Learn what native plants will thrive in your garden. Whether it’s a meadow, a rain garden, a woodland shade garden or anything in between, you’ll learn what plants need to succeed and which ones will help support the most wildlife, like birds and pollinating insects. Presenters Blake Goll, Education Programs Manager and Mike Cranney, Preserve Manager.
In the heart of Willistown lies a Garden of Eden: over an acre of native wildflowers blankets a gentle slope in front of the Trust’s office on Providence Road. It provides a living example of how homeowners can help support nature in their yards.
The first seeds for our wildflower meadow were planted in 2008, and since then around 800 flower plugs were carefully tucked into the soil each spring by elementary school children who learned about the myriad benefits of these native plants— from supporting the insects that drive food webs to minimizing water usage. Year after year we watch the cradle of green grass morph into a field of countless perennials awaiting their turn for inflorescence throughout the summer.
Last year I kept a photo journal of the spellbinding symphony of life the meadow supports during its prime flowering months of July and August.
In July, the red milkweed beetles wiggled their black antennae against the common milkweed as a few tiger-striped monarch caterpillars happily munched away at the toxic leaves. Honeybees and nectar-loving wasps buzzed peacefully around the velvety mountain mint in such masses as to make the plant seem like it had a pulse. Hummingbird clearwing moths probed the charming purple sprays of the wild bergamot, and clumsy bumblebees clung to the elegant ivory candelabras of Culver’s root. Swallowtail butterflies became fluttering fixtures on the delicate clusters of lilac blooms produced by the garden phlox—seemingly every pollinator’s most cherished cocktail. On a lucky day even a battered monarch butterfly danced with hope among the Joe-Pye weed, its torn wings a symbol of the trials that this threatened species can overcome if we only provide it with more sanctuaries like this.
In August the meadow takes on a golden hue as the brilliant yellow of the native sunflowers is augmented by goldenrod species. Contrasting splashes of deep purples from the ironweed and vervain create a blissful palette in which at least ten species of butterflies can be counted at once. Birds also abound in this kaleidoscope of colors: kingbirds and bluebirds hunt for insects, as goldfinches bounce up and down on the long stems of the cup plant, chattering to each other while feasting on the seeds of the spent blooms. I watched a young house wren take shelter among the stems of the pokeweed, where he made his first babbling attempts at his father’s spirited song.
This is life at its finest. There are few natural landscapes where you can be surrounded so closely by so much visible life that is not in any hurry to evade you. A cathartic place like this has the power to free us of loneliness, sadness, and worry by igniting our fascination. Your eye catches sight of a butterfly and the mind follows; such involuntary attention is the opposite of what our daily tasks demand and is exactly what promotes clear-headedness, calm, focus, and happiness.
Not only are native wildflower meadows elixirs to human health, they also promote ecological health and act as unsurpassed nurseries for biodiversity. Imagine having all these benefits right at your back door.
There are over 48 million acres of largely biologically barren lawn in the U.S, and we lose 1.5 million acres of land to development each year. Our lawns do not have to be monocultures of grass; by choosing native plants for at least half of our properties our yards could actually begin to rebuild the ecological food webs that are breaking down as a result of loss of habitat and pesticides. By incorporating patches of native plants in your yard you can provide habitat for countless insect and bird species, including beneficial predators that keep pest insects in check naturally.
Studies show that native wildflowers are also an answer to feeding the world’s growing population; the diversity of birds and insects in strips of wildflowers next to agricultural fields reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides and significantly increases crop yields, thanks to pollinating services. Even in the dormancy of winter, unmown native wildflowers and grasses provide essential seed sources and shelter for birds.
There is a wonderful quote, “Leave room in your garden for fairies to dance.” I remember reflecting in the wildflower meadow that summer and marveling at two monarch butterflies that seemed to be curious about me as they glided past and fluttered back to me in a teasing manner. With iconic species like this on the brink of becoming like fabled garden sprites to our children, it is hard to justify not doing everything we can to heal nature. What a gift it is to learn that your yard actually has the power to make a big difference.
The Trust invites you to check out our website or call for information on creating your own wildflower paradise. You are welcome to visit our wildflower meadow at the office (925 Providence Road, Newtown Square). Its peak months are July and August, but you’ll be rewarded with new joys any month you go. Wildflower strips are also incorporated along the farm fields at Rushton Farm. Common Milkweed is spectacular at all of our preserves for a brief window in mid-June.
Ready to join the movement?
Here is our curated list of great sources to get you started learning about, buying, and planting natives:
Which Native Plants to Buy for What Purpose
- National Wildlife Federation: Native Plant Finder (Allows you to search by zipcode for plants that support the highest numbers of butterflies and moths to feed birds and other wildlife)
- National Audubon Society: Plants for Birds (A great place to learn about native plants and their importance, and a guide to make your yard bird-friendly)
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: The Best Plants and Trees to Plant for Birds Starter List
Where to Buy Native Plants Locally
- PA DCNR Where to Buy Native Plants (Gives you an extensive list in PA)
- Redbud Native Plant Nursery (our favorite!) Media, PA
- Mostardi Nursery (4033 W. Chester Pike, Newtown Square, PA 19073)
- Yellow Springs Native Plant Nursery 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425
Online Native Plant Marketplaces
- North Creek Nurseries (wholesale only but great for researching plants)
Summer Reading List
- Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy
- The Living Landscape by Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke
- Nature’s Best Hope by Doug Tallamy
- Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein
- The Backyard Parables by Margaret Roach
Rain gardens are popping up everywhere. You will find them on college campuses and office parks, in mall parking lots, along city streets and multiuse trails. They have grown in popularity over the last several years, in response to the many problems stormwater causes in the landscape.
