Going Native in Toledo — Series Intro

Backyard preview through redbud blooms - blog teaser
Peeking into the backyard through the redbud blooms

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.

Garden teaser for blog July 2018

City Girl Goes Wild

You may recall that I recently wrote about my desire to plant native wildflowers in the  yard at my new home. I also mentioned that I had joined my local chapter of Wild Ones, a national organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants.

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.

My first native plants for my garden (1024x768)
Starter plants from Wild Ones members

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.

Ironweed seed heads - Wild Ones event - for blog
Ironweed seeds being processed

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!

Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed blog
Silver-spotted skipper feeding on ironweed
Ironweed seeds cleaned at Wild Ones event - for blog
My little work space at the seed cleaning event

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).

Riddell's goldenrod v2 - Wild Ones event - for blog
Riddell’s goldenrod seed pile in my processing tray

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:

Native Seed Nursery - Little Bluestem drying - for blog
Little Bluestem seeds drying on a giant tarp
Native Seed Nursery - seeds drying on floor - for blog
More seeds drying in the loft of the big barn

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.

Native Seed Nursery - carousel planter - for blog

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:

Blue Creek Seed Nursery whiteboard with stats (1280x794)

Native Seed Nursery - view from loft down into main floor - for blog

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.)

Going Native in Toledo

Swamp milkweed for blog
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) – valuable host plant for Monarch butterflies

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.

Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed for blog
Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed

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.

Bringing Nature Home - cover imageI’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.

Boneset for blog
Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) – it has a  delicate, sweet fragrance

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.

beetles - Pennsylvania Leatherwing on Boneset - eupatorium perfoliatum (2).jpg
Common Boneset hosting a Viceroy butterfly and quite a few Pennsylvania Leatherwing beetles.

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.

Blue lupines v3 (1) (1280x853)
Wild Lupines (Lupinus perennis) – I have one surviving in my yard now, and will add more.

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.

Monarch butterfly on goldenrod - for blog
Monarch on Goldenrod

Resources: I highly recommend Doug Tallamy’s book, shown above (click the book cover to go to Amazon). 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.