Resharing Your Favorites: Gardening with Native Plants

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Intro: Did you know that common milkweed isn’t native to Georgia? Or that there are many native plants which can be grown in large pots on a patio or balcony? Or that some simple “cues to care” can significantly change how a native plant garden is perceived by others?

Shannon: Hi Everyone! Before we get started, I want to thank all our supporters on Patreon. Each month, they go above and beyond to financially contribute towards making the Backyard Ecology blog, podcast, and YouTube channel possible.

If you would like to join them, you can do so for less than the cost of a cup of coffee or a meal at your favorite fast food place. Or, if you would like to help out but prefer to make a one-time donation, then that’s also possible and greatly appreciated. I’ll have links in the show notes for both those options.

I originally recorded this conversation with Jennifer Ceska in the spring of 2022. A year and a half later it is, by far, my most downloaded episode to date. We had an amazing conversation that covered a wide range of topics related to gardening with native plants. So, I thought I would reshare it with the transcript so that those who missed it the first time or who prefer to read the transcripts can enjoy it too.

Jennifer is a Conservation Coordinator with the State Botanical Garden of Georgia at the University of Georgia, Athens. Hi, Jennifer, welcome to Backyard Ecology. Thank you for talking with us today.

Jennifer: Hi, Shannon. It’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you for this invitation.

Shannon: Oh, you’re welcome, and I am so excited to talk with you because I know that you and I can just completely geek out and have fun talking about native plants and gardening with native plants, and this is just going to be a really fun conversation for us.

Jennifer: I agree. I agree. Let’s just dive in and see what happens.

Shannon: Yes, but before we dive in, let’s go ahead and let people know a little bit about what you do and then how did you get involved and interested in native plants?

Jennifer: Okay, what do I do? So, I serve as Conservation Coordinator, State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and my task is to support all activities in plant conservation, from education to research, restoration, horticulture conservation, conservation networking… so, I have the most broad job description and the most fabulous job description.

I’ve been at the Botanical Garden since 1995. I can’t even do that math anymore. And so, I have had my dream job for a long time. And there’s seven people in our science and conservation team at the Botanical Garden. And our focus is endangered species recovery, native plant gardening, plant materials development, and invasive species removal. We tend to have a focus on grasslands, particularly Piedmont prairies, and woodlands at our State Botanical Garden.

And I spend a great deal of my time coordinating the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, which is mostly cheering on amazing people doing beautiful work on behalf of imperiled plants of Georgia.

Now how did I get into native plants or into plants? How far back are we going to see?

Shannon: That’s up to you.

Jennifer: Okay. So yes, I’ve been in Georgia a long time, but I’m a Texas girl – seventh generation Texan. I was born in Lubbock and grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas. And Grand Prairie, back then, was just this little, tiny little neighborhood, an elementary school, and a grocery store.

I had this distinct memory of walking with my first grade class in a, I guess it was a prairie, behind the school, and there was a blue bonnet. A Texas blue bonnet. And everyone stopped and gasped and made a circle with arms spread like, “Look out, look out.”

And children were like, “Don’t step on it because they’ll put you in jail. That is a Texas blue bonnet. Do you know what that is?”

I mean, there was awe in the voices of all of us. And that was just how, you know, in Texas, you take Texas history every year in school. And symbols in Texas are very important. But I love that regard for a wildflower and that there was one and everybody’s like, “Make a circle, but look out. Appreciate it but, be careful.”

My mom’s a gardener. She’s always been a gardener. And I, I was a marine biology major. I knew I wanted to study biology. I just didn’t know what. And I was a marine biology major at Florida State. But my last semester I took field botany and I fell in love.

I remember seeing roadside wildflowers and just thinking this is, this is the best. And the plants don’t run away. This is great. Or swim away. So, um, yeah, a light bulb went off, a switch, or maybe a reconnection to my youth. And I went from there…working at Atlanta Botanical Garden, then going back to grad school, and then into my dream job.

Shannon: That’s a great story. Yes, I love that. Just that connection and that story with how your first grade class was all excited about the blue bonnet. They are gorgeous! I’ve only seen them a few times because I’ve only been to Texas a few times. But, oh they are gorgeous.

Jennifer: They are. And I, I love that reverence. I love that people go to Texas to see flowers, right? And that’s something we talk about in Georgia a lot, you know. How do we get people that excited about Georgia native plants?

These plants are just regular in our lives. They’re common. Of course, we know what that plant is because we’ve just grown up with it. That’s something we say “hi” to when we walk to school. It’s coming up in our backyard. So, yeah, how do we get that connection with other people?

Shannon: Yes, because we do so often just overlook the things that are common and are in our backyards because they are “normal” and so of course they can’t be interesting. Or that’s kind of the way our mindset is, but that’s not true.

Because I mean, everybody loves the blue bonnets in Texas, and it’d be easy for people in Texas to say, “Oh yeah, that’s a blue bonnet.” But your story right there says, “no, people can actually get really excited.”

So yes, that’s one of the things I want to do to is help people really get that inspiration and excitement and awe about our native plants and animals, both.

Jennifer: Right. They’re all so cool. They are and their interactions. I know, several talks I’ve started with, “Do not disparage the dandelion in front of Jennifer Ceska. I have high regard for dandelions, just so you know my heart. And so we start off on a good beat, you know, good foot, good beat. Know that I love dandelions. And, you should too. And come look and look at these hairs! They’re so pretty! And look at the seeds! It looks like a little tutu! The little pappus.”

But getting that chance to show people, like you said, and geek out on all the goodness of plants and then watching that, watch how the bees are working…

But I do that. I do that with, with people at the botanical garden. I’m like, “Come see, come see!” Our colleagues do that or people walking by on the sidewalk and they say “hi” and I’m like, “Have you seen this?”

Accosting people with botany.

Shannon: That’s not normal? Everybody doesn’t do that?

Jennifer: We do. I know you do it. It’s just our joy, isn’t it? Comes stumbling out
Shannon: Yes. And I mean, I’ll do it with the flower, I’ll do it with a lichen, I’ll do it with the millipede… I mean, I’m just a total nature geek. And even if I don’t know what it is, I can still go, “Ohhhh….” and get all excited about it and start trying to figure out what it is. Anything I can figure out about it and learn.

