The Mysterious World of Ecotypes

This Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is not a local ecotype but the bees don’t seem to mind.

I’m browsing through my favorite native plant catalog getting ready to order some not so native plant seeds from a place in Minnesota. The photographs and print quality in this catalog is so good sometimes I look at it just to loose myself for awhile. Then I somehow run into a conundrum as I cross reference the plants in this catalog with other native plant resources. This actually happens often in the world of native plants as it’s not so easy to know what’s native and what’s not. The conundrum has to do not just with how to define what’s native but even more importantly how to decide if the plant material will perform its ecological duties while not causing ecological harm.

Organizations such as the USDA, Wild Ones, as well as my own local native plant society, suggest it’s best to buy plants native to the region where they will be planted. They seem to suggest that a plant in its natural habitat (the place where species with basically the same genetics have grown since before European settlement) will offer the best ecological services while being the best adapted to to its environment.

The key word here is region. Apparently scientists have figured out that these natural habitats or ecological regions have actual boundaries and can be separated from other regions according to similar characteristics such as geology, soil, terrain and climate. They call these regions, ecoregions. A plant growing in the ecoregion it originated in before European settlement is known as a local ecotype. They suggest planting local ecotypes prevents the gene pool of true local ecotypes from becoming diluted therefore maintaining plant biodiversity. Something like that anyway.

It’s complicated but it does make sense except when I examine the EPA’s ecoregion map, my garden seems to sit smack on the line between the Southeastern Plains that goes down to Louisiana and Northern Piedmont that goes up into New Jersey. That’s a pretty big area. I don’t know how Louisiana can be called local to Maryland. And since I’m on the line between two regions, which do I choose?

The other dilemma I face is practicality. Once I figure out from what region I’m suppose to get these plants for my garden, where in that region am I to get them? My local native plant society lists local nurseries that may have them. They suggest I ask them if the plants I’m buying originated in my region. Most of the plants are around $10.00 each and for some reason these places don’t sell seed. It would cost a lot of bucks to fill my garden with plants from these places. I like to buy trees and shrubs from these nurseries because they’re the bones of my garden but when it comes to growing forbs and grasses where lots of plants are needed to cover the ground, I’ve found seeds are the way to go.

With this in mind, I have several options. First, I could buy one plant, wait until it makes seed and then spread that seed but somehow that’s just not very enticing. Unless the plant is really aggressive (like common milkweed) it would take years for it to make seed if that one plant is lucky enough to survive.

Second, I could try and find places to collect seeds in the wild and I admit the very idea of foraging through a meadow filled with wildflowers sounds inviting but the natural areas nearby are generally forests where the plants are mostly trees with understory plants. My garden is not a forest. It’s more like a forest edge where the soil has been farmed for centuries and then divided into housing plots at the beginning of this century. It’s an environment nothing like it was before European settlement. And I must add I’ve hiked through many natural areas in my two regions and I’ve never seen meadow plants such as sneezeweed or great blue lobelia anywhere.

But the real question I think is, are the not so native plants in my garden causing ecological harm? Are they weakening gene pools or becoming invasive themselves? They certainly aren’t having any problem thriving. Pollinators of all shapes and sizes love them. Migratory and common city birds, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, voles and deer hang around them. That’s all I know.

While writing this, I seemed to recall one of the native plant seed companies I don’t usually buy from. The company, Ernst Seeds, located in northwestern Pennsylvania focuses on larger projects such as highways, not small gardens like mine. They don’t put out a beautiful catalog intended for small gardeners and tend to sell in bulk but it just so happens that when browsing through their online catalog, the word, ecotype pops up for each plant item they sell. It seems the seeds they sell originate from all over the East Coast. The ecotype is listed according state, not region, but it’s a promising start. I’ve purchased seeds from them before and I was able to buy them by the ounce at a reasonable price. It just wasn’t as easy as throwing a pack of seeds into a virtual shopping cart. At any rate, I think I’ll give them another try and hopefully I’ll be on my way to being a more ecologically correct gardener.

 

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Would of Could of Should of

Would of could of should of. When you start saying that too many times you know you’re doing something wrong. Over and over. That’s kind of how I feel now that I’m about to rearrange some raised beds for like the how manyeth time? I think if there was one thing I wish I would have done seven long years ago when I started this garden was absolutely nothing. That’s right, instead of digging up half the property to make a vegetable garden, ordering the roots of native shrubs from Minnesota, letting my mom plant two large asparagus beds in a floodplain, buying $60.00 worth of native plants from a native plant sale, I would have instead just done nothing but stand back and watch.

