How Native Plants Can Help Your Vegetable Garden Grow
When growing a vegetable garden, there are so many variables that can either mean a successful garden with an abundance of fresh vegetables or a paltry yield. We tend to monitor how much water our garden receives, find the perfect spot so our plants get enough or perhaps not too much sunlight, and perhaps we remember that we need to add amendments to the soil so the plants get enough nutrients. One thing that we can easily overlook is the need for pollinators to help our vegetable plants produce those much wanted vegetables.
So how do we help ensure that our yard is full of pollinators, such as butterflies, that can help pollinate our vegetable plants? By growing native plants that serve as hosts on our property, because it is the only way to help create more pollinators. A great example of a shrub that many think are beneficial to ecosystems, but which are actually more harmful, is the butterfly bush. Many people believe that butterfly bushes–which are named as such, because many butterflies can descend on one all at once–is one of the best ways to invite pollinators, specifically butterflies, to their yards. However, a butterfly bush, which is considered invasive in many Mid-Atlantic states because they can spread outside of gardens and replace native plants in the ecosystem, do not serve as host plants as no caterpillars feed on them, thus they do not help create new pollinators. The best way to make sure that you have pollinators in your yard is to plant host plants. Host plants are those that other organisms live on and live off of.
To help your vegetable garden, here are some alternative native plants that serve as host plants for caterpillars (and are very beautiful):
Butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, common milkweed: all serve as host plants for Monarch butterflies. Swamp milkweed is an especially good choice for rain gardens and other heavy moisture areas. Not all milkweed is native to our region, such as the tropical milkweed. A good source to double check any plants before purchasing is the Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora.
Spicebush: a larval host for the Spicebush Swallowtail, this shrub is extremely versatile and will tolerate all types of sun exposure and moisture.
Common Winterberry: this shrub with beautiful red berries in the winter is a larval host for the Henry’s Elfin. It’s also a great replacement for nandina, because the winterberry’s berries are edible by wildlife; whereas, the nandina’s berries are toxic.
Oak: Oak trees can support over 500 insects and animals, making it a very wildlife friendly addition to any yard. Oaks serve as host plants to the following butterflies: Striped Hairstreak, Banded Hairstreak, Mourning Cloak, Edwards Hairstreak, Red Banded Hairstreak, White M Hairstreak, and Horace's Duskywing.
Paw Paw: the paw paw only serves as a larval host to one butterfly, the Zebra Swallowtail. However, if you plant at least two Paw Paw trees (or maybe a neighbor has one), you not only support wildlife, but you can harvest the fruit for yourself.
Christie Hoerneman has a passion for native plants, is a librarian at Central Rappahannock Regional Library, and on the Board of Directors at Downtown Greens.
This article was published in the April 2023 editon of Front Porch Magazine. Click the button below to read the full publication.
Growing + crawling
It is almost that time of year again! The too short, yet eagerly awaited time for the peonies to bloom!
It is a long held belief that peonies can't bloom without ants! It is no surprise people have thought this because this time of year you will see ants crawling all over peony blooms!
But this tale is just a myth! The reason ants flock to peony buds are because peonies secrete a substance called extrafloral nectaries. Essentially, this means that the buds are producing nectar, which is basically sugar, and the ants are drawn to it like...well... ants to sugar.
While these may seem like a really sweet thing for the peonies to do, they are not doing it just out of the goodness of their heart, they also benefit from the ants being there! While the ants are there feeding, they protect the forming flowers from insects that would feed on the plant itself. This is a perfect example of mutualism. Two organisms of different species benefiting one another.
Since peonies have a disappointingly short season, the ants have to constantly let other ants from their colony know to get it while the getting is good. Once an ant finds these beautiful nectar dispensers, they head back to their colony, leaving a trail of pheromones behind them that other ants can then follow to the buffet! Each ant leaves its own trail for its buddies!
Janet Douberly is the perfect example of mutualism at Downtown Greens.
This article was published in the April 2023 edition of Front Porch Magazine. Use the button below to read the full publication.
On the porch
Small Actions with Huge Payoffs
Having lived and worked in Fredericksburg a majority of my life, I have had the privilege of watching this town for decades. In my years working up and down Caroline Street, I have seen it garlanded in a show of pretty-looking yet disgusting Bradford Pear Trees and have watched in delight as they have almost all been removed and replaced with more appropriate and even more beautiful native trees. I have meandered by the lawns and lots, both lush with life and crowded with “weeds”. I have seen the impact one idea can have on our people and our ecosystem. With that in mind, and in honor of Earth Day and Arbor Day happening this month, I am making a call to small action.
As of right now, Fredericksburg still has citizens from a large variety of socio-economic backgrounds. You can find our people dwelling in everything from mansions to efficiency apartments. No matter where each of us fall in that spectrum, I believe there are small actions we can take to support our ecosystem.
One of the conditions of living in the city is that very few of us have large yards, if any yard at all. Those of us who do have yards, no matter the size, can make quite the impact by taking a close look at what we have growing in them. Many popular landscaping plants can actually grow invasively and cause a lot of harm. For example, nandina is a very popular plant in this area despite the fact it does not support our native wildlife and can go so far as to actually poison our feathered friends. English ivy is another plant plastered all over our historic city that has been labeled as being highly invasive and, as you can see on any stroll, will eagerly take over large areas, choking out other plants and eradicating biodiversity. Even our non-invasive yet non-native plants such as the boxwood (yeah, I said it) can take up a lot of space without providing habitat and food for our native wildlife. And while in my perfect world, reading these words would make everyone jump up and immediately eradicate all non-native plants in their yard to be replaced by useful and stunning native plants, I understand that is not feasible. My realistic hope is that those of us privileged to have a yard in this city, familiarize ourselves with what we have growing in our yards and start making plans to slowly replace any invasive species with native plants. Adding even one native plant to your yard is a small thing to do but the ripples started by that small action will radiate out to create large impacts on our wildlife.
But what about those of us without yards? Trust me, I can talk a big talk about what people should do with their outdoor areas but I have rarely ever had one for myself. So, aside from taking a page from my book and verbally dumping plant info on anybody that stands still long enough in my presence, what can we apartment dwellers do? I’m glad I’ve assumed you’ve asked! The most obvious idea is window planters. These tiny little boxes of soil can host amazing amounts of native annuals that will not only brighten your day but also the days of our native pollinators and birds. No good window for a box planter? No problem! For those of you with black thumbs, the keyboard is mightier than the sword! Contact our planning commission asking for invasive and harmful plants to be removed from the landscaping lists. Write our Virginia politicians to show support for the current bills proposing the banning of invasive plants being sold at plant stores and box stores alike. Have a couple of extra hours? Volunteer for local organizations that promote and protect our ecosystem such as Friends of the Rappahannock, Tree Fredericksburg, and Downtown Greens. Brother, can you spare a dime? Go online and make a donation that will support the work others are doing for the cause.
There are hundreds of small actions we, as a community, can take to support the health and beauty of our town and the human and non-human beings within. And much like the plants I won’t shut up about, each small action will grow and continue to support all the levels of our ecosystem.
Janet Douberly is a proud Fredericksburg citizen and currently Media Manager at Downtown Greens.
This article was published in the April 2023 edition of Front Porch Magazine. Use the button below to view full publication.
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