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: 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 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.

Conserving Medicinally and Culturally Significant Southeastern Plants

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Written by Lauren Garcia Chance, Director of Research and Conservation

There are many things that are unique to the Southern Appalachians; the use of the word holler as a place– not an action, the way ‘bless your heart’ may not mean what you think it does, and the role of wild plants in the local culture.

Recently, while attending the Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation Conference, an entire portion of the conference was devoted to protecting plants of cultural and medicinal significance. Medicinal plants harvested from southeastern states comprise a multi-million-dollar industry and include well known examples like American ginseng and goldenseal. Culturally significant species comprise a large number and wide variety of plants used by Native American and other groups. Conservation of these species requires different approaches than those normally undertaken for rare species. This is because the conservation goal goes beyond preventing extinction and includes ensuring sustainable harvesting into the future. While there were many talks, from cutleaf coneflower to ramps, ginseng stole the show thanks to its storied history and unknown future.

Ginseng use has long been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, ubiquitous in Korea, and increasingly popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations. In East Asia, native stocks are nearly extinct; in China and Russia, they are banned from being traded. The only other place where ginseng is indigenous is the eastern half of North America, where it grows amid ferns, trillium, bloodroot, and other low-lying vegetation. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has a natural range expanding roughly from Canada and the northern US down to a point in Northern Georgia. The ginseng trade has been present in the US since the early 1700’s when it was discovered that American ginseng could be a viable substitute for the decimated populations of Asian ginseng. It did not take long for the US to create similar impacts at home.

In addition to the specific growing conditions of ginseng, human factors have reduced the populations and availability of this plant species even further. Illegal poaching and hunting on public and private lands accounts for more than 80% of the market. Logging activities expose forest floors to sunny conditions and remove much of the loamy, topsoil that ginseng grows so well in. Add in the fact that it takes at least five years, and sometimes up to 10 to 15 years, for a plant to mature into a good, harvestable size places ginseng at high risk of overharvesting. Finally, these factors combined with the limitations of agricultural cultivation, lead to ginseng populations seen only in deep woods or protected lands. It’s for this reason that the Cherokee sometimes called ginseng a’tali-guli or “the mountain climber” as ginseng seems to be only found higher up the mountain each year. Ginseng holds a unique place in the endangered plant world as it crosses into the culturally significant category as well. You see it isn’t just Asian cultures who utilized ginseng, but Native American tribes as well.

So, how do we protect and conserve a culturally significant plant species that is glorified in TV shows and faces increasing threats from white tail browsing and climate change? In 1975, wild American ginseng was added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, a dried root is difficult to trace back to wild vs cultivated origins and, therefore, ginseng root is exported in larger volumes than any other native CITES plant species. Some National Parks have begun dyeing plants with reddish dye that is visible only under black light, but to tint every wild plant is impossible. Research on ginseng is occurring at universities across the southeast to find more effective ways to grow it, harvest it, and protect it. Botanical gardens, arboreta, and nature reserves have worked to secure ginseng to be held in ex-situ (non-wild) collections for safe-guarding and placed seeds into seed vaults in case future reintroductions are needed. But collections are not substitutions for the wild populations that once covered our mountains. The mountains are high, and the valleys are low, but we hope that by addressing this issue and working together, we are equipped to prevent the otherwise inevitable and save a species that has always been a part of the culture of the Southern Appalachians.

Marvelous Magnolias

Posted Posted in SHR-News

This article was guest written by Greg Paige, Director of Horticulture & Curator, Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory Arboretum. Greg is one of our key speakers for the 2020 Annual Native Plant Symposium.

Asking me what my favorite tree is, is like asking a mother who is her favorite child. I love each one, equally of course. All of them! Nevertheless, there is a genus I am particularly ‘fond’ of slightly more than the others. Throughout my career, magnolia have always sparked my eye and usually, stopped me in my tracks. Currently at our Arboretum we have the biggest collection of magnolia cultivars in the world, according to the Magnolia Society. Among the flurry of colors, ridiculously abundant blooms and fragrance it is the group of big leaved magnolia that are, honestly, my favorites. Their bold, tropical looking foliage and texture will delight any plant lover. Their yellow to tan fall color and the following cascade and dusky blanket of large leaves surrounding their silver-gray trunks in one of my favorite things to stumble upon in the solitude of fall and early winter.

