Edwina von Gal’s Radicle Thinking
As we head toward the shortest, darkest days of the year, we humans always start pondering big topics, like life, death, love, thankfulness, peace, and then set out to be better in the New Year to come. I, of course, am also thinking about plants and what they have to say about the world right now. Plants are the basic stuff of our lives: We need them for food and oxygen, and wouldn’t survive without them. They also provide great beauty. They are the “lilies of the field.” They serve us all and make no judgments—but how harshly we judge some of them!
Let’s consider "invasive plants" and the warlike language we have come to use when speaking about them. I’m well aware there are places where plants are taking over in a way that is very unfair for other species, and we might need to take a bigger role in a better outcome. But let’s bear in mind that some of these plants were intentionally introduced by humans. Others hitched a ride, as we spread around the globe. Of these introduced species, some, considered naturalized like Queen Anne’s Lace, have fit right in. Others, like clover and dandelions, have been targeted by the lawn industry as weeds, when they actually improve soil quality. And then there are those plants, such as Phragmites, Japanese knotweed, and mugwort to name just a few, that are considered so sufficiently aggressive and difficult to remove that they inspire attack strategies that involve mechanical and chemical warfare (flames, electric currents, toxic chemicals, and more).
What does the language we use about invasive plants say about us? For instance, ”the war on invasives.” Does their behavior warrant the intensity of our responses? How much do the words we use affect our feelings and our management policies? It is well accepted that aggressive language can have significant negative effects on relationships, collaboration, and overall well-being, while peaceful communication leads to more positive outcomes and healthier interactions. I believe the way we talk about plants can affect the way we interact with them.
Stop and think about these words associated with plant management strategies: fight, invasive, battle, eradicate, suppress, control, exterminate, zero tolerance . . . war. Is this how we should be making plans to “help” nature? Is this why smart and devoted environmentalists feel justified to use glyphosate (Roundup’s main ingredient) and other synthetic chemical herbicides? To arm themselves for battle?
A primary goal of removing invasive species is to restore diversity; we learned this from nature itself. A diverse system is generally more stable. Ecosystems tend to evolve toward higher levels of diversity and complexity—on their own. So, why aren’t we trusting nature to do that now? Maybe we want results to happen faster because some plant is causing us some inconvenience? Maybe there is money to be made in large-scale management schemes? Surely, we do have a role to play, but maybe it is time to be less aggressive, less harmful. Maybe we are not listening closely enough. As we approach the winter solstice, let’s stop for a moment, hear the plants, recognize their lives as good, and think in peaceful terms.
[Top Photo] Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), feared and targeted for its exuberant growth potential, contains high amounts of resveratrol and anti-inflammatory nutrients, which people have used to treat mobility, immunity, and circulatory system issues. Photo by OttoBlotto from Getty Images.
About one billion pounds of conventional pesticides are used each year in the U.S. Photo by Worledit from Getty Images.
Landscape designer and mom of two little girls, Grace Fuller Marroquin knows the power of connecting with a landscape. A childhood spent planting in the garden with her mom and playing in the dirt inspired her to bring this deep love to her work with clients. When she begins a project, the first questions she asks are: What does natural beauty mean to you? What makes you nostalgic about nature or gardening? “Being in a landscape evokes emotions,” she says. “I want to capture that in my designs.”
Grace looks to nature and its processes to manage her landscapes toxic-free. “Most people want to live in a healthy environment,” she says. “Nature-based gardening is cleaner and healthier, not only for us, but for the ecosystem. I don't know how we can exist much longer without practicing these methods, which are very straightforward and extremely simple to follow once you make the change.”
“Now that I’m a mom, I’m trying to provide the best experiences with nature that I can for my children," says Grace. "They crave it.” Her girls love collecting acorns and making fairy houses outside. “I keep finding snails and worms in my three-year-old’s pockets. They’re her buddies,” she says. “It’s absolutely necessary to get back to our roots, spend time connecting with nature—and to do it safely without toxic chemicals.”
This is part of a series with Gardenista , which ran on November 16, 2023.
Photo: Westchester County Parks and Recreation curators and interns wild collect Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds in a county park. This beautiful blue-green, fine-textured grass is a larval host for a mix of skipper butterflies and is attractive to birds.
