Leave the leaves

Posted Posted in SHR-News, SHR-News

Fall is the natural world’s swan song for the growing season. Colors from trees and shrubs glow brilliantly as they bid us adieu until next spring.  The beauty of fall color draws people from all over the world to great view sheds such as the Blue Ridge Parkway; however, leaves play a much more important role than just beauty. In the springtime, leaves absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting gas into organic carbon compounds.  Come autumn, trees shed their leaves, leaving them to decompose in the soil as they are eaten by microbes.  Over time, decaying leaves release carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon monoxide, all part of the natural cycle of a forest ecosystem.

At the Reserve, we practice adaptive management, a systematic approach for improving resource management by learning from management outcomes.  Fall is a bountiful time of year for resource management at the Reserve in our high elevation forest.  Just like other species in the landscape, we spend our days gathering and collecting resources for the winter and spring.  Our main focus in the fall is collecting leaves and branches.  These leaves and branches are a crucial part of our carbon management program.

Once leaves are collected in a large storage area, we then shred them with an attachment on our tractor to create brown gold, otherwise known as leaf mulch.  This allows us to speed up the decomposition process for garden rooms, using the natural resources from the forest as mulch.  By keeping nutrients on site, we reduce costs, labor and the need to bring foreign materials onto the landscape.  Healthy soil equals healthy plants and ecosystems. Using leaf mulch instead of hardwood, pine needles, or pine mulch creates a more natural look to the woodland garden.  It’s best to shred the leaves as needed; shredded leaves left for an extended period of time tend to grow mold. Leaf mulch is also a favorite food of worms so your soil will be improved with the aeration their boring creates and the castings they leave behind. At home, you can make leaf mulch by using your lawn mower. Laying the leaves in a one-foot-high pile spread on a concrete parking pad or other flat surface is a good method. Be sure to use dry leaves, wear a dusk mask, gloves and other protective gear.

Cleaning forest floors by removing branches and deadwood is not considered a best practice for the forest ecosystem.  However, we go a step further in our resource management.  After collecting the branches, we then chip them back into the forest floor, speeding up the decomposition process and keeping nutrients on site.  At the Reserve, we strive to balance how humans and ecology intersect.  Taking these extra steps in gardening our woodlands is both important to the health of the ecosystem and to the aesthetics of the garden.

Fall Gardener’s Corner

Posted Posted in SHR-News, SHR-News

Fall seemed to arrive quickly this year. Cool temperatures twenty degrees below average always get my attention.  But guess what?  The plants were expecting it! The shorter daylength was already beginning to occur and the plants were tracking its progress, slowing down photosynthesis and storing up sugars for energy in the spring.  Evergreen plants will continue to take advantage of the sunlight on warmer winter days and sporadically continue to photosynthesize. While most plants will be dormant, don’t ignore your newly planted evergreen shrubs and trees in the winter if there is a dry spell. Some evergreen plants, such as boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), actually do grow most of their roots during in the winter months.

When the green chlorophyll is gone, the compounds that are left give leaves their different hues. Those compounds are anthocyanins, carotenoids and flavonoids. There is also fall color that most of us don’t expect to see – white. We have several species of plants that exhibit white fall color, due to a lack of chlorophyll in the leaves. Since no other color compounds remain once the chlorophyll has been broken down and absorbed into the plant, only a white leaf is left.  Examples are Hayscented fern, Mountain Angelica, and Mountain Holly.

Did you know Rhododendrons exhibit fall color too? The oldest leaves turn orange and yellow before they drop, so don’t think something is wrong with your rhododendrons in the fall when they shed a few leaves – this is normal. The Pinkshell Azaleas we enjoy, grow and sell in the nursery exhibit a stunning red fall color and Flame Azaleas tend to have beautiful orange fall color.  Autumnal foliage is a wonderful way for the plants to say thank you for the growing season and give us one last hurrah before their winter hibernation.

