A Weed by Any Other Name, Any Name PLEASE!

By: Stacey Wildberger

The word “weed” has such a nasty and undesirable connotation.  We hear the word and we immediately want to rip out the offending plant or worse yet, spray it with awful herbicides.  Merriam-Webster defines a weed as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing: one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants”.  I disagree with this definition because many of the plants growing in my yard have “weed” right in the name and these ‘”weeds” are not only valued by me but by the many species of wildlife that benefit from these weeds.  Until all native plants get a better marketing strategy, please look beyond the names and consider the plants value in your landscape.

I have 3 types of Asclepias sp. milkweed growing in my yard-Incarnata swamp milkweed, Tuberosa butterfly weed and Syriaca common milkweed.  I enjoy their beautiful colors but more importantly this “weed” is the only plant that the Monarch Butterfly will lay her eggs on.  This is the only host plant for the Monarch caterpillars.  When the eggs hatch the caterpillars rely on the milkweed plant to sustain them through the 5 instars stages before becoming a chrysalis and then a beautiful butterfly.  Without this weed we would have no monarchs.

Swamp milkweed

Another weed growing in my yard is the Eutrochium purpureum Joe-Pye-weed the gorgeous vanilla-scented rosy pink flowers are a butterfly magnet.  Last summer the swallowtail butterflies swarmed this plant.  It can grow to a towering 4-7’ and is ideal in perennials gardens and butterfly gardens.  You can get shorter varieties if the height scares you! You will often find moth species and other pollinators on Joe-Pye-weed.

Joe-Pye weed

Vernonia noveboracensis New York Ironweed is another tall growing butterfly magnet.  This tall, narrow plant will fit nicely in the back of the garden as beautiful border plant.  The reddish-purple blooms will not only serve as nectar source for many types of butterflies but the seed heads can be left up throughout the winter to nourish many small songbirds.

New-York Ironweed

Along my side steps and among the front garden I have Helenium autumnale or commonly called sneezeweed.  Not only does the name contain the offensive word weed but they have added sneeze to its name, causing some to think it induces an allergy attack! I can honestly say this plant does not cause excessive sneezing unless you are using the dry leaves as snuff to rid your body of evil spirits as it was thought to do.  It does however attract an array of butterflies and small pollinators.  This late summer to fall bloomer can be excellent sources of energy as monarch start their fall migration.


One of early spring bloomers that flowers for several months is the dainty pink flower of the Dicentra eximia, commonly known as wild bleeding heart but it also has been referred to as staggerweed.  The lovely heart shaped flower and fern like foliage looks beautiful in my shaded woodland area and is an excellent source of nectar for early pollinators.  There is nothing weedy about this plant!


As we continue to investigate the weeds growing in my yard we cannot forget about the aquatic ones growing in my pond.  The Pontederia cordata or pickerelweed has a beautiful purple bloom that is not attractive to our eye but an important habitat for frogs and fish.  It is also a food source fort ducks, turtles and other wetland critters.



Another gem that is referred to as a weed is Impatiens capensis or jewelweed.  This spotted orange flower attracts hummingbirds as the opening is perfectly adapted for these popular birds to reach the nectar.  This annual plant will self-sow to replenish itself each year.  Before you deem it a weed and yank it out consider what you are giving up, the joy of a flittering hummingbird on a bright summer day!   I have been told the leaves of this “jewel” can be used to treat poison ivy!


Finally, the misunderstood Phytolacca americana or American Pokeweed.  This tall, large leaved branching plant have clusters of white flowers that becomes a dark purple berry will nourishes many birds in early to late fall.  Although the berries and roots can be poisonous the newly emerging shoots are often gathered before they turn pink and cooked and eaten (I do not recommend trying this!). The berry juice was used as dye by colonists.



The next time you are deciding on what plants to add to your gardens please do not disregard a plant because it has weed in its name.  Instead take the time to get to know the plant and understand its important place in our landscapes.  Many of those weeds are not weeds at all but rather an important part of the ecosystem with a high value in creating biodiversity.

The Lazy Gardener

By: Stacey Wildberger

There are so many things on our to-do lists everyday wouldn’t it be nice to remove a few unnecessary gardening chores permanently?  While there is no such thing as a no maintenance landscape we can certainly have a low maintenance one by eliminating steps that are not only not needed but in some cases can cause more harm than good to our landsca pes.

