Native Plants” from the Category drop-down on the right side of the blog.
Here are a few earlier posts that serve as background to the upcoming series:
Ohio Has the Blues – May 22, 2017 – in which I tell you a bit about the Oak Openings region of Ohio and the rare plants and animals found here.
Going Native in Toledo – September 6, 2017 — in which I define “native plants” and dream about my garden plans.
City Girl Goes Wild – December 12, 2017 — in which I join Wild Ones, an organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants. And I actually begin collecting the first plants for my garden project!
I’ll need to do a couple more posts to catch you up on what I’ve done so far this summer, and then I hope to keep up in real time. I hope you’ll want to read the series — to commiserate with me about my mistakes and celebrate the successes. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser pic for now.
My native flower garden is barely started, but I’m already taking full advantage of my Wild Ones membership to learn as much as I can while I continue my garden plans through the winter.
I’ve been blown away by the generosity of my fellow Wild Ones members: Not only do they freely share their knowledge about native plants, but they’re more than happy to give me seeds and plants from their gardens. I came home from my first meeting with starter plants of common boneset, cardinal flower, New England aster, blue lobelia, and swamp milkweed. All of these have been transplanted into my new garden, along with some bulbs of Turk’s cap lily given to me by my friend Judy.
My chapter regularly participates in conservation stewardship events around the Toledo area, either to remove invasives or to plant natives. I haven’t yet been able to help with any of those, but a few days ago I was able to volunteer at one of our seed cleaning events. Members collect dried flower heads from their gardens, and then we extract the seeds from them and offer them to the public at the annual Toledo GROWS Seed Swap in February.
The species I worked with first was Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), which just happens to be one of my favorites. The yard at my new home is mostly full of non-native plants, but there’s a huge, beautiful native ironweed plant in my front yard. I enjoyed watching all sorts of insects feeding on it all summer long, and I’m eager to plant more of it along the fence in my back yard.
Here’s what it looks like in bloom. Just imagine these incredible purple flowers towering over your head. The plant in my yard was easily 7 feet tall this year!
Our group of about ten people spent three hours processing seeds on this particular day. After I worked my way through a large bag of ironweed, I moved on to Riddell’s goldenrod (Oligoneuron riddellii).
As you can imagine, this kind of work creates quite a bit of dust in the air. After a couple hours my nose began to tickle, and I joked that I would probably be transporting enough seeds home in my nose that I could just sneeze in my garden and plant ironweed. I didn’t think too much more about it just then, but later that evening I must have sneezed a hundred times!
I also brought a small quantity of ironweed seeds home with me using the more traditional method of a paper bag. I can’t wait to see if I can actually grow these beautiful plants from seed. I’m told it’s as easy as sprinkling the seed on top of the snow right now, in December. Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? But I’m also told there’s a lot of trial and error involved in this stuff, so I’ll need to be patient and persistent. That will be the hardest part for me, I’m sure.
A couple months ago I went on a tour of the Native Seed Nursery of the Toledo Metroparks. This facility grows native plants to use in restoration projects in the various metroparks in the globally-rare habitats of the Oak Openings region. The tour was arranged for our Wild Ones members, and was led by Penny Niday, who is the nursery coordinator and who also happens to be on the board of our Wild Ones chapter. During our 2-hour behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, we learned about the incredible work done by the small staff and their many volunteers.
I worked a couple volunteer shifts in their greenhouse last summer, but I had no idea of the broad scope of what they do there. We saw lots of seeds in various stages of processing:
And we saw some of the farm equipment they use. I was impressed with Penny’s descriptions of how they had modified some of the equipment to do exactly what they needed it to do. And I also thought it was very cool that much of this work is done by a team of mostly women. While we were there I saw women driving tractors and combines as easily as if they were Honda Civics. And I have to admit to a bit of envy and a desire to see what it’s like to climb up in the cab of one of those monsters and rev the engine. 🙂
This particular piece of equipment is called a carousel planter. Notice the four seats across the back, each with its own little rotating tray with holes for plants.
Believe it or not, this entire rig gets pulled behind a big tractor, and each person has to continually replace the plants in their little rotating tray, as the plants drop down into the field beneath them. They have a whole team of people who follow along behind them to resupply them with plants periodically. I forget the exact number, but I think she said the whole operation requires about a dozen people doing various tasks as this thing moves through the field. I found this video of a similar (but smaller) machine so you can see it in action. Very impressive stuff!
This whiteboard shows some of their stats on the day we visited:
That’s a view of the main part of the barn, looking down from the loft area. I’ve now got a new appreciation for all the work involved in this operation, from planning which species are needed for specific locations to making sure they have them processed in the right quantities and at the appropriate times.
And this city girl sure got a thrill from being around all that farm equipment that day! Who knows, maybe one day they’ll let me take a turn at the wheel of one of those monster machines. But until then, I guess I’ll content myself with my own small-scale native plant operation in the city.
If suburbia were landscaped with meadows, prairies, thickets, or forests, or combinations of these, then the water would sparkle, fish would be good to eat again, birds would sing and human spirits would soar.