As the leaves fall, I am already thinking about new leaves grown next year. Recently, I experimented by sowing seeds of Baptisia tinctoria and Thermopsis vilosa I had just collected.  I sowed the seeds before they dried out after the seed pods (fruit) had turned black.  The reason was to see how successful freshly mature seeds, not yet dormant, would germinate without an extended cold wet period or stratification, which brings the seed embryo back out of dormancy.   About three weeks later, both species were beginning to germinate, but in low numbers.  Out of 160 seeds only 29 Baptisias germinated and survived.  Thermopsis did a little better, with 15 out of 30 seeds germinating.  While successful, the seedlings will have to be taken care of till next spring as, more than likely, they will not go dormant during winter since they are assuming it is spring!  We will keep them indoors under artificial light and give them a diluted fertilizer now that they have made their first set of true leaves.  Next spring, we will plant them or pot them up for sale later.

Another important fall horticultural task is deadheading aggressive species before they release seeds. Some of the bigger ones we focus on are Joe Pye weed and Solidago. Food sources for wildlife become harder to find as the dormant season of winter approaches.  Therefore, we leave the seed heads on all winter long for certain species like rudbeckia lancinate (cutleaf coneflower) and echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) as food for the birds.

As we embrace the changing of seasons there is much to reflect on and enjoy. Each day brings new wonders in the natural world from white fall color, to seeing seeds sprout or the landscape opening up to blue skies as the leaves fall. I’m ready to see what wonders the next season will bring.

Fabulous Fungi

Posted Posted in SHR-News, SHR-News

Visitors to the Reserve this season have noticed an unusual abundance and variety of mushrooms popping up everywhere, given the increase in rainfall this season.  In addition to enjoying their delightful shapes and colors, our staff have feasted on chicken-of-the-woods, chanterelles, oyster and black trumpet mushrooms. Fungi play an important role in forest ecosystems and are the largest living organisms on earth. By definition, they are a diverse group of eukaryotic single-celled or multinucleate organisms that live by decomposing and absorbing the organic material in which they grow, producing fruit, called mushrooms, which provide food for wildlife.

Not all mushrooms grow above ground. For instance, truffles that grow on the roots of red spruce trees provide an important food source for the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel, found in the high elevation spruce-fir forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. These truffles (Elaphomyces spp.) have a strong odor when mature, allowing the squirrels to locate dense areas of truffles by scent. (Loeb et al., 2000) Southern Highlands Reserve partners with federal and state agencies as a founding member of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (https://southernspruce.org) to restore the habitat of Carolina northern flying squirrel and many other species by growing red spruce trees from cones collected on public land.

A mushroom you are more likely to see this time of year is the Jack-O-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius). Its bright orange and poisonous fruit can be found growing around tree stumps in the fall. One interesting fact about this mushroom is that it is bioluminescent, meaning that it glows in the dark, emitting a color similar to a firefly. The purpose of this chemical reaction is to attract nighttime insects that then spread spores, using compounds similar to those fireflies use. The difference is that bioluminescent mushrooms contain enzymes that have the ability to create other glowing colors.  This could prove useful for bioluminescent imaging and other, not yet conceived, uses.

Mushrooms help our native animals and enchant our minds.  Staff at the Reserve have found ways to incorporate mycelium into projects and best management practices.   For example, we add a powder containing endomycorrhizal, ectomycorrhizal and Trichoderma fungi to our potting mix for red spruce trees. This helps with water and nutrient uptake for the new seedlings. This spring, we implemented a composting project in the greenhouse. Staff were introduced to the idea of using mushrooms as a composting component that Diana Hiles, our horticulturist, learned from Max Dubansky of Backbone Farm, in Maryland. He uses wine cap mushrooms (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) to speed up compost on his organic farm. With further research, our staff have started a mushroom composting simulation in a 33-gallon barrel, filling it with wood chips and fresh green debris from our compost pile. Then, second-generation grain spawn of the wine cap mushroom are layered into the mix, creating a mycelium lasagna. Yum!

The goal of the experiment is to have the mycelium decompose the contents of the barrel and produce fruit. The barrel is kept in the green house because the mycelium need warm temperatures to colonize the barrel; the mushrooms it will produce are edible and might interest more than just hungry gardeners! Once fully colonized, the barrel’s contents will be mixed into the large compost pile. Wine cap mushrooms have been found on site prior to this project so we can verify that they are endemic. The spent mycelium will aid in the time it takes our debris to compost and add nutrients to the compost that can then be used in the landscape.  Caring for the old and fostering the new are an important part of what we do to keep SHR the special ecosystem it is.