Jennifer: Exactly. Exactly. It’s funny… I think about when I was a kid. And you know, kids ask lots of questions. But I kind of had a reputation in my family for asking lots of questions.

So, I guess as a scientist, it’s always been in there. Just that curiosity and “I wonder…” and “do you think?” and “Do you think it could be?”

My husband and I were both working from home during COVID. And apparently I’m still doing that. Asking lots of questions and hypothesizing about, “well look at the spider. Do you think this? And I wonder what is that doing?”

And “He’s like, okay, so that’s question 24…”

But I’m just, “You don’t have to answer. I’m just, you know, wondering.

But I can imagine that sift might be different from some people, but I get it, Shannon. I like to explore and learn about all things. It’s all things nature for sure.

Shannon: And see, I’m lucky because my husband’s also a wildlife biologist. So, he does the same thing. And we don’t just ask questions about the spiders. We name them. The little jumping spider that’s in the kitchen, that’s Sal for Salticid.

Jennifer: Okay. I was gonna say is his name “Fred.” Okay. Well, yes, we do that. It’s usually Mr. Spider or Mrs. Spider. Yes. Yes. Sal in your kitchen. I know I love them all so much.

Shannon: Well, if it’s just like a regular spider, then it might be Fred or Mr. Spider or something like that. But if we know it’s a jumping spider, Sal is usually the name that it gets named.

Jennifer: Sal the jumping spider.

Shannon: Yeah, exactly. Jumping spiders are in the family Saticidae. So, what else would you call it?

Jennifer: See, I did not know this. I thought maybe it’s just a reference to a cousin. Oh, that’s marvelous. Perfect.

Shannon: It might be a little weird to some people.

Jennifer: No, I think that our jumping spiders may all become Sal as well. Sal and Sally. Yes, perfect. Thank you for that.

Shannon: Oh, and do you know how to tell the mature males from the females or immature males?

Jennifer: I have no idea, actually.

Shannon: So, this works for all the spiders that I know of. The true spiders, not the harvestmen which are the daddy long legs and stuff, but your true spiders.

If you look at the front, at what we’ll call the mouth. If you see little boxing gloves there, that’s the mature males. That’s the pedipalps for fertilizing the female and transferring the sperm. If they don’t have those, they’re not mature males. So, you can’t tell an immature male from female as far as I know. But looking for those pedipalps, you can tell the mature males.

Jennifer: Thank you for that. I do love the little pedipalps. I have watched, observed those.

I was at a meeting, native plant meeting, talking at a small town in South Georgia about putting native plants throughout their city. It was an icebreaker, and they asked “if you could do your career again, what would you do?”

And I was like, “I would study spiders!”

And Oliver was like, “Really? Eww… no.”

I was like, “No they’re fascinating. They’re beautiful.” I need to spend more time with them. I love them.

Shannon: So, yeah, let’s talk a little bit about native plant gardening and how to get started.

Jennifer: Good. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. So, many people are excited about gardening. So it warms me to the depth in my heart to hear that gardening is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the United States, especially since COVID in the last few years. I think that’s just the best news.

Shannon: Yes, and the interest in native plants is really taking off too. Either the native plants for themselves, because we’ve got some gorgeous native plants that really do well in landscaped areas. Or because people are getting more interested in pollinators and the best way to plant for pollinators is to plant native plants.

So, there’s multiple different things I think really driving the interest. But yeah, there’s lots of people getting really interested in native plants, I think, in the garden setting, which is awesome.

Jennifer: It is awesome. And we work hard at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and our other, you know, sister and brother colleagues at other botanical gardens too, for sure nature centers and all, to help sing those songs about native plants.

“Come, come look at this plant. This is a beautiful plant. It happens to be native to Georgia. It happens to be ecologically relevant. It happens to be a great supporter of lots of insect diversity. But it’s also just a great garden plant. You want this in your garden, please plant this.”

We have these goals in our science and conservation team. If we could get everybody to plant one appropriate milkweed, a mountain mint, a goldenrod – a small goldenrod, not one of the tall species – a blueberry… You know, just incorporate a few native plants, some really big supporters of insect diversity, we could retire and go home. That would be wonderful. Or we could just focus on critically imperiled plants that need extra help.

But if we could get everybody to pop something like that into their home garden or their patio, you know, their mailbox garden, their deck, their windowsill, that would be very significant scientifically for biodiversity and from our hearts.

Shannon: Yes, yes, exactly. And one of the things that I tell lots of people when I’m talking to them about gardening with native plants, or they’re talking to me in my nursery about what plants would work well. They’re like, “Well, I kill everything. So I need something that’s really easy to take care of.”

And I’m like, “Once you get the native of plants established, they are easy because they’re adapted to our crazy soils and crazy weather and all the craziness here. So they don’t have to be babied.”

You have to get them started. Everything has to be babied a little bit when you’re getting them started. But then you can kind of forget about them in many cases.

Jennifer: Right? I think that is true. I will say in Georgia… you talk about wonky soils… oh, we might have you beat I think on the degraded wonky soils. You know, our famous Georgia red clay.

Shannon: Yes. You’ve got me beat on Georgia red clay. No questions.

Jennifer: So, people will go and buy a package of wildflower seeds and follow the instructions: “Scratch these into your soil and water it. And you will have bountiful flowers.”

No, no. Not in our… I mean if you have lovely soil, yes, of course. But so many of our neighborhoods, so many of our, inherited yards, our inherited gardens, the soil’s just sooo bad.

So, we’re like, hang on, hang on. Let’s go up. We’re gonna amend up, bring in some good yummy soil, some compost. Then you can plant.

So, bringing people around. And, you know, I was taught you get your garden, you till it, and you amend it, and do things. Now we’re telling people, maybe poke holes in it, don’t till it and amend up. Then plant your plants. And give them time. Then they will spread for you, but they need that boost, especially in Georgia.

