Place, Purpose, Plants: Urban Gardening with Native Plants

At last night’s meeting of the Long Island Botanical Society, I spoke about my experiences gardening with native plants in an urban setting. These slides accompanied my talk.

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All my blog posts about My Garden
Other Native Plants blog posts, resources, and references
My insect photography on Flickr


Bennington, J Bret, 2003. New Observations on the Glacial Geomorphology of Long Island from a digital elevation model (DEM) (PDF). Long Island Geologists Conference, Stony Brook, New York, April 2003.

Garden Deeper

I had a visceral (in a good way) reaction to Adrian Higgins’ writeup of a visit, with Claudia West, to Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve.

I think I’ll adopt “ecological horticulturist” to describe my own approach to gardening. Whether you specialize in gardening with native plants, as I do, or prefer to grow plants from around the world, studying their native habitats is, in my experience, the best way to learn how to grow them in a garden.

That doesn’t mean you have to recreate the conditions exactly. In many cases, this is impossible, anyway. The native Aquilegia canadensis, eastern red columbine, thrives in the crumbling mortar of my front steps; this location recreates some aspects of the face of a limestone cliff where I saw, decades ago, a huge colony of them in full bloom.
Aquilegia canadensis, Eastern Red Columbine, growing out of my front steps, April 2012

This is why I’m trying to go on more botanical walks and hikes. Like many, if not most, gardeners, I’ve never seen most of the plants I grow in the wild. I visited Hempstead Plains for the first time in August 2013.
Hempstead Plains

That inspired me last year to remove most of the remaining lawn in the front yard and approach it as a meadow, instead.
The Front Garden, before de-lawning, June 2014Weeding is Meditation: Removing the old "lawn" for the new short-grass "meadow" in the front yardFinal grading for the new front yard short-grass meadowThe berm, planted. Took 45 minutes, >2/min, including some rework for overly loose and linear spacing.

Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem (grass), in my front garden, November 2014

Rain gardens and rock gardens are both examples of creating gardens to grow plants requiring specific conditions, and to meet human needs. But we don’t need to go to so much trouble. For all the “problem areas” in our gardens, there are plants that want nearly exactly those conditions. We need only think like a plant to see these as opportunities, and embrace the habitats waiting to emerge.

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What you can learn from a walk through the woods (with Claudia West), Adrian Higgins, Washington Post Home & Garden

Native Plant Profile: Adlumia fungosa, allegheny vine, climbing fumitory

A species new to me that I picked up at yesterday’s plant sale for the Manhattan Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society (MCNARGS). Since I don’t know anything about it, I researched it to figure out what it wants and find a place for it in my garden.

Adlumia fungosa, climbing fumitory, scrambling into Clethra in the backyard in July 2015

Adlumia fungosa is a biennial vine in the Fumariaceae, the fumewort family, or Papaveraceae, poppy family, depending on the accepted taxonomy. It can grow up to 12 feet in length by scrambling over other plants and rocks in the moist, wooded slopes it requires. Common names include allegheny vine, climbing fumitory, and mountain fringe.

Its primary native range is New England and northeastern United States. Following the mountains, its range extends as far south and west as Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s also found in scattered counties as far west as Minnesota and Iowa.

Biota of North America Program (BONAP) floristic synthesis county-level distribution map for Adlumia fungosa. In this map, yellow and light green highlights counties where specimens have been recorded. Dark green shows state-/province-level nativity.

Although not native to New York City, it is native to adjacent and nearby counties in NY, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The New York Flora Association (NYFA) Atlas lists its endangered/threatened status as as S4: Apparently secure in New York State. Other sources, including the New England Wildflower Society (NEWFS), list it as threatened or endangered throughout its range.

I’m going to try this plant on the north side of my garage. That area is consistently moist from runoff from the garage roof. There’s no slope there, but it’s densely planted with shrubs and perennials, so this plant should have lots to scramble over. If it’s really happy, there’s also the nearby arbor.