Not all fungi are beneficial to us or other plants as many of you know from seeing azalea gall on your native azaleas or powdery mildew on your roses. In fact, the largest organism in the world is a fungus, Armillaria solidipes or A. ostoyae. This honey fungus causes Armillaria root disease, killing conifers and creating more food for itself along the way. This single fungus, with an identical genetic make-up, resides in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, encompassing 2,384 aces. It’s estimated to be about 2,400 years old due to its growth rate but could be as old as 8,650 years old! (Casselman 2007)

At the end of the day, fungi are only one component of our ecosystem.  It takes many other organisms to make the cogs of Mother Nature turn, including all of us. The everyday choices we make impact the world we share.  Thank you for supporting organizations like ours, being environmentally responsible and trying to leave the world better for the generations to come.

Introducing our newest team member

Posted Posted in SHR-News, SHR-News

We would like to introduce the Reserve’s newest team member, Diana Hiles. Diana has six years of fine gardening experience, beginning during her studies at Montgomery College and continuing through horticultural mentors, later running her own gardening company. She loved to draw, install and maintain landscape designs, often growing her own plants such as zinnias, foxgloves, scabiosa (pincushion flower), and milkweed for her clients’ gardens.  Diana gets her green thumb from her parents who are also avid native plant gardeners.  She holds certificates from the National Green Infrastructure Program (NGICP) and the Maryland Nursery Landscape Greenhouse Association (MNLGA).


Diana has drawn inspiration from the many English gardens she has visited including Hidcote, Sissinghurst, Helmingham Hall and Margery Fish’s 15th century home and cottage garden, East Lambrook Manor. She moved to Brevard from Maryland at the end of March to pursue her love of native plants and the mountains. She enjoys uniting classic fine gardening with native plants and wilder areas here at the Reserve. There is never a lack of things to do!


Thus far, Diana has taken on communications with the GPCA (Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance) to secure endangered mountain pitcher plants for SHR. Bog plants are a favorite of Diana’s and she is working on securing more for the Reserve. She has also started an experiment with composting using mushrooms to help speed up decomposition.  All of the debris we gather on the Reserve is chipped or composted to help restore organic matter to the soil. To make compost more quickly (and enjoy edible mushrooms as a bonus), mushrooms spores are sown in compost piles.  This helps the plants get enough nutrients without needing to use fertilizer. Diana has been a big help in getting the gardens ready for summer tours and documenting the Reserve through via our social media feed.


Diana is a lifelong learner and is interested in teaching others. She recently met with our local TC Henderson Elementary School to suggest native plants and solutions for their existing pollinator garden that will not only help pollinators but educate children on the nature around them. She looks forward to growing with the Reserve and enriching the gardens through sustainable stewardship and a gardener’s keen eye. Welcome Diana!



Summer Gardener’s Corner

Posted Posted in SHR-News, SHR-News

Summer on a mountain is a somewhat different when it comes to gardening.  We can continue planting thanks to slightly cooler temperatures and regular rain.  Planting in May, we sometimes actually experience drier weather, forcing us to water more often.  Adding another task such as watering new plantings to the spring push should be accounted for in your daily and weekly schedule.  Soil temperatures are generally a little cooler which may slow establishment after planting.  So, we are planting woodland and sun loving plants now.  We are enhancing plantings we already have with more of the same plant species as well as new species or cultivars.


We are also able to continue potting up red spruce, azaleas, and other native shrubs this time of year.  Plants in two-inch RootMaker pots will be put into one gallon RootMaker pots.  This is an advantage again with the RootMaker system, allowing us to skip the 4” size in between, saving time and labor.  It is critical to repot when plants are actively growing new roots, and this can happen in late winter through the summer.  Doing so allows the plant to get established before winter temperatures arrive.


Darwin Thomas propagates carnivorous native plants at Darwin’s Backyard Nursery in Sylva, North Carolina.  On June 5th we met him to pick up twenty-eight carnivorous plants of varying species, shapes and sizes that he very graciously gifted to us!  We are so excited and have planted them in mass along the pond’s edge.  These types of plants require a wet site where water is fresh and oxygenated along with sun.  Our pond is spring fed and keeps the water cool and refreshed with new water, providing excellent conditions for these plants and others.


