Episode 62 – Going all-in on native plants – or not?!

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Native plants - it's a controversial topic, but why? This episode, we touch on a few of the myths and misconceptions about gardening with native plants. Spoiler alert: we're fans, but understand that everyone is on their own garden journey and that small steps can make a big difference. We also talk about the why of gardening with native shrubs, because that's an important aspect of determining which native plants you'll buy and where you'll plant them. Listen to our whole conversation at the YouTube link above, or tune in on your favorite podcast platform. This episode's Lim-A-Rick: I really want to be accomodative What's original? What's imitative? Which of these plants got here first, via seeds birds inadvertently dispersed? I'm trying to be natural and native Priority in a pecking order I have impulsive plant buying disorder A circle has no beginning The thought has one's head spinning For this perpetual plant hoarder.

Why? One of the reasons that native plant gardening has become controversial is because a whole lot of different concepts get lumped in together, when in reality, they are all separate issues. One example that generates a lot of controversy is the existence of “nativars,” or cultivars of native plants. A nativar is a selection of a native plant that differs in some way from the rest of a population. The differences could be subtle, like maybe the stems are a bit thicker, or a slightly different color, or quite dramatic, like a very different size or completely different flower color. Nativars do occur naturally: any time a plant receives pollen from a different individual and there’s an exchange of genetic material, there’s a chance for mutations to take place and the offspring to be different, to some degree or another, than the parent plants. In nature, this serves the important purpose of potentially ensuring the survival of the species through challenges: a plant with more purple foliage may be better able to withstand an intensely hot summer, or perhaps the purple will make them less appealing to a pest. Smaller plants may dodge deer browsing, plants with bigger flowers may end up more attractive to pollinators or have a bigger seed set. So nature makes its own nativars all the time, though of course it takes a human to come along and identify that the plant is different, propagate it, and bring it to market. And of course, when plant breeders cross-pollinate two plants, they are also seeking out those natural genetic mutations, which they will select, propagate, and bring to market.

Nativars kind of got a bad name a few years ago, largely due to double echinacea. Echinacea (coneflower) have been popular garden plants for years, and as their popularity grew, so did people’s desire for something new. At some point along the line, plant breeders introduced double echinacea, with a little crown of petals on top as well as the normal ring at the base of the cone. Turns out those extra petals made them less appealing to bees and other pollinators, decreasing the benefit of growing echinacea to insects. But the fact is that fancier flowers is far from the only goal that plant breeders have in creating nativars – for example, one of our main breeding goals with native shrubs is to select for smaller, more compact habits so that what would be a 10′ tall and wide plant in the wild becomes a more landscape-friendly 5′ tall and wide. And in other cases, like with Low Scape Snowfire aronia, this week’s plant on trial, what’s different about it is that it has more flowers, which means more nectar and pollen for pollenating insects, as well as more fruit for the birds. 

Aronia is an incredibly ubiquitous native shrub, growing naturally across the entire eastern half of the US and Canada. It’s so widespread because it is so durable – it can take just about any soil condition and grow nearly anywhere, though as with most flowering shrubs, growing in dense shade means fewer flowers and fruits. Spring brings thousands of pretty white flowers, each crowned with pink pollen for extra color. As late summer rolls around, the plant bears huge crops of blue-black berries that give the plant the common name “chokeberry” – though edible and full of nutrients, they are astringent and suck the moisture out of your mouth if you eat one. Fall also brings amazing foliage color, putting the “fire” in Low Scape Snowfire, blazing in shades of red and orange. 

Who: Low Scape Snowfire was developed right here in West Michigan by Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs breeder Megan Mathey. 

How to Grow: Aronia is extremely easy to grow and very ornamental. If I had to bring up one caveat, it would be that it is a suckering shrub so over time, forms colonies. If planted in the right spot, this is an asset, not a liability, but if you find Low Scape Snowfire suckers where you don’t want them, sharpen up your spade, plunge it in, and rip those suckers out. When I have grown aronia, I have found it to often be eaten by deer and rabbits. They don’t damage the plant itself, but are especially fond of the flowers, which means it won’t bloom and you won’t get berries. So protect the plant in late winter and early spring, when the buds are on the plant and the creatures are at the hungriest, and you should be okay.

If you’d like to add Low Scape Snowfire aronia – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

Roots don’t typically grow as deeply into the soil as most people expect, for the simple reason that oxygen becomes very limited beyond about 18″ deep. Roots need oxygen, that’s why overwatering is so bad for many plants, because it replaces oxygen with water and the plants essentially suffocate. So many plants, especially perennials with fibrous root systems like Paint The Town dianthus, don’t necessarily need much soil depth to grow and thrive – plan on providing about 1.5 times the height of the plant, not including the flower stalks. And bear in mind that even if you can’t provide that, the plant likely will still grow, you’ll just get a “bonsai effect” wherein the plant can grow on top in direct proportion to the amount of roots it can grow. So the plant can grow and bloom, it will just be smaller than normal and may need extra water, too.

The ideal cut off time for fall planting shrubs, trees, and perennials that are hardy in your area is about six weeks before the ground freezes – not first frost or hard freeze, but before the ground freezes solid. That’s a difficult date to predict, of course, but at this point in the season (early November), it’s better to get something as hardy and durable as maiden grass (miscanthus) in the ground for winter rather than try to overwinter it in containers. Water well after planting, and mulch the plants, which will prolong the period of optimal root growth conditions.

This is tough. I know there is a lot of love for cats out there, but outdoor cats are characterized as an environmental disaster, and are estimated to kill 1 billion birds and 6 billion small mammals in the US in just a year. A well-fed pet cat may or may not be a threat, but feral cats, whether they are getting supplemental food or not, are almost certainly going to tune into their natural instinct for hunting and kill. I think that if the feral cat population in your area is severe, it is absolutely worth considering stopping feeding birds. I know that’s a heartbreak, so if that’s not possible, there are a few things you can do. First, position your feeders in the open so cats don’t have a place to hide and sneak up on visiting birds. Site feeders 10-12 feet away from any coverage from buildings, outdoor furniture, or plants. You can also use scent repellents – curry powder, cayenne pepper sprinkled over the ground works (and they are very inexpensive at the dollar store); You can also mix resinous essential oils with water and spray the ground – think eucalyptus, lavender, or mint. There’s also some cleaners formulated with orange oil that many people swear by. Finally, consider scat mats – these are plastic or rubber  mats that cats cannot walk on. You may need several, and it’s important to remember that cats can jump.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick