New native Plant habitats

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Many Ways Farm, White Cross, NC
Kurt Ritters and Megan Grands

In 2017, we finally found an ideal site for our new home. We were attracted to this 10-acre parcel, once part of the original Durham family farms near White Cross, because it is relatively remote (for Orange County) and it contains a remarkable variety of forested habitats. We set about learning the plants on the property, noticing the differences in the riparian area as the creek transitioned from a sandy and slow section to a rocky and fast section, and along the gradients of elevation and aspect in the adjacent 20-year-old cutover hardwood-pine forest.

Our evolving native plant list now includes about 75 herbaceous species, 10 vines, and 30 trees, and we’re getting better at identifying other plant forms, including fungi (we’ve tentatively identified 25 different species with the help of the iNaturalist app). Our most unexpected discovery was Bald-cypress “knees” in the creek, but it turned out these out-of-range individuals were planted 20 years ago by the neighbor.

After moving in two years ago, we began to create, within a “home zone,” a series of plant communities according to micro-habitats, along with some space for vegetables. While the home zone focus is on native North Carolina plants, for aesthetic and seasonal interest we do include some non-invasive ornamentals. Our evolving list of planted material now includes more than 100 species across the range of plant forms.

Apart from a heavy hand in the septic field (wildflower seeding) and in the old pasture (planted fruit and ornamental trees and shrubs, and a butterfly garden), we are attempting to minimize our impact outside the home zone. Our experiences have been very satisfying and rewarding, and we look forward to a continuing journey with nature in the years to come.

Wendy’s Journey to Natives – By Wendy Diaz

It wasn’t my intention to plant invasive plants in my yard when we moved to Durham from Canada 22 years ago. I just loved landscaping and I was uneducated about the plants, soil and climate of North Carolina. I was so happy that I could finally plant ornamentals in my yard that would struggle or not even survive in Canada due to its more severe winter, and I was also not prepared for the rapid plant growth rate in this state of both exotic and native species. So, I spent a lot of time pulling up unwanted seedlings.

However, in 2015, I received Durham Master Gardener Extension Volunteer training and also attended talks at various garden centers, such as the North Carolina Botanical Garden Then the New Hope Audubon Society was very helpful and they pointed out native wildflowers that I already had in my natural area that I did not know existed. I became inspired to build on what I had naturally, which was about 33 native species. After I received the Platinum Certification for Bird Friendly Habitat in July 2020, I became aware of our Society’s Native Plant Habitat Certification, and applied for and received certification this March.

I keep an inventory of both native and ornamental plants in a spreadsheet which I update after each spring or fall plant purchase or when a new native ‘volunteer’ emerges thanks to the help of birds and squirrels or because mulch and invasive plants were removed. We did the removal work in about three stages to avoid feeling overwhelmed. During a few weekends between the summer of 2018 and 2020, armed with hand pruners, lopper, shovel, mulching lawnmower and chainsaw, my husband and I removed the invasive species . I did not use herbicides, but instead pulled up plants by the roots where possible after a good rain. I acquired native plants from reliable sources. I amended the clay soil with mulched leaves, and hand weeded and protected them from rabbits and deer until they became established. I let the moss spread in areas if it was growing vigorously and it flanked the native plantings for a neat appearance. Dead trees were topped and left to provide forage and shelter for birds.

We have noticed more mammals, reptiles and birds in our yard these past few years and it is very rewarding to see the transformation. The native plants I have now (90 different species including trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, vines and wildflowers) and along with my conservation practices have produced a pretty and natural-looking garden. In 1999, I didn’t have time to obtain certifications when I moved to Durham with three young children and I only can imagine how mature and beautiful my garden would have been if I had that education back then or asked a Master Gardener.

Knowledge is power when landscaping a garden. Fortunately, we had abundant rainfall in the last few years and the North Carolina growth rate did not disappoint. I recommend removing invasive species from your yard and planting some natives. It will be a rewarding experience. My native plant garden is colorful, diverse and busy, and soon the ground surface will be covered so I will have less weeding work. My garden is now my muse and not my job.

Laurel Millaci – Mint Hill, NC

I have always had a love of flowers and gardening, instilled in me by my grandmother. Seeing the growth of a seedling into a beautiful flower, attracting a butterfly or bee, is true magic. That image still resonates, but now I realize the importance of the relationship of all aspects of nature. 

When I moved to Mint Hill four years ago, I completed the UNCC Native Plant Certificate Program and through the classes and projects, I learned the critical importance of planting natives as a key to strengthening our entire environment. Without native plants as a base, there would not be the insects that live on them, and the birds and wildlife, which need them to survive for food and shelter.

One of my favorite natives is Coral Honeysuckle. Not only is it beautiful, but it gives all of the hummingbirds by my home a natural source of nectar, in addition to my hummingbird feeders. I have a great appreciation for all birds, as I am the Supervisor for the Baby Bird Rescue at Carolina Waterfowl Rescue. We rehab and release thousands of songbirds each summer season. I love that my passion for plants and animals is totally entwined through the importance of native plants.

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Jean Woods

Jean Woods

Jean is an botanist with years of experience in the computer field. She enjoys messing around with bits and bytes.