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Pine Barrens Soil Horizons

Yesterday, I transplanted a small piece of Carex pensylvanica, Pennsylvania sedge, from my sister’s property in Ocean County, New Jersey. This species is common on her property.

She lives in the pinelands of New Jersey. The canopy is pine and oak. The duff layer – the natural “mulch” of dead plant material deposited on top of the soil – is composed of mostly pine needles, with some oak leaves.

Here’s a view of the clump I extracted.

And here’s the “back” view, where the blade of the spade I was using sliced through.

I only just realized I had a nice slice of the upper soil horizons.

The slats of the tabletop are 2″ wide. The entire depth of the soil slice is only about 3″, 4″ including the duff layer.

The white is fungal mycelium that has colonized the duff layer, starting the process of decomposition.

After I moved this clump from the table, I noticed tiny beetles, at least two different species, had clambered off. They fell through the slats before I could photograph them or otherwise observe them more closely for identification.

This small slice represents at least five different macro-species – pine, oak, sedge, and beetles – and one micro: the fungus. If we could somehow inventory all the micro-invertebrates and micro-organisms, there might be hundreds, or thousands, of species in this photo.

It’s tempting to think of species as singular “things,” to be contained in our cabinets of curiosities, our checklists, our collections. Any species is not any one thing, but a population, containing genetic diversity that slowly shifts and drifts across space and time. Each species is part of a larger whole, an unbounded fractal of complex relationships.

Yes, I grow many native plant species in my garden. For one reason, I can learn to recognize them. I never want to forget how artificial my construction is. However I may hone my garden, whatever beauty I can construct here, and pleasure I may offer from it, it doesn’t compare to the transcendence I experience of wild things in their natural habitats. All this diversity at home reminds me of how much more there is, still, in the world, and how important it is to protect it.

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April 2015: Native Plants Planting Plan

2015-04-26 Update: Finally finished planting everything.

Took me most of the day to figure out where all of the 63 plants I received this week are going. Better late then never.

Bog Planters

Plant in the bog planters. I’ve only seen Iris versicolor, but never grown it. The other species are new to me.

  • Geum rivale, water avens
  • Iris prismatica, slender blue flag
  • Iris versicolor, blue flag
  • Mimulus alatus, winged monkey-flower
  • Mimulus ringens, square-stemmed monkey-flower

“Wetland” area

Planted where they can benefit from runoff from the garage, bog planters, and other containers. I’ve seen Caltha, but never grown it. The others are new to me.

  • Argentina anserina, Silverweed
  • Caltha palustris, marsh marigold
  • Ludwigia alternifolia, bushy seedbox
  • Menispermum canadense, Canada moonseed
  • Mitella diphylla, two-leaved mitrewort
  • Penthorum sedoides, ditch stonecrop
  • Scirpus cyperinus, common wool-grass
  • Scutellaria lateriflora, mad-dog skullcap
  • Woodwardia areolata, netted chainfern

Front Yard “Meadow”

This is sunny to partly sunny, dry to moist. Except for the Allium, of which – I’d forgotten – I’m already growing a cultivar, all these species are new to me.

  • Allium cernuum, nodding onion
  • Asclepias verticillata, whorled milkweed. Part of my effort to increase the number of milkweed species in my garden.
  • Chelone glabra, white turtlehead, planted at the shadier end of the border.
  • Helianthus decapetalus, ten-petal sunflower
  • Liatris scariosa, Northern blazing-star
  • Oclemena acuminata, whorled wood aster
  • Parthenium integrifolium, wild quinine
  • Penstemon hirsutus, northeastern beard-tongue
  • Pycnanthemum incanum, hoary mountain-mint. This and the next species are relatives of the P. muticum, clustered mountain-mint, which is abundant in my garden and gets more pollinator visitors than any other plant. I’m growing P. virginianum elsewhere. I want to compare these species, both to be able to identify them, and to see if there are any differences in the number or species of pollinators they attract.
  • Pycnanthemum verticillata, whorled mountain-mint
  • Symphyotrichum pilosum pilosum, hairy white oldfield aster
  • Symphyotrichum prenanthoides, crookedstem aster
  • Viola palmata, early blue violet
  • Zizia aptera, heartleaf golden alexanders. Relative of the Z. aurea I already have, and which is seeding itself in my garden. I’ll also be transplanting some of these volunteers to the front yard. I want more plants from the Apiaceae as hosts for Eastern black swallowtails, in the hopes they’ll leave more of our parsley for us.

