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Plant This, Not That!

by Cathy Ludden

A former board member and immediate past president of the Greenburgh Nature Center, Cathy Ludden is one of our region’s most articulate spokespersons of the benefits of replacing tired non-native plants—especially those that are invasive and do not native provide habitats or food for beneficial insects—with pollinator plants.

“Driving the native gardens and pollinator pathways movement is recent documentation of a stunning decline in insect populations, especially pollinators,” she says. “Since many of our food crops depend on insect pollination, this is a huge wakeup call for all of us. Insecticides, agricultural techniques, and loss of habitat all contribute to crashing insect populations. And since most birds depend upon insects to feed their young, bird populations also are declining rapidly. The two main classes of pollinators we are trying to save are butterflies and bees, especially native bees. Bees need flower nectar and pollen. Butterflies need nectar and host plants for their caterpillars to eat. Pollinator gardens should provide all 3 essentials: nectar, pollen, and host plants.”

Cathy has created a slide show called “Plant This, Not That” which describes how to replace the most common invasive, non-beneficial plants used in the Northeast with equally beautiful native plants with  significant wildlife benefits.

You can download your PDF of the slides here: Plant This, Not That PDF.


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Using Natives in Your Garden

Famed landscape designer Larry Weaner gave Garden Club members and guests an important presentation on gardening with native plants of the Northeast. Here are some of the the main points of his illustrated talk that may be helpful in planting your garden:

Plant Communities

A plant community with Liatris spicata (blazingstar) and Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s root). If plants grow together in nature, they most likely will be good companions in a garden.

• HABITAT: Look at plants, how they grow, and “who” they grow with.

• The same plant combinations that grow successfully in the wild can be planted successfully in a garden with the same temperature, water and soil conditions.

• Match each plant to its ideal habitat. For example, as shown in the photo below, perennial lupines typically grow at the forest edge in well-drained, sandy soil with slightly acidic pH. Scatter seeds of Lupinus perennis in the spring in a partly-shaded spot that has well-drained, sandy, slightly acidic soil, and within two years you may have a beautifully flowering stand.

Wild Lupine0010

A naturally occurring stand of Lupinus perennis (perennial lupine)


• DISTURBANCE: Many seeds lie dormant, and when an event happens, like a fallen tree branch, it creates a disturbance that causes the seeds to germinate.

• Scatter seeds after disturbing an area to encourage growth. Monitor area for weed growth, most intensively during the establishment phase.

Disturbance 2

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower) in the garden with Phlox paniculata ‘David’ (summer phlox), Amsonia tabernaemontana (blue star flower), and Heuchera villosa var. macrorhiza ‘Autumn Bride’ (hairy alumnroot)

• SUCCESSION: Use shorter-lived plants (you may start from seed) as “place holders” until longer-lived perennials develop.

• Choose plants that grow and mature at different time frames.

• Use plants that spread seed and roots to fill gaps naturally.

• Structure your garden in layers (tall, medium and low) as they would grow in a woodland setting or meadow.

• Use logs and stumps in the garden as a habitat for plants and wildlife.

Natural Design

“Natural Design”: a planned meadow with Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) and
Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan)

• “Meadows” can get weedy if not properly managed. But once established and if managed appropriately, a meadow’s dense vegetative growth can inhibit weed seed germination. Weed to favor desired species and discourage undesirables, especially during the critical establishment phase.

• Cut weeds instead of pulling. Pulling disturbs the soil, encouraging more weeds.  If you must pull, plant in the gap. To get rid of vines or larger weeds, cut and paint with a herbicide rather than digging.

Competition 2

A border of natives: Aspclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed), Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), Liatris spicata (blazingstar), Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ (switchgrass), and Silphium perfoliatum (cup plant), Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi (bearberry), Cornus alternifolia (pagoda dogwood), and Rhus aromatica ‘Gro lo’ (fragrant sumac).

• If you consider views and vantage points — like viewing the garden from a distance looking up to the house — and plant using natives imitating the patterns of plant communities in nature, the results could be as rewarding as the two properties above.


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Appreciating and Conserving the Platanus —
the Planetree or Sycamore

by Gerry Gilmartin

The American sycamore is North America’s largest native broadleaf tree. Sycamores belong to one of the planet’s oldest family of trees and can live 500 to 600 years. They have been planted extensively for centuries in the Hudson Valley as shade trees and for their decorative appearance. They are widely valued for their beneficial ecological impact, particularly in the urban environment. The London planetree, the hybridized cousin of the American sycamore, ranks as the tallest street tree in NYC, the oldest in Central Park, and the most common in Brooklyn.

Species include: Platanus occidentalis — American planetree or Sycamore, the largest of the Planetree family which can grow to more than feet tall with a similar spread; Platanus x acerifolia — London planetree; and  Platanus orientalis — Oriental planetree.

Foliage — Planetree leaves are large, coarse, and maple tree-like, 4 to 10 inches long and wide, with sharp teeth on lobe edges and veins that meet near leaf base. The middle lobe of the American sycamore is broader than long, whereas the London plane leaves are often longer than broad.

Fruit — Fruit grows in pendulous, ball-like clusters that ripen in the fall. The fruit of P. occidentalis occurs singly on the stem. That of P. x acerifolia is generally borne 2 or 3 together on a slender stem. The fruit of P. orientalis usually appears in clusters of 3 or more. The fruit head contains hundreds of tiny seeds.

Bark — The outer bark is mottled and ranges in color from reddish, dark-brown or olive-green to creamy-colored. Trees grow so large that they continuously shed their bark. A distinguishing feature is the color of the inner bark after exfoliation. The American sycamore displays distinct, almost-white upper branches, and brown, scaly bark on the lower trunk. The inner bark of the London planetree is smoother and becomes a lighter brown, gray or olive-green with no scales, hence earning it the name of “army” or “camouflage” tree.

A beautiful sycamore on one of Irvington’s residential streets

Growing Conditions

Planetrees prefer a rich, moist soil, but are very adaptable. They grow best in full sun. They are not particular about soil pH and will even withstand seasonal flooding, drought, and compacted soil conditions. They have been used extensively as street trees because of their tolerance of harsh conditions.

Ecological Benefits

Trees enrich and improve the environment in many ways. They clean and cool the air, lower stormwater runoff, and conserve energy, in addition to raising property values, beautifying communities, and enhancing personal well-being. Their benefits are directly associated with tree size: the larger a tree, the more respiration and transpiration that occur because of the canopy cover and leaf surface area. These trees:

Clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and gaseous pollutants in their woody tissue and by capturing particles such as dirt, dust and soot.

Reduce energy generation and conserve natural resources by lowering air temperatures through transpiration and by providing shade, and by limiting heat loss from wind.

Improve water quality by capturing rainwater on their leaves and branches and by absorbing contaminated stormwater runoff through their roots; and

Provide food and shelter for wildlife.

(The above was excerpted from the conservation exhibit about platanaceae, trees of the Planetree family, for GCI’s 2010 Gilded Cage Flower Show.)