Time to Think About Planting Native Plants
With the weather alternating between teases of spring and blasts of winter reality, catching the latest “Lunch and Learn” program at the Tuckerton Seaport on Wednesday, Feb. 8, was the perfect balm. “Going Native: a Guide to Landscaping with Native Plants in the Barnegat Bay Watershed” was presented by Karen Walzer of the Barnegat Bay Partnership.
The BBP is active in promoting the planting of native species of trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses in the place of lawn, as a way to cut down the amount of fertilizers and pesticides that find their way into Barnegat Bay and also to feed the native wildlife.
Most of the folks attending the program were local, and Walzer focused her talk on those native plants that can survive sandy soils, frequent wind, salt spray and occasional saltwater flooding.
“Native plants are up to the challenge,” she said. “They have been living in our area for thousands of years and have adapted to our soils, climate, plants and animals.” They also have the pleasant attributes of being low-maintenance, saving money that might have been spent on fertilizers and water bills.
Eastern red cedars are easily grown in yards prone to occasional salt water flooding. They can be left to grow as a tree or trimmed to make a hedge. Birds eat the juniper berries at the end of winter. American holly is also somewhat salt-water tolerant, and robins are especially fond of the red berries in the spring after winter freezing has made them more palatable.
Black gum trees are also more tolerant than most to occasional tidal flooding.
Bayberry shrubs can be trimmed into uniform shapes if need be, and their waxy berries are also early spring food for birds such as red wing blackbirds, which arrive in February.
Sandy soils are the perfect habitat for beach plum; these can be seen flowering in early April in Barnegat Lighthouse State Park.
Some flowering perennials that are salt tolerant include columbine, with a drooping flower head that hummingbirds love. Bee balm is particularly attractive to bees, as is purple coneflower.
Black-eyed Susan is a summer bloomer as is the tall rose mallow, a native hibiscus. In the fall, New England aster adds its purple clusters, and this is the time for seaside goldenrod to bloom – just in time for the monarch butterfly migration.
Grasses that do well in our sandy soils include little bluestem, switch grass, coastal panic grass and American beach grass. For groundcovers, consider beach heather, Pennsylvania sedge and bearberry – a pinelands plant. Prickly pear cactus is our only native cactus.
For freshwater swampy areas, sweet bay magnolia is a fragrant shrub worthy of cultivating.
Reducing the lawn areas on a property is one goal of the BBP and a way to reduce non-point source pollution of fertilizers and pesticides.
Lawns are also “monocultures,” which means they contain just one type of plant – not particularly useful to bees and butterflies unless they contain flowering clovers that are allowed to flower. Lawns are almost useless for storm-water retention, especially if sod is newly laid over compacted soil (as in a new development). The first garden an environmentally conscious homeowner might consider is making a rain garden between the lawn and the sidewalk or curb to capture the fertilizers that run off from the lawn.
Some of the native plants that could go into a rain garden are Joe-Pye weed, a tall and lovely flowering native with mauve flower bracts; arrow wood, a wild viburnum with white, fragrant flowers that produces berries in fall that birds love; river birch, with attractive exfoliating bark; and sweet pepperbush, another fragrant shrub, with seed heads to benefit birds.
“Make your yard a sponge; native plants prevent erosion and allow water to go back into the soil,” Walzer said.
Avoid Invasive Species
That Push Out Natives
Walzer also asked that people be mindful that some plants have been added to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s invasive species list and should not be planted. An invasive species is one that has escaped its garden and spread into wild areas and takes over a spot held by a native plant. The native plants that are evicted usually have better food value for birds and animals.
For many years, the flowering Bradford pear tree was the go-to street tree because it was attractive and could withstand the pressure of pollution and arid soils. It was planted in streetscapes and developments. Today its popularity has landed it on the invasive species list.
The butterfly bush, long loved as a pretty way to attract butterflies to the yard, has also made the list. “If you cannot bear to get rid of the bush, then the best thing to do is, after the shrub has flowered, carefully prune off the seed heads and dispose of them,” Walzer recommended.
Instead of butterfly bush, try planting native sweet pepper bush or swamp milkweed, she suggested.
Japanese barberry, also known as burning bush, has also become invasive. Walzer suggested planting high bush blueberry shrubs instead. “They have the same red twig interest in winter and also have the benefit of providing you with blueberries you can eat.”
Purple loosestrife is extremely invasive; it can overtake a fresh-water meadow in a number of years, replacing cattails, wild rice and other wildlife-friendly species.
What to do about local property maintenance codes that prefer manicured lawns to native shrubs and grasses? One thing is to become a certified wildlife gardener through the National Wildlife Foundation as supporting wildlife habitat. This is an easy process with fewer requirements than you might think. Although not a sure-fire way to avoid a violation, keeping the native plantings tidy and destroying invasive plants will go a long way in your favor.
To see a list of native plant nurseries and supplies, visit the Barnegat Bay Partnership website, bbp.ocean.edu.
The next Lunch and Learn program is “Streaming the Creeks and Rivers in the Barnegat Bay Watershed,” a virtual tour of the streams that empty into our bay by field biologist Terry O’Leary on Wednesday, March 8, at 12:30 p.m.
Because of high demand for these programs, sponsored by the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Tuckerton Seaport, reservations are required by calling 609-296-8868.
— Pat Johnson