Backyard “Woodland”

Small things, planted by the Gardener’s Nook so I can keep a close eye on them this year. Some of these are favorites I’d planted in the native plant area of my first garden in the East Village.

  • Actaea pachypoda, white baneberry
  • Actaea rubra, red baneberry
  • Anemone acutiloba (Hepatica acutiloba)
  • Dicentra canadensis, squirrel corn
  • Dicentra cucullaria, dutchman’s breeches
  • Dodecathon meadia, shooting star, white- and pink-flowering forms
  • Hydrastis canadense, goldenleaf
  • Jeffersonia diphylla, twinleaf
  • Sanguinaria canadensis, bloodroot
  • Thalictrum dioicum, early meadow-rue
  • Viola affinis, sand violet
  • Viola labradorica, Labrador violet
  • Waldsteinia fragarioides, Appalachian barren strawberry

Planted in various other locations in the backyard.

  • Agrimonia striata, woodland agrimony
  • Anemone virginiana, Virginia anemone
  • Argentina anserina, silverweed
  • Arisaema draconitum, green dragon
  • Eurybia divaricata, white wood aster
  • Geum aleppicum, yellow avens
  • Geum canadense, white avens
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum, waterleaf. This turns out to be a duplicate. I thought I had killed the specimen I bought a few years, but it had just moved from its planted spot.
  • Osmunda claytoniana, interrupted fern. A favorite of mine from my first garden in the East Village.
  • Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’, woodland phlox
  • Rudbeckia laciniata, cut-leaved coneflower. Another accidental duplicate. I’ve got one in the front I planted last year that I’d forgotten about.
  • Symphyotrichum laeve, smooth aster
  • Symphyotrichum novi-belgii, New York aster

Planted in the backyard along the neighbor’s fence where they can fill in and provide background for other plants in the foreground.

  • Carex lupulina, hop sedge
  • Thelypteris palustris, marsh fern

I’ve also got a few more new sedges. I planted these together near the front of the north/serviceberry bed so I can observe them closely and learn how to identify them.

  • Carex appalachica, Appalachian sedge
  • Carex grayi, Gray’s sedge
  • Carex rosea, rosy sedge, curly-styled wood sedge
  • Carex squarrosa, squarrose sedge, narrow-leaved cattail sedge

Finally, two new vines.

  • Dioscorea villosa, wild yam. Planted on our neighbor’s fence along the driveway, near the Clematis virginiana.
  • Vitis aestivalis, summer grape. Planted on an arbor between the two vegetable beds along the driveway. Don’t know if we’ll get actual grapes from this or not.

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This Season’s Schedule

Lots of native plant events from April to June which I hope to attend. And I’ll be speaking, hosting, or tabling at three of them.

Me in my front yard last year, hosting a NYC Wildflower Week Pollinator Safari during Pollinator Week 2014. Photo: Alan Riback.

Saturday, April 25, 11am-3pm
Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) Earth Day Native Plant Sale
PPA Headquarters, 17 Pemberton Road, Southampton, NJ 08088
One of my two favorite regional native plant sales. Growers include Pinelands Nursery and New Moon Nursery.

Saturday, May 9, 1-4pm
Butterflies, Bulbs, and Bookmarks
Cortelyou Library Plaza
I will be on-hand to talk about plants, flowers, and pollinators.

Saturday, May 9 to Sunday, May 17
NYC Wildflower Week (NYCWW)
I will be out and about, enjoying many of the free tours and events offered throughout the week. To be announced: A tour of my garden may be one of the events for this year’s NYCWW.

