Claire Jones is a landscape and floral designer and owner of Claire Jones Landscapes, LLC. She designs and helps people to create their own personal outdoor oasis and loves to write about her gardening failures and successes.
As a landscape designer, a frequent request from clients is getting rid of their lawn and replacing with more natural alternatives. Water hogging and pesticide laden lawns are being replaced nowadays with different varieties of grasses, meadows, and other perennials that form a low growing mat, like thyme or mazus.
Ubiquitous American Lawns
Today lawns cover more than 63,000 square miles- almost the size of Texas! And Americans are still in love with their lawns, but this is gradually changing. Turfgrass is mostly made up of non-native grass species and requires a huge amount of water, pesticides, fertilizer, labor, and fuel. There are definitely areas where lawns are useful, like in playing fields, but lawns are way over-planted. The bio-diversity of a lawn is extremely low compared to meadows and other garden plantings, and cost billions of dollars each year to maintain, as well as contribute to water pollution. More and more botanic gardens such as Longwood Gardens and the new Delaware Botanic Gardens are establishing flourishing beautiful expanses of meadow to showcase the beauty of natives in a natural setting.
The decline of our native pollinators has been traced to more lawn installation, roundup spraying, big agriculture, and less wild plantings with “weeds”.
For one client, I removed an area of 500 square feet of turf by tilling and raking out, then planting with 1100 thyme plugs (tiny plants). Irrigated with a drip hose until the plants take root, thyme can form a thick mat of creeping foliage that blooms a sea of pink flowers in the spring. Thyme is not native to North America, but works quite well here in the right conditions. There are hundreds of varieties of thyme, but I stick with the low creeping ones.
Mazus reptans is another creeping plant that does well in partial shade to shade that spreads quickly to form a mass of creeping foliage with white or purple flowers in the spring.
Change in Attitudes
More and more, I am seeing lawns disappearing and being replaced with perennial grass alternatives like Carex or Sedges and even more radical with meadow plants, like goldenrods and other native wildflowers.
The UK is way ahead of us and establishes meadows everywhere they can, like graveyards.I have seen graveyards in England being replaced with meadow grasses instead of the buzz cuts around gravestones that you would normally see.
But how to get rid of lawns? I suggest gradually turn your property into alternative plantings. Don’t expect it to be done overnight and be cognizant of your neighbors and Home Owners Associations (HOA). Get permission and if that is not forthcoming, then try to educate others about the alternatives. I am a beekeeper and wanted to make a meadow around my beehives to increase bee foraging opportunities, and created a meadow around my beehives.
One alternative to consider are Carex’s or Sedges to replace turfgrass. Carex pennsylvanica, commonly called Pensylvania Sedge, is a shade-loving perennial sedge that is native to dry woodland in Eastern North America. Semi-evergreen in cold winter areas, this makes a great lawn substitute for dry shady areas, where you might have had trouble growing regular turfgrass. Never needing to be mown, it grows about a foot high, spreading by rhizomes to cover large areas.
Thyme Lawn for Sunny Areas
Creeping or spreading thymes are an alternative in a sunny location with good drainage. Remove your grass by either spraying with an herbicide, tilling it under, or killing with black plastic.
What makes a meadow? An open habitat or field covered by vegetation, usually grasses and other non-woody plants providing areas for nesting, food gathering, pollinating insects, and shelter for small animals. Many people wish to replace their lawn with a meadow but think by sprinkling seeds out of a can they can get that look.
It is important to first remove the existing turfgrass by tilling or killing it with black plastic, cardboard, or newspaper covered with mulch or soil. You can then plant with selected native and non-native plants that do well in your location to form a dense covering of perennials that will crowd out weeds.
Try using at least 80-85% native plants in your mix. Alternatively, you can use a good wildflower mix and spread the seeds after preparing your ground by raking it out, sprinkling, and raking the seeds into the soil. Firm the soil with a tool to make sure you have good contact and keep moist until the seeds sprout and get established. Don’t think you can sprinkle seeds from a can directly onto the ground and expect the meadow to appear that is pictured on the wildflower canister! There is work involved in establishing a meadow that looks picture perfect.
Maintenance is still required to weed out undesirables that pop up which will happen less frequently as the plants knit together to form a weed killing mat. And your meadow will need to be mown down in early spring. Here is a great list from Longwood Gardens of meadow wildflowers that they recommend.
Sweet Annie, Artemisia annua, is an herb I remember from the seventies and eighties. Intensely fragrant smelling green herb wreaths were made up in the fall from the branches and I would see them everywhere for sale at craft fairs and outdoor festivals.