And teaching people, you know. We’re an ag state, but we sure work that soil hard. And I think unnecessarily hard, perhaps for home gardens, for perennial beds. We can relax a lot in our gardening and not till and not fuss and not do and not clean and tidy and mulch everything, and cut everything, keep it all precise.

Shannon: I agree. And you said something a few minutes ago, I want to go back to. And that was when you mentioned “an appropriate milkweed.”

Jennifer: Oh, you did pick up on that.

Shannon: Oh, yes, because I know you and I had another conversation once before, not for the podcast or anything. You said something that really surprised me that I didn’t know, and I’m guessing lots of other people don’t know, about milkweeds in Georgia.

Jennifer: Right, and you know, to own up, to be honest, full disclosure… I didn’t know, either.

So, if you look on the internet and you look at most maps, I don’t think many of these maps have been corrected, common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is not native to Georgia. And while it’s a wonderful milkweed for monarch butterflies, in Georgia, it’s a colonizer species. It’s an aggressive species.

Would I call it invasive? That’s a legal term. No, because we’re trying to put a stop on it. But colleagues, botanists like Linda Chafin and Tom Patrick, went through old herbarium specimens and looked at the early records of common milkweed in Georgia. And they were all, they realized, garden escapes.

Tom Patrick has since passed. He was a state botanist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He used to say that one of the things that kept him up at night was thinking that common milkweed was going to spread in Georgia and take over plant communities. You know, a botanist carries many worries, but he really carried that common milkweed worry.

So, common milkweed, while it’s great for monarch butterflies, it’s not great for Georgia plant communities. And there are so many other wonderful species to plant. We have on our website, recommendations that we and our partners came up with for the best Georgia milkweeds and then the ones to stay away from.

But again, in full disclosure, we used to propagate and sell common milkweed at the botanical garden. I had it in my own home garden. I shared seeds of it with friends and I’ve had to undo that and replace my own self.

One of the most wonderful things through this process, you know, we did have a workshop talking about best milkweeds for Georgia and how that we’ve learning this about common milkweed in Georgia. Monarchs Across Georgia is an amazing outreach organization. They do wonderful education programs, they sponsor a lot of wonderful science and their main mission is supporting monarchs. But if you look up our literature that we’ve produced with partners, they are standing shoulder to shoulder with us, because they realize and understand that for Georgia, we need a mosaic of habitats.

Lots of different species and common milkweed is just not a good friend for us here in Georgia. The pressures that may keep it in check in other states aren’t here. And it will just go, go, go, and it would spread, you know, seeds would fly away and spread and spread. So that was a bold step for Monarchs Across Georgia to stand in solidarity with the plant community botanists on that.

But I was real proud for that and those conversations. They wanted to talk about the evidence and then, you know, let’s get out some literature. Let’s look at these. Let’s really walk around. It was a hearty conversation or four, but we got there together and we were real proud for that.

So yes, I do tend to say “the appropriate milkweed” for you for Georgia.

Shannon: Yes. Which is, I think really important to bring up. Because, yeah, you look at the maps online and everything like that. A nd in all the books too, which it’s understandable in the books because the books are older and it’s harder to update them. But even on the internet, you see common milkweed as being listed and shown as being native pretty much throughout the entire eastern US. And yeah, I had no clue about Georgia until you said that.

Jennifer: Yeah, I didn’t either. And, organizations that are working on behalf of monarchs and they’re giving away milkweed seed. That is some beautiful heart centered work, important work. And, we’ve been reaching out over the years and just saying, “Hey, science has caught up. We’re sharing some things that we’ve learned on here, but here’s other seeds. Here’s other species that we can promote.”

So, we’re getting caught up with ourselves.

Shannon: And I love that too, because you’re working with your partners and everybody’s coming together with it. And yeah, science is always learning new things.

I mean, we learn new things in life every day. Why shouldn’t science be the same way and constantly learning and sometimes we have to go, “Okay. What we thought we knew, we need to revise it a little bit. We’ve learned better. Learned more.

Jennifer: Yeah. And I’m very comfortable with that. I mean, I’ll lift my eyebrow and I’ll be like, “Well, tell me more and tell me why.” Right? The why is so important. And tell me the background and how did you study that? Cause that’s what scientists do with bantering with question.

And then we’re like, “Oh, okay. I understand. Thank you.” “Yeah. That is different.” You should pause.

And then, you know, we’re like, how many common milkweed did we sell over the years? It’s almost like, please bring your plants back. We will replace them. No, but yeah, how do we undo that? We’re working hard to undo it.

Shannon: Yes, and I’m the same way, because I remember a couple of years ago, somebody, I don’t know who it was anymore, I don’t remember, emailed me or Facebook messaged me and asked me about this thing with Georgia and common milkweed not being native.

I was like, “I’ve never heard that. Every map shows it as native.”

Then we were talking not too long ago and I’m thinking back to self, “oops.” Because that conversation, email, whatever, just kind of flash in my head was like, oh, um… Yeah, now I know better.

Jennifer: And I would not have known, none of us would have known if Tom Patrick hadn’t slowed down. He, was a ground truthing botanist.

So, he’s standing there in the wild, looking at where the plants are and not just accepting it, but thinking about it. “Well, hang on, they’re in this ditch right beside a mailbox, right beside a garden, and they seem to increase here in front of this old homestead.”

And, you know, he took the time to wonder and examine and think. And what I did was I looked at the map and went, “All right, good, we’re gonna sell it.”

He’s like, “ummmmmm, no.”

And I’m grateful. How wonderful to work with many different types of minds? And he was a great field botanist.

Shannon: Yes, exactly. Because yeah, I, did the same thing. I looked at the map and said, “okay, we’re good.” And I can see how it could be highly aggressive and cause issues in a state where it isn’t native to or in environments where it’s not native to, because even where it is native and grows everywhere it is very aggressive.

In Kentucky, I tell people all the time “If you’re looking for one that you can plant in your suburban yard and have it play nice with everything else in your garden, that’s not common milkweed. It’s not going to work here. Do rose milkweed or swamp milkweed, whichever way you want to call it. That one’s your tall pink milkweed that plays nice with everything and isn’t going to pop up all over your yard all over your neighbor’s yard.”