Rhododendron periclymenoides, Pinxterbloom Azalea, seen on the NYCWW 2014 tour of Staten Island’s High Rock Park, Staten Island

Tuesday, May 12, 7:30pm
Long Island Botanical Society (LIBS) Meeting
Muttontown Preserve, East Norwich, Nassau County
I will be a guest speaker, talking about urban gardening with native plants, and the wildlife this supports.

June 3 to June 6
Native Plants in the Landscape Conference (NPILC)
Student Memorial Center, Millersville University, Millersville, PA 17551-0302
This is the first year I’ve registered for this conference. I’m looking forward to meeting fellow native plant geeks.

Friday & Saturday, June 5 & 6, and June 12 & 13
Long Island Native Plant Initiative (LINPI) Native Plant Sale
Suffolk County Community College Eastern Campus Greenhouse, 121 Speonk-Riverhead Road, Riverhead, NY 11901
The second of my favorite regional native plant sales, with plants propagated by the NYC Parks Greenbelt Native Plant Center from populations on Long Island and Staten Island.

The 2013 LINPI Plant Sale

June 15 to June 21
Pollinator Week
To be announced: Another possible Pollinator Safari tour of my garden.

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Invasive Plant Profile: Chelidonium majus, Celandine, Greater Celandine

Revised 2015-02-23: This was one of my earliest blog posts, first published in June 2006. I’ve overhauled it to 1) meet my current technical standards, and 2) improve the content based on the latest available information.

Chelidonium majus, Celandine or Greater Celandine, is a biennial (blooming the second year) herbaceous plant in the Papaveraceae, the Poppy family. It is native to Eurasia. It’s the only species in the genus.

It’s invasive outside its native range, and widespread across eastern North America. It emerges early in the Spring, before our native wildflowers emerge, and grows quickly to about 2 feet. That’s one of the clues to identification. It’s also one of the reasons why it’s so disruptive. The rapid early growth crowds and shades out native Spring ephemerals.

Greater celandine is one of the first weeds I identified when we bought our home in 2005 and I started the current gardens. Here’s my collection of photos from the garden’s second year, in 2006, highlighting the characteristics that help to identify this plant. The photos (click for embiggerization) show:

  1. Full view of plants, showing growth habit, bloom, and ripening seedpods on the same plants. The plants in this picture are about two feet tall. In the middle and lower left of the picture, you can see the leaves of Hemerocallis (Daylilies) just peeking out from under the Chelidonium.
  2. Broken stem with orange sap. You can also see a small flower bud in the leaf axil to the left.
  3. Detail of flower. Notice the 4 petals, clustered stamens, and central pistil with white stigma.
  4. Detail of ripening seedpod. These seedpods are what made me think at first that this plant was in the Brassicaceae (or, if you’re old-school like me, the Cruciferae), the Mustard family. It’s actually in the Papaveraceae (Poppy family).

At the time these pictures were taken in early June, these plants had already been blooming for two months. After I took these pictures, I removed all the plants (and there were many more than are visible in these photos!).

Part of coming to any new garden is learning the weeds. There are always new ones I’ve never encountered before, or that I recognize but am not familiar with. Learning what they are, how invasive or weedy they are, their lifecycle, how they propagate, and so on helps me prioritize their removal and monitor for their return.

For example, Chelidonium is a biennial. So pulling up visible plants before their seeds ripen and disperse kills this year’s generation and the generation two years from now. I might overlook next year’s generation this spring, but I’ll get them next year. The plants are shallowly rooted. By grabbing the plant at the base of the leaves, I can remove the whole thing easily, roots and all.

Chelidonium‘s seeds are dispersed by ants. They’re likely to show up next year close to where they were this year, but not necessarily in the same place. In addition, the soil probably has a reservoir of seeds from the years the garden was neglected. If I disturb the soil, or transplant plants from one part of the yard to another, they could show up in new places. By pulling the plants when they emerge in the spring, and keeping an eye out for their emergence in new places in the garden, I can easily control them. It will take a few years of vigilant weeding to eliminate them completely.

