Gardeners Gone Wild

A wood violet flower from Julia Vanatta’s garden.

Photo by Julia Vanatta

South Minneapolis gardeners champion native plants; plant sale ends May 1

Wild Ones’ spring plant sale and fundraiser offers eight prepackaged flats, with eight–10 different species selected for sunny areas, shady areas or for attracting butterflies. The flats cost $40–$76. Orders are due May 1. Call Marty Rice at 952-927-6531 for an order form. The Wild Ones local chapter’s website is www.for-wild.org/ chapters/twincities chapters/twincities.

Cooper resident Mary Schommer keeps black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed and asters in her refrigerator.

OK, they are just seeds, and they are in small bags mixed with wet sand. Schommer calls the process “stratifying,” a way to preserve the native seeds by simulating winter conditions. In a month, she will plant them in flats, water them and, sometime in June, she will pop the sprouts in her backyard.

“I won’t plant them outside until they get a chance to grow,” she said. “Squirrels do a number on them.”

Schommer is secretary of the Twin Cities chapter of Wild Ones. It’s a national organization that “promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities,” according to the local chapter’s Vice President, Julia Vanatta, who lives on the border of the Cooper and Howe neighborhoods.

It’s the plants, more than the members, of course, that are wild; Schommer herself is more the petite and pleasant, middle-aged Minneapolis gardener type. When she and her husband Robert returned home from living abroad in 2005, she started ripping out the backyard buckthorn, honeysuckle and creeping hair bells with an eye towards an overhaul. A friend belonged to Wild Ones and encouraged her to attend.

Wild Ones meets the third Tuesday of most months at 6:30 p.m. at the Nokomis Community Center, 2401 E. Minnehaha Parkway. Upcoming meetings will feature guest speakers talking about native-plant shade gardens (April 15) and creating prairie gardens (May 20). The meetings are free and open to the public. Membership costs $30; the local chapter currently has about 100 members.

Schommer said she has benefited from the lectures, as well as a fall seed exchange and the inspiration she has gotten from others who enjoy growing native plants. This year, she is installing a small backyard pond to attract birds; Wild Ones friends have given her design ideas.

Getting back to her roots

Vanatta grew up in Northern Minnesota and remembers playing in the woods and swamp area behind her house. A few years ago, she got native plants from her mother and started incorporating them into her Longfellow landscape. “Bringing back some of my childhood into my own yard was a lot of fun,” she said.

Vanatta said one membership benefit is “Show Me/Help Me Day.” A gardening mentor will come to a new member’s home and offer startup advice. The mentors help identify native plants worth keeping, cultivated plants worth giving away, invasive plants to eliminate and the DWATs — “Don’t-Worry-About-Them” species that go away on their own once native plants get established.

Having native plants has a number of benefits, including a deep root structure that makes them more drought resistant, she said.

Vanatta doesn’t know the plants’ scientific names, but she said Wild Ones members are pretty relaxed about such things. “People don’t have landscapes that are 100 percent native,” she said. “Eventually, they fall in love with [native plants] and get rid of the cultivars. It is kind of a process.”

How to get started

For people interested in getting started, Vanatta suggests attending a meeting, checking the website and noticing things as they come up. “I just observe this time of year,” she said.

Once the weather warms, Schommer said her “to do” list will grow to include removing last fall’s mulch, restarting the compost pile, doing some preemptive weeding and finishing her pond. “If you haven’t got a plant list, you should be looking around and getting ideas of what plants you want to put in,” she said.

The Wild Ones has a Top 10 list for easy-growing, garden-friendly native plants. For shady areas, try serviceberry (a shrub), maidenhair fern, wild ginger, cardinal flower and Jo-Pye-weed. For sunny areas, try black chokecherry (shrub); prairie dropseed, butterfly weed, prairie smoke and purple coneflower.

Schommer said it takes a couple of years to establish native plants. In 2006, she started with some bluestem grass, sneezeweed, Maximillian sunflowers and a few other native plants from a “plant rescue,” (i.e., dug up from a vacant lot slated for redevelopment). Last year, she added more plants through a native plant grant program through the Longfellow Community Council and Seward Neighborhood Group.

“The old saying in planting is that the first year they sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap,” Schommer said. “The first year I didn’t have much. I am hoping this year to see loads of stuff out there.”

last revised: April 24, 2008