Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Favorite Native Plants ~ Alison Gillespie

For number three in my series of favorite native plants, I asked Alison Gillespie, a local naturalist, writer and avid gardener. Although I have followed Alison's blogs for some time, I was still pleasantly surprised by the eloquence and beauty of her response to my question about natives.

Alison lives and writes about gardening and the environment from her home in Silver Spring, Maryland. She specializes in making small urban lots more livable for both people and wildlife, and sometimes coaches others through the process as well.  

Wintering Over: A few native plants Can Feed Your Soul, and the Birds 
by Alison Gillespie

I really love winter.  People are always surprised to find that out, especially if they know me through gardening circles. 

But I actually think that it’s the gardener in me that needs winter.  I need the break, the slow down, the empty browns and grays that fill those empty lots along Metro’s tracks.  Winter, I think, is the positive image that reflects summer’s intensity. 

Maybe it’s the intensity of my gardening passion that makes me love the break so much; when I read those articles about gardeners who brag of living in warmer climes where they can garden 12 months a year it just makes me tired, not jealous.  There’s also a refreshing sense of having one’s palette cleaned each winter, as the flowers fade away.  Garden mistakes and misfortunes fade from memory like vegetable peelings in the big black bin out back. 

But I also believe that my love of native plants contributes to my contented winter feelings.  If I lived in the city without a garden, I’d probably be miserable.  But this morning, for example, I awoke to cold, clear, sunny skies and found mockingbirds feasting on bright winterberries outside the kitchen window.  The color, the animation of the birds, and the contrast of reds, blues and gray-browns made my heart sing and not a single guilty feeling about weeding entered my brain.  With coffee and a warm robe I was thankful for the garden and enjoyed the view.  This, I thought out loud, is what makes living close-in with a tiny city lot area bearable.

There are lots and lots of native plants that urban gardeners can use to add color to a winter landscape.  Most are so carefree that you can plant them and almost forget about them.  Winterberries (Ilex verticillata), like many shrubs, are one of those natives.   Deciduous cousins to the better known American hollies, they are nondescript during the warmer months, although their small leaves and tiny, fragrant, white blossoms attract loads of bees.  In the fall, the leaves give way to stems spackled with bright red berries which are often imitated by plastic wreath makers at Christmas time;  there are so many berries on each branch that you can’t even see the woody stem underneath.  Then, at the end of winter, the berries prove irresistible to many species of native birds, who arrive to gulp them down one by one and strip those branches bare.

This winter I have also been enjoying the stand of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) which has finally matured in my garden.  I scooped up three of the variety known as Heavy Metal  for a very cheap price from a clearance shelf last winter at the local garden center.  It was a risk – they were hastily planted last December at the back of the garden, shortly before the huge blizzards dumped so much snow upon us all here in DC. 

My risk was rewarded this fall, when I realized how often my eye was drawn to the gentle swaying of the grass stems.  Now the birds have arrived to feast on the seeds, and I realize I’m not the only one whose been watching and waiting. 

The birds are also drawn to my  brown, dried up swamp sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius).  Don’t let the name scare you – you need not have a swamp to get luscious yellow blossoms from this beautiful native perennial.  It will do just fine in average soil, although I think this plant particularly likes it near downspouts in urban yards.  You also need a lot of vertical space for them, since their stems can sometimes reach eight feet or more in height. 

In our yard, the swamp sunflowers were allowed to stay all winter, even though they turned brown and made enormous arcs across the areas which held our tomatoes last summer, and now the juncos seem to find their seeds yummy.  Many afternoons when the sun weakly surrenders to the cold and dark, the birds are out there in a flocks, hopping around like miniature penguins and beep-beep-beeping to each other in gossipy tones. 

Inside, we watch and make plans for long games of chess and cocoa, and curl up with seed catalogs.  Our palettes have been cleansed, our souls refreshed.  We dream of rolling up sleeves and churning compost, and immerse ourselves in delirious fantasies that this year’s garden will surely be the best ever.  In winter it all still seems very possible.

Thanks, Alison, for sharing such a wonderful post with our readers.

If you would like to read more of Alison's work, you can visit her blogs: Where You Are Planted and Sligo Naturalist

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