I mean, you still have to know that your plants and what their personalities are.

Jennifer: Shannon, that is such a good point, and we’ve all talked to so many people who are… they’re frustrated. Like that story about I scratched wildflower seeds into my Georgia clay soil and they didn’t come up.

And I’m like, well, let’s start from the beginning. You know, let’s work on your soil. Let’s get the appropriate plants. And maybe in Georgia, it’s hard to start things from seed, maybe we have to start with plugs. Some things we can seed, but maybe we need to get a head start because our soils are challenged now and our weed pressures are growing. Our seasons are ever longer.

But that choice about which plant, and they’re like, “Oh, I grabbed some seeds of this tall goldenrod and put it in my garden.”

I’m like, “Well, you just invited a wild friend to come stay in your home. They’re going to be a guest that’s, you know, loud at the party all the time.”

You’re right. The right species – the right milkweed, the right goldenrod. We like to promote the smaller species. I let Solidago altissima, tall goldenrod, go in a meadow that my husband and I’ve been restoring for a good 17 years, maybe, from old field to meadow towards prairie. I was like, “Oh, that’s native. It’s fine. It’s on the edges. It’s doing great.”

And then two years later, I’m hand treating 10,000 stems. Cut, dab, cut, dab with a little paintbrush bottle, judiciously applying herbicide to just cull back a native plant. But it’s a colonizer and it was absorbing all the space and deleting our diversity on the site. So I had to bring that party wild man back. I’m assigning personalities now to species.

Shannon: And I think that really is a key point is that you have to think about where it’s at and what your goals are and what you want it to do. Because yeah, I’ve got a couple of different tall goldenrods. I think. I haven’t actually gone out there and keyed them but there should be a couple of out there. Usually are in Kentucky.

But we have tall goldenrods out in our old fields that we’re letting go and then, like you said, starting to work towards moving it back to meadow, prairie, savanna. But yeah, my husband and I are starting to have the conversation of “okay, how much do we let the goldenrod go? What are we going to do?”

Right now there’s enough space for other things. I’m not too worried about culling the goldenrod back. I’d rather concentrate on the Johnsongrass and wrestle with some of those things. The goldenrod being aggressive helps to curtail some of that.

Jennifer: I agree. I agree. You’re right.

Shannon: So it’s picking and choosing your battles. But that’s one that I tell people all the time. “Don’t plant that one in your yard here. Here’s a few that you can pick from for friendly yard ones that are going to play nice.”

Jennifer: Right, and then you won’t be so frustrated and be like, you’re constantly weeding and then you’re disparaged about native plants and you’re lumping them all.

That’s a really good point. And your point about if you have the space or if you have other good diversity on your land, those tall goldenrods the colonizers, they are culled naturally by the competition on site.

And that’s a good point because in our old field restoration we were early days, so we were, you know, still in the tall fescue stage. So, what diversity we had we were really trying to protect and increase. I think if we’d had more native warm season grasses already on site, then that goldenrod wouldn’t have been able to come in like it did. It was just, it was like, “Oh, there’s a party here. We’re going to come in and not leave, just keep going.”

And yeah, so being early days in restoration, that would be one to watch out for. But if you’ve got a more mature site then, you’re right, it’s okay. Big “I” invasive plants, right? Like johnsongrass, privet. Those are the things that you want to spend your time on. You’ve got to prioritize.

Shannon: Definitely. And right now, my property has pretty much you name it, we got it, of the big ones, whether that’s Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus, Princess Tree, Paulownia… we’ve got beefsteak plant.

Jennifer: Yes, beefsteak plant is a big problem in Athens, actually. It is.

Shannon: It’s a big problem here too. I mean, Microstegium, the stilt grass. Yeah, we’ve got them all. And so, and of course, with johnsongrass and everything like that in the fields I’m like, “yeah, I’m not going to worry about the goldenrod right now. I like the goldenrod, the pollinators like the goldenrod…”

I’m going to get rid of the other things because like you said, you have to prioritize. And then when I have those wilder areas, even in a flower bed, if it’s kind of a wilder flower bed, I have no problem putting my aggressives against each other and then letting them fight it out and see who wins. It becomes an experiment. Plus, it’s fun.

Jennifer: Well, that’s another good point you make Shannon that. Because you’re bringing species back to the land in your garden or in your meadow grassland area. That’s wonderful. You’re increasing the biodiversity. You’re increasing the competition.

And in our old field site, we were starting out, we were working to get the invasives out, you know, like the tall fescue and all the other things that were probably in there like the Japanese honeysuckle. I’m still crying about that Japanese Honeysuckle.

But now that we’re getting ahead and we’ve got some more competition. I think I’m less scared of it now than I was because our site’s catching up. We’ve been interplanting and doing a little overseeding and just through conservation mowing, micro burns, we are encouraging the natives of the warm season grasses.

So, once they’re holding the site, then you’re right. Everything can relax. The natives on their land, they’ve got it. We can relax in our gardening. We can relax in our management. We’re in a management phase instead of a constant restoration phase.

Shannon: And that’s a good point too. Is that every site’s going to be slightly different. It’s going to be the site and what’s already there and what needs to be done and what’s most critical at that instant in time, because you can’t do everything at once. Nobody can. And looking at what your goals are and what you’re able to do as well. And I mean, even two places right next to each other, two neighbors, are going to go at it slightly differently because they’re different people and have different goals and resources and skills and time and everything’s going to be slightly different.

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And, that is absolutely wonderful. It’s like that Tom Patrick lesson to slow down and look at your site and then look at yourself and think about how much time do you have and then what is really pressing. And if you have big “I” invasive plants, those are going to need your attention. So, how can you start to get at them little by little, and, and then how can you replace them.

And it’s doable. But you’re right. Take a minute to think. Let’s think about this for a second. And there’s lots of wonderful resources and native plant nurseries and botanical gardens and nature centers to go to now. I mean, native plants have arrived state by state.