One of the goals of gardening is to create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere to be in, to move people with the garden’s beauty. This time of year, a lot of that is editing. We love our native plants; however, some can be more aggressive than others. Notice whether those hay-scented ferns are starting to creep a little too far into your garden. Today I uncovered heuchera, columbine, ginger and club moss that were hiding under a sea of ferns. You might be surprised what you uncover once you start editing the garden.  It’s a special delight to discover the soft orange colors of chanterelles lurking beneath.


Another plant to keep an eye on is Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa). It isn’t picky about sun or shade so it will slowly take over an area if allowed. Solidago is a nice, late blooming plant if kept at the back of the bed where it can provide some height. If you want to help keep the Solidago from seeding all, over cut the flowers off right after they are spent. The window is short from fading flowers to seeds. I suggest Solidago caesia and S. shortii ‘Solar Cascade’ or S. odora which is a clumping type that will not spread and is good in the shade.


Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosa), is another great plant for the back of the garden bed. There are cultivars that do not get as tall as the straight species such as little Joe and baby Joe. Joe Pye Weed has some of the most nutrient dense nectars available for pollinators, making it an essential plant for pollinator gardens. The same is said for this plant as Golden Rod: it will self sow. Cutting the flowers off is a personal choice you make as the gardener. The seed heads of Joe Pye provide winter interest when dusted with snow. Be sure to remove the dead leaves if you choose to leave the heads up for it to really shine in the winter.


Think about how the plants make you feel. Do you feel crowded when you walk around your garden? You might need to cut the shrub layer back. Are there enough ‘windows’ looking into the other parts of the garden? You might need to cut the lower branches and water sprouts of a witch hazel.  Leaving a select one or two younger trunks is good for the tree as long as they are not rubbing against another limb.


Weeding and pruning is an unavoidable part of gardening and can be quite relaxing if you get in the zone as I’m sure both our founders would agree!

Panthertown Valley by Marci Spencer

Posted Posted in SHR-News, SHR-News

About ten highway-miles west of Lake Toxaway on US-64 on land now bordered by Southern Highlands Reserve, developers planned to build a lodge in Panthertown Valley in the 1960s. A dam, impounding the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River, would offer guests a scenic, recreational lake. The National Park Service and local politicians were also charmed by the natural beauty of the area. Enthusiastic about the new, well-travelled Blue Ridge Parkway connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, officials proposed a parkway extension to Georgia that would slice through Panthertown Valley. Duke Energy also wanted to own the valley to build its power transmission line.


Tea-colored waterways, sandy beaches and over half-a-dozen premier waterfalls and a dozen smaller ones in Panthertown attracted the attention of outdoor enthusiasts. Unique plant communities in rare mountain bogs and atop monstrous granite domes fueled the passions of the NC Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Through the organization’s campaigns and fund-raising efforts in the 1980’s, Panthertown was saved from development. Later purchased by the US Forest Service, Nantahala National Forest now maintains the 6700 backcountry acres as a primitive area for hikers and a sanctuary for black bears.  From its two main entrances, popular day-hike destinations in the open, flat valley are sheer rock cliffs, deep swimming holes and gorgeous waterfalls, like Schoolhouse Falls.


Recently, the USFS district ranger for Nantahala National Forest estimated that over 20,000 visitors explore the thirty miles of hiking trails and scenic vistas in Panthertown Valley each year. The organization, Friends of Panthertown Valley, partner with the forest service to help maintain the trail system. Each season, the group sponsors guided hikes, including wildflower walks led by renowned Appalachian botanist and retired Western Carolina University professor, Dr. Dan Pittillo. In 2017, the Friends joined Mainspring Conservation Trust to raise money to purchase 16 acres adjoining Panthertown’s Salt Rock Trailhead entrance. The Friends of Panthertown Valley provides further information about their activities on their web page: https://panthertown.org/. Maps are available at the USFS office and local outfitters.

Image of Warden Falls courtesy of Thomas Mabry

A Garden Unapologetic by Kristin Landfield-Howe

Posted Posted in SHR-News, SHR-News

“Green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.
How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out
Yes! No!

…To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.”