  • Stop Tilling-when it is time to start a new garden or prepare an existing area for planting many people reach for the heavy equipment and till the soil but what you may not realize is that you are killing the microorganisms that keep the soil alive! Plants need these organisms to thrive—their nutrition, water and even defense against chemicals, diseases, and insects are in the soil. By turning it up you destroy the billions of microorganisms that have been working the soil for millions of years
  • Stop Weeding-pulling weeds causes soil disturbance which leads to seed disturbance and promotes more weeds. While we certainly don’t want our gardens taken over by weeds, consider trimming the weeds off at the soil level rather than ripping out the whole plant.  I have found a tool that works well for this—a Garden Hoe.  It has along handle with a sharp edge at the bottom of a triangular piece that, when you swipe it across the weed cuts it off at the soil level and provides for minimal soil disturbance.  It may sound like a chore but in the long run you will reduce the amount of weeds that are coming up by not digging into the seed bank.
  • Use a Green Mulch layer-this is another great way to reduce the amount of weeds that show up thereby reducing the amount of weeding that needs to be done. By using plants as “mulch” you will have a nice layer of green to keep the weeds at bay.  Some of my favorites are Packera Aura Golden Ragwort,  Chrysogonum virginianum Green and Gold, Antennaria Pussytoes, and Salvia lyrata Lyreleaf Sage.  There are always many native grasses that would work in this layer. Plant them closer together than any plant tag will tell you to do-about 10-12” so they grow together quicker a form a protective green mulch in your gardens to crowd out weeds.
  • Plant in layers-we talked about our green mulch layer but by having multiple layers at differing heights you will not only shade out the weeds but also cool the soil which will conserve water (less watering=less work). A good rule of thumb is the ground cover (green mulch) layer be less than a foot tall (50-60%), the next layer should be about 2-4’ in height (30-40%), followed by a smaller group of taller plants in the 5-8’ range (10-20%).  Not only will layering save time on watering, weeding and fertilizer it is also more beneficial to wildlife—including our beneficial pollinators.  (Benjamin Vogt)
  • Skip the Spring Clean-up-it is perfectly fine to leave the garden a “little messy” and begin to re-think pretty (did you read the March article “Re-Think Pretty”).  The later in spring you can wait to cut last year’s stalks (because remember we leave the stalks standing for overwintering pollinators) the more beneficial those stems are.  When you do begin to cut them back leave 12-18” standing: the plants will grow and hide the stalks but the beneficial bugs will still benefit from this messiness.  Try to leave the cuttings in place, let them lie in the garden as a natural “fertilizer’ and provide the plants with much needed  nutrients; many song birds will also forage in the messiness.
  • Plant Natives-you didn’t think I’d get through the whole article and not mention natives did you?  If we match the right plant to the right place we have just made gardening that much easier on ourselves.  Natives require less water, less prep and less maintenance and thrive in areas where they have co-evolved with native beneficial bugs over hundreds of thousands of years.   Understand what soil conditions the plant requires, as well as how big will it grow in its ideal conditions.  Be sure to consult reliable online sites for more detailed information than a plant tag tells you. Instead of wasting time and money getting your soil amended to the conditions required for a plant, buy plants that fit the conditions you already have.  Many native plants actually thrive in “poor” soil conditions and will get leggy and flop if they are in “rich’ soil.  Asclepsis sp. Milkweed is the perfect example of this. Your rocky, sandy, clay soil does not have to be amended with tons of topsoil and compost to make the soil more plantable.  Plants can have deep roots that grow beyond the soil you have amended and they eventually reach the native soil and don’t know what to do.  Use a soil test to see what type of soil you have so you can match the right plant to that place , but don’t spend money or time on fertilizers to keep an unhappy plant in that place, remove it and find one that likes the spot as is! Finding the native plants that thrive in the soil you have and you will save time and money.

Reducing Your Lawn

By: Stacey Wildberger

Your Lawn by the Numbers

  • 50K square miles of lawns in the U.S. alone.
  • $30 billion is spent annually to maintain them.
  • 60% of the average yard is lawn.
  • Pollution emitted by1 hour of mowing equals 100 hours driving a vehicle.
  • 10,000 gallons of supplemental water is used on a typical lawn in a year.
  • 90 million pounds of pesticides are applied to our lawns annually.
  • 10x more pesticides are applied per acre to lawns than per acre to farm crops.

