April 24, 2020 Growing season maintenance timeline & native plant observations One of the greatest joys of an ecological restoration, whether it be a perennial garden or a natural shoreline, is observing plants as they grow from tiny sprouts to tall, mature flowering plants each year. Our maintenance crews get a front row seat to this yearly transformation in our restorations, working to apply seasonally appropriate native plant maintenance strategies, keep ahead of weed problems, or react to new on-site challenges. While the snowy months have us anxiously awaiting the retreat of the snow and the beginning of our busy season, restorations in winter provide vital ecological functions. We like to leave as much plant matter as possible in our restoration areas going into winter. The dried stalks and seed heads of native plants are an invaluable resource—birds visit to eat seed throughout the winter, a host of pollinators take refuge inside hollow plant stems, and clumps of native grasses provide insulated hiding places for small mammals. Plant matter packed down by snow over winter will decay in freeze-thaw cycles and in spring, creating wonderful compost for the soil. In early spring, our official “growing season” begins before there are many, if any, signs of life appearing from the soil. When the snow recedes and the ground begins to defrost, our maintenance crews get busy in the field. Our Select and Elite maintenance customers will be familiar with Spring Clean-ups, when we finally let go of the old vegetation of last season. While it isn’t an absolute necessity for native plant maintenance, remaining plant stalks can be cut down to make way for new buds to push through and explode into fresh greenery. Once again, some plant material is left behind as habitat and mulch for the soil, though it is important to make sure there is only a thin layer of plant material, leaves, or traditional mulch. A thick layer of leaves, say over 3 inches, from the previous fall, can be too wet and heavy for fresh spring sprouts to break through. As spring progresses, weeding begins in earnest. Weedy annuals like yellow rocket, with its pungent mustard-green scent, are quick to sprout up tall and become early targets for the maintenance team. Our routine maintenance ensures that beautiful native spring ephemerals have the prime habitat to bloom and go to seed such as marsh marigold, pasque flower, and Virginia bluebells. This first wave of blooms gives the maintenance crews a burst of energy after a long stretch of physically demanding and sort of drab “spring clean-ups.” The first show of color also serves a warning that there are many more months of weed-pulling ahead. Many weeds require constant vigilance and effort to remove, especially with no or the very judicious use of herbicides. We take pride in the fact that our maintenance team challenges each other in how best to carry out herbicide-free plant control. The foundation of our strategies is built on time and persistence. Invasive species have a talent for spreading rapidly, seeding heavily, and surviving a wide variety of living conditions. As such, attacking a species like narrowleaf bittercress, buckthorn, or purple loosestrife requires returning again and again to manage new growth from the seedbank or old stumps (in the case of buckthorn and other woodies). Luckily, our native plant species are also hardy, persistent, and ready to fill in areas where we eliminate nasty invasive weeds. Throughout the season, the maintenance team might be spotted cutting the tops off selected native plant species. But this isn’t a cause of worry. Many of our robust natives have no problem growing over six feet tall–common culprits being Joe-Pye Weed and New England Aster. Sometimes, in order to preserve sightlines and keep blooms at a height where they can be best enjoyed, tops may be cut off the plants. With strong root systems and established stems, the plants have no trouble flowering, even though they received a haircut. So the plants might bloom a bit later but be more compact and more manageable. This can be especially fun with New England Asters, which already bloom late in the season. Further delaying the bloom can mean flashes of purple asters still blooming in late September and October. These lovely blooms, along with other species of aster, will generally be the last of color for the year, giving way to autumn’s fading browns as the perennials (and the maintenance team) go dormant. Then, all there is to do is wait for blooms to return once again! Do you need help maintaining your native plant restoration this season? We can offer different levels of maintenance depending on your budget or site needs. Our experienced maintenance crew is available to answer your questions as well! Visit our website or contact us for more information.