CHOCOLATE VINE (Akebia quinata) In addition to these three species, I recommend the committee consider the following species as they are currently in the nursery trade across the state and doing harm to native wildlife:
HEAVENLY BAMBOO (Nandina domestica) – This ornamental produces berries that are attractive but highly toxic to birds, containing concentrations of hydrogen cyanide that have caused mass bird die-offs after ingestion.
EUONYMUS GROUP: Burning Bush and Wintercreeper – Burning Bush (Euonymus alata), known for its brilliant fall color, is spreading widely throughout fields edges and forest edges as birds distribute berries, crowding out native flora. The berries are also toxic to mammals, including pets, and to some birds. Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) is a fast-growing groundcover that has escaped into the wilds, smothering native plants and emerging trees and shrubs.
PRIVET GROUP: Ligustrum sinense, L. japonicum, L. obtusifolium and L. vulgare – These ornamentals have escaped into the wilds, outcompeting native shrubs and at times completely dominating the understory in woods edge and stream edge environments
BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleja spp.) – This non-native ornamental has gained popularity for its colorful flowerheads which are highly attractive to butterflies. With over 40,000 seeds on a single flower spike, this shrub has been able to spread rapidly, taking over native fields, shrub, creekside, and woodland habitats. It does not provide habitat for butterfly caterpillars, as native flowering plants do, and its nectar has been found to be the “junk food” of nectar for butterflies, with little of the nutritional content that native plants provide necessary for preparation for winter.
NORWAY MAPLE (Acer platanoides) – This non-native ornamental tree canopy creates such dense shade that very little can grow beneath it to support diversity where it is planted. It is a prolific seeder, spreading into natural areas and shading out native plants and outcompeting native Sugar Maples. As a native plant enthusiast and advocate, I urge the Committee to take action now to protect our natural heritage! Thank you for your consideration.
“I’m not very garden proud. You’ll see when you come what I mean,” Stephanie Ulmer warns. “My garden is very messy. It’s yearlong messy, even when at the height of most obvious beauty. I love my garden.”
A large –and beautifully messy– residence on Elmer Street rests in the outskirts of Edgewood, on one of the highest points of Allegheny county. In the 1930’s, a man named Elmer built a house on the edge of the woods. In 2003 Stephanie Ulmer and her husband Klaus moved in to a Tudor style house. “
Ulmer from Elmer Street in the house built by Elmer. It was meant to be,” Stephanie laughs.
When Stephanie and her husband moved in, the backyard, like neighbors yards, was filled with Norway maples. It was not an easy decision to cut down the trees, but they did it anyhow and planted a handful of trees to replace the cut invasive ones. Once the invasive Norway maples were gone the native saplings that were there really took off and the whole yard became naturally more diverse. Now dogwoods, sugar maples, red buds, native laurels, oaks, elms, hickory trees, wild cherry, locust, catalpa, cucumber magnolia –some planted by the previous owner, some appearing as volunteers– grow side by side on the hilly piece of land.
“If we remove the worst of the invasives, nature will just do its miraculous thing all by itself.”
Relationship with a garden
On a warm February day, Stephanie walks down the steps to greet me and take me for a garden tour.! Sanjuro, Stephanie’s 13 year old dog follows her, limping yet not allowing sore hips to prevent him from enjoying the moment. We both note, delighted, that the warm morning feels like the first day of spring, and in the same breath recognize our ambivalence: Oddly warm days are a sign of climate crisis and the detrimental impact of us humans on our world.
Stephanie is used to taking care. She took care of people as a shiatsu therapist for over 30 years. She now takes care of the environment and is a regular face in the climate movement. Her yard is probably a part of her environmental activism, I wonder.
“Of course, how could it not be part of my environmental advocacy? I feel like gardens are like any other relationship we have – full of compromises.! The garden, which includes the fauna and fungi as well as flora, has its own needs, I have mine and both those needs are constantly changing.! So I think of gardening as more of a conversation or dance.! In that sense the garden is a cooperative effort or co-creation.”
