which native plants, and how to make room for them, with ken druse

which native plants, and how to make room for them, with ken druse

Ken Druse needs no introduction, but I’ll offer one anyhow. He’s a prolific author a with hit books like “Making More Plants” and “The New Shade Garden,” and “Natural Companions” (affiliate links). In 2019, he published his 20th, “The Scentual Garden,” about fragrance. Plus, he makes me laugh, which is very important.

Read along as you listen to the February 24, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

‘Edith Bogue,’ ‘Edith Bogue.’

Ken: Right, grandiflora

Margaret: Sorry.

Ken: … Magnolia grandiflora.

Margaret: Yeah, so ‘Edith Bogue,’ she says—Bonnie is the reader, and she says, “I want to know if you should prune and ‘Edith Bogue’ magnolia. Mine is about eight to nine years old, and it’s getting rather bushy and is more of a bush than a tree.” She wants to know what she can do about that.

Ken: Well, it’s a kind of a bushy plant naturally-

Margaret: It is.

Ken: … I grow a few by the road as a screen, and they’re fantastic, and they’re totally evergreen in my Zone 6A garden, but they’re shrubby, they grow more like Christmas trees than lollipops. And I just make mine a little bit tidier every year, just prune them a bit, but one could prune it into a lollipop, or enjoy it as a fat plant that you can’t see the road through.

Margaret: I think though, at eight to nine years, I mean it wants to be pyramidal, is that word, pyramidal? I never know how to pronounce that. The accent should be on which syl-LAB-le, right, is that the question? [Laughter.] So, you know, it’s bushier at the bottom and then narrower at the top, and that’s its natural habit-

Ken: It doesn’t lose its bottom branches, which is great.

Margaret: Right. So, if it were a young plant in the field at the wholesale nursery when it was a baby, and it was getting trained, that would to me be the time maybe more to shape it a little, do you know what I mean? Not eight or nine years after she’s had it, which means it’s probably 15 years, or whatever, you know, 12, 13 years after it got its early training, whatever that was.

Ken: Well once they get going, they’re pretty fast. I think eight or nine, that’s probably a pretty big plant.

Margaret: That’s what I mean. So, yes, I would never cut part way into a branch of one of these would you, I mean I would take out a branch-

Ken: No, I think you could shape it actually-

Margaret: Oh, you could?

Ken: Yeah.

Margaret: Huh. Yeah, I guess I think of them as … again, they have such a distinctive shape, you know, form.

Ken: Well, ‘Edith Bogue’ is kind of chubby, and also depending on the light, because in the shade, they’re gangly kind of, but they’ll do O.K. But as you said in the field, when it’s trimmed, it probably is a Christmas tree shape pretty much, or something like that. But in a garden and with little shade, and depending on the moisture and everything, mine gets kind of out of shape, and I do just prune back, I’ll prune back halfway on a branch if it’s sticking out in the wrong direction, and it looks like it’s misshapen.

Margaret: Oh, so you’ll go back part of the way into one of them.

Ken: Mm-hmm.

Margaret: O.K. All right, good. So the reason I bring that question in, even though we’re going to kind of digress slightly is that, that magnolia, as I’ve been corrected, grandiflora, which is what I meant to say, not virginiana, another native magnolia species, right? [Laughter.] Those are “native”, but they’re not native where you garden, or where I garden. And so we want to add more natives to our landscapes and so forth, and when you and I began gardening, most of the sort of “it” plants, and really I think it’s still true in many cases, were Asian plants, plants of Asian origin, yes?

Ken: Mostly, well they were aliens.

Margaret: Yeah-

Ken: Or exotics, because some came from Europe, too, but let’s say, that was sort of the trendy thing was for Asian plants, because for example, Japan and a lot of China has a very similar climate to ours and a lot of those plants-

Margaret: To the Eastern U.S., yes.

Ken: Plants from Japan have been around since like the 1850s or ’60s, but China was all new.

he plant diversity, of Columbia County, and they’ve been surveying and keeping records and so forth. And so now where did you find yours, how did you do that? You just did a search for your County or-

Ken: On [a search for] “native plants of New Jersey,” and then I went to the New Jersey natives and the wild plants—it’s not wild, sorry, it’s the native plant site and then it had counties, and I clicked on my county, and up came this Excel sheet with hundreds of plants, and it was great.

So I just looked at the ones on the list that I already am growing, and then I checked some of them against the USDA map, just to check, another good site to check out, and I was surprised. And I’m not talking about nativars, is that what they’re called?

Margaret: Yes, cultivars of native plants. That was one of the big heartbreaks for me as I’ve learned more over the years, because when you and I, I remember distinctly, when I worked with you on “The Natural Habitat Garden” in the early ’90s, and we went to visit places, and I remember going to Mt. Cuba Center, which I think then was called Mt. Cuba Center for the Study of the Piedmont Plants, it’s in-

Ken: Yeah, Piedmont Flora-

Margaret: … Piedmont Flora, thank you, and it’s in Delaware, yes-

Ken: Mm-hmm.

Margaret: ... and we went to see the great plant person, Dick Lighty, who was directing it then. And he was showing us cultivars, or better forms of native plants that they were working on and then introducing, like a white trillium that reproduced more easily so that you could have more of them and they weren’t a million dollars—because in those days, trilliums were barely in the market, right? Unless they’d been stolen from the wild, right?

Ken: Yep, of course.

cornus-silver-and-goldDoug Tallamy, on How Effective Are Nativars?