–Mary Oliver


Summer has arrived here in the Southern Appalachians.  For me, along with many gardeners, the resonance of a real garden is in the way it reflects passage of time. Perhaps better than anything I’ve known, this connection with plants and nature helps me notice and process the passing of days, weeks, seasons, years.  We’re terrestrial beings –more corporeal than we are cerebral. We require physical contact with the sensory world to find our place in the natural order. We walk—we hear the intimate crunch of leaves beneath our feet; we blink—we note the glare from the midday sun, and on our skin we witness daily shifts in light and shadow.  We sit—we observe the wind stirring the canopy and feel it lift the ends of our hair.  And so we learn to locate our bodies in space. The tumble of a stream around our ankles forces our feet to find purchase on the sandy bed below; we learn balance. The ripples left in the moving water delineate our presence.  Somewhat paradoxically, awakening to our senses is our one defense against time hurtling out ahead of us.


Up here on the Plateau heavy rains and a cooler May have yielded jungle-like vegetative growth. For me, the delight of the Appalachian spring is the parade of it—how it unfolds at a pace and succession that I can notice and enjoy.  Today though, lavish greens paint the roadsides and the hills. Their insistent greenness fills these woods, reminding me that summer isn’t coming; rather, it’s here. Green is the essence of summer—its first principle—especially in these mountains, where the green takes its time to emerge but is irrepressible upon fulsome arrival.   As I write, bloated clouds hang fat and happy below a blue sky.  Drenched boughs of my Beech trees hang with distended satisfaction. It’s all fireflies and jewelweed. The birds’ chirping isn’t so frenzied; many of their nests have fledged and their world has settled.  At every turn, organisms have moved from spring bourgeoning to summer ripening.  And herein we find the sweetness of summer. The intimacy of it.


During this surreal spring of 2020, virtually all of us have experienced a strange relationship to time.   For many of us, the order of our days slowed while the news cycle sped up.  Daily uncertainty interrupted our travel, our graduations, and in some cases, our sleep.

Yet the landscape, with its daylight (or darkness) dependent itinerary, continues as always.  Ground temperatures make their annual climb to activate soil microbes and warm-season growers.  The lengthening of days augments available sunlight, fueling photosynthesis.  Winter’s stored sugars migrate back inside plant cells, inciting respiration and phytogenesis.  Here is our everyday magic: the sun appears, it rains, plants grow.  We breathe fresh air.  And so it goes. Never in my lifetime have I been more aware of nor grateful for fresh air.


I’ve heard a several people comment that it’s been the prettiest spring they remember.  I wonder whether “remember” may be the operative word here. We’ve been grounded by this pandemic, at home, expending our nervous energy on walking, noticing, gardening—compulsory quiet. Most essentially, gardeners are keen observers, noting small distinctions in microclimates much in the way one observes the idiosyncrasies of a beloved. Ancestral tasks of cultivating a garden begin with noticing what is—in this moment—to guide our next move.  The alchemy of horticulture is wrought from trial and error.  It’s our human birthright to notice and tend, to enjoy the ripening, to harvest.  Stay-at-home orders have connected us with this legacy.  It all begins with attention and care.


In reading gardening magazines or home improvement shows, there is a sense that landscaping must offer curb appeal, resale value, provide utility.  We defend public gardens by listing their value to the public, considering them as event spaces and commoditizing them. These exploits matter, to greater or lesser degree depending on the goals for a space. But I believe that this strange spring has reminded us that beauty has meaning and resonance that transcends the utility or instrument of the space. Ars gratia artis—beauty for the sake of beauty itself.


When I walk under the cathedral of trees at Southern Highlands Reserve, my conflicting desires, my ambitions, my ego sink into the oceans of moss, and I’m humbled by the rugged tumble of boulders reflected in the still pond.  I become a witness to the breeze moving through the ferns, not merely the consumer of the pathway system the staff works hard to maintain.  It’s summer, and spring’s proliferation has carried us into the year’s ripening.  My mind quiets on this consecrated land, and I can hear nature’s conversation with this montane garden.  Again, I look to Mary Oliver translate:


When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come”

native plants, gardening, plant sale

SHR National Public Garden Week Photo Contest!

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Photographers are encouraged to enter their best shots of their own home gardens or yards or public green spaces into the first ever SHR National Public Garden Week Photo Contest. Join us in celebrating nature and landscapes this National Public Garden Week – May 8-17!