Yes, like a nosy neighbor I would have watched the land surrounding my garden get mowed within an inch of its life. Watched as water during heavy rains flooded a large part of my garden under several inches of water. Noticed that my garden was down the hill from a parking lot that caught the runoff from countless roofs, shooting it across the scalped lawn before flooding my garden.

Noticed that beyond the thick wall of white mulberry mixed with grapevine, porcelain berry, forsythia, bindweed, ivy, sweet autumn clematis, Virginia creeper, a basketball hoop and chain link fence there were some awkward, unfinished structures made with brick. Structures that looked like they were supposed to support something but didn’t. There was also a beat up sports car with flat tires, a pile of old tile along with other odds and ends and a rooster. A live rooster. Make that two who did not try to remain anonymous. Who in fact drove my husband to the brink of calling the county. Always on the brink.

Maybe, I would not have taken down that wall of mulberry mixed with grapevine, porcelain berry, forsythia, bindweed, ivy, virgin’s bower, Virginia creeper, a basketball hoop and chain link fence in order to build a wood fence so that a parallel wall of made out of cinder block could be built no more than 6” from it. A wall that is not level or straight with large sloppy globs of dried mortar.

And I would not have chosen to divert that flood of water water by digging a trench that sent it into another property and flooded their basement.

But I also would have read. I would have read about permaculture and permaculturists who say it’s a good thing to mix perennials with annuals and encourage this thing called the keyhole garden design that means the garden beds look more like a keyhole than a rectangle. But I also would have read that different plants require different soil so I wouldn’t have mixed things up too much and I probably would have gone with the rectangular garden beds in some cases. I would have read about how to take care of soil and learned that turning it over with a shovel is not taking care of it especially when turning it after it’s been flooded. And that soil should not be left bare over winter. In fact, soil should never be left bare. And I would have learned that crop rotation means rotating crops according to the family they’re in not according to the name of the crop.

And I would have watched and read. I would have noticed that there were a lot of rabbits in the neighborhood and that rabbits love gardens, especially vegetable gardens and I would have read that the only real way to keep them out is with either a dog or cat or some pretty heavy duty rabbit fencing without any holes or gaps that would allow them to squeeze through.

And I would have thought, given all these givens, about how I wanted my garden to be before digging up half the property. But that is not how gardening works. And now, once again, I’m digging up this precious ground and it probably won’t be the last time.

Let the Workhorse Plants Work

Grow little plant, grow.

Ok, let’s face it, growing some perennial plants (like native ones) from seed takes time. Lots of it and lots of patience too. Meanwhile the garden looks, well, let’s just say it’s not going to make Fine Gardening anytime soon. While I can use my imagination to visualize what’s to come, most people just see an empty spot of dirt. What if there was a way to speed that process up a bit. Get a bit more immediate satisfaction. I think all my trials and tribulations have finally gotten me to a realization. What if instead of only planting slow growing plants, I let certain plants, sometimes known as workhorse plants, help me out along the way. Plants like annuals, volunteers and hardy herbs that grow quickly, often plant themselves, fill in empty spaces and protect the soil while the slower growing perennials take their good old time.

I’ve so often snubbed annuals thinking they were for beginner gardeners who just wanted something to grow but hey, isn’t that what I want? Let’s face it, patience comes a lot easier with something quick and pretty to distract me from my waiting. I also was worried they might be invasive or become aggressive but as ecologist, Chris Helzer says in a recent post about non-native plants,

A plant’s status as native or not became less important than how it affected the diversity and function of the plant community it was part of.

The natural process of succession starts with more aggressive shorter living plants that gradually give way to slower growing longer living plants. Allowing some shorter living annuals, herbs and fast growing native plants to cover certain areas will pave the way for those slow growing, longer living plants. Many of these quick growing plants also provide valuable ecological services while the tiny slow growers aren’t. Lemon balm, basil, sage, parsley, dill, wild marjoram, violets, white snakeroot, mint and even yes, ground ivy are a few examples.

Lemon balm, a perennial, creates a lovely, dense mound and turns red in fall. It also pops up pretty much everywhere but is easy to pull when young.
While not my favorite, ground ivy does an exceptional job of covering this pathway.
Wild marjoram, also a perennial, covers this bank between establishing purple coneflower and butterfly weed.
This native pokeweed grows like wild fire reaching heights of 7 feet or more so I let it block out the cinder block wall while the holly takes it’s time in the foreground.
Native violets voluntarily cover the bank of this swale while slower natives get established.

