Sunday, July 30, 2017

Lessons from Plant Camp

Whew, I just got back from “plant camp” and boy, am I inspired! I’m talking about the annual native plant conference in Cullowhee, NC. This year was their 34th year of the conference, and it was the 7th one that I’ve been to. As I explained in an earlier post, this is a multi-day conference with a mixture of talks, fields trips, and workshops plus a whole bunch of fellowship among native plant lovers.

There are student presentations, plant vendors, and tables of informational materials for sharing. I picked up several free posters and pamphlets. If you’re in the southeast, this conference really is the perfect place to learn and network.

After six straight years of attendance, I skipped last year because the topics didn’t seem interesting to me. I missed not being there so I was happy to see lots of interesting things lined up for this year. In addition, this year included the opportunity to register at no extra charge to attend a ½ day workshop or field trip on day 2. It was a good opportunity to change things up from 2 ½ days of talks.

I took some notes on some of the major talks and will share some of those here. On the evening before the official start of the conference, David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation spoke about their Garden for Wildlife program. Their habitat certification program (which is transitioned from being a “backyard” program to a broader approach) helps raise awareness of the need for local efforts and allows people to become ambassadors for using native plants in the landscape. Their website includes a way to search for regionally appropriate native plants; this tool is based on the research of Douglas Tallamy and in partnership with the United States Forest Service.  I am inspired to certify!

They've got a job to do, even it is just to be
someone else's lunch.
Day 1 of the conference started with the “rock star” of the current ‘use native plants’ movement – Dr. Doug Tallamy.  He used his entomological cred to present a talk entitled “Making Insects: A Guide to Restoring the Little Things that Run the World.” The talk was heavy on understanding how insects use parts of plants to get what they need: pollen/nectar, wood, detritus, and leaves/roots.

It was interesting to learn how many rely on tree wood and detritus (dead leaves, branches, etc.); of course, without their services, we’d be swimming in uneaten stuff. After spending some time on native bees and their nesting needs (solitary ground dwellers and stem nesters), we learned about how insects are themselves an import source of food for birds (and a source of carotenoids for them). There was much more, so do plan to hear him speak if you get a chance. I am inspired by this quote (which might be attributed to E. O. Wilson) that he shared: “You don’t have to save biodiversity for a living but do save it where you live.

Larry Weaner was one of the main speakers on Day 2. I had heard of his book, “Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change,” which was published in 2016. The conference topic was titled “Living in the Liberated Landscape.” In this talk, he encouraged us to plan the garden in a way that works with the plants’ natural ways: how they grow, how they seed, how they spread. In doing so, you won’t be surprised when plants that spread by roots pop up in a new opening, for example. You knew that would happen.

A successful garden is one that works with the plants. I like his statement: “Plants grow better when they self-recruit.” He showed pictures of plants that have shown up in new places, tiny cracks, the other side of the sidewalk. Below is a picture of my self-recruits: Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) that have sowed themselves into the front lawn. They've been doing it for years (drives my neighbors nuts, I'm sure). I wait until they are a good size and then I transplant them to the woodland edge beyond the lawn.

Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) self-sow in my lawn

The last day of the conference is always a good one for a super-inspiring speaker and Andrew Fox of NC State did not disappoint. His topic was “Cultivating Care: Building Ecological Communities through Engagement and Education.” Using examples from the Design Build program at NC State, he showed how engaged the students became in the process of solving a problem from beginning to end. Students end up with a real appreciation for why what you plant makes a difference.

Photo from NC State Design Build website 
They’ve had some impressive projects using native plants and more are in the works. Much like the University of Toledo's Service Learning projects featured in the film Hometown Habitat, this program at NC State cultivates care with direct involvement and interaction so that students become environmental champions. I loved his end quote: “Expect evolution, strive for revolution.” He included a video the students had made of one project and how they felt about it (positive, inspired, and with a real appreciation for native plants and what they can do).

I'd encourage you to attend native plant conferences when you can or chances to hear even a single speaker locally. The inspiration is great pick-me-up, and we all could use that every now and then.

Note: the 'plant camp' picture was a sticker given out at the end of the conference.

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