In light of the current situation, there are probably many coastal residents that have found themselves with increased downtime. And with the days beginning to warm up, it now seems like a good time to spend as much time as possible outside. A leisurely walk at one of the county’s many parks or trails or a stroll through the neighborhood will prove that many plants are beginning to bloom. One might see cypress or red maple trees coming to life, and coastal azaleas will soon be blooming if not already. Green and Gold can also be found close to the ground in shady areas.
While nature walks are a great way to see the many spring budding and blooming species, gardening is yet another way. Those who planned ahead have already started to see the fruits of their labor, but it is not too late to start a garden now. One may choose to start by planting what has already bloomed and is available in-store, however, there is also the option to fill your time now and plan ahead. In coastal North Carolina, the latter option is encouraged by the Coastal Landscape Initiative (CLI), a public-private partnership led by NC Sea Grant with a variety of state, federal, and private collaborators including the Coastal Studies Institute. CLI’s goal is to bring awareness to and increased availability of native and otherwise highly beneficial plants, as well as to identify and produce examples and resources for the public. CLI hopes to bring more effective landscaping to the coast of North Carolina.
When Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) blooms in the summer, it attracts an abundance of pollinators.
When selecting plants for gardening or landscaping, it is important to pick plants that are native to the area and especially not invasive. In addition to the benefits native plants bring to the ecosystem, they are also dubbed “easier” and more cost-efficient. Because they are native, these plant species are more tolerant to the local climate and changing weather conditions. They also require less maintenance, which reduces the need for damaging pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. These reduced chemical needs can, in turn, also positively affect overall water quality. Native plant species support local fauna and attract wildlife, especially important pollinator species, by providing shelter and food.
Robert McClendon, CSI Assistant Director for Administration and landscape aficionado, recommends making and taking a list of native species to plant when shopping. He says, “The most frequent question I get is where to buy natives. There are a few nurseries that specialize but mostly people have to look for them – there will be a few available at every nursery and big-box store… the problem is you have to look through all those ‘pretty’ plants to find them – and know what you’re looking for!” Having a list makes it easier to ask the retailer if specific plants are available. If they aren’t, there may be a viable, non-invasive alternative to work with that can provide similar ecosystem benefits. Gloria Putnam, a member of the NC Sea Grant CLI team, says “Sometimes native species get a bad rap because it may be more difficult to find a native species that suits the needs of the buyer. We encourage people to use at least 60-80% native plants when landscaping or gardening, but also to take into account habitat structure.” Putnam encourages gardeners and landscapers to think about their properties as non-static, healthy, beneficial environments- ones that have varying height and utilize ground cover, shrubs, bushes, and trees.
A pollinator garden on the ECU Outer Banks Campus exhibits a variety of plant species to include those of all different heights.
If looking to start or replant a garden or landscape, there are many public resources available. Putnam and McClendon recommend the Coastal Landscape Initiative website or booklet, and there are also the National Wildlife Federation’s Plant Finder and NC State’s Going Native Project. Though not yet quite ready, Putnam also mentioned to soon be on the lookout for CLI design templates on the CLI website. These templates will feature a variety of designs to use native plants for site, condition, and function-specific needs. Additionally, the ECU Outer Banks Campus serves as a public, living example of sustainable landscaping with native plants. The campus features trees, shrubs, and flowering species which not only beautify the campus but also serve many purposes. The sustainable landscaping practices found on campus help to reduce ECU and CSI’s environmental footprint, encourage the continued development of native plant communities in the region, and foster biodiversity by providing crucial habitat for native and migratory animal species and pollinators in coastal North Carolina.
CSI also has published native plant lists on their site, and two applicable, previously recorded Science on the Sound lectures presented by CSI Horticultural Specialist Jeff Lewis can be found here. Says Lewis, “With continuing development in our coastal regions, it is more important than ever for us to create native plant habitats wherever we can, and to protect the habitats already present.”