Finding one’s gardening path
Stephanie’s gardening has been a journey, not a fixed and un-changable habit. Initially she started gardening choosing plants that were pretty. Michael Dirr’s gardening book helped her understand what plants needed to thrive. She then started learning about something that her gardening bible did not mention: The importance of planting native plants and the risks related to planting non-native plants, and non-native plants becoming invasive.
As she continued learning more, she again came to recognize that life is complex and nuanced: Some experts pointed out that any nonnative plant or animal, even so-called “well-behaved” ones, can become perniciously invasive under the right circumstances. Others note that rapidly changing temperatures combined with climate weirding may decimate our current populations of natives. This group of scientists encourage the planting of native plants from slightly warmer climates than our own and combining them with a small number of select nonnatives.
“There was a lot of information coming from both sides. I planted one thing and and then ripped it up.”
Stephanie had become friends with two landscape architects who were familiar with sustainable landscaping. Listening to them and to her own nature, she found her gardening path:
“I thought I would take a middle of the way approach to natives. My nature is the middle way.”
Now her large suburban property is filled mainly with native plants and some non-natives maybe to 40 – 60 ratio. She aspires to the ratio of 70 natives to 30 nonnatives.
“Each year I discover yet another plant is a nonnative. In fact, it wasn’t until joining Wild Ones that I learned, after planting them widely in my yard, that evergreen azalea was not a native!”
Stephanie joined the Wild Ones Western Pennsylvania chapter in the fall of 2021, shortly after its launch. She had been troubled by large lawns –“green deserts”– for years and was happy to find a group that shared her vision of another world.
“If we wish to survive as a species with some semblance of civilization intact, we will need to change our relationship with nature, of which we are of course a part, from an extractive one to a cooperative one. This will in turn change every aspect of how we live. I personally think this will be a change for the better, one that will make us all happier and healthier.”
“Allowing nature to play a larger role in our lawns, by letting our native flora flourish, letting the leaves lie where they are at least during winter, dispensing with petroleum based fertilizers and chemical herbicides and pesticides and switching to manual or at least electrical powered mowers and clippers is a beautiful example of a change that will make our lives both easier and more joyful.”
Humanity living alongside nature in Edgewood
A week after our meeting, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC released their latest report on the impacts, adaptation and vulnerability related to global heating. The report states bluntly that people and other animals are already dying in heatwaves, storms and other disasters fuelled by global warming and calls for a wholesale revision in how humanity lives alongside nature. The report urges us to conserve 30 to 50 percent of the Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean areas.
Stephanie’s attempts to create change in her own neighborhood have been met with a range of responses.
“I can’t say how many people stop to tell that they love my yard,” Stephanie says.
Then there are those who likely feel offended by the messiness of her garden yet tolerate it realizing that most people appreciate the wild yard.
There was also a neighbor, now deceased, who hated the garden to the extent that he sprayed Stephanie’s milkweeds with Roundup. The hemlock tree between the properties is not doing well likely because of the repeated poisoning. The neighbor also called the borough several times to report a code violation. The borough would call Stephanie back: Your milkweed, asters, and ironweed are right next to the street.
“The plants were not pretty in typical suburban sense,” Stephanie sighs. “I wrote them back that I am working with landscape architects. They never pressed charges.”
The third time this happened, Stephanie called the borough manager and found out that the problem was gone: The borough had changed their code.
Gardening for balance
A few days after our tour of Stephanie’s garden, the war started in Ukraine. The yard and gardening is Stephanie’s refuge, a place where she finds relief for herself, and for others.
Stephanie points out to a snag: “Squirrels have a luxury two-floor condominium in the tree. They often sit on their shelf mushroom terrace and enjoy a meal from a nearby oak.”
Homeowners typically remove dead trees but Stephanie and Klaus decided to leave the snags standing after ensuring that none of them were tall enough to damage any structures when they met their natural end. Snags are much sought after by wildlife for a variety of purposes.
The two pawpaws Stephanie planted about 10 years ago have multiplied manyfold. There are now closer to ten pawpaw trees in the yard.
