Planting defense: Wild lawnscapes enrich urban ecosystems

WILD SCAPES. Moss pink phlox makes a great lawn substitute. Photo by Leach

“I feel like I’ll never be done learning the native plants of this area,” says Sarah Coury, garden manager of the Botanical Gardens at Asheville. The nonprofit gardens hired Coury in January to oversee its living collection of plants. She also co-owns the nursery Saturnia Farm in Weaverville, specializing in native plants as well as exotic ornamentals.

To understand more about the importance of gardening with plants native to Appalachia, Xpress talked with Coury as well as Carson Ellis, the first national native azalea curator at the N.C. Arboretum.

“My role as a curator is really multifaceted,” says Ellis, who began her role just last year. “Right now, a lot of it is restoring the landscape. In the future, it’s going to be developing the landscape for its educational qualities, aesthetic qualities and conservation qualities — focusing on all the different ways that a garden space can be beneficial and meaningful.”

With the environment of Western North Carolina experiencing change, both speak about the potential for ecological landscaping to increase biodiversity at home and counteract some of the local challenges while adding to the beauty of urban and rural settings.

As reported by Mountain Xpress over the last several years, development, logging and pollution threaten to destroy one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world.

“Wild landscapes are getting replaced with sterile landscapes, filled with plants that the wildlife really can’t use,” says Coury. “It’s a pretty big impact that we can make with our landscaping choices.”

Many of the plants brought to the area for ornamental and other purposes have grown out of control across the landscape. Invasive species like kudzu, ivy, wisteria and Bradford pear outcompete native plants and even kill them by depriving them of sunlight and vital nutrients. Exotic insects like the emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid also have killed countless groves of trees iconic to this region.

“Pretty much all of our landscapes are impacted by human activity, no matter how remote it feels,” says Ellis. “We have Bent Creek that flows in here from outside of our property, and it brings in with it a lot of seeds from upstream that root into the banks, and we do have a lot of invasives.”

Coury advises residents to take stock of what’s growing around them. “If you inherit a garden that has a lot of nonnative species, it really just depends on what’s there. I would definitely say to get rid of any species that are invasive,” says Coury. She also cites pollution, water fluctuations and erosion as significant challenges to gardening in an urban landscape like Asheville.

Rewilding the lawnscape

“I think traditional landscaping can often be a lot of struggle,” says Ellis. “It’s just so much more exciting to try to manage something for the richness of ecology and all of the interactions between wildlife that you can start to see and be a part of through your role in creating and managing that landscape.

“Even just shifting your management and bringing native plants into a landscape can start to support ecology to some degree, and you don’t have to totally change your aesthetic and become wild in order to contribute to that,” says Ellis.

For inspiration on how to integrate native plants into the domestic terrain, Coury recommends “going and looking at the plant communities — going on a hike and paying attention to how nature designs itself.”

In addition to feeding pollinators and other wildlife, native plants can help filter stormwater runoff and reduce the risk of flooding. “It’s really important, especially around waterways, to be thoughtful about how you manage those landscapes to allow them to have their full ecological function, which trickles down to wherever that water is going to flow out to later on,” says Ellis.

Planting trees and shrubs also adds forest cover that cleans the air and provides shade to cool temperatures, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Native plants require little to no irrigation, pesticides or fertilizer compared with a traditional lawn, and they contribute to a sense of place by using the plants from that region. “The less you have to rely on artificial means of perpetuating your collection, the safer it is,” says Ellis.

“One thing that’s really important is thinking of things in terms of the food web and just the whole ecosystem, especially here in the mountains because more and more people are moving here, and there’s more and more developments coming up,” says Coury.

“It’s a two-way street because the animals then distribute the seeds of those plants and regenerate the whole ecosystem,” says Coury.

“I definitely think that people rewilding their yards or wanting to garden for wildlife need to consider not just what plants to plant but how to manage them, because management styles are [just] as important for maintaining diversity in rich ecological systems,” says Ellis.

Both Coury and Ellis believe that people can make a real difference at home — whether living in a house in the woods or an apartment in the city. Window boxes and balconies provide opportunities to surround the home with native plants in a limited space.

Other possibilities for planting native plants without private property include contributing to a local community garden or applying to Adopt-a-Spot through Asheville GreenWorks.

Ellis suggests that the fragrant and edible American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) might have the potential to adapt well to indoor conditions.

No matter where you’re growing, it’s important to try. “I think that there’s a lot of room to be proven wrong in horticulture by somebody who’s just willing to not listen to Google and try something.”

Find local plants

To get started, check out these local plant sales:

  • WNC Farmers Market Spring Festival & Growing in the Mountain Plant Sale, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday, April 22, and Sunday, April 23.
  • French Broad River Garden Club’s 71st annual Plant Sale, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday, April 22, 1000 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
  • Bullington Gardens, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Thursday, April 27, to Saturday, April 29, Hendersonville
  • Botanical Gardens at Asheville, noon-6 p.m., Friday, May 12, and 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday, May 13.

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About Trevor Leach
Trevor Leach is a freelance writer and artist based in Asheville. In addition to self-publishing several books and handmade zines, they have also worked on the editorial teams of the Sentry newspaper and Paperbark magazine.

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One thought on “Planting defense: Wild lawnscapes enrich urban ecosystems

  1. ahikingchick

    What an eye opening article! I always enjoyed gardening for the beautiful flowers that bloom but after reading this article it makes you appreciate gardening so much more. The thought of rewilding, feeding the wildlife, prohibiting erosion and diminishing pollutants in the air is so much more than the visual satisfaction. What a wonderful read!

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