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Going Native

Natural landscaping that gives back.

Ann Rosenberg won an “Extreme Yard Makeover” five years ago. The Fox Valley Area Chapter of Wild Ones, a group of individuals promoting native plants, ecology, and conservation and restoration of natural areas, sponsored the member-only contest.

Today, Rosenberg’s Neenah property is a natural habitat with hundreds of native plants and trees. As a member of Wild Ones, she creates native plant communities in landscapes and gardens.

Native plants grow naturally in areas before other plants are introduced from distant places. These plants are divided into four groups: wetland, woodland, prairie and savanna.

According to the UW-Extension Master Gardener manual, people can use native plants to serve almost any landscape function while also conserving the environment. Since native plants are indigenous to the area, often they have developed a resistance to the area’s insects and diseases. That means a significant cost-savings in fertilizer and pesticides.

Another benefit to incorporating native plants into landscapes are their ability to attract songbirds, native insects, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. “Monarchs go crazy over all the different types of milkweed I have,” says Rosenberg. Plants such as Umbelliferae, which are related to the parsley family, attract swallowtail butterflies. Other native plants like wild lupines draw Karner blue butterflies.

Native gardeners provide food for wildlife and build nesting sites and migration corridors by creating buffer strips next to lawns, walkways, property lines or waterways.

Rosenberg has added both a wetland and a woodland plant community to her yard. “It’s phenomenal,” she says. “It’s such a rush to be able to plant things and make it a habitat for animals.”

Storm Water Management

To create a rain garden, Rosenberg buried her home’s downspouts in the ground. The rainwater runs off the roof into an area lush with dozens of native plants, including cardinal flowers, prairie blazing star, queen of the prairie, wild blue phlox and joe-pye weed. Thriving on the edge of the garden are prairie drop seed, little blue stem and butterfly weed.

Next to her garden is a 10-by-10-foot pond. A pump that circulates the water creates a 5-foot stream that attracts birds and frogs. “On any given morning, I have 20 robins fighting for space in that stream,” she says.

Donna VanBuecken, executive director of the national Wild Ones organization and member of the local chapter, explains that the long, dense root system of native plants absorb and filter storm water and runoff. They also absorb water seven times more than grass, so there’s not so much runoff into the storm sewer.

“If you put in a rain garden you can direct rain water from your roof to your garden where it pools and then it can percolate through the soil where the roots filter the water,” says VanBuecken.

She also has a rain garden on her 1.3-acre lot in Grand Chute, as well as a prairie garden and woodland area. “We looked for a home that had a very large yard so that we could landscape it naturally,” she says. “Our home is all windows and we’re able to bring the outdoors in.”

Low-maintenance Lawns

Native plants are a great alternative to traditional turf lawns, VanBuecken says. “With the economy and people concerned about going green, now is a good time to try native plants,” she says, adding that there are many expenses in maintaining non-native garden and turf lawn care. “You’ll introduce fertilizer, insecticide, herbicide and water,” she explains. “All of those things are not sustainable practices and they’re expensive.”

A no-mow lawn can be made up of a variety of sedges and fescue, which are native grasses that grow very slowly and look like turf grass. The blades vary in width, from fine to broad.

During dry spells in summer, native grasses won’t die; they become dormant until it rains. Shade-loving plants, such as cut leaf tooth wart, may apple, bloodroot, hepatica and false Solomon’s seal, prefer a moist, rich, humus-type soil.

Recycling Leaves

Sharon Duerkop, who has a small native garden in Appleton, recycles the leaves that fall in her woodland area. “You never see a leaf blower in the forest,” Duerkop says. She also notes the importance of keeping leaves and phosphorus out of the Fox River.

Her small woodland includes red and white cedar trees, big tooth aspen, balsam fir, yellow birch, choke cherry, serviceberry, tamarack and common witch hazel. “If you walk into any natural forest, you’ll find trees very close together,” she says. “They tend to grow straighter and less laterally.”

Native plants in her woodland include columbine, calico aster, red bane berry, bishop’s cap, Virginia blue bells, bloodroot, wild cohosh, doll’s eyes, Dutchman’s-breeches, ferns and foam flower. “It’s a place to live, study and enjoy the critters that live in my back yard,” she says. “They give back to me. I’ve had a couple of oak trees from the blue jays that planted the acorns. You provide a living room for them and they move in.”

Her prairie grows on the south side of the home. Prairie blue-eyed grass, little blue stem, Indian grass and prairie drop seed need about six to eight hours of sun a day.

In spring, each clump of grass “gets a haircut” as she trims the grasses with a hand mower. “Otherwise, unless I’m shaping a tree or removing a damaged twig, there’s not much to do,” she says.

Go Native

For folks who would like to start a native garden, Jess Wickland, inventory control specialist at Oberstadt Landscape & Nursery in Fremont, recommends working with the plants instead of against them. “If it’s a shade-loving variety, plant it in the shade,” says Wickland. She also advises beginners to give their gardens time. “Don’t expect a mature plant the first year when the root system is getting established,” she says. “Just keep fertilizing and make sure you water them and they should grow well for you.”

Donna VanBuecken also encourages families to join Wild Ones for networking and mentoring. She invites people to check out the demonstration gardens at the Wild Ones Institute of Learning and Development (WILD Center) in Neenah.

According to VanBuecken, once people introduce native plants into their traditional plantings, they are hooked. “You’ll find yourself enamored by the native plants and the fact that you don’t have to use fertilizers,” she says. “You aren’t concerned about insects and you’re not out there watering in the dry summers.”

—By Jan Sommerfeld

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Backyard Bird Feeding 101

Mike Wagner, owner of Wildbird & Backyard in Appleton, says that it’s the food⎯not the feeder⎯that attracts our feathered friends.

Wagner tells people to put out a variety of seeds to attract birds. “I love steak,” he says. “But do I want to eat steak for three meals a day, seven days a week?”

Birds that visit feeders in the Fox Cities are commonly seedeaters, including cardinals, chickadees, sparrows, house finches and goldfinches. To attract a variety of birds, consider installing multiple feeders each with black oil sunflower seeds, safflower, red millet and white millet, peanuts and corn. An option for people with only one feeder is to purchase a high-quality, pre-made mixture to appease the appetite of many different types of birds.

Wagner advises consumers to be aware of the ingredients. Some inexpensive mixes may contain up to one-third milo, a filler product. “Don’t buy milo,” he says. “The seed shell is so hard they can’t crack it or eat it.”

Another ingredient to watch for is red food coloring. It is not necessary to add to the nectar to attract humming birds. Simply offering nectar in red containers is enough. “Every study I have read in the last 10 years says the red dye in nectar causes birth defects and hatching abnormalities,” says Wagner.

Other tips:

  • Bluebirds and chickadees love mealworms.
  • Insect-eating birds, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, orioles and bluebirds, are attracted to peanut butter and suet, particularly insect suet.
  • Orioles adore grape jelly! They also are attracted to nectar and insect suet.
  • Grackles and blackbirds don’t like safflower, .
  • Native plants offer a natural bird-feeding habitat, as creatures feast on the many different types of seed heads.

”Sunflower seeds are their favorite,” says Wagner. “If you put out only one type of seed, use black oil sunflower seed.”

—By Jan Sommerfeld

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