Entrants may submit one photograph in each of the contest’s three categories: ‘Fun in Nature’, ‘Plants Up Close’, & ‘Landscape & Garden’. There is no cost to enter the contest, and all ages may participate. Photographers can submit only one photograph per category.

Entries must be submitted by 6 p.m. on May 17th. Winners will be announced the following week.

Judges will select a first- and second-place photograph in each category and winners will have their photos featured on social media and used in the 2021 National Public Gardens Week Photo Contest materials.

Winners will be announced on SHR’s social media platforms.

Photographs must be submitted digitally to info@southernhighlandsreserve.org. Photographers must send one email per entry. Email subject lines should follow this format: Entrant’s last name, photo category. Please include any social media handles for Facebook or Instagram that we may use to tag you.

JPEG image files should be submitted at the highest quality compression allowed by the camera or smartphone at a resolution of 300 dpi. Minimum is 2408 x 3508 pixels; ideal is 3508 x 4961 pixels.

Standard optimization techniques, such as removal of dust, cropping, saturation and sharpening are allowed. Other optimizing techniques such as combinations of images and compositional changes will result in disqualification.

No copyright marks, logos or photographer names should appear on any image.

Usage and licensing:

Photographers retain copyright to all images submitted to the contest subject to the provisions of usage and licensing

You grant SHR and its supporting partners a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free license to reproduce, enlarge, publish, bring within printable color gamut, or exhibit on any media, the photographs for any purpose connected with the contest. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • inclusion in social media, website, and media outlets associated with the contest
  • display at any associated exhibitions
  • use in press releases to be distributed to national, regional & specialist press giving information about or promoting the contest

By submitting images to the Contest, you confirm and warrant that:

  • You are the sole author of each entry and that it is your original work
  • You are the sole owner of the copyright in each image
  • You have the permission of those pictured in the image (or, where the image shows any persons under 18, the consent of their parent/guardian) for the usage rights required by SHR and will indemnify SHR against any claims made by any third parties in respect of any infringement of copyright or privacy
  • You have not licensed or disposed of any rights in the image that would conflict with uses to be made by SHR
  • You will be responsible for any claim by any third party in respect of your entry
  • You agree not to use, or permit the use of, any images taken of or from SHR for any purpose other than entering this Contest or your own personal use. You expressly agree not to use such images for commercial purposes such as sale or license to third parties

Spring Garden’s Corner

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Written by Eric Kimbrel, Director of Horticulture

Winter is gone now but winter weeds persist! I see chickweed species and bittercress creeping up in the landscape and quickly trying to flower. These weeds should be pulled as soon as possible, because once they begin producing seeds, they become more difficult to control. One organic method of weed control we use to help prevent against this spread is corn gluten. Corn gluten is a powdery byproduct of the corn milling process and contains about nine percent nitrogen. Corn gluten does not prevent weed seed from germinating, but instead inhibits seeds from forming roots after germination. This means that corn gluten must be timed to be applied before the weed has established, otherwise the corn gluten will serve only to fertilize the weeds. Corn gluten needs water just after application, but a dry period following is required in order to inhibit root production for those germinated weed seeds. It can be quite difficult to get this application timing precisely correct but it can be up to 80% effective if applied right.  Timing is important in gardening and horticultural tasks.  Depending on the weather, we adjust our horticultural tasks each week at the Reserve to ensure our work in the gardens has the best impact.

After winter cleanup of branches and limbs on the forest floor and arborist visits, we have plenty of wood chips to put back in the garden. Wood chips contain both nutrients and food for microbes, fungi, bacteria and other soil-borne organisms that are so beneficial to soil health.  We use them to line trails as well as to capture and slow water.  Returning the wood to the forest floor continues the natural cycle that helps generate the soil.

The health of our soils is so important to creating a vigorous and productive garden during the remainder of the year. As spring approaches, amendments such as fertilizers, manure, compost, and lime (just to name a few), may need to be added to keep soil chemistry in check.  One way we determine which amendments to use is to conduct a soil test. Soil testing can be done by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for free from April through November and for $4 from November through March. Take advantage of this great resource!