~~ Lorrie Otto, the environmentalist who was the inspiration for the founding of Wild Ones
(In case you missed it above, here’s a nice article about the Native Seed Nursery, including photos of the awesome women who run it, and a video of some of their equipment in action.)
I’ve mentioned that this spring and summer have been a time of flower exploration for me. Whereas in past years I might travel to find certain bird species, this year I traveled around northern Ohio to see our various wildflowers as they bloomed. I was enthralled by the early spring woodland flowers like Dutchman’s Breeches and White Trillium. Then I was kept busy by the abundance of summer blooms in both woods and meadows — things like the milkweeds, ironweed, coneflowers, and countless others.
And now, as we somehow find ourselves already near the end of September (how did that happen?), I’m pleased to discover that there’s still a surprising variety of fall-blooming flowers. The asters and goldenrods are the most obvious and abundant, often blanketing entire meadows. But there are other late-bloomers out there that I’d never even heard of before this year.
I recently had the opportunity to spend a day exploring some of our Lucas County nature preserves with a botanist friend. Our primary goal was to find and photograph three species of gentians — Bottle Gentian, Fringed Gentian, and the state-endangered Soapwort Gentian.
I’d seen photographs of these beauties but had never seen any of them in person, so was eager to go on this quest. And oh what a rewarding day this turned out to be, as we found all three species — thus my Gentian Trifecta!
I’ll start with my favorite, the Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata). Thoreau also found them lovely, comparing the blue of these flowers to that on the back of a male bluebird. These stunning flowers only open when the sun is shining, and will remain tightly closed on a cloudy day. When we found this plant it was early enough in the morning that it wasn’t fully opened yet. But when we passed it again about an hour later, it was wide open so we could better photograph the beautiful interior structures and patterns.
Notice those blue lines on the interior of the flower? Those are basically a sign telling bees that “the pollen is this way!”
The second species found on this expedition was the Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). This species keeps its petals tightly closed at all times. So, I know you’re wondering how it can be pollinated if it doesn’t open up, right? Well, it’s usually only pollinated by the big bumblebee, who is strong enough to pry the top of the flower open and slip inside.
The final species we wanted to find this day was the endangered Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria). This one was a bit more difficult to find, but once we found the first one we looked around and noticed dozens of them hidden among the taller plants in the meadow, a secret treasure trove.
As with the Bottle Gentian, this one keeps its petals closed as well, forcing a pollinator to either pry it open at the top, or chew through from the outside. We did find one or two flowers with holes in the sides, evidence that someone had done exactly that. (Several people have posted videos on YouTube showing bees going inside the closed gentians — here’s one of them.)
We found many more fascinating life forms on this outing, including caterpillars, spiders, and other types of flowers. But since blue was the theme of this day, we were pleased to finish up in a meadow teeming with the stunning Blue-faced Meadowhawks, some of whom were quite easily photographed as they perched on Knotted Rush (Juncus nodosus).
I’m already feeling wistful about the end of this amazing summer, but am reminded that every season brings something different to explore and celebrate in the natural world. And I have a feeling that the predominant color in my next post might be gold or red, as the trees are already beginning their autumn show.
In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time around people who are knowledgeable about various aspects of the natural world: ornithologists, entomologists, and botanists — both professional and amateur. Like me, most of my friends are passionate about their interests in birds, insects, or plants. Our idea of a good time is heading out into a nature preserve with binoculars and a camera to investigate and document what’s currently blooming or breeding.
We contribute to citizen-science projects, sometimes obsessively. We go birding and enter our bird counts into eBird. We find dragonflies or wildflowers and enter them in iNaturalist. Sounds sort of geeky, doesn’t it? Yeah, it is.
And I love how much richer my life has become since I’ve begun paying closer attention to the natural world. Being a nature geek is a badge I wear proudly.
I’ve begun to think of it as earning “merit badges” in natural history. I’ve got my birder badge, and I’m working on badges for wildflowers, butterflies, and dragonflies. I think my writing on this blog probably qualifies me for some type of badge too, maybe for helping to share what I’ve learned with other people. (Hey, I like this idea of inventing new badges to award myself!)
I’m about to begin work on my next merit badge as an amateur naturalist: Native Plant Gardener. Ever since I read “Bringing Nature Home” (by Doug Tallamy) several years ago, I’ve yearned for a garden where I could begin experimenting with native plants. And now I finally have the perfect opportunity, so I’m going for it.
In North America, native plants are defined as plants that existed in a particular area prior to European settlement of this continent. These plants evolved to thrive in local growing conditions, and are therefore much easier to grow – they need less water, fewer pesticides, and less tending in general. So they save the gardener time and money, for starters. And, just as important, they are food sources for our native insects, so they are an integral part of the web of life.
I’m still studying this, but I’ve learned that the specific chemical composition of each plant makes it edible by specific species of insects. The ability of an insect to digest a particular plant is something that evolved over thousands of years, and if the insect’s food source disappears, the insect will soon follow because it often cannot eat the non-native plants that have taken the place of the native plants.