“A seed contains the past and the future at the same time,” said the poet and writer Ross Gay, in a recent interview in The Nation. Hilltop Hanover Farm, a Perfect Earth Project partner in New York’s Westchester County, understands this firsthand. Through their native plant seed initiative, they are preserving the past by cultivating the plants that have been growing on this land for millennia, while sowing a resilient and biodiverse future.
Native plants have become a buzzy topic in recent years, and not just for their good looks. People are beginning to understand how vital they are to a healthy and robust environment. “Highly biodiverse ecosystems are more resilient and adaptable; they improve the soil, prevent erosion, protect against flooding, lower temperatures at the ground, and clean the air,” the farm writes on their website. “They are also beautiful.” But to provide the greatest benefit, restore depleted lands, and give insects, birds, and other animals the food and habitat they really need, we must look beyond the plants that are native simply to North America, and be sure to include species local to our specific regions. Hilltop Hanover is doing just that, led in their work by Adam Choper, the farm’s director, and Emily Rauch, the native plant programs manager. The farm is part of a newly formed group called Local 59 Plant Network, a seed collective formed to grow and collect valuable local natives of the Northeastern coastal zone (ecoregion 59) for conservation and restoration in Westchester County, NY, and Fairfield County, CT, and to preserve them for the future through the Northeast Native Seed Network. “We’re working together as a collective to figure out supply chain issues, find out where the gaps are, and find a way to get the seed out into the world,” says Choper.
The farm employs Lindsey Feinberg, a dedicated seed collector, to cull 18,000 acres in the county by hand. Feinberg follows the Seeds of Success Protocol set forth by the Bureau of Land Management, taking no more than 20 percent of a population so as not to deplete any one species. Ideally, she’s gathering from 250 different plants of the same species. “Instead of just harvesting once, our seed collector makes multiple passes on the same group of plants to capture early, mid, and late maturing seeds,” explains Choper. “And she’s not just collecting the most floriferous, or biggest, strongest plants, but also the less showy, smaller ones, as well as color variation within a plant. Genetic diversity is the key.” This focus on diversity is vital for handling weather extremes, disease, and other disasters, as well as planning for climate resilience. “It will ensure the future of a species,” he says. The more diversity, the more possibility a plant will survive.
In the fall, the team also harvests from their native seed production plots. “We lay out the seeds on tarps in our dairy barn for a couple months to dry,” explains Rauch. “After two or three months, we start hand rubbing them to remove the chaff and winnow out the seed.” The farm recently acquired a state-of-the-art seed-cleaning machine, which will make the whole process faster and more efficient. The seed is then stored carefully, to be planted next year or banked in a mid-term storage facility. The seeds we store should be viable for 2 to 10 years. “This way, we’re ready to go if something happens.”
Today, the farm has 30 native species in cultivation. “We don’t just focus on what I call ‘the romantic pollinator plants’, like milkweed, which everyone already knows and loves,” says Choper. “We also want to encourage people to grow the keystone species that might not be as showy, but are no less important, like the Purpletop grass (Tridens flavus), which is good for restoring wetlands and is also beautiful.” (See below for a selection of some of their favorites.)
Their seed mission comes full circle this winter when they will team up with their neighbor Muscoot Farm, another Westchester County Park and Perfect Earth partner, to plant out a new septic field with seeds grown and cultivated at Hilltop Hanover to create a thriving and beautiful ecotypic meadow—ensuring a vibrant future for generations to come.
[Photos courtesy of Hilltop Hanover Farm, unless noted]
Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) is one of the keystone species Hilltop Hanover grows in production. This fall-blooming beauty can reach six-feet in height and is a favorite of birds, who love to eat their seeds.
“We’re trying to find sustainable ways to grow native plants without using plastic,” says Feinberg. The team has been trialing more sustainable methods, like cardboard and this OMRI-listed paper mulch, which will break down over time.
Hilltop Hanover Farm is “dedicated to the development and advancement of sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship, community education, and accessible food systems for all.” They donate a minimum 10% of the produce grown on the farm to food pantries and soup kitchens in the area and also share native plants with other organizations in the region. “Here, cold frame boxes house germinating trays in summer and overwintering plants in the winter,” explains Feinberg.