A great example of implementing this concept is in my front yard garden where I want to plant an edge of native flowers and grasses that hide my sometimes pretty unattractive vegetable garden from people passing by. I’m also planning on an island in the center to provide a permanent point of interest. Instead of just planting the natives, I’ll plant annuals. I’m thinking about a heavy layer of basil, marigolds, zinnias and/or coreopsis. Then, I’ll add slower growing plants in a strip behind them where their tininess will be hidden by the front layer of annuals. This will not only keep weeds down but it will quickly add that beautiful border.

Next year that crazy layer of homemade mulch and cardboard will be a thick layer of annuals with a layer of slower growing plants behind.

The fact that some plants are a little (and I mean a little) more aggressive isn’t so much a concern because they are so much easier and less disruptive to remove (especially in the early stages) than other more aggressive or invasive plants. And because these plants do an excellent job of covering ground they will suppress as well as hide the less respectable weeds. In short, hopefully my garden will be more beautiful, bountiful and ecological in a shorter amount of time and with a lot less effort.

I really have nothing against weeds but for some reason these beauties just scream weed.

Natural Communities

All forest is not the same. These trees are part of a unique natural community.

Looking at plants as communities from a design point of view is cool but it’s also cool to look at plants as they fit into natural communities. I’ve often wondered what kind of natural community my garden belonged to before it was timbered, farmed and then developed. I know it was forest but is there more to a forest than one would think? The answer is yes, there is more and I’ve recently discovered a website that explains just such a place known as Rock Creek Park, not more than a mile away from my garden. The website, a collaboration between NatureServe and the Research Learning Alliance of the National Park Service’s National Capital Region, examines 8 different natural communities within Rock Creek Park,  the oldest and largest urban national park in the U.S.

As I read about some of these communities it occurred to me my own garden may have been one of them at one time. It seems natural communities develop over time due to natural and unnatural forces. These forces such as rain, wind, sun, human development among others form small pockets of distinct areas with distinct landforms, soil, plants and animals. And underneath it all is the bedrock, often the main compositional ingredient.

The other day I went walking in Rock Creek Park to see if I could find and see the difference between some of these communities and I have to say while it was a bit of a challenge, I did notice a few.

Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest can be found on rolling landscapes where the soil is loamy (made mostly of clay, sand and silt with a little organic matter)

The most wide ranging one is the Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest. It can usually be found on rolling landscapes of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. It also has a wide range of vegetation such as American beech, red, white, black and scarlet oak, Christmas fern, sweetgum, red maple, blackgum, flowering dogwood, American holly, pawpaw and mapleleaf viburnum. It has a well-drained and mesic soil. I have a pretty good idea my garden was once part of this community.

A box-elder, part of the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest community.
The rich soil of the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest supports many herbaceous plants such as this pretty ground cover.

A very different community is the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest. It usually lies along floodplains of small streams such as Rock Creek. The rich soil here, made up of sediment that gets carried down the creek from upstream, supports plants like the tuliptree, red maple, box-elder, American sycamore and American hornbeam. Because the soil is often disturbed by flooding and human use, it also can be a haven for non-native plants as well as many other native plants. I heard lots of birds with unique, buzzy noises here. I’m guessing they were smaller warblers and such.

A white oak and mountain laurel in a Oak – Beech / Heath Forest community.

Another community I walked through was the Oak Beech Heath Forest. It usually can be found on steep slopes above streams and rivers where acidic and often rocky soil is perfect for plants such as mountain laurel, American beech, chestnut and white oak as well as blueberry and black huckleberry.

Although it takes a bit of exploring to get the idea, the website has a wealth of information about geology and ecology that I can apply to many things about my garden. In fact, I’ve found I’ve started looking at plants in a new way. Not as plants but as parts of communities, something that may be a big step towards ecological improvement. Not just for me but for all of us.

Garden Design, Plant Communities and Cinderblock

This little elderberry (Sambucus nigra canadensis) is meant for great things.

I read this article that got me thinking about the design of my garden. After getting over my obsession with cramming as many vegetables in as little space as possible and realizing if I planted trees it would take a very long time for them ever to make a forest, I planted some trees, also known to many designers as the bones of the garden. They are the focal points, the ones that appear as a skeleton (unless they’re evergreens) in winter. But most are only a few feet tall and not too skeletony yet which leaves the rest of the herbaceous (or often called forbs) to tell the tale. Forbs consist of flowers, grasses, sedges and rushes.

But what is the tale I’m trying to tell? Besides growing food for myself, creating habitat for other life forms and eliminating my lawn as much as possible, what am I trying to achieve from an aesthetic viewpoint because aesthetics is something I’ve been putting on the back burner for quite some time. I guess I thought the native plants would somehow take care of that naturally. I kept telling myself it just takes time. Things will fill in next year and maybe they will or maybe they won’t and meanwhile my garden looks more like an overgrown vacant lot than the High Line.

