Native plant porn at Cornell

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A February day outside Cornell’s Ornithology center

What do you get when you combine a cold day, a hot room, and a few of the smartest horticulturalists and designers in the Northeast? A lot of excitement about native plants and meadows, that’s what.

It was worth a three hour drive for me to attend last Friday’s Designing with Native Plants conference in Ithaca, at the beautifully situated Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This was the first such conference ever held here and it was sold out. Colleague Kathy Purdy/Cold Climate Gardening and I were there as members of the press, but I never would have made the trip if I wasn’t curious about how native plants were going to make their way into the mainstream of nursery stock and landscape design. They’re not there yet, at least not in Western and Central New York.

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Dan Segal

For me the conference had two highlights: Dan Segal’s heartfelt challenge to those who feel certain cultivars “improve” upon their native parentage, and Larry Weaner’s fascinating discussion of exactly how one plans, installs, and maintains a wildflower meadow.

Segal talked about gardens he has installed, using various natives (he owns the nearby Plantsmen Nursery), and afterwards he was emphatic, not so much against cultivars, but against the automatic assumption that they are different or better. “If you have 10 experienced landscapers or gardeners, chances are 7 out of the 10 could not tell you the difference,” Segal maintains. “There used to be a rigorous selection process, but now it’s more about marketing. And I don’t like it that someone in Michigan has decided that Jacob Cline is the right monarda for me.” Do you hear a guest rant coming on? I do—look for it soon. As for me, I can hardly wait for June when I plan to make the drive to Ithaca again to browse the plants at Plantsmen.

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Kathy Purdy and Don Leopold

We also heard Donald Leopold (author of Native Plants of the Northeast) talk about plant communities and a long list of natives recommended for Central New York conditions. This was interesting, too—especially the drool-worthy images of wood lilies and yellow lady’s slippers—but both Kathy and I found Larry Weaner’s meadow discussion the most compelling offering of the conference.

Weaner first talked general naturalization strategies: how to plant, when to depend on self-seeding, and how to understand succession as short-term communities give way to long-term communities. I liked his advice to “plant early, plant full, and let nature take its course,” which has been an instinct of mine ever since I started gardening. Then he discussed specific meadows he had created for various clients. You need a good amount of acreage to make this work and a prescient control of what will happen over time (“unless your management strategy as a landscaper is to change your phone number,” Weaner notes).

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The Ornithology lab

And patience. What you don’t need is topsoil, fertilization, or irrigation. One gorgeous meadow was shown slowly evolving over 6 years, its stages including mown grasses to rudbeckia and other biennials to yellow coneflower and liatris to penstemon and Indian grass to a final maturation of baptisia that had been developing all the while.(Interestingly, every speaker used a somewhat promiscuous mix of latin and common names.) I can absolutely see a Weaner meadow in place of a certain lawn in Washington.

You can find links to all the downloadable handouts from this conference here.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com

12 COMMENTS

  1. This is off topic but please tell us about the cool new garden poster on the blog with your faces! It’s distracting me (I mean that in a good way) and I’m curious about the artist – did you really get the artist who did the Obama HOPE poster?? Do tell!

  2. Thanks for the links to the papers that were presented. Interesting to note that Mr. Weaner advocates the use of “spot herbicide application” as necessary when creating his wildflower meadows. Does that mean the rest of us don’t have to feel guilty about it?

  3. Chris,

    He does use them, as he discussed in his presentation, but speaking for myself (which is all I can do), I don’t feel any freer to use them than I did before. That would be one of his strategies I would not use, as opposed to the many strategies I would use.

    He also presented alternatives, but I don’t know if those made it into the linked material or not.

  4. In the presentation I heard, Larry said that some clients insist he not use herbicides to create their meadow and he’s fine with that – it just takes a lot longer and costs a lot more.

  5. Too bad they couldn’t have provided recommendations for small gardens as well. Many of us simply don’t have “woodlands” or “meadows” per se, but in the 30×50 space I have, certain areas mimic both of those ecotypes, and I built on that when I started planting.

    Another very good source for native plants and information is Jim Engel’s White Oak Nursery in Canandaigua, NY. Jim has made his essays on native landscaping available online and I found them extremely helpful. Most of the native shrubs and understory trees in my yard came from him.

    http://www.whiteoaknursery.biz/essays/index.html

  6. Hey Elizabeth, thanks for the good links. It was great to meet you last week! p.s. I love Garden Rant for a lot of reasons, not least its lively comments 🙂 Thanks, Susan, for links to Larry’s small lawnless gardens.

  7. Thanks for this post, Eliz. I love native plants that are suited to my climate, sigh about those that won’t grow where I am, and comfort myself by tucking in lots of other plants that aren’t native but are hardy to heavy, acid, clay soil (sounds like a rock group rather than a soil), lots of salt mist and fog, not so much sun, massive wind, and oh yeah, about fifty seven quintillion snowflakes come winter.

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