I kind of forgot about Sweet Annie for a long time until a volunteer plant emerged from my asparagus patch this summer and shot up all summer long, until by September it towered over 6 foot high with many sweet smelling branches ready to be harvested. Deciding to let it remain in my asparagus patch, I watched it all season long until I accidentally brushed against it to release the intense sweet fragrance. Once you smell it, you will never forget it! Lingering on my hands and clothing long after brushing into it, the fragrance is hard to describe with an almost fruity fragrance.
Classified as an annual weed, Sweet Annie has escaped cultivation and is a favorite of crafters for its versatility and sweet fragrance and to floral arrangers as an aromatic filler. Slow to germinate, and late to bloom (mine just started to bloom in early to mid-September here in zone 6b), it readily self-seeds, so I know I will have more next year and will probably have to pull some out. Not a beautiful plant, more weed-like than ornamental, it was fine relegated to my vegetable patch.
Growing like a well-branched Christmas tree, I waited until yellow beads appeared on the branches arranged in panicles, which are the buds of the flowers. This is the perfect time to harvest it and I cut the woody trunk down with loppers and then cut off each individual branch for drying. If you harvest it earlier, the branches will kind of shrivel up. Some I bunched up with a rubber band and hung up in my basement for 1-2 weeks, for straight trusses. Other branches, I curled up in a trug for drying. That way, the branches will dry in a rounded form, perfect for making into sweet smelling wreaths.
A sun lover, my Sweet Annie plant required no care and it loved our drier weather this season.
Sweet Annie’s Uses
Sweet Annie, known in China as qing-hao, has been used in treating malaria and fever for hundreds of years. Fruity, astringent, aromatic, Sweet Annie has been used as an air freshener and pest deterrent. You can crumble some into your carpet before vacuuming for a long lasting fragrance to linger long after you have finished cleaning.
Commonly used in crafts as a base for wreaths and swags, and a filler for arrangements, the dried plumes can be used in a variety of ways. Break up the large branches into smaller pieces for different projects. More pronounced in humid weather, the fragrance can waft on the breeze into my house. If you hang a branch in a bathroom, the damp air will release the fragrance. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to Sweet Annie, with bouts of sneezing and sometimes skin irritation. I find that the sneezing happens if I work with it too much, so limit my time with it. I enjoy Sweet Annie from a distance!
Quick breads are old fashioned and retro, but so delicious! Since I haven’t made one for ages, I was inspired to create some savory loaves when my squash harvest started to take over the refrigerator. Who hasn’t been inundated with dozens of squash when they are at their peak? Even with two or three plants, I can pick half a dozen small ones a day!
Not wanting a cinnamony sugary bread, I searched recipes on-line for some ideas. Cheese…..check, bacon……check, lots of shredded squash…..check, a spicy bite….check, and easy to put together…….check – those were my requirements. But after searching in vain for the perfect recipe, I created my own. The results after making four of these in a week, will stay in my summer repertoire for years to come. The finishing touch was a hint of spice in the bread, delivered by adding shredded fresh Poblano pepper, a mild chili pepper-my favorite. Using only a quarter of the pepper was plenty for me, but if you like spicy, add some more.
Since Zucchini is just my term for summer squash, you can use any in this recipe – yellow, patty pan, green striped, or the classic Zucchini.
Walking into the Delaware Botanic Garden on a sizzling hot morning in August, the first thing that I spotted was a a bright orange-painted box turtle scurrying down the pathway into the shelter of a nearby log. Being greeted by wildlife is typical at the soon-to-be-opened 37-acre Botanic Gardens that is located on the shores of Pepper Creek in coastal Delmarva, and is teeming with native flora and fauna.
Following closely the goings-on’s at the new Delaware Botanic Gardens at Peppercreek (DBG) has been my mission for the past four years. Lots of buzz drew me to the Delaware beaches with the founding and formation of a brand new world class botanic garden close to home near where I vacation every year. Go to Taking Root: Delaware Botanic Garden’s Progress and Delaware Botanic Gardens-From the Ground Up to see my previous posts. The DBG is almost at the long anticipated curtain time and the grand opening is on September 12.
Lots of happenings have led up to this grand opening and one of the most momentous was the selection of a new Deputy Executive Director and Director of Horticulture. Transitioning from building a public garden to operating one, will be the new job of Dr Brian Trader, lately of Longwood Gardens and a Delmarva native. I met Brian when he had only been on the job for a few weeks and he seemed enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about the challenges ahead of him. And welcoming! That doesn’t describe adequately how friendly and accommodating he was in greeting my group and I, who dropped in with very little notice.
Since touring the gardens last year at this time- buildings, gardens, and other visible improvements have sprung up. The Meadow Garden designed by Dutch Plantsman Piet Oudolf was planted in stages with the oldest parts planted three seasons ago and plants have matured and filled in. Some plants didn’t make it like hundreds of ‘Blond Ambition’, Bouteloua gracilis, and were replaced with ‘Black Mountain Grass’, Andropogon.
Also heavy rains damaged part of the meadow, but this has all been repaired. Of course weeding is a constant. But it looked like the weed situation was under control and not as bad as last year with so much Dog Fennel, Eupatorium capillfolium, coming up everywhere. Volunteers are still the driving force behind the gardens, involved in every facet of the plantings, and maintenance.
A new cedar Welcome Center has been built with lots of financial support from the local business community, and it has already been open for visitors for special events. At the entrance to the garden, specifically the meadow garden, the Welcome Center greets visitors with a perfectly framed expanse of meadow. The location is designed to usher in visitors with a bang, directly into the showpiece meadow garden.
A major project was the planting of 1,824 low bush blueberry plants by volunteers in May. Planted around the Dogfish Head Brewery Learning Garden, the blueberries are designed to stabilize the dunes and be a wildlife resource.
The first change I noticed about the meadow was the stone dust pathways. This grey crushed fine stone was laid down and tamped firmly in place and makes a nice framework for all the meadow beds. I liked it so much I might use it in some of my landscape projects! Edged with a steel edge, the crushed stone will be kept in place from migrating into the meadow beds.
The meadow garden was designed to support countless pollinators, butterflies, birds, and other insects. Located in the Atlantic Flyway, birds will benefit greatly from these plantings that support so many insects. A bird watching destination, the meadow will draw birds from all over.
Brent & Becky’s Bulbs of Gloucester, VA, donated a large collection of spring-blooming bulbs that were planted by volunteers in the Folly Garden which had many bulbs already in place. When this garden blooms in the spring, with the addition of these bulbs, it will be a show-stopper in the spring. Go to YouTube to see a video of it this past spring. The original bulbs were from the Philadelphia Flower Show of an award winning exhibit, and include species crocus, anemones, snowdrops, netted iris, squills, and daffodils, both mini and full size.
In the center of the Folly is a crevice garden that is planted with many of the bulbs and includes plants that need good drainage like agaves.
The Anderson Holly Collection
Every major Botanical Gardens has a concentration of a particular plant variety, and it is appropriate for the DBG to have started with a wonderful holly collection. Donated by Charles Anderson, a long time member of the Holly Society of America, he collected more than 120 cultivars of holly at his property outside of Baltimore, MD. Mr Anderson donated almost a quarter of his collection of both deciduous and evergreen hollies to the DBG and they are scattered along the pathways where you can easily see them, continuing his educational mission.
The Woodland Garden
The Woodland Garden is unique in being a shoreline coastal garden. an exceptional coastal plain environment for teaching and learning about nature and a place of exceptional beauty.
Featuring plants from the native coastal plain, the garden’s most restful and unique feature is a undisturbed forest that slopes down to the 1,000 foot frontage on Pepper Creek. Forested wetlands showcase mosses, ferns, and wildlife that live here, such as abundant birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Salamanders. frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes thrive in this moist habitat, some of them endangered. Plantings continue in this area with natives that enjoy this unique acidic environment.
I was very impressed with the western edge of the Woodland Garden which was planted by Girl Scout Troop 20566 of York, PA, with over 500 plants and 4 Red Bud trees. Co-troop leader Wendy Brister’s girls raised money by selling native plants to buy all these new plantings, and were inspired and learned about the importance of pollinators in the native ecosystem. A great project!
An adjacent large property has 250+ year old cypresses growing, and seed has been collected from these trees. Mt Cuba is in the process of germinating them for future plantings at DBG. The property is also for sale but beyond the means of funds of the DBG, which will have a major impact on the gardens if they are developed.
The educational mission is paramount for the gardens and outreach continues with all ages welcome. Partnerships with local businesses continues with community colleges and universities partnerships being explored. Promoting horticulture as a career with students from preschool up is part of the mission with emphasis on the learning garden, and outdoor educational classes. Art in the landscape, bird watching, special events, and weddings in the gardens are all things that people will be able to enjoy at DBG. To continue this mission, go to Delaware Botanic Gardens and make a donation or volunteer.
As a landscape designer, I am always looking for beauty in my surroundings- beautiful fabrics, furnishings, spaces, and colors are really important to me. Extend that to my vegetable garden and I also want beautiful vegetables and fruit decorating my garden bed to eat. Heirlooms deliver on that in spades! Instead of the usual mealy Florida grown tomatoes available in the grocery store, I grow a rainbow array of veggies to decorate my plate.