In this first phase of my project, I’ve started making an inventory of all the trees, shrubs, and flowers that are already growing in my garden. I’m researching them all to find out which ones are natives and which are non-natives, and starting to compile a list of the native plants I’d like to grow here.
My goals are to provide host plants for important pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths. (Fun fact: Did you know that moths pollinate flowers at night in the same way that butterflies and bees do in the daytime? It’s true.) I’ll try to choose plants that are hosts for the insect larvae as well as providing nectar for the adult insects.
In the next few weeks I’ll be removing some undesirable plants, and over the coming winter I’ll be making plans for my first native plant bed. I’m trying hard to restrain my enthusiasm at first, because I don’t want to get in over my head and not be able to handle it all. It’s tempting to go around the yard digging up everything non-native, but that would be the wrong way to go about this. And it would look awful too.
I’ve joined the local chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit association with the mission of promoting “environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.” I’m excited to be attending my first meeting soon and I hope my membership in Wild Ones will accelerate my learning process. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more there still is to learn.
In the meantime, I’m continuing to daydream about the beautiful Ohio prairie flowers that will soon be growing in my yard, and all the interesting insects who will come to live here with them.
Resources: I highly recommend Doug Tallamy’s book, shown above. But if you want a clickable source of more information about why native plants are important, check out this article on the Audubon website (“Why Native Plants Matter”). It includes a video clip of Doug Tallamy, as well as a searchable database that will give you a list of plants that are native to your particular zip code.
The region of northwest Ohio where I live is called the Oak Openings. It’s one of the world’s rarest habitats, a band of sandy soil about five miles wide and 80 miles long, stretching across Ohio and southeastern Michigan. When the last glacier receded from this area 15,000 years ago, it left in its wake a large lake that eventually became present-day Lake Erie. That ancient lake deposited large amounts of sand on top of the clay soil, and this unique combination is what has allowed the formation of a variety of ecosystems, ranging from open oak savannas to wet prairies to sand dunes. The Oak Openings region is home to dozens of rare species of plants and animals. And since I live here now, I want to learn all about it.
What better place to begin my exploration than Oak Openings Preserve, the largest of the Toledo Metroparks. We’re in the midst of “Blue Week” here, an annual celebration of the special flora and fauna of the Oak Openings area, particularly those that are blue. The iconic plant associated with Blue Week is the Wild Lupine, which is found in large swaths throughout the metropark right now.
I had seen lupines before, but never in such abundance. I love the gorgeous blue spikes rising above the bright green blanket of leaves. And the circular arrangement of the leaves is really pleasing to my geometry-loving brain.
There’s a tiny endangered butterfly that can only breed in places that have Wild Lupines, and so I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one of them as well. They’re a subspecies of Blue butterfly called the “Karner Blue.” I’d read that they were the size of a nickel, so I had a feeling it would be hard to find them. I was standing out in a sandy path listening to birds when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw fluttering movement. I glanced down to see a tiny blue butterfly flitting among the grasses at the edge of the path.
I wasn’t able to get very good pictures of this guy, and I first thought it was a Karner Blue. But I think it’s actually an Eastern Tailed Blue instead. Another very pretty butterfly, but a disappointment on this particular day.
I wish I’d been able to see a Karner Blue, and maybe I will one day. If you want to read more about why this species is endangered, the US Fish & Wildlife website has some good information. Before I realized this wasn’t a Karner Blue, I had a “connect the dots” moment out there in that windswept sandy prairie, seeing the endangered plant and (I thought at the time) the endangered butterfly that depends on it for survival.
And, as luck would have it, just as I was finishing this article for the blog, I got to do this:
Yes, I got to help the metroparks by transplanting some Wild Lupines from cell packs to 4″ pots. I had volunteered for a day of potting tree seedlings, but when I arrived for my shift they had already finished the trees. I was very disappointed, thinking I’d made the 30-minute drive for nothing. So I asked if there was anything else I could do, and that’s how I ended up spending almost three hours with the lupines.
I found this to be such a satisfying job now that I know how important those plants are to the ecosystem. Each time I popped a tiny plant out of the cell pack, I envisioned it standing tall and blooming on the sand dunes at Oak Openings, providing nourishment for the Karner Blue butterflies that can’t survive without it.
And as if that wasn’t enough for a gratifying experience, they gave me six tiny lupines for my yard! I had mentioned to the greenhouse supervisor that I was considering trying to grow them in my garden, and as I was preparing to wrap up my shift, she made the sweet gesture of offering me a six-pack of baby plants. I was overwhelmed, and cannot wait to find the perfect (sandy) spot in my garden for them.
Speaking of my garden, perhaps in an upcoming post I’ll show you some of the plants that have been blooming here lately. My new yard has been full of surprises!
P.S. I found an interesting bird-related trivia tidbit about the phrase “to have the blues.” It goes back at least as far as 1827, when John Audubon used the phrase in a letter to his wife Lucy.