Margaret: So, these have been the harder more recent lessons for me. I guess the best thing that I did, and I don’t really even now why I did it, I don’t remember where I first met this plant, and I don’t know if you grow it, but winterberry hollies, do you grow winterberry hollies [Ilex verticillata]?

Ken: I do, but they look terrible, I think it’s because I’m not acidic enough.

from Select Seeds.

Margaret: Oh you did?

Ken: Mm-hmm.

Margaret: Oh, good, well you did a good thing.

Ken: Let’s make a list of some things to do, if we can.

Margaret: [Laughter.]

Ken: So never bring in a potentially invasive plant… and that can even be a native plant, there’s an Anemone canadense here that is one of the worst weeds I’ve ever had, but it’s a local plant and it’s actually threatened in Massachusetts. Plant oaks, local oaks, and you can tell why in a second, and if you’ve got some good plants on your property, leave them, encourage them, so how’s that for a short list?

Margaret: That’s a short list. But in terms of invasiveness, you said don’t bring in any invasive plants, and we’re going to try to eliminate some of the ones, I mean I’m on a lifetime war against Oriental bittersweet, for instance. [Below, 5 minute’s worth of weeded-out bittersweet seedlings from beneath shrubs in Margaret’s garden.]

Ken: But you didn’t plant that?

a “doublefile viburnum invasive” search, if you search for those three words on Google, you’ll see what states have declared it an invasive, so it’s actually quite easy to check yourself before you make an investment, especially in a plant that sets a lot of seed or fruit.

Ken: Before you buy those barberries.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Oh, yeah. I think the other thing to do, that we can add to the to-do list, is look for spaces, like where there’s slightly more sort of stern eye, look around your place for spaces, like you talked about creating the Guilt Garden bed.

And I’ve said this before on the program, but I’ll say it again, because it’s been a real lesson for me: I was mowing up to the fence line all the way around my place, it’s 2.3 acres and I have a lot of giant beds, so it’s not all lawn by any means, but even though I have kind of a meadow in one area up the hill, I was mowing up to the fence line behind that meadow and to the sides of that meadow and so forth. And I found that if I came in even say 6 or 8 feet, stopped mowing around that 2.3-acre perimeter, came in 6 or 8 more feet, there was an opportunity for more plants than I can afford. [Laughter.]

Do you know what I mean? I could have a whole giant number of native viburnums and so forth lining that. You can create these sort of edge beds, these sort of borrowed edge areas—it might be up against a fence, or the neighbor’s property, or against a hedge, where you can steal back some feet that right now you’re just mowing it, and you could create a place for the winterberry hollies or the native shrubs, and a simple native groundcover.

Ken: And that can end up being less work for you-

Margaret: Totally, totally.

Ken: And as I get older, one thing I’m doing here is planting deciduous shrubs, native deciduous shrubs along those very edges—and some of them, you don’t ever touch. Plant them and forget them.

mapleleaf viburnum (which I think is Viburnum acerifolium), and so I’ve been evaluating what the land wants to give me, do you know what I mean? What wants-

Ken: Yeah.

Margaret: … yeah, and I mean in some cases, it’s probably what a squirrel buried frankly, but whatever [laughter], or a seed that someone buried. And so now, Year 3, I’m going to thin a little bit of these little seedlings, and imagine then what’s going to grow at their feet, sort of looking at what’s coming up, there’s some ferns happening, so it’s interesting, again, I’m in a more rural area, so this wouldn’t necessarily work in a suburban Kentucky bluegrass expanse, you might not get so much diversity. But that’s what I’m doing, I’m observing what I have, and then thinking of adding other things that would complement or augment these islands that are being created. So, that’s what I’m doing. I don’t know, it’s my little experiment, Ken.

Ken: It sounds great, it sounds great-

Go Botany (New England regional), from the New England Wild Flower Society

  • Native Plant Finder from National Wildlife Federation, University of Delaware and U.S. Forest Service (searchable by Zip Code; launched 2018).
  • Atlas of the Flora of New England by Ray Angelo and David Boufford of Harvard. Doesn’t specify native, but does mention if the species’ origin from other countries/continents is known.
  • Calflora (California), of native and non-native plants, including the ability to search by plant name or by location–so for instance to explore the plants of a park, or other area you might be visiting.
  • Native Plant Information Network (National, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Garden): Get an alphabetized list of all the plants (8,593 species) on which they have data, then narrow your search to a particular state.
  • New York Flora Atlas: search for a list of plants recorded for a particular NY county. (The New Jersey one, as another example, is here.) You can then restrict that list to native plants or non-native plants. For other states try starting at…
  • a list of state wildflower societies, from American Horticultural Society. The state societies will probably provide a link to the state flora database on their websites.
  • Vascan, a searchable online atlas of the vascular plants of Canada, will show a map along with nativity status, and allow you to create a province-based checklist.
  • The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) allows you to map species to county, for each state, and  search on a particular species and understand what its distribution is, native and non-native. Coming: tools that allow you to create a checklist for your own county.
  • The USDA Plant database, including maps and the ability to search by state, for example.
  • Missouri Botanical Garden: The Missouri Botanical Garden and more than 30 U.S. and Canadian institutions are collaborating on a printed and computerized inventory of the 21,000 species of plants of North America north of Mexico. Dr. George Yatskievych oversees the program and is director of the Flora of Missouri project. World project aiming for completion by 2020. Work to date is at the Flora of North America website, and will be published in print as well.
  • You can also use MIssouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder, which specifies native range in the results of each plant description (but doesn’t include maps).
  • NatureServe Explorer: Searchable database on 70,000 plant, animal, and fungi species, updated in 2016.
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    iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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