Yes, it takes a lot of effort and sweaty hard work during some hot summer days. But when I pick those basketfuls of colorful vegetables and bring them in the kitchen, it is worth it. Heirlooms have been saved for decades and sometimes centuries because they are the best performers in home gardens. They haven’t been grown so that they ship more efficiently and last longer on the grocery shelf, but because they look good and taste good.
Shopping for vegetable seeds nowadays means either picking from modern hybrids created by crossing two selected varieties, or heirloom veggies which are open pollinated, saved and handed down through family generations. Usually costing less than hybrids, heirlooms have been shown through recent research to be more nutritious if not as prolific as hybrids. I will take the downside of less prolific with my heirloom varieties if they are tastier.
Selecting and saving seeds from the most successful heirlooms in your garden over the years, the more the seeds will adapt to your local conditions. Plus you save money. Many hybrid seed packets range in price from $4 to $10 and sometimes you get very few seeds, with packets containing just 10 seeds in some cases. Connecting with history is another great reason to grow heirlooms.
Many heirlooms go back for hundreds of years and can be traced back to original growers. For example, the Boston Marrow winter squash has quite a history attached to it. Foodtank a food think tank publication says this about Boston Marrow: “Precisely when and how the Boston Marrow became domesticated in America is unclear. However, Fearing Burr, the author of Field & Garden Vegetables of America, was the first person to document the Boston Marrow squash in 1831. In his book, Burr mentions that Mr. J.M Ives of North Salem, Massachusetts, received the seeds of the Boston Marrow from a friend who lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the story goes, Mr. Ives then distributed the seeds to members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society who, he claims, had never seen the specimen previously. Mr. Ives also mentions that his friend whom he received the seeds from, had in fact, been given the seeds from Buffalo gardeners who got them from a tribe of Native Americans that visited the area; and this is apparently how it all begun.”
I haven’t grown Boston Marrow yet as I only have room for several vining varieties of squash but it is on my list. For now I buy it at Farmer’s Markets.
Talking to growers at farmers markets is a great way to discover heirlooms and listen to their stories about their beautiful produce.
Growers that I have talked to are only too eager to share information about the heirlooms that they grow and you can pick up some vegetables and save the seeds after consuming it! I did that with a Marina Di Chiogga winter squash that I admired at a farmers market and saved the seed to plant in the spring. Now I am overrun with this delicious winter squash!
An advantage of heirlooms is that you can save the seed from year to year instead of shelling out money each spring for new seeds. For a great book on saving seeds as well as starting, check out Julie Thompson-Adolph’s excellent book Starting & Saving Seeds
Saving seeds can be as easy as removing pumpkin seeds from the flesh, washing and drying them, to fermenting tomato seeds in water for several days to remove the gelatinous gel coating the seeds. Julie will walk you through the process of saving all kinds of seed from your garden and even how to hand pollinate corn for the best seed set. Flowers and herbs are also covered and I was interested to see she had a tutorial on making seed tape from toilet paper!
Another great source of heirlooms are local seed exchanges. Everyone brings their cleaned seeds and lays them out for people to pick from and hopefully you will get some varieties that you want and things that you have never seen before.
In the early spring, seed exchanges pop up and I found this one at my local library and came home with lots of good stuff.
Vegetables aren’t the only heirlooms that I grow. Heirloom annuals are also high on my list to plant in the spring. Go to my post on Heirloom Annuals.
The iconic gardens of Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Bressingham, and Beth Chatto’s were on my recent UK garden tour this July.
Along with many other gardens that deserve more attention and recognition, I returned home with a renewed appreciation for the diversity and passion for gardening that is encountered only in the UK. Gardening is an obsession with the Brits and since I share that obsession, I can relate to the culture and the importance that they place on this “hobby”.
Not only is gardening a great practical past-time, but an entire nation engages in the leisure activity of visiting gardens enrolled in the National Garden Scheme. Begun with the aim of “opening gardens of quality, character and interest to the public for charity”, the National Garden Scheme has raised over 50 million British Pounds since it began in 1927, and over a half million visits occur each year in more than 3700 gardens open to the public. Garden visiting on that scale is totally unheard of in the rest of the world.
People in England love to visit other people’s gardens to gather ideas and perhaps with hopes of adding their own gardens to the National Garden Scheme rolls, and it includes small town gardens as well as more urban gardens.