Note that, at a quick glance, this plant can be confused with the native* wildflower Stylophorum diphyllum, celandine-poppy. They’re very similar. Both are in the Papaveraceae, bloom in the spring with four-petaled yellow flowers, have lobed foliage and bright orange/yellow sap, and are about the same height. I find the seedpods the easiest way to distinguish them. The flowers of Stylophorum lack the prominent tall central pistil of Chelidonium, and the stamens form more of a “boss” around the center of the flower, not so obviously grouped in four clusters.

Stylophorum diphyllum, celandine-poppy, blooming and showing the distinctive, more poppy-like, ripening seedpods, in my urban backyard native plant garden, May 2013.

* Stylophorum isn’t native, or present, in New York. But it is native to eastern North America.

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Flickr photo sets:


An Elegy for Biophilia

I was moved to write this by a short missive from Reverend Billy:

When I go to pray, which is sometimes difficult being so without any god, I think of that time in my life, because the natural world was overwhelming the god that my family insisted was all-powerful and all-knowing. Creation was overwhelming the Creator and it came in the form of undulating prairie grasses.

I was raised in temperate and tropical suburbia. Even in those landscapes, the woods in the backyard, or the palmetto swamp at the end of the road or the canal, drew me to them. They were my expanse. Yet, compared to what existed before the forests were razed and the swamps drained, the landscapes of my childhood were impoverished.

The shifting baseline degrades further. More than half the world now lives in cities, with less ready access to nature than ever before in the history of our species. Biodiversity is an environmental justice issue.

I’ve chosen to live my adult live in a city. Even here, those childhood experiences guide me. I garden because it connects me to nature, it nourishes me. The beauty I invite is not of my making, but larger, deeper, and older than I can comprehend.

I believe it everyone’s right to have that connection for themselves. Not only a right, but necessary. Not only for our own health, but to have some hope for the future health of our planet.

That hope, however impoverished, is what keeps me going.

Pollinator Gardens, for Schools and Others

I got a query from a reader:

I’m working on a school garden project and we’d like to develop a pollinator garden in several raised beds. Can you recommend some native plants that we should have in our garden? Ideally we’d like to have some perennials and maybe a few anchor bushes. Are there any flowers that we might be able to start inside this spring then transplant? Also, because the students will be observing the pollinators, butterfly attracting plants are preferable to the teachers.

Whole books have been written on this topic, but here are some quick thoughts and references for further research.

Design Notes

  • How much space is available for the garden? That will determine how many shrubs could be accommodated. Layout the woody plants first, then plan blocks of plants through the rest of the beds.
  • Is it sunny? Shady? Mixed? Trees nearby? That will determine the types of plants that can be grown. Pollinators are more active in the sun, but you can still get plenty of action in shadier gardens. Just make the most of the sun and light you get throughout the day.
  • How will it be watered while getting established? Who will water it? What happens during the summer while school is out? After the first year, once established with the right plant selections, watering needs should be minimal.
  • Are the raised beds already established, or will they be filled with soil? Many “pollinator” plants fare languish in the rich soils prepared for the vegetables and edibles more typically grown in school gardens, and would prefer ordinary, even “poor,” soils.
  • Plant multiples of the same plants in groups and patches, to make them easier for pollinators to find. It also provides a more continuous supply of nectar: if one flower or plant runs dry, another in the same patch can provide.
  • See more about what to plant, below.

Plan for Pollinators

Pollinators visit flowers for two main reasons: nectar and pollen. We want to create habitat, not just a buffet. Plan to address the four basic needs: water, food, shelter, and a place to raise young. Host plants are just as important as flowers.

2-day old caterpillars of Battus philenor, pipevine wallowtail, on Aristolochia tomentosa, wooly dutchman’s pipevine, in my garden, June 2011

Even if we limit consideration to insect pollinators, there are many different kinds, including bees, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies, and moths. Everyone wants butterflies, the divas of the garden. Some are squeamish about bees and wasps, but they really don’t bother people. Any flowers you grow will attract them, so they’re part of the garden already.