In the article, Margaret Roach, who writes the popular garden blog, A Way to Garden, interviewed landscape designer, Thomas Rainer and confirmed my suspicions. In the wild, native plants form communities that look pretty good. Places like Dolly Sods in West Virginia and Yellowstone National Park and my own favorite, Merchants Millpond in North Carolina, but other places like my garden, not so good. Why is that I wondered? What am I doing wrong?

Well, Rainer points out plants are not meant to be planted as individuals but as members of an ecosystem where they work with other plants to form communities. Rainer says,

In the wild, every square inch of soil is covered with a mosaic of interlocking plants, but in our gardens, we arrange plants as individual objects in a sea of mulch. We place them in solitary confinement.

This was a profound concept. I’d known it but somehow never really got it until I read the part about switchgrass, a plant that’s abundant in my garden but somehow never looks right. I think messy would be the term.

Dotted line of switchgrass lines the berm of  swale in background.

Rainer says switchgrass doesn’t grow all together in the wild. It grows in tufts scattered amongst other more colonizing plants such as Pennsylvania Sedge (if I have it right). The point being because it doesn’t naturally grow like a groundcover it looks ridiculous if planted that way. And yes, as I looked out at the dotted line formed by tufts of switchgrass along the berm of my swale, it did indeed look ridiculous. And it looked even more ridiculous when during a heavy rain, it flopped like it was having a bad hair day. Yes, something had to be done with the switchgrass.

Rainer seemed to suggest that in natural environments, plants grow according to different levels. Lower level plants tend to pop up here and there amongst higher level plants made up of more colonizing ground covers. This is how I understood it anyway (I’ll read the article again just to make sure).

So, what were my lower level plants and what were my higher level ground covers? Well, that’s easy. Lower level plants are switchgrass, wild bergamot, hairy mountain mint, sneezeweed, white snakeroot, milkweed, coneflower, rudbeckia and great blue lobelia. But what were the higher level plants, the colonizing ground covers? I guess that would have to be my old friends, the violets and Virginia creeper, the natural ground cover in my garden. But couldn’t shrubs and trees also be higher level colonizing ground covers? Swamp rose and elderberry come to mind.

At any rate, it all got me to thinking not just about plant communities but about my garden and me. Sure, my garden provides me with food and habitat for other life but does it provide me with joy? Yes and no was the answer. My garden, it seemed needed some unnatural natural beauty. The dotted line of switchgrass needed to go. Borders needed to be defined. Bare soil needed to be covered. Paths needed definition. Plants needed combinations that work as communities and that mysterious cinderblock wall that failed to conceal the car needed to be concealed from me.

Yes, the cinderblock wall that I keep telling myself doesn’t bother me does indeed bother the heck out of me. First of all, it’s ugly. Second of all it doesn’t even provide privacy. The swamp rose should eventually hide the car but the wall, that wall. Then I had an idea. An idea that nearly blew me away. Elderberry. It grows from a foot to 12’ in 3 years and it blocks everything out. I happen to have a young seedling growing in the driveway. Because it can be short lived, I’d plant an American holly behind it that would grow slowly over time.

Imagine this in front of wall.

I would lose more space for vegetables but so what? This was my master plan. My husband is not so enthused but I know better. This was the community my garden was telling me to make all along.

 

Growing Native Plants from Seed

native-seeds

First of all, the why.

  • If done right, growing native plants from seed is way cheaper than buying native plants from a nursery. A pack of seeds usually costs around $2.50 plus shipping. From that pack, I should get at least 5 plants and most likely more whereas one plant from a nursery will run at least $5.00. The price per seed will drop even more when purchased in bulk and sometimes, I’ll collect my own seeds for free.
  • It’s less risky. Losing a $2.50 pack of seeds is a lot easier to bare than losing a $5.00 plant especially if it’s more than one.
  • Gardening becomes more about management than maintenance. The popular gardening blog, Garden Rant recently had a post about the use of the term management as opposed to maintenance and why it’s the wave of the future in gardening. What it means is instead of the gardener trying to adhere to a garden design, the garden begins to design itself. It’s kind of hard to explain but growing native plants from seed forces me to acknowledge and allow what happens to happen. In this case, easier done than said.
  • It’s a good way to experiment. I like to buy about 10 different types of seed packets at a time and see what works. If the plant turns out to be too tall or not exactly in the right place, I can usually move it. I don’t feel that sense of fear that I do with plants I’ve bought.
  • It allows me to take notice of plants I didn’t plant. Because I’m constantly looking for the seedlings from the seeds I plant, I also notice the ones I didn’t. I identify them and many times decide I like them. The common violet is a good example. It works great as a ground cover as well a being ecologically functional.