But why does Britain have this obsession? Probably climate plays a large role in the answer to the question. The closest comparison of UK weather to US weather would be the Pacific Northwest. If you have ever traveled to that area of the country you will see extraordinary gardens and plants that you can only dream about growing in other parts of the US. The hardiness zones determine your frost free days to garden and the Pacific Northwest is a temperate zone 8 and zone 9. For comparison, here in Maryland, I am a 6b which means that I get much more extremes in weather. Plants don’t like extremes; the more moderate temperatures encourages a wider range of different plants to grow. The hardiness zones in the UK run the gamut of 6 in northern Scotland, to the rest of England with the majority in the 8 and 9 zones. The UK enjoys a temperate maritime climate characterized by cool winters and warm summers, which sounds similar to Seattle. Go to Hardiness Zones in the United Kingdom to see a map and explanation of their zones.
So, mild climate, regular rainfall, and a very long growing season. It is no surprise that England has fantastic gardens. When I take visitors to gardens in England, they are often surprised when they see flowers that are blooming together, like a Lenten Rose and a tea rose blooming side by side. At home this would not be possible, especially in my unforgiving mid-Atlantic climate. Or you will see palm trees or other tropicals that stay outside all year. Tree echium (Echium pininana) , a native of the Canary Islands, is a plant that can naturalize in southern California, and you see it planted extensively in southern England. An exotic that will merit lots of admiring comments, this is a favorite plant of many English gardens.
Plant Hunters Started It All
To add to this climate bonanza, many historic plant hunters calling England their home, departed the shores to bring home numerous offerings, especially during the Victorian era. Bringing together all the world’s plants and see them bloom together is often startling to visitors but you can trace this directly back to those first adventurous plant hunters. Starting at Kew Gardens, then disseminated to the ruling class, these exotics were propagated and descended the social scale until they reached the smallest village as cuttings. You can see the results in the gardens across the United Kingdom today.
Gardening On TV
I gave up long ago looking for gardening on HGTV. But in the UK, gardening shows run constantly with every subject under the sun discussed. Planting seed potatoes? Yes there will be several shows on that in the spring getting you up to speed. And on the subject of potatoes, the English are mad about growing and eating potatoes. It is one crop that I viewed everywhere outside my coach window zipping by. And it is the main crop that the English grow on their “allotments” which is simply a large plot of ground that they grow all types of “veg”.
Obsessive Gardening & Flower Shows
So, gardening is a total obsession for natives of the UK and they have good reason to be with the forgiving climate. And gardening off-shoots also thrive with flower fetes, flower shows, and events like the Snowdrop Sensation Plant Fair in February or the Christmas Floral Extravaganza in December.
Flower shows are a celebration of the pinnacle of gardening achievement and draws in hordes visitors every year, with everyone flocking to Chelsea or Hampton Court to admire perfect examples of pretty much every type of flower.
Bringing tour groups of like minded gardeners to the UK each year has become a ritual as I like to take part in the enthusiasm and passion that residents have for such a rewarding hobby. I find that American gardeners can be just as passionate about gardening but it isn’t as ingrained like it is in England.
Status Vs Oasis
One big difference between English and American gardens is how the American perceives the garden as a status symbol and the English native sees the garden more as an enjoyable oasis to putter around in. The Americans do love the lawn with vast expanses devoted to it. Having English roots, the lawn is really not as significant in any other culture. Mown grass dominates any American “yard” or public space currently, but I see meadows creeping in taking the place of grass. But in England, meadows are everywhere, even in graveyards!
Another difference is that Americans call it their “yard” which has negative connotations and not a “garden” like the British. The British are all about the love of gardening and being horticulturalists. Americans are more about “curb appeal” and how their yard will appear to the neighbors. So, you could say that the Brits express themselves through how they decorate their garden with plants and structures, which is connected to their home, but Americans are more into the low maintenance and the utilitarian aspect of gardening and showing it off. They just want it to look good outside and retreat into their homes. As a landscape designer in the business, I can attest that most people do exactly that.
Garden centers are another good example of the difference between the US and the UK. Nurseries in the UK are destination trips that include several on -site restaurants, clothing, child care, and other amenities, But in the US the nursery is more about buying plants and gardening tools and then moving on. I see that changing gradually with some great garden centers that have popped up in recent years in the US. Check out Escape to Surreybrooke .
Societies & Organizations
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), sponsors of the famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show, offers access to more than 140 gardens around the UK. Just a comparison: There are about 20,000 members of The American Horticultural Society and over 500,000 members in the Royal Horticultural Society! The RHS motto is “Gardening for all,” and the society’s goal is to help both professional and amateur gardeners with inspiration and advice.
Trends-Stumperies, Meadows, and Naturalistic Plantings
A whimsical, but practical garden feature unique to England are stumperies. An intentional arrangement of woody plant material left over after removing stumps and large limbs or any re-purposed wood, these structures can make interesting decorations in a garden. Creating a habitat for mostly shade loving plants like ferns, a stumpery is only something I encounter while in England. Displaying interesting architecture of roots and trunks, the vertical use of space creates perfect pockets for plants to thrive in microclimates. An ingenious use of stumps that would otherwise be trashed, stumperies can be awesome structures.