Multiple Pollinators on Pycnanthemum muticum, Clustered Mountain-Mint, in my garden, August 2011

Bees, of course, are all-around the most effective pollinators. But not just honeybees. There are scores of native bee species happy to take up residence in a garden.

Multiple nest entrances of Colletes thoracicus (Colletidae), Cellophane Bees, in my garden, May 2008

You can setup nesting boxes for native mason bees and carpenter bees. They’re fascinating to watch, and you can see how the nest tubes get occupied over time.

Bee Houses at the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, Staten Island, May 2010

Monarch butterflies are in steep decline and need our help. Milkweeds are their preferred host plants, so planting milkweeds is the best thing you can do to help monarchs. Several milkweed species are native to NYC. Many other pollinators are attracted to the flowers, as well.

NYC-local ecotype of Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed, in my garden, June 2008

Plant Native

When planting for pollinators, the most important factors are:
  • To get the greatest number and diversity of pollinators, choose plants that have clusters of many small flowers, such as plants in the Asteraceae (asters, daisies, sunflowers, goldenrods, etc) and Lamiaceae (mints) families.
  • Include plants that bloom at different times of the year – especially very early and later in the year, when flowers are scarce – to provide a continuous supply of food for both adults and their young.
  • Differences in flower size and structure affect which pollinators they can support.
  • Insect-host plant associations can be very specific. Plants from different families support different species. So diversify the plant families you grow.
  • Plant as many different species as your space can accommodate.
  • Don’t forget to use the vertical space: include plants that grow taller and shorter. 
  • Plant in masses and blocks. Pollinators recognize they’re more likely to find pollen and nectar when several different plants, with many different flowers blooming at different stages, are available to choose from.
  • The best plants for pollinators are native to the region, and – as much as possible – from local stock. This is true for both nectar and host plants. Prefer native species over non-native, straight species over cultivars, propagated from local populations over more distant ones. 

I adapted this chart from published results of the Pollinator Plant Trial (PDF, 3 pp) at Penn State Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center (SEAREC)

My authority for “What’s native?” in my region is the NY Flora Atlas. You sometimes have to watch out for changes in nomenclature, but it’s an excellent resource. Resources for our adjacent states are the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and the Connecticut Botanical Society.

Your best bet for obtaining plants propagated from local stock is to work with nurseries based near you that specialize in native plants. In my area, for starting native plants from seed I recommend Toadshade Wildflower Farm located nearby in New Jersey. They have an astonishing range of native plants available, and seed for many of them. They’re passionate, experienced, and know their plants.

Related Content

FAQ: Where do you get your plants?
The 2014 NYCWW Pollinator Safari of my Gardens
Gardening with the Hymenoptera (and yet not), 2011-07-31
Gardening with the Lepidoptera, 2011-06-11

My blog posts on Butterflies (Lepidoptera), Bees and Wasps (Hymenoptera), Pollinators, Habitat, and Ecology

My Native Plants page
Retail sources for native plants

Me hosting the NYCWW Pollinator Week Safari in my Front Yard, June 2014. Photo: Alan Riback


NY Flora Atlas
Native Plant Society of New Jersey: Plant Lists
Connecticut Botanical Society: Gardening with Native Plants

Biota of North America Program (BONAP): North America Plant Atlas (NAPA)

Pollinator Partnership: Regional Planting Guide
Center for Biological Diversity: Native Pollinators
Xerces Society: Bring Bank the Pollinators
Wikipedia: Pollination Syndrome

Toadshade Wildflower Farm
NYC Wildflower Week


Specialist Bees of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States

World Wetlands Day

Not only is it Imbolc, aka Groundhog Day (Flatbush Fluffy did NOT see his shadow today. You’re welcome.), it’s also World Wetlands Day. After seeing some of the photos shared by others on Twitter, I thought I would share my Flickr photo albums of some memorable wetlands I’ve had the privilege of visiting.

Cattus Island Park, Toms River, Ocean County, New Jersey

Cranberry Bog Preserve, Riverhead, Suffolk County, New York

The Hudson River, Riparius, Adirondacks, New York

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