We have young people coming to our plant sales asking for natives for their dorm room window or their balcony. You know, I’m in love with young people coming to our plant sales and they’re knowledgeable about the decline of pollinators and they want to plant. “I have house plants and I want to put something on my balcony to help bees.”

Alright, let’s do this. Here’s a mountain mint. This will do great.

Shannon: So, what are some of the ones that you would recommend for those smaller areas is the balconies and stuff because that’s something that everybody is looking for. I get that question a lot as well. And I know, Georgia – Kentucky, probably going to be some differences but I’m guessing there’s probably going to be some overlap too, if not in the species, then at least in the genera.

Jennifer: That’s right. I’ve been hearing that among colleagues too talking state to state. If we get the genera going in our gardens and in our restoration sites, we’re doing great. Yes, we would like to always support the species, especially in restoration sites. But in home gardens, if we can get at the genera, it’s a good point.

Um, plants that we love. Carolina lupine. We’re in spring, so my brain goes to Carolina lupine. That’s Thermopsis villosa. Phlox paniculata. Any of the phloxes, right? Any of the Pycnanthemums, the mountain mints. I think on our website we have five listed that we recommend. It’s under the Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year program. Colleagues got together, these are green industry colleagues and scientists and ecologists, and talked about some really wonderful native plants or wonderful pollinator supporting plants. They didn’t have to be native, but they kind of all turned out to be.

So, Carolina lupine, mountain mints, the Pycnanthemum, monardas. Gosh, any Phlox. Echinaceas are, of course, wonderful. Rudbeckias, Coreopsis… All these genera that just make us gush. And then we’ve even used some native grasses, especially warm season grasses and the little ones, like little bluestem or splitbeard.

Oh my gosh, Daryl Morrison is a landscape architect. He described planting splitbeard on the western side of your garden or your patio in a pot so that the setting sun shines through those florets. And I did that and doggone if he wasn’t right. It’s just so beautiful, this fuzzy, fuzzy little florets.

Shannon: That’s one of the grasses I’m not familiar with, but I’m not familiar with a lot of the grasses.

Jennifer: You know, I wasn’t either. And I stomped my feet and pouted so badly, being stubborn about learning grasses. And a wonderful woman in Georgia, Elaine Nash, she’s a soil conservation scientist. She self taught herself the botany of Georgia. Including the grasses and not just the grasses, but, their plant communities, how to collect their seed, how to grow them from seed and how to get them back on the land.

I mean, she’s amazing. And she’s been our mentor for many, many years. Elaine Nash. And sure, I remember how many times I’m like, “One more time, Elaine. The difference between a cool season and a warm season grass?”

And she’s like, “Okay,” deep breath, “One more time, Jennifer…”

But it’s like anything, right? You spend more time with somebody. You call a plant by name, you put that floret in a vase by your computer with a little sticky note that says who that is, and you spend time with it. And then it starts to stick because you’re establishing a relationship.

But I was slow to come around to the grass corner, to be honest. But now I love them. Splitbeards. A favorite. It’s a most favorite.

Shannon: I’m going to have to look that one up.

Jennifer: Look that one up. It is lovely. It’s a great plant for pots or gardens.

Shannon: Do you know if it’s in Kentucky?

Jennifer: You know, not officially, but it seems like I’m thinking it ought to be okay. But I haven’t got a set of encyclopedic maps of species in my head like some of our beautiful colleagues in the Southeastern Grasses Initiative that carry this detail in their heads. Yes, thank goodness for books and websites.

Shannon: Yes. Yes, I agree. Because I don’t have the maps in my head either.

Jennifer: I want to say it ought to be, we’ll Google that soon.

Shannon: Yes, I will definitely look that up. But, so you named a bunch of the ones that I really like in pots too. Oh, eastern columbine works really well.

Jennifer: Love columbine. Yes. Absolutely love columbine. Yes. And it spreads and it’s satisfying. You can share some seeds with your neighbors. Get the seeds in those little paper vases. Just like don’t tip it. Keep it upright. Yeah.

I mean, all the spring ephemerals. For sure, but those are hard to get, but things like, um, Phlox divaricate, the blue phlox, is one of my most favorite, right? You’re going to hear me say this. And then Geranium maculatum, the wild Geranium, it’s one of my most favorites.
And then the Packera, we call them butterweeds.

Shannon: Butterweed or ragwort.

Jennifer: Yes, yes, those are also one of my most favorites. So, and then all planted together, right? It’s just so beautiful. And then you have, and planted in clumps, as you know, or let them spread, plant just a few plugs and then let them spread. In your garden, let them go to seed and always share with friends, but those they’re well behaved. They’re beautiful. They happen to be ecologically amazing. Looks and personality, all the things.

So, yeah, all my favorites. I know it’s spring, and then we’ll get to summer and I’m like, these are all my favorites.

Shannon: Yes, I was nice. I did not ask you and will not ask you what your favorite native plants are because I already know yours is going to be just like me – the one that I’m looking at at this moment in time or that I’m thinking of at this moment in time is usually my favorite.

Jennifer: That’s the truth. Thank you, Shannon, I just started saying, and “this is my most favorite.” And then in talks, if I’m doing a PowerPoint, I put a heart shape by them, but like every plant in the image on the screen has a heart shape next to it. Like, you asked, so here’s 96 of my most favorite spring wildflowers. Yes. Here we go.

Shannon: And who says I can’t have more than one favorite? They’re all my favorites.

Jennifer: Exactly. Exactly. Love is a circle.

Shannon: I know one of the things that you talk about a lot in your presentations and that we might want to talk about a little bit here, is cues to care. Because with native plants becoming more and more popular, there’s kind of this misconception that native plant gardens are always kind of these wild and crazy, freeform, informal, wild prairie looks. And I love that and I tend to do that a lot, but that doesn’t always fit into many communities and neighborhoods. So, those cues to care can be so important. Do you want to share some of that with us?

Jennifer: Yes, I’d love to. And, you know, these are all little nuggets of goodness that I grabbed from other amazing people. These phrases and observations.