Now, the how.

First, I figure out what seeds I can get that are native to my area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a good publication about this. I’ve become used to buying my seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota. With a plant finder section and maps showing the native range in the U.S. of each plant they sell, their website makes it ridiculously easy to order seeds of plants native to my area. In addition, they produce a gorgeous seed catalog featuring the most popular and easy to grow plants and helpful information for beginner growers. Of course because they are in Minnesota their seeds aren’t exactly pure natives to my area but I guess that’s the drawback. I’ve decided based on some research they are pure enough.

Just because I order from one place doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally excellent places to order seeds. Ernst Seeds in Pennsylvania, Prairie Nursery  in Wisconsin and Roundstone Native Seed  in Kentucky are a few.

In addition to figuring out what plants are native to my area, I will also need to match plants that will grow in the conditions of my garden. For the most part my garden has partial shade with a moist, clay loam soil. Some areas are sloped and drier while others in depressions are wetter. These kind of things and anything else that may be significant are important to take note of when selecting the right seeds to grow.

When I started my seed search, I realized seeds require varying conditions in order to germinate. Some will not germinate until their tough outer skin is worn down through the digestive system of a bird but this process can be replicated by rubbing the seeds with sandpaper. Other seeds are very tiny and need light to germinate.

Many kinds of native plant seeds need a period of stratification which means they need a certain period of time in cold ground before germinating. Prairie Moon Nursery has good information about the stratification times their seeds need as well as instructions for doing it. They often recommend sowing seed in fall so they can naturally stratify over winter. Seeds can also be stratified indoors by mixing them with damp sand and storing the mixture in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for the required time. Stratified seeds I’ve had luck with are: early sunflower, nodding onion, black eyed Susan and great blue lobelia.

Luckily, there are quite a few seeds that don’t need stratification. A list of those in my area can be found here. So far, I’ve had great luck with switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, wild bergamot, mountain mint and sneezeweed.

Once plants reach a certain maturity there’s a good chance they’ll spread or bunch or branch out and begin to fill up space on their own. Some plants, such as common milkweed can be aggressive so it’s a good idea to be wary of that when ordering seeds. Usually nurseries will say something about that in the plant description part.

Everyone says it’s a good idea to start small and they’re so right. Believe me. I learned the hard way. Once upon a time, I had this vision of a beautiful wildflower garden in the spring. I just knew it was going to happen. One day in the fall, I walked around my garden sprinkling seeds everywhere. Well, I was sorely disappointed in the spring when there were no wildflowers because I didn’t properly prepare the site and start small enough to get a handle on what was even happening. A space roughly 3’ x 3’ is a good size to start with a seed packet and in my opinion the more seeds the better chance of success.

To plant seeds directly in the ground, the site needs to be fairly weed free. To prepare areas with grass, I cover the area with cardboard held down with a few rocks and then put some kind of mulch on top of it and leave it there for about 6 months. That kills most of the weeds too. When that’s done, I put the old cardboard in the compost (it’s a great brown source if you don’t have a lot of dead leaves). For most seeds*, I rough up just the top inch of earth with a garden rake or fork, sprinkle the seeds over the area and rake them in gently. I press down on the area with my hand or walk over it lightly. Then, I wait. Sometimes it will take a month to see anything and when I do it sometimes takes another month to be able to identify the seedlings as the ones I planted. Usually, I just look for anything that looks different from the ordinary weeds. Once I know the difference, I pull the weeds from time to time as well as keeping the area from drying out. It takes patience and sometimes I’ll wait almost a whole season (or what seems like eternity) to see the tiny seedlings. But then, there they are. One and then another. It’s hard to explain my rapture at the sight and after all that, you can be sure I’m going to take care of these babies. But usually I don’t have to. They tend to take care of themselves. So far, I’ve been successful except for the time when I planted into a layer of very dry compost. They need good contact with real soil.

If I plant seeds in the fall, I cover the area with some kind of light mulch such as leaves or straw just to keep the ground somewhat covered until spring when I rake the mulch from the area so the seeds can grow.

If you’re not in a rush, growing native plants from seed isn’t really as hard as it sounds. It just takes some research, preparation and patience. The rest is up to nature.

*Some seeds that require light to germinate should be covered with little or no soil.