Americans have long been obsessed with having a lush, green, chemically treated lawn, which is mowed to within an inch of its life, as a status symbol, or the culmination of a successful American Dream. How has our quest for these “perfect” yet lifeless patches of green affected the ecosystem and environment?  We are so concerned with fitting in to the typical ideal and standards set by an HOA or lawn obsessed neighbors that we just go along with what the “standard” is without ever considering the consequences.

While there are certainly pros to having grass as lawn it is not necessary for it to be the only life form. Take a moment to assess how much lawn you need in your yard.  Instead of grass being the default, decide where you need grass as walking paths, play areas and places to gather for outdoor activities then begin to remove the excess lawn.  What areas can you begin to give back to nature, places where biodiversity can thrive?  Where can you add more gardens with native plants, shrubs and even trees, or a water feature such as pond? Where can you replace grass with ground covers, mosses or ferns—do you have a shady trouble spot that these would work well in?

Steps you can take to minimize the harm caused by lawns

  • Mow higher—typically 3-4”.
  • Use a push mower to reduce the amount of pollution caused by a gas-powered mower.
  • Reduce or eliminate the synthetic chemicals used in your lawn
  • Use environmentally friendly options such as compost, limestone, sl.ow release rock fertilizers, grass clippings and fallen leaves as fertilizer.
  • Use native grass mixes in place of traditional grass-They require less maintenance (including watering and added nutrients) than “exotics”.

The chemicals typically used in lawn upkeep include many harmful chemicals but because they are so commonly used we wrongly assume they must be safe.  Just as Rachel Carson wrote that the use of pesticides commonly used to kill “pests” in our yards was harmful to wildlife, the fertilizers used in lawn care are having negative effects on not only many wildlife species but humans as well.  Those chemicals are brought into our homes on the bottoms of shoes and contaminate the inside of our houses.  These chemicals that are applied so heavily to our lawns runoff into our waterway, causing harm to aquatic life as well.

The Truth behind the Chemicals

  • “Weed and Feed” products are spread over the entire lawn but there are only 2-5% “weeds” in the lawn so the remaining 95-98% serves no purpose and ends up as runoff into our streams, rivers, lakes, and Bay.
  • EPA only requires companies to list active ingredients in their products but many of the inert ingredients contain harmful levels of solvents.
  • Nutrient Waste: water soluble synthetic fertilizers are immediately absorbed into the roots but what happens to the excess? Once again it is running off into the watershed, causing algae and phytoplankton blooms which use up all the oxygen choking off sea life.

Some additional tips to being a good Steward of the Land

  • Be a positive example to your neighbors—grow a healthy organic pesticide free lawn.
  • Create a demand for organic fertilizers by asking our local stores to carry them.
  • Control weeds prior to germination.
  • Apply natural fertilizers such as corn-gluten meal (20lbs per 1,000 sq. feet) in early spring.

I would love to hear how you have eliminated some of your lawn in the past or what steps you are going to take this year to reduce the amount of lawn you have.  Even small changes can have a big impact on the ecosystem and cause an increase on biodiversity that can positively impact the environment and slow down climate change.  The result will be less pollution emitted, reduced water consumption, decrease in harmful chemical runoff, and an increase in biodiversity!  Please comment on  our lawn reducing efforts!

Re-Think Pretty

By: Stacey Wildberger

“Beauty isn’t what a plant is, it’s what a plant does” –Benjamin Vogt

It’s that time of year again when the seed catalogues start arriving and gardeners start lusting after the newest plants on the glossy pages. As we image our lush, show-stopping gardens that will be the envy of our neighborhood take a minute and think “Who are we planting for?” Too many times our gardens are planted for aesthetics, to reflect our vision of pretty, or to appease the local HOA or our neighbors. It is time to re-think pretty and start to think what our landscapes and gardens should be doing for local ecosystems. As Benjamin Vogt says in his new book A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion “if we can’t recognize or discuss the deeper beauty of plants, then judging them by their attractiveness is as shallow and culturally indicating as valuing a person on their appearance or the kind of the car they drive”. We need to begin to look beyond the surface and into the deeper value our landscapes can provide.