Stumperies, first created in 1856, are enjoying a resurgence in popularity and there are stumperies everywhere in England. I expect soon to see one here in the US. The trends in gardening are about 5-10 years behind here.
Meadows and naturalistic plantings are in vogue in England and I saw them everywhere, especially at the Hampton Court Flower Show. Queen Anne’s lace, which Americans consider a weed, was planted in naturalistic plantings and there was even a lovely pink variety.
A North American native to the western US, Penstemons were probably my top flower that I saw this past July. UK gardeners have taken this US native and made it their own with new cultivars that I was salivating over and cannot find here, like ‘Laura’, a white with an edging of pink. And don’t get me started on Delphiniums! They are just over the top!
For my next garden tours, I will be traveling to Portugal and Madeira in March 2020 and Ireland in September 2020. Go to my trip tab to see the itinerary for Portugal/Madeira. Ireland is being made up right now and I should have it available soon.
Cutting flowers and weeds from the side of the road for a wildflower arrangement is as simple as taking a walk down a country lane, armed with sheers and a bucket. But more often, I am driving down a rural lane and see something interesting and slam on the brakes and try to find a spot to park.
There is no need to plant a cutting garden on your property, just explore the outdoors. It is healthy to get outside and walk and be with nature, so here is your chance to bring something home from one of your strolls.
Where to Look
I live in rural Monkton, Maryland, which I describe to people as a twin to the Cotswolds-winding narrow country roads surrounded with farm fields, stone walls, and horse paddocks. I spot lots of specimens that are ready to be cut and used in a flower arrangement. Occasion or not, I really just want some cut flowers to brighten up my house. If you are on the side of a county owned road, you don’t need permission, but if you forage onto someone’s property, you need to ask. I was driving down a road and screeched to a halt when I spotted crimson clover. I got out and approached the farmer nearby to make sure it was OK to cut a bunch. Better safe than sorry.
The best time for foraging is in the morning but the best time for me is when I am actively looking!
But if I am on a hike with my dog, I am looking for things to cut. I always carry pruners with me just in case. I try to do a woods walk a couple of times a week to get away from the stresses of my job and often head to a local ‘hike and bike’ trail. Here I can de-stress and often find plant material to bring home.
There are tons of health benefits from “forest bathing”. Lowered blood pressure, decreased cancer risk, and mental health boost are all claimed to be part of being out in nature. Go to Health Benefits of Being Outside to see more information.
Sometimes I score big with blue cornflowers or red poppies
But I can see that if you have a huge dinner party coming up, that you would scout out your locations in advance, and the day before go on a “fishing” expedition. I use “fishing” because you never know what you will find and you might land a whopper of flowers, or they might not appear at all.
Here are your pointers for plant foraging:
Safety & Sources
Learn to identify what you are collecting as you don’t want to pick anything poisonous or on the endangered/threatened list. Wear long pants and closed toe shoes to protect against ticks and poison ivy.
If you don’t know what poison ivy looks like, just google images of this lethal plant before venturing forth.
If collecting by roadsides, wear protective gloves. Do not park or stop on the side of a highway! I try to find smaller rural roads to do my collecting. Always put safety first and park only where safely off the road.
Follow the principles of “Leave no trace” and leave your collecting area the same or better than when you entered it. Don’t strip it clean! And don’t dig up roots.
Do your research and don’t collect from the threatened or endangered plant list. Go to the USDA website at https://plants.usda.gov/threat.html for a state by state list. In my home state of Maryland, I don’t collect things like partridge berry, wild orchids, or ground pine, as many of these are on the endangered list.
Armed with bug spray, pruners, scissors and collecting buckets and bags, I troll the sides of the roads for likely prospects and always have a “foraging kit” in the back of my car.
When you get your treasures home, strip all the lower leaves off and plunge into water filled buckets in a cool spot for several hours at a minimum. I add some packaged flower sachets to the water. Conditioning your fresh cuts in this way will greatly prolong the life of your flowers, sometimes up to a week!
Know your areas for particular plants. There are some wet boggy areas around me that harbor the invasive pink lythrum and when it is blooming, I take advantage.
Dried seed heads and berries are great for arrangements. Also interesting twigs, lichens, and, pods are excellent.
Don’t forget greens. Contrasting with your flowers, greens make an arrangement stand out. Wild asparagus, ivy, ferns, conifers, deciduous tree branches with fall color. All these bring a lot of color and texture to an arrangement.