Stephanie bends down to check on a woodland phlox, or what’s left of the plant. Because of the unusually warm fall we had last year, bunnies had babies in the late fall. They ate what came their way, like the phlox. Yet, Stephanie seems undisturbed by the damage.
“The best case scenario is that we can slow down the impacts of climate change. I want my garden to be a refuge for what ever form of native life, whether worm, butterfly or fox that wants a place to shelter. My door is open for them.”
Close to a “Pollinator friendly” sign and a bird bath, nested in the middle of a mock orange, there’s a mourning dove, staring directly at us, as if confirming Stephanie’s gardening principles of care.
This new Wild Ones series introduces us to the Wild Ones, Western PA chapter members, and how we are healing the Earth one yard at the time. Who and what are we? What does it mean to be a Wild One?
Growing (up) wild and free in a patch you know so well
A small white wooden bridge crosses Pine Creek in Allison Park, half an hour north of Pittsburgh. On one side of the bridge, suburban light-scale industrial structures, office buildings, and an original stone farmhouse fill the land. On the other side of the bridge, a cozy, white house nests between the hill and the creek. The new guardians of the place, Laura Bartoletti and her daughters Miranda, 8, and Greta, 5, are playing outside on a sunny and wintery January weekend.
“We don’t exactly litter here,” shouts Miranda, running to greet the visitor. She skip-hops back to her sister Greta and Rainbow Magic Trick, the family cat, to continue their embodied creek and ice exploration.
In the early 1900s, two Irish brothers built a fishing cottage across the creek from an established apple orchard and farm. Laura and her girls moved into this place and named it Fox Den Pine Creek in 2017, in honor of their fox neighbors. The last apple tree was cut shortly before Laura and her family moved in. Before that, as one of the best fishing holes in the area, the First Peoples most certainly had a presence here. Arrowheads and other evidence of early Native American presence have been noted.
Wild ones by nature
Laura, originally from Allison Park herself, has a background in anthropology and archeology. As an outdoorsy person she ended up in Alaska for a few years. The experience of bearing witness to the melting of the glaciers changed her perspective on life.
“Seeing how rapidly and how far the glaciers withdrew within just a few years made me realize how connected we are. What we are doing here is important to others elsewhere. Everything we consume, throw away, and plant in our own yards affects the planet as a whole. We are all connected.”
Laura moved back to Pittsburgh in 2010 and lived a few years in the city neighborhoods of Highland Park and Morningside. She soon started looking for a place outside of the city.
“I wanted my daughters to have an experience of living in a wild place.”
She found a more efficient home, with a half an acre of land, in Allison Park and fell in love with the place.
Not long after that the little family moved in.
Becoming a Wild One
Laura brought some of the perennials – hostas, daisies, echinacea, alstroemerias– with her from her Morningside city garden thinking that whatever she plants will grow. This was not the case.
“The plants I brought with me were not coming back next season. Maybe it was the soil, or the run-off from the hillside. There were also a lot of plants that were already established here, both non-natives, such as tigerlilies, box bushes, highly invasive japanese stilt grass, as well as natives like jewelweed, pokeberry, dames rocket, wild geranium, woodland stonecrop, burdock, and beebalm. I started thinking that instead of buying new plants, I will try to nurture what is already growing here.”
The first year of living wildly was intense. It felt like living in a jungle, Laura remembers.
“I had no idea how intense the yard work would be initially, but every year, now that I’m here, it gets easier and easier. I have a better idea of what grows here naturally. It’s very rewarding, less work for me and also better for the environment.”
After a couple of years of experimenting with what it means to be a wild one on her own, Laura heard about the Wild Ones through her current garden club and joined the group.
“When I first read about the Wild Ones mission to educate, establish more native gardens, and that they were looking for people to join as founding members, I signed up immediately. I was just so thrilled to find other people that were as passionate about restoring and maintaining natural landscapes as myself. I wanted to be able to share my experiences and also learn more from others.”