What should we ask of our landscapes to do? Doug Tallamy says they should be able to do five things: support life, sequester carbon, clean and manage water, enrich the soil and support pollinators. How can we get our landscapes to support those five goals? Start by planting native plants. Native plants and insects have grown up together and evolved over hundreds of thousands of years together and developed relationships that cause them to depend on one another. Many insects have such specialized relationships that they can only survive by laying their eggs on one particular plant. These plants do not want to be eaten so they have developed chemical defenses that can be poisonous to most insects except maybe one or two that have co-evolved with the plant and have built up immunity to those chemicals. The insect depends on that one plant for its survival.  Many of you have heard of the decline of monarchs due to the loss of the milkweed plant but there are many other examples of the same specialization—the Maryland State butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot depends on Chelone Glabra the white turtlehead to lay their eggs, the Eastern and Black Swallowtail butterflies use many of the plants of the carrot family, the beautiful Zebra Swallowtail uses Paw-Paw while a group of butterflies in the Lycaenidae family (including the hairstreaks, coppers and blues) rely on the dogwoods, native azaleas, holly, and wild lupine.  The very definition of a native, as defined by Tallamy and Rick Darke is “a plant that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community.”

We don’t lose beauty in the garden or our landscapes by using native plants. In fact we are increasing beauty in the form of nectar- and pollen-gathering insects as they forage for food and pollinate our fruits and vegetables, by insect gathering birds rearing their young. These life-sustaining native plants are creating ecosystems and contributing to the food web in a way that sustains life.

Native plants are also a major factor in cleaning and managing water. Their deep root systems soak up rainwater to reduce the amount of runoff. They also act as soil anchors and filters by collecting runoff, absorbing water and decreasing flooding. Native plants often require less water because they are more drought tolerant then non-natives.

When I first started gardening in 2012 I didn’t think about what each plant was contributing, and I especially did not know about the relationships between the plants and animals. I certainly did not know the difference between a native and a non-native plant.

As I began gardening I also began feeding the backyard birds with bags of expensive seed, so I began to research what plants I should plant to attract birds with nuts and berries. The more I read the more I came to understand the relationship between the plants I was growing and the animals I wanted to attract. I began to see that the birds needed more than seeds and berries to eat. They need fat, soft bodied caterpillars to rear their young because 97% of terrestrial birds raise their brood on insects-mostly caterpillars. If you want chickadees to raise their family in your yard you will need to have 6000-9000 caterpillars within 50 meters of their nest because that is how many the babies will consume from the time they hatch until the time they fledge! Not all plants are created equal when it comes to making caterpillars.

This is where the relationship between plants and animals comes into play. The Oak tree can support 534 species of caterpillars, Black Cherry 456 species and Willows 455. It’s not just the woody trees but there are also many herbaceous plants that can act as a nursery for the caterpillars. Some of the best plants that support butterflies are Goldenrod (115), Asters (112), and Sunflowers (native Helianthus 73) and Joe-Pye Weed (42).

Some of our most important native plants suffer from a marketing nightmare. Many were given the name “weed” by the early settlers whose farming technique was to plow everything down to plant crops and anything they didn’t plant was deemed a weed-Milkweed, Joe-Pye Weed, Sneezeweed, Jewelweed, Butterfly weed and Poke weed. These plants are not weeds but rather essential species to our local ecosystems. Often native plants are thought of as not being able to be used in a formal setting but Europeans have been importing our native plants to use in their formal gardens for centuries.

There is always a native plant for every scenario. We just have to re-think our conventional gardening methods and remember who we are gardening for. We just need to open our eyes to the beauty that is around us in the life sustaining form of native plants. We need to re-think pretty.

Recommended reading: A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion by: Benjamin Vogt and Bringing Nature Home by: DougTallamy

Oyster farming here on the Bay

The current plan for the Lake Claire Beach restoration by Biohabitats includes the installation of reef balls to help break the power of the waves, and hopefully stop the erosion and loss of sand at our beach.

In this video from the Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, note the oyster farmer talking about the oysters cleaning the water, increasing submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) on his farm and attracting minnows and other life among their floating cages – those are the same ecological benefits the oyster reef balls will provide our beach at Lake Claire.



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