Preparing a yard for a pollinator garden

My friend – I’ll call her Peaches – wants to attract monarchs and other pollinators to her yard in an urban neighborhood here in Asheville. Since I’m neither a botanist nor a landscaper, I bribed another friend who is both with a 12-pack of premium beer to visit the site with me. We’ll call him Mr. Shiva India Pale Ale.

When deciding where to plant a new pollinator garden and what to plant, you need to note the following:

  • Soil type; it’s best to call your local state extension office to get a soil test kit and have each new garden site tested. Every plant needs a specific soil mineral composition to thrive (link: Buncombe County Extension Service)

(The stunning stand of large healthy Rhododendrons on my friend’s property generally indicates a high-acid soil, typical for our area, but go ahead and test the new planting sites.)

  • What kind of sun/shade does the future plot receive? You’ll need to know that when you’re choosing plants.
  • Go ahead and order native plant catalogs to start sketching out your planting plan. Daydreaming about the beautiful plants to come will make the next step more bearable.

Next step: Start eradicating the invasive, non-native plants

My friend’s yard has several horribly aggressive non-native plants that need to be eradicated to make room for pollinator friendly goodies like milkweed (the only plant monarch caterpillars eat). This is the life of a gardener and can be quite overwhelming depending on how large a space you have to manage. In my yard, it has taken two decades for me to rid my yard of the worst offenders, but it’s still a constant battle. I have a couple of tricks that I use to keep from getting discouraged. Mainly it boils down to tenacity and focusing on one small area at a time in order to see that, yes, progress is happening. Why is invasive plant eradication so important?

Flying monarchNon-native, invasive plants harm the environment by destroying wildlife habitat and out-competing native plants. An introduced plant often has no natural predators to keep them in check. This upsets the entire food chain because native plants have co-evolved with native wildlife to provide each other with specific benefits to ensure their survival. For example, many moths and butterflies depend on a specific type of plant as a food source. Without that plant, the insect will not survive to reproduce. Little monarch

This makes gardening a moral activity and one of the best ways an individual can
make a huge difference for the environment.

[Read my post “Why we do what we do in the garden” for more details. The infuriating news is that a large segment of the nursery and landscaping industry turns a blind eye to the ecological havoc of invasive plants and still sells and promotes garbage invasives.] Most home owners have no idea that they’re doing the ecosystem a disservice by using these plants. But gardeners can’t keep these plants from escaping into the wild. It’s really an ecological disaster.

Peaches’ lot contains several invasives, but here are the top baddies that need to go on the kill list:

Arum italicum (common name: Italian Arum): A vicious, hateful invasive. Really hard to eradicate and poisonous.

Arum italicum1

Arum italicum

Close-up Arum italicum

Close-up Arum italicum

According to Homes & Gardens of the Northwest: “Getting rid of Italian arum is a pain. Even professional land managers struggle with it, which is why early control is very important. Herbicides don’t work well and digging it up is a lot of work. Manual removal is only recommended on small patches, because soil disturbance tends to increase the spread of the plant.

 All plant parts and nearby soil should be placed in a bag and disposed of in the trash — not your yard waste bin or home compost. Infested sites should be checked weekly to stay on top of any new sprouts.”

Another website recommends pouring boiling water on the plant’s roots. Thank goodness I’ve never had this in my yard. However, now that I’m aware of it, I see it everywhere in my neighborhood. Ugh.

Yellow Archangel

Yellow Archangel from nps.gov

Lamiastrum galeobdolon (common name: Yellow Archangel): This pain in the buttocks invasive is in the mint family. Most mints are hard to contain and fast-spreading. [And, yes, we do have native mints. Monarda punctata (common name: Dotted Horsemint) is an absolute beauty and isn’t aggressive like a lot of mints.]