My colleague here at the Botanical Garden, she’s our conservation horticulturist, Heather Alley, leads our Connect to Protect Garden, which is a program to help people garden with natives. It could be in a potted garden, it could be your mailbox garden, it could be a perennial bed, it could be a meadow. And sometimes we have money to go to cities and help them put in these gardens.

We have money to help you put in a native plant garden in front of your city hall or something. And we were getting pushed back, like you just said, Shannon, that a native plant garden is going to look messy. And we do all the things and we showed the pictures…

So Heather’s designed and built a very formal native plant garden planted in patches, and it is gorgeous. And when the plants are big and they’re going to seed and they’re doing their things and it’s wonderful and she’s letting them go to seed intentionally, what sets it off, what gives people a breath, is a very firm stone edge.

It’s got a raised hard edge. Very clean, precise edge that’s curving, maybe 20 inches tall, stone pavers stacked up. So that the garden in its seasons, as different species come in and out, they can get a little excited as they go to seed and they’re fluffy with their seed heads and their pappus and such or they’re brown. But it’s got that cue of care on the side that helps you know this is intentional. And that’s gotten us observing cues of care.

In our meadow, we had neighbors asking when we were going to mow those plants down. We were like, “Oh, it’s, wait, you don’t see that? It’s beautiful.” So, my husband put field stones on the edge and created a very precise border. And we’ve seen it since, a mowed edge will also do that. A very clean, precise border.

You don’t want to spend all your days mowing your entire property. So, you mow a very precise edge and then you let the rest come up.

Maybe in a neighborhood, that has certain rules, you have a gravel path that stays very precise and clean and you have an edge to that bed that is very precise and your garden can go through its seasonality and look intentional.

So, this intentional cues of care that, no we fully expect this to be tall in places and going to seed in places – going to seed in the best ways. But it helps people realize that it’s not just neglected.

And we’re getting this a lot with our Georgia Department of Transportation partners. They are working to change the management of roadsides for creating more grassland habitat, more pollinator habitat. We, us and our partners, have lots of conversations with GDOT. And they get pushback because if their roadsides are not mowed tightly, they’re viewed as uncared for, they’re viewed as you know, this is neglected. We don’t have money to care for our roadsides.

GDOT is working really hard to educate people the other way and say, this is intentional, this is beautiful. I was just in a call yesterday with some GDOT colleagues and that safety strip that they have to maintain that’s, you know, shorn for cars to pull off safely. I was like, there’s your cue of care. And then the back slope, let’s reduce the mowing cycles, right? And, and let those plants come up and let wildflowers bloom and go to seed. And maybe we’re going to mow twice a year instead of as often as, we’ve worked ourselves up to. And that’ll serve as a cue of care, that it’s intentional.

But they get phone calls, they get phone calls. So we’re, you know, it’s push pull marketing. It’s like, we can tell people I can convince them if I can get a 20 minute conversation with them, but it’s hard to get 20 minute conversations with Georgians all over the place. So, we need quick ways to teach people that this is intentional. These are cues of care. This is beautiful. Come see, come see why this is beautiful.

Shannon: Yes. And I think that’s something that will become a more common discussion, especially as more and more municipalities and states try to go to those beautiful roadsides that have those beautiful wildflowers and create that habitat there. And oh my gosh, they can be beautiful sometimes. I mean, really gorgeous.

But again, I mean, I’ve talked to many different groups in informal situations where it’s the same sort of thing. It’s viewed as being, like you said, neglect if it’s not shorn all the way short grass, as far as you can go over to the fence row or wherever the bank is. But there can be some gorgeous stuff there.

And as we’ve talked about in several of the other podcast episodes I’ve done recently with Kyle Lybarger and with Jeremy French, sometimes those areas are remnant prairies that are very old, very rare plants that have survived and hung on there, but that’s like one of the few places that they can be found anymore.

Jennifer: That’s exactly right, Shannon. Those remnant prairies, those little pockets, which have survived because of the disturbance of mowing. The mowing is just fine, but maybe we go back to the way it was done 20 years ago. And we are going to have to spot spray invasive, big “I” invasives, capital “I,” johnsongrass, the others, but reduce broadcast spraying. Go to spot spraying and then conservation mowing, because there are those beautiful relict prairies, those little remnants of goodness, and we’re learning how much we need to increase them.

And GDOT and Georgia Power, Forest Service for sure, State Parks, they’re all working to change their mowing regimes, their management regimes, And they’re asking the botanical gardens and the nature centers to help tell these stories of why this is beautiful. And some people, they get it, but some people bristle.

And, and I have actually said to district leaders in GDOT, send the calls to me, send them to me, like, you know, let me have 10 minutes on the phone with them. I’ll see what I can do. But I think we’ll get there. I think we’ll get there.

I think something else that we’ve been strategic about… we did a pocket prairie planting with GDOT partners. We usually plant plugs small, like if you bought a six pack of pansies that size, a six pack. We plant plugs because they establish really well, but we did choose some bigger size and one gallon showy plants that we planted up to the front. And we planted them in patches, so that you could see the characters of the play.

You could see the clump of color and see a species. And then in the distance, it may be spread with all its friends, but in the front being very intentional. Bigger specimens. Bigger patches of color. And then let the back go. Let it spread as it wishes. And, and it’ll thread and do its thing. It’ll be beautiful, but making it look very purposeful. Repeating the clumps of color, you know, purple, red, yellow, purple, red, yellow, and just keep it going. So the people start to see.

Shannon: Well, I know, you guys in Georgia have some amazing projects going on too, and I want to make sure we talk about some of those and let our listeners in Georgia know about them because you’ve got some cool stuff going on down there.

Jennifer: Yeah, we have several initiatives, and we are all about native plants. So you know our hearts, and please come to the State Botanical Garden. It is free. Our parking is free. Just come on in. We’re open sunrise to sunset, as you’re traveling the southeast. And we have garden displays of all kinds. All kinds of collections, like most botanical gardens do.

And so we welcome plants, as long as they’re not invasive, to be on display and to be in people’s gardens. But we really, we plead, we cheer, we try to convince people to incorporate natives into every space they can, and you’ll see that walking in our gardens. It’ll be a certain garden selection, a curated collection, but then it’ll weave into some more natives. I mean, our curators are amazing, transitioning those stories.

