Native plants support native animal populations

| Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, 9:04 p.m.

Steve Castorani wants gardeners to consider native plants for their gardens — but not only for their natural beauty.

“It's very important that we understand the role native plants play in our environment,” says Castorani, co-founder and president of North Creek Nurseries, co-owner of American Beauties Inc., and one of four speakers at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens' annual Native Plant and Sustainability Conference next weekend.

The conference invites landscape professionals and horticulture enthusiasts to learn about ways in which well-designed landscapes can help to sustain the natural environment through lectures and discussions.

Castorani says there is a direct relationship between native-plant populations and the animals that share our environment. By reducing the quantity of native plants, food sources available to native birds and butterflies are reduced.

“In turn, this loss reduces the food source other animals depend on. It interrupts the food chain. Non-native plant species do not provide digestible tissue for our native insects and, in turn, the reduction of native insects reduces our native bird populations. Native birds require these insects to raise their young,” he says.

Native plants offer many other advantages, according to Castorani. They are adapted to our soils and climate, they require less care and watering when established, and they thrive with less fertilizer and disease control. He says Western Pennsylvania offers a wide range of native plants that thrive in our region. Some of his favorites include:

• White oak tree, which serves as a host plant for more than 500 species of butterflies and moth caterpillars.

• Red bud, a small, flowering tree that provides seeds for birds and a nesting place in the bark and leaf debris for insects

• High-bush blueberry, an edible plant for humans and birds with bright fall color

• Cardinal flower, a perennial and a favorite plant of hummingbirds

• Alum root, another perennial, that serves as an easy-to-grow woodland groundcover.

• Switch Grass, including new varieties with red highlights or steel-blue color, which adds texture and movement in the landscape.

Castorani also advocates using groundcovers rather than mulch to control weeds after plants are established, as groundcovers are more attractive and less expensive than spreading mulch yearly.

In addition to Castorani, other conference speakers include:

• José Almiñana, a principal for Andropogon Associates, one of the nation's premier landscape-architecture firms and leaders in ecologic design. Almiñana, lead CSL landscape architect for Phipps' new Center for Sustainable Landscapes, will discuss the project's net-zero water goal and implemented design strategies.

• Dr. Elaine Ingham, an internationally renowned soil microbiologist and chief scientist for the Rodale Institute, will provide an in-depth look at beneficial organisms, and explain how to harness their potential using compost extracts or teas to cultivate healthy soil and plants.

• Scott C. Scarfone, principal and founder of Oasis Design Group, who will discuss how society's renewed interest in ecology and natural processes is influencing current trends in landscape planning and design and his ideas on where this movement is headed.

Pre-registration for the Oct. 27 conference is required. The agenda includes check-in and light refreshments at 9 a.m., followed by presentations from 9:30 to 11:50 a.m.; a book sale, self-guided tours of Phipps' new Center for Sustainable Landscapes and lunch from noon to 1:15 p.m.; and lectures from 1:15 to 3:25 p.m.

Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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