You can see from the photo below the extent of this invasive ground cover. Next to my friend’s beautiful rock feature, the plant has crowded out lovely plantings of native fern.

lawn shot of Yellow Archangel

Peaches can tackle the Yellow Archangel with an organic method that we call the cardboard method at the Botanical Gardens. I wrote about this method in February with a video (click this link). In Buncombe County, you can get free recycled cardboard here.

The third invasive plant on the kill list is English Ivy. This pulls up fairly easy, but there’s a whole lot of it on the back property coming in from neighboring yards, so it will be a challenge. Mr. Shiva Indian Pale Ale said Peaches should share this information with her neighbors because the invasive issue is a neighborhood problem.

Goutweed

Goutweed, pic from nps.gov

Mr. Shiva India Pale Ale also noted a plant called Aegopodium podagraria (common name: Snow on the Mountain or Goutweed). I’ve had a time eradicating this irritating invasive from my own yard. I’ve pulled it up, and I’ve also smothered it with cardboard. In researching for this post, I came across this interesting information:

“Preventing goutweed from photosynthesizing in early spring (at the time of leaf-out) can control the plant by depleting its carbohydrate reserves. This can be accomplished by covering the patch with black plastic sheeting when the leaves start to emerge from the ground in the spring, and leaving it in place through the summer. A more effective option is to cut all plants once they’ve fully leafed out, using a mower, scythe, or weed-whacker type machine, and then cover the area with plastic. Covering the plants in mid- or late summer, after they have regained substantial starch reserves, is probably much less effective.” 

I don’t like using plastic and would instead use several layers of cardboard as described here.

There’s one other plant on my friend’s property that needs to go: the Buddleja davidii (common name: Asian Butterfly Bush) in front of her porch. I used to have three of these plants in my own yard. Once I learned they’re invasive, I gleefully ripped them out. Here’s a great article that explains all the problems with the Butterfly Bush. Here’s a short intro to the article:

If someone took 75 percent of your food away, you wouldn’t be happy. But when you grow plants that provide only nectar, including invasive species like butterfly bush, that’s what you’re doing to birds and butterflies in your own backyard … It’s no exaggeration to say that when you choose which plants to include in your garden, you’re deciding if members of your community’s local food web will be nourished or unintentionally starved.

Butterfly Bush Be Gone

Butterfly Bush Be Gone

Now if I’m not mistaken I think Peaches had an Asian Nandina bush somewhere in this plot (at left in the picture). I think that’s been removed since Mr. Shiva pointed it out. The bad thing about the Nandina: scientists have found that birds that gorge on seeds when they find them, like the Ceadar Waxwings, die from excessive consumption of the Nandina berries. Just another of a million reasons to go with native plants in landscaping.

“I know it’s daunting for homeowners to face the task of eradicating the invasive plants on their property,” said Mr. Shiva India Pale Ale. “But doing nothing is even more daunting.”

In my next blog post, I’ll discuss what my friend should plant to attract pollinators, including beautiful Monarchs.

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About MonarchLover

Heather Rayburn is a native of Asheville, NC., and works at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, a non-profit 10-acre public garden dedicated to the promotion of plants native to the Southern Appalachians. She has a B.A. from UNC-Asheville and a M.S. from the University of Tennessee, both in Mass Communication with a focus on environmental issues and social justice. She’s also a dog lover and baker.

3 comments on “Preparing a yard for a pollinator garden

  1. Thanks for such an informative post. I’ve noticed the Arum moving into my neighborhood and now my yard and have been looking for ways to get rid of it. Perfect timing!

    • I’m glad to hear that, Rachel. Let me know how it goes. My next post will, which will hopefully come out next week, will detail the planting of milkweed. Cheers, Heather

  2. Great piece!
    I love the work you’re doing.
    I’m dying to get together with you and talk about milkweed and monarchs.
    Are you free next Tuesday morning?
    Could you come over for coffee/tea/baked goods?
    8:30 @ my house on Asheville School’s campus – 12 Faculty Drive.
    You rock

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