Magnolia fraseri, sometimes called mountain magnolia, is one of these big leaved magnolia species. It occurs throughout the Appalachian Mountains, from West Virginia southward through Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina and just into the mountains of Georgia. It is found on mesic sites on lower Appalachian slopes usually in rich, moist well-drained soil.  Usually a small tree, Magnolia fraseri can reach upwards into its mountain canopy to about 50 feet.  The trees gorgeo

us leave are usually 8 to 12 inches long. They are wider at the middle with a distinctive and best field identification characteristic of the auriculate or ear lobed shaped base. Depending on the elevation, creamy white large flowers appear from late April to late May.

Once you notice it in our mountains, it becomes easy to spot. Often while driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway you can spot it with a sharp eye. I have encountered it below the slopes of Mt. Mitchell. It also grows in, around, and through the Linville Gorge area, and throughout the slopes and ridges above the Davidson River in Pisgah Forest.

The next time you find yourselves in some of these special spots, I hope you get to see this favorite mountain dweller.

Big, Green, Cleaning Machines

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Plants are incredible. We may seem biased in saying so, but we figure if you’re reading this, you probably have an idea of this yourself. Over the last century, humans have caused a global pollution problem, releasing large amounts of chemicals and other toxic compounds into the biosphere. These include inorganic pollutants, such as heavy metals or arsenic, and organic pollutants, such as petroleum, fertilizers, and herbicides. There are 12,000 contaminated sites listed in the United States, close to a half-million contaminated sites in Western Europe, and thousands of others throughout the world.

Conventional remediation of these pollutants is often expensive and cause the problem to conveniently be relocated or buried deeper in the earth. However, new, environmentally responsible technologies have been emerging within the past decade that are less expensive and isolate and remove the contaminant. Enter our illustrious plants! That’s right, plants are leading the way as an option for remediating these contaminants on-site.

Growing up I heard about the sunflower and its sci-fi like ability to remove heavy metals from the ground through the process of phytoremediation. Like a snake oil salesman, “Plant your lead-ridden backyard with sunflowers and a year later you will have a bountiful, lead-free garden.” — What kind of plant magic was this? Little did I realize the extent to which plants can play a role in solving our human problems. Phytoremediation is the process by which living plants and their associated microorganisms detoxify contaminants in the soil, water, or air. Plants use photosynthesis and their natural processes to extract chemicals from the soil and naturally transform them into less toxic forms.

Where phytoremediation is really excelling is in the treatment of water. A natural wetland can be viewed as a living Brita filter. As water enters a wetland, it slows down and the contaminants within the water are removed through a series of physical and chemical processes. Wetland plants, or macrophytes, serve many functions within this wetland system. The roots and sometimes shoots cause suspended sediment to slow, become entangled, and settle or fall out of the water column. Some contaminants, especially nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus, are taken up by plants or become inert. Wetland plants are even capable of promoting microbial colonies that transform or inactivate contaminants they contact. By understanding the importance of such a system, wetlands have offered a cost-effective and technologically feasible option for constructed replication and installation. The implementation of constructed wetlands, which mimic the filtration capacity of natural wetlands, are being installed more and more frequently to the point that it is one of the most robust and frequently applied use of plant systems to achieve remediation.

Plant scientists, landscape architects, and site designers share a toolbox of plants, soils, and water to build a lasting landscape that is both environmentally and socially responsible. These landscapes focus less on just the beauty of the plants and more on the unique characteristics of each plant selected to assist in the remediation process. Phytoremediation can be used for improvement and renewal, planning landscapes beyond the short-term to create longer visions of what our cities, natural lands, and waterways will look like tomorrow.