Um, we have Connect to Protect, which we borrowed that phrase from Fairchild Tropical Garden, and it’s about Doug Tallamy’s ideas. If we all plant a few native plants in all our little spaces, whatever our space is, we will support wildlife, Georgia wildlife, Southeast wildlife, biodiversity. And it’s amazing how wildlife will find it. The bees will find your plants on your windowsill. The monarchs found the native plants on the New York High Line in the middle of Manhattan. So Connect to Protect.

We have the Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year, where we’re working to increase native plants in the trade, for display, and for restoration. My colleague Heather Alley often gives growers seeds and shares her techniques for how to increase them to just get these plants moving in the trade so they can be more easily available for Georgia gardeners.

We have the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, which we’re very proud of the partners that worked on the critically imperiled plants. And it’s interesting in working with endangered plants, what we’re realizing is we can’t always just focus on the endangered species. We’ve got to remember to restore the whole community. We had an endangered plant that was failing to reproduce, not getting good pollinator visits.

And a colleague was like, “Well, have you planted for the bee that pollinates that? Have you planted it, so it supports that bee throughout the whole year?”

We were so focused on the endangered plant. So again, native plants and their companion plants in the whole plant community.

And then something also we’re proud of is the Certificate in Native Plants. So, if folks want to learn about native plants in all the ways from gardening, to ecology, to classic botany, field identification, winter identification, horticulture, all the things. We have a series of classes and you can go through the curriculum, at your pace, there’s no timeline, you get an official Certificate in Native Plants from the State Botanical Garden.

Truly that’s our source of volunteers. People that are botanically trained and can come help us in the field to collect seeds or to monitor endangered plants. They’re getting amazing training and then they become unpaid staff, and much valued volunteers, working with us arm and arm. Which we’re proud of.

And then we have our invasive species removal program… So, we talk about all these trails going up the same mountain of conservation. It could be gardening with natives. It could be actual restoration, prairie restoration. It could be removing invasives. It could be working on endangered plants. But, all these trails are going up the same mountain to just get more native plants on the ground for all the good reasons.

And then we collaborate with our sister and brother gardens and nature centers and universities throughout Georgia. We share programs and collections and projects. And work together. It’s a big lift. So, we’re all lifting together.

Shannon: But it takes that because nobody can do it by themselves. You’ve got all these, like you said, other colleges and nature centers and botanical gardens and other conservation organizations and agencies. But then you’ve also got the private individuals and the volunteers who are out there. Because it’s needed and especially in a state like Georgia or Kentucky or pretty much anywhere in the east.

Most of our land is privately owned. So, we’ve got to have everybody out there doing it and working on it and interested in it, really to make a difference.

Jennifer: That is the golden nugget. You’ve gotten at the heart. You’re right. Most of the land is privately held in Georgia too. And we really need people to care.

You know, when I started my career in plant conservation, I wanted to do something very applied. I was going to do this work for as long as I could. And then I was going to pass the box, the bag, the work and say to the next person, “okay, tag. I’m tagging out. Now it’s your turn. You carry that box as far as you can.”

And I, it’s been, I guess since 2014 in partnering with Southeastern Grasslands Initiative and partnering with scientists and other disciplines like ornithologists, the decline of our songbirds, the decline of our ground birds, the decline of grasslands in the Southeast. And the phrase that the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative uses that 25 years may be too late. You know, when I started my career in conservation, for southeastern conservation, I didn’t realize that time pressure. And now here I am 25 years in, and we no kidding have a time pressure.

And so now when I talk to audiences, I’m really pouring the heart out and I’m saying, “Listen, y’all. I’m asking legitimately. I really need you to plant a few natives in your home garden, or your balcony, or your mailbox, or your windowsill, because we’re running out of time. We’re going to start losing some bees and butterflies and birds.”

We may already be losing birds and it is centered around grassland habitat, woodland habitat, open habitat, open space, and getting people to see open space because people have forgotten.
And I, did not learn grasslands conservation as a young person. Coming up through graduate school, of course, in the coastal plain, longleaf pine ecosystem, absolutely. But for the Piedmont in the mountains, I wasn’t taught this.

So, I’m saying to people with my biggest open heart, we’ve got time pressure. We need to be mowing differently on roadsides. We need to be planting natives in every space we can. Letting plants go to seed. And seeing beauty differently. And it’s going to seed is beautiful and as they are in all the seasons of their lives. Come look at this Echinacea, this conehead. Look how prickly this is. Look at these awns.

So, you know, on one hand it’s a big lift. We’re scared. And on the other hand, but this is so doable! And oh my gosh, here’s the solution. Plant some lovely natives in your garden. It’s doable and it’s joyful. So, let’s go. Here we go. We’re going to do this together.

Shannon: As long as we’re all doing it together. It only takes a little bit for every one of us. And yeah, I love leaving the seed heads because one, they’re gorgeous just by themselves. But then two, I love the birds and the birds will come in and they’ll eat on them all winter long.

Even right now I’ve got a patch of goldenrods, and it’s the tall field goldenrods, I let go to seed and to flower right outside my office window. And everybody would come by and they’re like, “What’s that big patch?” because it’s in the middle of the yard.

But I saw it was all goldenrod. So, I was like, “okay, we’re just going to leave this because I want to watch everything outside my office window, all the pollinators and stuff.”

And then the birds have come in all winter long. And they were eating the seeds. And now I’ve got warblers checking it out for new insects that are getting on it. And I’ve seen some of the first warblers of the season on this little patch of goldenrod right outside my window, literally, already this year. And it’s been fun.

Now it’s getting to the point where it’s like, “okay, we’re going to have to cut it down before too much longer,” but I keep kind of hesitating. It keeps raining. That’s my excuse.

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s a good story. That’s a good point. So, a little tip you may know this, Shannon, but I was recently taught about the waddle. Which is putting pairs of sticks in the ground and laying cut stems so it makes sort of like a little fence. A little homemade grassy stem fence.

