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Pat Goggin talks native plants at Science on Tap

April 17, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

Pat Goggin of UW-Extension Lakes recently gave a presentation on native plants for Science on Tap. He said in their book “The Living Landscape,” Doug Tallamy and Rick Dark defined a native species as “a plant or animal that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficiently to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community.” 

Goggin told the group this meant everything was “in tune” with everything else, and included humans in that equation. That interaction over that long period of time, created an environment in which things worked together for the greater good and complimented each other.

Native plants, he said, have many different benefits. One of those is clean water. Native plants can help to buffer out pollutants, he said, and can be especially important along the water’s edge. He gave the example of a lawn of mowed grass, as was the norm in years past. That grass, with its shallow root system, would not be able to filter near as much water as a native plant garden, for instance, or a strategically placed rain garden. 

Native plantings work to help not only make the water cleaner, but the soil richer as well, he said. Healthier soil will allow for more diversity of native species to grow well in an area, providing even more benefits.

Goggin said native plants play an important role in the food web as well. This provides value to a host of various wildlife species. From nesting habitat to protective cover, native plants help in a variety of ways. They also provide food and support for native pollinator species, some of which have experienced a large decline in recent years.

Birds, too, benefit from native flowers, plants, trees, shrubs and bushes. Goggin said the net loss of birds since the 1970s was approximately three billion. 

While it was clear many in attendance understood the relationship between plant and animal, the relationship with native plantings was a bit more elusive. Goggin called native gardens a place to relax and meditate. He also said it was a form of creativity and self expression for him.

“I can’t draw a stick person, but I like to think I can paint on the landscape with these native plants,” he said. These gardens can create aesthetic beauty or a focal point on a property. He also spoke about the value of native gardens as teaching avenues. They can be used as outdoor classroom and pathways of exploration for kids, and even adults. 

Native plant gardens, Goggin said, could counter habitat loss and offset the fragmented landscape we see around us.

“All of this developed land, in some way, shape, or form, could be switched into native gardens,” he said, which would provide benefits to wildlife of increased connectivity on the landscape. This could help to restore insect communities as well — the “little things that run the world,” as he called them.

Pollinator gardens

Goggin talked about the benefits of pollinator gardens specifically and how one could go about creating such a garden on their own landscape. He said there were two suites of plants that were important — host plants and nectar plants.

The host plants, he said, were important for larvae development. These plants, or genus of plants, are those on which moths and butterflies lay their eggs. The larvae then use these plants on which to feed. He also talked about those spaces around native host plants, telling the group he learned many caterpillars come off of the host plants and burrow into the ground beneath the plant. For that reason, not planting thick grasses and things is a good idea. Keeping the soil bare would allow for that burrowing needed to complete the life cycle.

Nectar plants, he said, serve as food for the adult pollinators. Species such as blazing stars, asters, thistles, golden rod, blueberry and milkweed are all important for native pollinators. 

Goggin told the group a “parade of blooms” throughout the growing season was important. As pollinators migrate through, or approach different parts of their life cycle, they would need those various blooms.

In the spring, he said, gardeners should think about having plants such as lupines, geraniums, dog wood, cherries and Virginia bluebells on the landscape. As it approaches summer, species such as spiderwort and golden Alexander come into bloom. By mid summer, pollinators need species such as mountain mint, wild rose and verbanes, which are blooming at that time. 

Late summer brings blooms from lavender hyssop, the compass plant, Joe pie weed and blue sage. There are some, too, that are great for the very latest part of the season.  Asters, golden rod and sunflowers are all great late growing season bloomers. Goggin said his American burnet can often be seen through the snow, still blooming in November.

Woody plants

From there the discussion turned to woody plants and their importance. Trees, shrubs and vines, Goggin said, are early season food for pollinators. He singled out the oak tree, saying it supports 500 species of mother and butterflies found in the Midwest. It can also be home to over 60 species of cavity-nesting birds. With the decrease in birds in the past few decades, he said, for those looking to plant trees on their landscape, a serious thought should likely be given to the mighty oak.

The conifer element is also important, he said. Pollinators may use these trees just for the sap, to they may also provide cover. Where conifers are prevalent, such as many places in the Northwoods, adding those to the landscape can provide benefits for many species of insects and animals.

Another suite of plants gardeners should think about are grasses, sedges and rushes. A host of pollinators will use these plants throughout their life cycle, Goggin said. They provide nesting material as well, and can be useful overwintering habitat, especially the hollow-stemmed grasses.

Goggin also spoke briefly about brush bundles and the benefits they provide. They can be home to ground-nesting bees and sparrows and serve as a protective shield against predators for small mammals.

A water source in a native plant garden is also important, he told the group. Those looking to provide water for pollinators, though, should be aware that a bird bath is too deep to be useful to pollinators. Goggin recommended placing marbles or a brick into a bird bath to create a shallow place for pollinators to receive their much-needed water.

When planting, he also recommended grouping plants. Stands or clusters of five to seven of the same plant would allow pollinators to find them much more easily. Also, thinking about the types of flower each plant has could be important. Wide, flat flowers allow almost any pollinator to benefit from the plant, where longer, tubular flowers may be more suitable for hummingbirds and other species with longer tongues that could gather that nectar.

In general, a good idea, he said, is to look around the property and see what is already there. From there, a plant companion reference can help a gardener or property owner get a good idea of what might do well in a given areas. Goggin provided the group with many resources regarding pollinator gardens and native plants in general. Those can be found on the Science on Tap website scienceontapminocqua.org.

Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at [email protected]

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