Being a Wild One…
Standing on the bridge, Laura points out to the little patch of land between the creek and an office building across the bridge from her where she has an easement with the property owner. The patch came into her care heavily mulched and landscaped with non-native plants like pampas grass and English Ivy. Laura noticed how Pine Creek washed off the mulch every time it flooded. The pampas grasses withstood the water, but everything else including echinacea and shasta daisies, simply washed away.
She decided to try something different: She cut the grass and chopped the fallen leaves with an electric lawnmower and left everything on the ground.
“As time went on, I started seeing spiderwort, Queen Anne’s lace, buttercups, forget-me-nots and maidenhair ferns growing where there was once only mulch and grass. The dragonflies, bees and butterflies started appearing in this area too.”
“We have very little grass left, only a small portion for the dog to lay in. I let the native plants like butterfly bush and beebalm be. We get a lot of hummingbirds here. They seem to like having that stuff around.”
We walk over the bridge and up the hill towards the girls’ fairy garden. The land around the fairy garden grows Appalachian redbuds, perennial sunflowers, and black raspberries. Rainbow Magic Trick comes to rub himself on a young elderberry.
“Blacklace elderberries… they just went wild.”
When the family moved in, there were only a few shoots of milkweed. Laura grew some milkweed in milk jugs and planted them alongside the wild ones. Milkweed is now filling the slope on its own, growing in a symbiotic relationship with morning glory. Laura points down towards the creek.
“There is a swampy area… I would like to try to grow swamp milkweed too… We have a lot of monarch butterflies and swallowtails here. There’s something magical to have my children run around with butterflies.”
Sumac stretches tall and strong towards the sun from the creek bench. Sumac is an important critical winter food source for the wildlife – and good for people too. Laura has a Middle Eastern sumac recipe she is planning to try out. She would also like to make teas and tinctures with the abundant burdock, mint, and lemonbalm.
Freedom to be a Wild One
Laura does not have close-by neighbors and is therefore free to tend to the land without having to negotiate different views on gardening. She says that the sights of empty lawns and kids staying inside trouble her, and the sight of a nearby landscaping company blowing snow off the grass with leaf-blowers blows her mind. Yet, in her naturally friendly way, she does not make a big fuss about her way of gardening.
“I think if we just started doing this, trying this out, people might be inspired by what we do.”
Laura is currently studying to become a master watershed steward with Penn State Extension, and recently got Fox Den Pine Creek officially registered as a watershed friendly property.
The Pine Creek Watershed stretches from Fox Chapel in the east to Franklin Park in the west, and from Pine-Richland in the north to Etna in the south. The land holds it all: heavy industrial, light industrial, commercial, and residential zones.
“There is a direct connection between gardening and watershed care. The importance of how we each tend to our land cannot be understated. Little changes can have a huge impact.”
She does not use any chemicals or pesticides that will enter the water table and creek. She is also trying to restore the riparian buffer which not only supports local wildlife, but also helps with stormwater runoff.
Laura says that many people tell her that it must be terrifying to raise children in our world. She points out that there’s also lot of good things happening all the time.
“We are part of this huge movement of people… It’s something truly special to grow up in a patch of land you know so well.”
“We are all connected. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but we must slow down and be conscious of how our everyday actions affect the world and nature around us.”
THANK YOU to our moderator, Juliette Olshock, and our panelists: Kosta Buonos, Rachel ‘The Weed Lady’ Patnik, Emily Schartner, Evan Burbridge, Trey ‘The Plant Geek’ Marks, and Miriam Cheng for sharing your native plant knowledge and expertise. Also, thank you to all who attended.
Together, we can heal the earth, one yard at a time.
Phipps – Virtual Native Plant and Sustainability Conference
Join national experts for an engaging forum on plants, landscapes and our role as environmental stewards.
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ annual Native Plant and Sustainability Conference brings together local and national experts for a forum on plants, landscapes and our roles as environmental stewards. This year’s event will be offered virtually through Zoom, but in the same spirit of community building and sharing that has made previous events a success.
Early bird registration costs $40 for Phipps members and $45 for nonmembers. Registrants will be sent a Zoom link at time of registration and any additional handouts closer to the event. After Jan. 7, registration will cost $50 for Phipps members and $55 for nonmembers.