I don’t know about you, but I’m very excited about spring, especially after the long, cold winter we’ve had. It’s always exciting to venture through the garden and see green at the base of my favorite perennials. It ensures they’ve survived another winter. While I wait patiently for their return I’m already enjoying the colors of some early bloomers. One of my favorites this time of year is creeping phlox (Phlox subulata). This low growing native perennial forms a dense mat of needle-like foliage that stays mostly green year around. It’s claim to fame comes in early spring when its star-shaped blooms open up covering the entire plant so thick that you can barely see the foliage underneath.
I remember this plant in my grandmother’s garden growing wild along the edge of her house. Back then most of the creeping phlox was some sort of pink coloration but now there are numerous cultivars available that come in a large variety of colors, from white to lavender and various pastels in-between. I especially like them mixed in with spring flowering bulbs like crocuses and daffodils. Creeping phlox makes a great ground cover for a sunny border and butterflies appreciate the early blooms.
Another early season favorite, also a low-growing perennial, is Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens). Native to Southern Europe, it has adapted to all regions of the United States. This low, bushy plant produces mounds of blinding white flowers that last throughout the spring.
In addition to white, the annual candytufts (Iberis umbellate and I. amara) flowers come in a variety of colors like pink, red and lilac. Like creeping phlox, candytuft foliage remains evergreen throughout the year, adding a little greenery to the winter garden. Both plants can also be used to cascade down walls or over banks and flower pots. Both do best in full sun and in well-drained soils.
Give both of these early season low-growing perennials a try. They’re spring color and green foliage in winter offer year-round interests that make them tough to beat.
I recently had the opportunity to hear Douglas Tallamy speak at a local event sponsored by the South Hampton Roads Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society and hosted by Virginia Wesleyan College. You may know of Tallamy from his popular book titled Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Tallamy is also a science professor, gardener and naturalist on an awareness campaign to spread the word about the benefits of native plants and preserving our biodiversities.
Tallamy, speaking to a full audience, brought to light many issues that face modern suburbia landscapes today, and presented a convincing case for protecting our current “wild” places, as well as adding new ones right within our own properties. He raised some thought-provoking questions and challenges, along with detailed facts and statistics to back up his message. His message challenged each of us to evaluate our own backyards and ask ourselves if we’re doing enough to sustain wildlife, preserve biodiversity, and making the most of local native plants within the garden.
Sustainable, in natures sense, is defined as an area capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting its natural resources or causing severe ecological damage. Tallamy explained that an area is either sustainable or its not, nothing in-between. Throughout the country we have cleared land to build our homes, but have failed to replenish the surrounding landscapes, leaving only small habitat patches for our wildlife to sustain itself. As a result, biodiversity needed to run our ecosystems cannot survive long term being sustained by these small “habitat patches”. “It’s not about humans disappearing” Tallamy said, “It’s about sharing the Earth”.
We all enjoy nature, but tend to pick and choose what we like about it. Even as gardeners, we often favor plants that are so called ‘pest free’. Many go as far as believing that we’ll still be alright if the things we don’t like about nature ever disappeared, never to return. Tallamy strongly disagrees, and believes that all aspects of nature are needed. The benefits of plants and animals go far beyond what we could ever imagine. A staggering statistic Tallamy shared showed that we have already removed approximately one-half of the plants on this planet. That’s pretty scary considering all that plants do for us. And as plants decline so do the animals that depend on those plants for food. Plants depend on animals as well. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that up to 80% of all plant pollination is done by animals, and many of those pollinators are slowly disappearing as well – habitat loss being the major factor. Beginning to get the picture? It’s a balancing act. If one end is affected, so is the other. Tallamy said to think of plants and animals around you as “rivets” that hold your environment together.
Biodiversity, simply put, is the diversity of plant and animal life in a particular habitat. A healthy biodiversity is set up with its own checks and balances known in nature as redundancies among species. That is several species doing the same job to benefit nature. It sounds strange, but it’s a good thing. It’s like natures own backup system. If one species disappears another one steps up to fill in. The problem comes into play when all of a sudden there’s only one or two species available to do a specific job, and if one or both disappeared, that job doesn’t get done, leading to “ecosystem failure”. For instance, just think about what would happen if all our pollinators disappeared and the effect it would have on the food we eat, among other things. “Always remember that biodiversity is an essential non-renewable natural resource”, said Tallamy.