When it rains – especially a heavy rain – we see flooding, erosion, and pollution from stormwater runoff. Just the first inch of rain during a storm collectively does the most harm.
The good news is local use of rain gardens (even on your own property!) can help to reduce flooding, erosion, and pollution over a broad region.
The Benefits of a Rain Garden
A rain garden on your property provides numerous benefits, including:
- Intercepting water and provide habitat for birds and wildlife
- Reducing stormwater runoff by 30% compared to a traditional turf lawn
- Adding natural beauty
It is not just another garden bed and does not need to be limited to perennial wildflowers and grasses. Shrubs and trees can also be used in rain gardens to achieve increased absorption, retention, and beauty.
Planning Your Rain Garden
When planning a rain garden, you need to determine what is known as the infiltration rate of your soil, or how quickly water drains through it. This will indicate whether your soils can support a rain garden. You can test it yourself in 4 easy steps:
- Dig a hole 1’ deep, being careful not to disturb the sides or compact the soil in the hole.
- Pour 444 mL (1”) of water into the hole and let it drain completely
- Fill the hole with water again and place a ruler in the center flush with the bottom to measure the depth
- Wait 15 minutes, measure the water depth again then multiply the result by four to determine the infiltration rate. Rates of .5 to 8 inches in an hour are sufficient for rain gardens.
Next, consider the location and size of the rain garden. The Philadelphia Water Department recommends sizing your rain garden to be 20-30% of your impervious surfaces (roof, driveways, patios, and walkways). The rain garden should be a minimum of ten feet away from the foundation of your house and your property line and in the lowest spot of the yard. The area should have a 1% slope away from your house for proper drainage. The rain garden will need either an outflow or a drain for larger storm events to prevent flooding. Make sure that the direction of the discharge is away from your house and your neighbor’s property.
When digging the rain garden, if your soil is rich with organic matter, two to three inches of depth will be sufficient. If it’s not and you need to amend it, dig down five to six inches and add compost. Always use PA 1-Call before you dig, to make sure you are clear of unseen obstacles underground. Taper the edges of the rain garden toward the center to prevent erosion.
And now for the exciting part: deciding what to plant. The funny thing about a rain garden is that most of the time, it is dry! While you might think wetland plants would be best, floodplain plants that can handle periods of inundation and drought are actually ideal. Basically, a rain garden functions like a small floodplain where water can stop, slow down, infiltrate into the soil and be absorbed by plant roots. The next question to ask is what plants are common to floodplains?
Depending on the size of your rain garden, planting a tree in it might not make sense. But if it does, a tree can be a fantastic focal point. In our region, you have a variety of native choices:
- canopy trees: red and silver maples, sycamore, river birch, pin oak, swamp white oak, and black gum.
- understory: black willow and sweet-bay magnolia
Bald cypress is a great southern species, too. As our area continues to warm up, using more southerly species may be a way to increase the long term vitality of your landscape.
The shrub layer of floodplains offer a rich palette of plants from which to choose. Highbush blueberry, red chokeberry, and black chokeberry look lovely and provide edible fruit. Buttonbush, arrowwood, winterberry holly, ninebark, meadowsweet, sweet pepperbush, possumhaw, red twig and silky dogwoods offer a variety of color, texture and seasonal interest to round out a rain garden. Once established, shrubs require minimal maintenance.
Thinking of your rain garden as a habitat with niches to fill can help guide design and plant selection. Plan on a variety of heights and moisture tolerances between the center and edges. Plant low growing cool season bunch grasses for early season cover, wildflowers for summer color, and shrubs for height and fruit.
Whether you plant trees, shrubs, wildflowers, or grasses, rain gardens can provide beauty, functionality, and habitat for your landscape. Dig deeper and decide for yourself what type of rain garden fits your landscape and start helping your community by reducing stormwater runoff at home. Many small actions can really make a difference.
This article was originally published in County Lines Magazine – May 2020 Issue.
Early May – Early October: Once your wildflowers are planted, regularly inspect your meadow to ensure that invasive weeds are not colonizing the space. Hand pulling or cutting weeds below the height of native species should help to manage any invasives that may creep into your meadow.
Year Two and Beyond: Mow the entire meadow once a year in late March to early April to a height of about 6 inches — before the young wildflowers start pushing through the grass. Although some landscape professionals recommend mowing meadows in the fall as well, leaving plants unmowed over the winter provides important food and shelter for wildlife during the harsh winter months. Should you decide to mow a second time in the fall, wait until the year following installation to give the young wildflowers a chance to establish.
Wildflower plugs generally take three years to fully mature, so patience is required, but the result is well worth the wait!
Mid April – Early May: Once your wildflower plugs arrive, it may be tempting to lay out plants in neatly arranged rows, but clustering plants together while still paying attention to plant spacing will echo the more organic patterns found in nature.
In addition, wildflowers planted in clusters with several plants of the same species within a few feet of each other will also help to attract more pollinators. Use a handheld auger (2” +/- in diameter) or shovel to open holes for your wildflower plugs. Then you can easily insert each plug in the hole and tamp the soil around it.