Putting It All Together
There are huge differences between a florist arrangement and a foraged one. Foraged ones are usually a bit wilder looking and have things you would never encounter at a florist, like dock, seed heads, and wild asparagus. I much prefer the wild foraged arrangements to the static florist arrangement and it doesn’t cost you a dime.
One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.
Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch, people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.
My favorite Milkweed and the one that I consider the best suited for a perennial border is “Showy Milkweed”, or Aslepias speciosa. This species is closely related to the Common milkweed, A. syriaca, with which it sometimes hybridizes. Ultimately reaching about 2-3 feet high, the foliage is velvety and grey green and very “garden worthy”. Here is great information about this plant from the USDA: Showy Milkweed.
Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods
Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Other Varieties of Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.
Monarch on Joe Pye Weed
Monarch Waystation Sign available at http://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1181-Monarch-Waystation-Sign.aspx
Monarch butterfly on Zinnia
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The pods of Hairy Balls are a conversation piece
Tropical Milkweed is brightly colored
Milky sap exudes down the stem
Milkweed pods are positioned vertically
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
Colony of Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond
Tropical Milkweed has pretty yellow and orange flowers
Sign at nursery for Swamp Milkweed
ther milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.
Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.
Twelve years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of a week in June as “National Pollinator Week”, marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.
The NPGN’s Million Pollinator Garden Challenge registered over one million new pollinator gardens in just the last three years. They salute Washington-Arlington-Alexandria area for being a Top Pollinator City with 13,493 registered gardens. The NPGN is encouraging everyone to plant three new pollinator-friendly plants, one plant for each season to ensure a consistent food supply for pollinators.
To make it easy to figure out what to plant, you can ask at native plant sales, visit nature centers, and go to websites like plants.usda.gov. This website has regional and state lists of native plants that you can plant in your area which includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants.
Here are my three top picks that span the seasons:
Possessing outstanding mildew resistance of shades of lavender-pink flower clusters, this native phlox is a star in my garden and always draws a lot of interest from visitors. Pollinators cluster around the heads constantly, providing a show for weeks in the mid-summer, and giving me lots of photography opportunities. Ranking at the top in ecological and horticultural trials, this plant should be in many more gardens.
Just listen to this rave review from Mt Cuba Center in Delaware who has trial gardens testing for usefulness, beauty, and pollinator visits.
“Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is, without a doubt, the best-performing phlox from the trial. This cultivar was discovered growing along the Harpeth River near Nashville, Tennessee and named after its discoverer, Jeana Prewitt. Although there were many plants of Phlox paniculata in the area, ‘Jeana’ in particular stood out for its exceptionally mildew-free foliage. This trait carries through to the garden and is one of the main reasons ‘Jeana’ performed so well in the trial. This 5′ tall beauty also produces an impressive floral display from mid-July through early September. Interestingly, the individual flowers, or pips, are much smaller than any other garden phlox. However, that does not deter the butterflies that feed on its nectar. In fact, we found ‘Jeana’ attracted more butterflies than any other garden phlox in the entire trial. With a top rank in both horticultural and ecological evaluations, Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is hard to beat.”
A taller flower topping out at 4′ to 5′, I love grouping these plants for a big show of flowers plus pollinators. Sometimes staking or some kind of support is necessary, like helpful supporting plants surrounding your clump. One of the only phlox paniculatas that I know tolerating deer browsing, it is a useful landscape plant for the perennial border. The lavender pink shade goes well with many other colors and the plant behaves and doesn’t spread aggressively.
Common Name: garden phlox
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Zone: 4 to 8
Height: 2 to 5 feet
Spread: 1.50 to 3.00 feet
Bloom Time: July to September
Bloom Description: Lavender-pink
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Flower: Showy, Fragrant
Attracts: Hummingbirds, Butterflies
Tolerate: Deer, Clay Soil, Black Walnut
Where to purchase ‘Jeana’ Phlox? At Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries, and more than likely, the plant will have an American Beauties hang tag identifying it as a native plant choice. For local people in Baltimore County, Maryland, go to Valley View Farms. You know you are making a good environmental choice for your garden.
American Beauties Native Plants is a great resource for home gardeners with a Native Plant Library on-line. Native perennials, grasses, vines, trees and shrubs which attract wildlife and pollinators especially are listed in an easy to use resource guide. Listed by common name or botanical name, you can scroll through the many possibilities available for planting. I find the Plant Search, where you can plug in your state and specify what kind of plant that you are looking for, is most useful to me. The web site even has landscape design plans using natives for every area of the U.S. for sun or shade.
Another top choice is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.
Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.
According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.
Mountain Mintis both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.
An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.
Mountain Mintpositively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.
How To Grow
Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.
Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mintwill also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.
Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.
Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.