One of the most important characteristics to pay attention to is the pH of the soil. Remember that scale of 1 to 14, acidic to basic, battery acid to bleach? A pH between 6 and 7.5 is optimum for plant nutrient uptake. We aim for 6.50-6.80 at the Reserve, knowing our native soils can be as low as 4. Your region’s geology is a large part what determines your soil pH, so find out a little more about your area’s geologic history. Nitrogen fertilizer can also cause your pH to become more acidic, or drop, so if you fertilize regularly you may need to occasionally offset this decrease in pH. To increase the pH of soils, we like to use Pennington fast acting lime because it is five times stronger and begins working immediately. Best of all though you can use less of it, saving materials and labor. Other limes help to reduce the pH of soils as well; white lime takes one year to be broken down and used by the plant, while pelletized, dolomitic or burnt lime, which is grey in color, begins working immediately. Lime may be applied any time of year. While not as common, if you need to decrease the pH of your soil (perhaps for specific plants, such as azaleas or blueberries), we recommend powdered elemental sulfur, sometimes called flowers of sulfur, to make soil pH more acidic. To be effective, sulfur needs to be spread evenly, perhaps in several applications, and given several months to interact with the soil.

In early spring, we are focused on cleaning up our garden beds as plants are emerging from the winter dormancy.  Recently we cut down all perennials in our Wildflower Labyrinth and conducted our annual controlled burn on grasses.  We left the stalks of perennials up during winter as a habitat for native insects to overwinter.  In other garden rooms we are removing leaves and weeds to make room for more plantings and mulch.

We encourage you to explore the new “Ask a Horticulturist” section of our website, a free resource where we will attempt to answer your gardening and native plant questions.

Healing the Earth One Garden at a Time

Posted Posted in SHR-News

This article was guest written by Todd Forrest, Arthur Ross Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections, The New York Botanical Garden. Todd is one of our key speakers for the 2020 Annual Native Plant Symposium.

Americans love to garden. Every weekend, millions of people water, weed, prune, or simply admire plants in their yards, on their terraces or windowsills, or wherever they tend their own patches of green. Gardening provides so many benefits: exercise, a creative outlet, healthy food, time to slow down and reflect, a connection to nature, and much more.

For all of its rewards, gardening on a grand scale is not as beneficent as it might first appear. Some gardening practices, however well intended, cause harm to our natural ecosystems and threaten native biodiversity. Excessive use of turf fertilizers causes eutrophication of our lakes and ponds. In every region of the country, some common garden plants have become invasive. The uninformed use of pesticides threatens bees, butterflies, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. Plastic pots and emissions from landscape equipment cause pollution. Irrigation of non-climate adapted garden plants, including turf grasses, wastes potable water and threatens aquifers. Collectively, these and other gardening pitfalls cause significant damage to the environment.

The good news is that by educating ourselves and changing our practices, we can reap all of the benefits of gardening without doing harm. The great news is that thoughtful, well-informed gardening can actually help improve the environment and enhance native biodiversity. Over the past few decades, advances in gardening equipment and techniques, increased access to a diversity of nursery-grown native plants, and rising environmental awareness among gardeners have made it more possible than ever before to harness all the joys of gardening to benefit the health of the planet.

The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) was established in 1891 to be a center of botanical research and education. For nearly 130 years, our scientists, educators, and horticulturists have worked to document, celebrate, and preserve the plants of the world. As a global leader in the study and conservation of plant biodiversity, we recognize our responsibility to practice what we preach through the development and implementation of sustainable practices in the care of the living plant collections, displays, and natural landscape across our 250-acre National Historic Landmark site in the Bronx.

Disease-resistant roses

Over the past 20 years we have been refining our practices to reduce the environmental impacts of our horticultural work while keeping the Garden beautiful and inspiring for our more than one million annual visitors. We have developed a plant health program built on the principles of Integrated Pest Management to reduce our dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. We created a Green Materials Recycling Center where we compost all of our green waste. We have worked with nurseries around the world to source disease-resistant roses in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. In 2013 we opened the new Native Plant Garden, designed by Oehme, van Sweden to showcase plants native to northeastern North America. We have implemented a program of ecological restoration, informed by our horticulture experience, to combat invasive species and restore native biodiversity in the 50-acre, old-growth Thain Family Forest in the heart of the Garden.

These are just a few examples of how we are continually refining our practices and educating the public to help steward the environment as we are keeping NYBG as beautiful and sustainable as it must be. We want gardeners to know that informed gardening can, and should, help heal the Earth as it provides personal joy and satisfaction.