Lauren Muller was a colleague who taught me about the waddle. If you must, must, must cut down your stems, and eventually we do, or they start to snap. Then just lay them in this little vertical fence, this little paired stick spaced a foot apart, maybe six pairs, and then horizontally you’re laying the stems in between, and let that go. And you can do it, so it looks intentional. It’s a cue of care.

I used to just do a pile, but now this looks very intentional. A little straw fence on the edge around my paw paws in my garden and by my blueberries. And then the bees can emerge out. You know, the baby bees that are in those stems. And, like you said, the birds will pick out the bugs on those stems.

I did build my first waddle this winter and it’s a humble waddle. It’s a little more intentional than a pile. Some people really do beautiful things you can Google images. I guess it’s something that maybe came out of other countries throughout the planet but I’m catching up on this.

Shannon: Yeah, I always forget about waddles I’ve seen them, like you said on the internet, Facebook and stuff like that pictures of them. If I have space I’ll often take problem stems, and I mean, I live in the country, so I don’t have to worry about HOA rules or anything like that. So, if I have a place where I can kind of stand them up after I’ve cut off the stems, I will, because at least then they’re still in the same orientation and all that good stuff. Otherwise, I do like a little pile off in the corner.

Jennifer: That’s a good idea, the little vertical stands.

Shannon: But yeah, waddles are really good, especially for areas that you need more of those cues to care.

Jennifer: Right. Cues of care. I live in the downtown area. We don’t have the HOA, but we have a small garden. And so space is precious. But you need stick piles, and we have our cut piles, and we have our compost, and it’s all part of the process. But the waddle, it’s pretty cute, I have to say. I think an American toad could jump over it, but it’s pretty cute.

Shannon: Is there anything else you want to share with us? Because this has been fun, and I mean, we could talk forever, but…

Jennifer: I know, I really do love our conversation, Shannon. Um, anything else I want to say?

Well I want to say thank you and I want to say thank you for your podcast. I want to say thank you for your your blog and your outreach on behalf of native plants and wildlife because you really are so good at helping people see and pause and look and be curious. So, thank you for your work and your voice and your heart. We are celebrating you in Georgia and you have many fans down here. So, thank you. And thank you for this chance to have a conversation officially with you. I’m grateful to be part of Backyard Ecology. So, thank you.

Shannon: You’re welcome. And thank you so much for the kind words. And thank you for everything that you’re doing too, because I mean, you’re doing the same thing – helping to get out the word and spreading the word about native plants and get people interested and just everything that goes with it.

I mean, we probably established this when we started out this whole conversation talking about, um, spiders and we completely went off on that tangent… But yeah, you can’t look at one little thing for very long if you’ve got this curious, scientist, naturalist mind without then seeing something else on it and all of a sudden that’s a new interest. Everything’s connecting.
You just got to keep going. Going through and looking at all the cool stuff and this leads to that and that leads to this and all of a sudden, well, we spent an hour plus talking about all kinds of fun things.

Jennifer: Yes. Yes. And it’s fun to find another kindred soul, kindred heart. So thank you.

Shannon: Yes. Thank you too. So, if anybody, especially our listeners in Georgia, want to know more about native plants and starting to grow native plants or some of these rare plants and think that maybe they’ve got something different on their property, because that’s where we’re finding a lot of the rare and unusual plants now are on people’s private property. So maybe they have something… different that they’re curious about. Can they get in touch with you and find out more about all this stuff?

Jennifer: Yes. So, people can contact me by email and, my email is All the staff is on our State Botanical Garden website, If you scroll down to the bottom of the homepage, there’s a link for staff and our email addresses are there.

If you go to the conservation tab, you can read about our programs and our outreach, and we have that document for sure on milkweeds, and we have information about recommended native plant nurseries in Georgia and the southeast and recommended native plants for gardens and how to propagate them and all kinds of goodness.

And you just cued my mind, Shannon. There’s an iNaturalist project. And it’s called the Georgia Grasslands Initiative iNaturalist project. So, if people are curious about what they have and they snap a photo in the iNaturalist app and they link it to the Georgia Grasslands Initiative project page. Then we can help them identify that plant and people are finding some remarkable species in their gardens and in their back property and on roadsides. So please, please, that would be wonderful if people wanted to check that out and get involved and we can get excited about native plants together.

Shannon: And I will definitely have your contact information in the show notes. I will have a link to the Botanical Gardens page. I may even go ahead and pull out that one on the appropriate milkweeds and go ahead and put that as a separate link because I think that’s really important to highlight. And I will also do the iNaturalist page, because yes, I forgot that too, until you brought that up, because that’s a really good way for people to get involved.

Jennifer: Yeah, we need them. We need them. We need them to go be curious and take pictures of that.

Shannon: Yes, exactly. Well, this has been great. And we may have to have you on again, because it’s just fun to have these conversations about all the fun stuff going on outside and that we’re finding.

Jennifer: Yeah, let’s do this again. I would love that. Truly. Thank you.

Shannon: Yes. Well, until then, thanks again and have a great day.

Jennifer: Thank you. You too, Shannon.

Shannon: I enjoyed listening to this conversation with Jennifer again. I hope you did too. Jennifer is just such an amazing and knowledgeable person who loves native plants and all things nature. I always enjoy talking with her.

I also want to mention that Anthony and I have been exploring new ways to better serve you. Our group coaching programs have evolved out of our desire to help you and other members of our Backyard Ecology audience in a deeper, more personal way. These are offered on a seasonal basis and are designed to address some of our most asked questions in a way that allows you to ask questions and get personalized feedback for your unique situation. If you want to learn more about our group coaching programs, go to

And, if you’re listening to this episode shortly after it goes live and want help designing your pollinator and wildlife garden, then you’re in luck. Our next group coaching program, Design Your Pollinator and Wildlife Oasis: Garden-sized Plots, starts in just a few days. But don’t wait, registration closes on October 9, 2023, and we don’t plan to offer this group coaching program again until at least the summer of 2024.

Until next week I encourage you to take some time to explore the nature in your yard and community.

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Episode image:

  • Purple coneflowers in a pollinator garden
  • Photo credit: USFWS, public domain

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

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