The farm crew helps harvest seeds of Coastal Plain Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium) by hand.
A volunteer cleans Clematis virginiana seeds. Learn more here about volunteering opportunities at Hilltop Hanover Farm.
Photo by J. Meder - The farm grows Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), a deer-resistant, rhizomatous prairie grass with golden flowers, which hosts the pepper-and-salt skipper butterfly and provides nesting materials for native bees.
The farm sells their seed-grown native plants at their farmstand throughout the growing season. Fall is an excellent time to plant. They’re open Thursday through Sunday, 10-4.
Here’s a selection of favorite keystone species they are growing for seed production at the farm:
Photo by Prairie Moon Nursery - “An attractive, low growing, tufted grass with seeds that mature in the early summer, poverty-oat grass (Danthonia spicata) tolerates a wide range of habitats but prefers poor, dry soils in open woods,” notes Feinberg. This grass can serve as an alternative to turf grass on dry lawns with moderate foot traffic, where it can be interplanted with other groundcovers.
“Silverrod (Solidago bicolor) is the only white goldenrod in our area. It’s found in rocky, open oak woodlands. is a good pollinator plant that serves to increase species diversity on dry restoration sites,” says Feinberg. Here, it has gone to seed.
Photo by Prairie Moon Nursery - According to Feinberg, “Hop sedge (Carex lupulina), a keystone species of floodplains, marshes, and other open wetlands, has a number of ecological benefits, including shoreline stabilization, floodwater storage, and water filtration. It also provides food and cover for wildlife and insects.”
Photo by Dogtooth77 - “An attractive rush found in swamps, marshes, and floodplains, Canadian rush (Juncus canadensis) grows rapidly and handles substantial soil compaction,” notes Feinberg.
The unusual, large-flowered flat-topped white aster (Doellingeria umbellate) grows along swamp edges and moist thickets and is tolerant of flooding and stormwater inundation. “It blooms earlier than most asters, attracting a variety of bees and wasp species, including a number of specialist bees. It is also a host plant for the pearl crescent butterfly and the primary host plant of the Harris checkerspot butterfly,” says Feinberg.
When Bridget Goodbody and her husband Neil Radey bought their house in East Hampton more than 20 years ago, they inherited a large expanse of lawn and a garden that looked “like it had been won in a poker game" (and it had been—literally). Like many people, they cared for it with conventional practices: mowers, blowers, and chemicals. But over the years they learned from Edwina and Perfect Earth just how toxic—and unnecessary—these practices are. First, they stopped using chemicals on their lawn. Then, about six years ago, they took their landscape to the next level: reducing their lawn by 12,000 square feet and filling it with a robust mix of native plants—from silvery-leafed mountain mint (Pycnanthemum) to fragrant sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) and huckleberry. “Planting all these natives has enhanced the beauty here,” Goodbody said. “There are bees, butterflies, and a lot more birds. Red-tailed hawks fly over whenever I go out and in the spring I look for flashes of bright red or yellow when the tanagers return.” Their dog Star heads out every morning for her daily walkabout, following the path around the house. “I like watching the seasons unfold. The garden makes me feel rooted and attached to this place in a much deeper way than ever before,” says Goodbody. “Having it is a way to care for one tiny corner in the world and make it a healthier place.”
“A hibernaculum is a winter refuge for animals. Late last year we built one for snakes, which are important predators of voles and white-footed mice. What do snakes need during hibernation? It’s a time of extreme vulnerability, so they need a place safe from predators where they won’t freeze. We started by creating a tangle of stumps and chunks of wood gathered from the property, making sure there were lots of air pockets for snakes to nestle into. On top, we piled soil we had left over from digging a pond, and covered it all with a layer of compost. For structure, we constructed a frame of sticks, tied them together, and covered everything with more soil, compost, and seeded it with fescue grasses. Inside we dug out a small cave, fitted it with repurposed cement pavers, and placed a warming stone just outside, which will absorb the heat of the sun and provide a snake a spot to soak up the heat. I think of it as a folly, a snake folly. I’m excited to see who will move in later this fall. A garter snake? Or the exquisite and brightly colored, but nonvenomous, milk snake? I’m crossing my fingers and will be on the lookout.” —Edwina von Gal