Want to try phytoremediation in your own backyard? Identify areas of water runoff from your roof or street and plant ornamental grasses or wetland plants. The root systems of these plants will both slow down the water and uptake the water along with its contaminants. You may even have some plants growing in your garden that are removing toxins from the soil without you realizing it. Hydrangeas can uptake aluminum. Kale, collards, and broccoli will remove lead from the soil. Willows accumulate heavy metals such as cadmium and nickel. So, step right up, “Plant your garden today with one of these amazing plants and remediate contaminants today.”

2020 Winter Gardener’s Corner

Posted Posted in SHR-News

As the plants become dormant and hibernation falls on the land, I become aware of how automated the ecosystems are.  Despite the harsh winter conditions headed our way, native plants are prepared for the weather both physically and morphologically.  I am always amazed by how cold hardy plants do not freeze and or die in the winter. If plants are comprised of so much water, how do they not freeze solid or burst apart? It all comes down to chemistry. As temperatures begin to drop, plants convert their starches to sugar and move water to spaces between cells. So, when winter arrives, there is less water that can actually freeze in the cells. The high concentration of starches within the tissues is similar to throwing salt on ice. Think of it as plant anti-freeze. Spruce and other evergreen trees demand and retain even less water, making them naturally more freeze resistant, even in the root zone. This allows roots to undergo extreme freezing conditions without negative effects. For example, in our nursery area, we keep our red spruce outside in pots all year with great success. In fact, last year they were covered by over 2 feet of snow for weeks with no damage!

We are now applying composted horse manure to our beds and plant crowns. This allows for a slow release of nitrogen all winter.  Composted manure and other forms of compost also contain calcium.  Calcium is vital for plants to form new tissue. In general, organic matter has calcium in its makeup. Woody debris, including wood chips and rotten wood/sticks, as well as leaves all have calcium.  If added to our plants during the winter, then we will see increased growth in the spring.  This is a trick fruit growers use to produce larger fruit sizes.  Our woody plants show a lot of improvement in growth response after only a few yearly topdressings. It really is remarkable that a “waste” product fairly low in nitrogen but high in organic matter can outperform a pelletized chemical fertilizer. Perennial beds can also benefit from topdressing. But if they are plants you commonly have to stake, go lightly with fertilizers, including manure, to prevent leggy elongated growth and eventual toppling of the stems.  On the whole, ferns, wildflowers or native woodland plants do not need fertilization either. They get the nutrients they need from rain drops “catching” nitrogen in the air and delivering it to the soil surface. We do not apply any nitrogen or manure to our wildflower labyrinth for this reason.   However, some soils are deficient or excessive in nutrients by nature, therefore, soil testing is always a great first step.  Your local county extension agent can assist you with this and help you determine the right amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to add.

Soil frost upheave at the Reserve

Be on the lookout for winter injury caused by wind and rapid temperature change, such as a polar vortex. Antitranspirants are liquid sprays that can be applied to the leaves and stems of plants to protect them from winter damage. The antitranspirant forms a protective layer that helps the plant retain water in its leaves and buds. One of the worst cases is when the ground is frozen, and the air temperature rises during the morning long before the ground will thaw. This disparity causes the plant shoots to lose too much water and prevents the frozen roots from releasing water to replenish it. This process is called desiccation and leads to winter injury or winter burn.  In areas with a longer winter, antitranspirants may need to be applied twice. For example, we spray broad leaved evergreens like Rhododendron ‘English Roseum’ with TransFilm in late fall and early spring, making sure to coat both sides of the leaf.

While our landscapes hibernate, there is still much to do in our gardens. With the perennials tucked away and the leaves no longer shielding our view, the bones of the garden are at their most noticeable. This is the time for mentally readying ourselves for the next stage of life in the garden and planning ahead for what’s to come. Winter allows us to forget our failures of the year before and to believe that next year, for sure, it’s all going to work out — there will be no weeds, no drought, no pests and disease, no dead as a doornail $29 plants. Winter is a time of recovery, preparation, and hope.