Attractive to both hummingbirds and bees as well as humans, Bee Balm is one of my favorites as an early summer bloomer and easy to grow perennial. Commonly known as Bee Balm or Monarda, Bee Balm is “balm” to all flying insects and enjoyed by humans in teas and potpourri. Each flower head rests on a whorl of showy, pinkish, leafy bracts. Flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies.
One of the 21 superstar pollinator plants that I designed my poster with, and available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy shop, Bee Balm is a pollinator superstar and always has many insect visitors on a sunny day.
Other common names include horsemint, oswego tea, and bergamot, the latter inspired by the fragrance of the leaves, which is reminiscent of bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia). Bergamot orange is the flavor that gives the unique taste of Earl Grey tea.
From the roots, up to the flower, the entire plant has a spicy minty fragrance which quality repels deer and other browsing critters.
A valuable plant for landscaping because of this repellent attribute, Bee Balms now come in petite and dwarf sizes to fit into smaller gardens. Even though the entire dwarf plant is smaller, the flowers are the same size or larger than some of the taller varieties.
Although bee balm appears to have thin narrow petals, close up they are really little hollow tubes perfect for thin beaks like hummingbirds. “Leading Lady Plum’ has a scattering of dark plum spots on the tips of the petals, adding another color dimension to this standout variety.
The “flower quotient”, a term I use for the relative size of the flower to the size of the foliage, is greater than most flowers. When a Bee Balm blooms, it is stunning, unusual, and one that stops visitors in their tracks.
The red variety is commonly known as Oswego Tea. Used by colonists in place of English tea after the Boston Tea Party, when they threw the English tea in the harbor to protest high taxes. Bee Balm continued for years as a medicinal and enjoyable tea and was frequently planted next to colonists homes for ease of gathering. To make your own tea, just air dry some leaves and steep them in hot water.
Coming in an array of colors and sizes, you can find a Bee Balm for any size garden now, some even fitting nicely into containers. Hybridizers have been busy with this plant and every time I go to the nursery, I see another small variety pop up. “Small” is the key word here; Most plants being developed now have a shorter stature and larger more colorful flowers to appeal to gardeners with limited space gardens or containers.
Because of the diminutive size of the new varieties, I tuck them in when I have a bare spot in the garden. Enjoying some shade in the afternoon in hot climates, these workhorses will bloom their little hearts out-usually lasting for 2 months or more if you dead head. The larger varieties can spread aggressively and should be controlled before they encroach and overtake other perennials.
Prone to downy mildew which can mottle the leaves, the newer varieties are more resistant to this disfiguring but not fatal disease.
If anyone ever asks me what flower draws the most butterflies to my garden, I don’t hesitate to say- Mexican Sunflower. Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’, attracts beneficial insects such as hover flies and minute pirate bugs, and of course- butterflies. This coarse textured plant grows up to seven feet high in my veggie garden and meadow and is sure to draw all the butterflies around, especially Monarchs. Better than sunflowers which flowers for a short period, Tithonia bears dozens of flowers at a time and lasts all summer.
If you are Monarch watching, you must plant at least one of these handsome plants. Hoards of monarchs will visit while it is blooming for at least 3 months solid.
Easily grown from seed sown outside after frost stops, the plants shoot up quickly to tower over everything surrounding it, so I make sure to place a rebar stake next to it when it gets a few feet high. Rebar or another sturdy stake is needed as the plant can be quite heavy, laden with all those beautiful flowers. Loving heat and sun, be sure to plant them in full sun or just a little bit of shade, or the plant will not bloom as well and will get rangy looking.
Drought tolerant, even hating too much water, these plants are so easily grown, that I am always surprised more people don’t grow them. Yes, they can get quite tall (7 feet), but there is a new variety, called ‘Goldfinger’ that only gets four feet tall and I am growing it this summer for the first time to see if I like it as much. I am wondering if it blossoms so profusely as the tall one? Descriptions say it will, but I hold judgement until I grow and experience it.
The flowers are held high above the foliage with the center quite open and accessible for butterflies, and that is why they flock to it. Bees and other pollinators love it also, but especially the butterflies. Check out my post on ‘Butterflying‘ or ‘Plant These For Bees’ for more information on attracting these beautiful pollinators to your garden.
Since the plants grow so tall, be sure to stake it. If you don’t, the first wind storm you have, the plant will break and fall to the ground.
Why You should Grow Tithonia
Long bloom period
Tall plants make it easy to see and photograph
Attracts flocks of migrating Monarchs
Easy to start from seed
No serious pest or disease issues
Attracts a wide variety of pollinators
Tolerates low water conditions
Mixes well with other lower growing plants, like Cosmos and Zinnias