We have sacrificed biodiversity for our own needs by creating large, fancy lawns to fit in with our neighbors. We have cleared our native landscapes and replaced them with turf lawns and other non-native exotic species that don’t support the insects, caterpillars, and butterflies, causing birds and other creatures to work harder in search of food. This trend sounds concerning and not something that the everyday gardener would necessarily think about. However, Tallamy believes that we can reverse most of the damage thus far by creating natural areas and returning native plants back into our landscapes.
Plant diversity is the key to attracting birds and other wildlife back into our gardens, but unfortunately not all plants are created equal in their ability to provide food. Statistics show that native plants appeal more to our native insects and other animals more so than non-native (alien) plants. These are the plants that attract the native insects and caterpillars that in turn attract the birds and frogs that eat the caterpillars and insects; and so on.
Even among natives, plants aren’t equal in their ability to support food for wildlife; so why not plant the ones that are the best since, according to Tallamy, we’re playing catch-up. Tallamy offers several lists on his website that he recommends based on the plants ability to support various insect species. He offers lists for both woody and herbaceous plants; or download the complete Excel Spreadsheet that separates the list even further within the various tabs of the workbook. Did you know that the oak tree alone supports 534 butterfly/moth species? Who knew?
So, go ahead and begin to turn your landscape into “bird food factories”, as Tallamy put it, if you want birds in your yard that will feed and reproduce. Remember it is insects, not berries or seeds that most birds prefer, especially in the spring and summer months of the year.
I’m not judging anyone for having a nice lawn, or recommending anyone to pull out all their non-native plants. I just wanted to communicate Tallamy’s message and give gardeners something to think about moving forward. Maybe we can all evaluate our landscapes and make small adjustments here and there that would benefit the local wildlife and the environment.
Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to make a difference. In this case the “difference” will be the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them (Tallamy, 2007).
To learn more, pick up a copy Doug Tallamy’s Book: Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Also consider joining the Virginia Native Plant Society to learn more about the flora of Virginia and other advantages for using native plants.
Well, I couldn’t hold back any longer. For the first time this year I broke ground in the vegetable garden. The recent upsurge in temperature over the last couple weeks has brought out the garden fever in me. One of my favorite early seeds to plant is spring snap peas.
Peas are easy to grow and provide that excitement for many gardeners itching to get outside and plant, as they can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked in late winter or early spring, depending on your location. Besides there great taste, peas also help to improve the soil were ever they grow. They also freeze well, so no worries if you harvest more than what you can eat.
Garden, snap and snow peas taste best fresh from the garden (pods and all), as their sugars quickly degrade into starches after picking. They prefer cool, early spring-time weather and mature quickly after blooming, leaving room in the garden for summer crops to be planted in their place.
I plant my peas in a 4 x 10 foot raised garden bed. Raised beds offer many advantages like better drainage, reduced soil compaction, and soil conditions can be controlled more efficiently in a raised bed. I mix shredded leaves and compost in my raised beds every winter to ensure that the soil will have plenty of organic matter throughout the growing season.
Trellising provides support and helps peas grow more vigorously by helping expose the pods to sunlight. I built mine out of 2 x 2 inch post with reinforced wire panels in between. The wire panels come in 6 foot lengths by 4 feet high. I ended up using 1-1/2 panels. I connected the wire to the 2 x 2’s using plastic tie wraps. Later in the summer when the peas die out I use the trellis for my cucumbers.
The type of snap pea I’m growing is a trailing variety with a vine height of about 34-36 inches, but there are non-vining varieties if you don’t want to bother with constructing a trellis or stacking. ‘Sugar Ann’ and ‘Wando’ (especially recommended for Southern and coastal gardens) are a couple varieties that don’t require staking.
For planting times in your area refer to the Virginia vegetableplanting and recommended planting dates guide online, put together by the Virginia Cooperative Extension.