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  • David A.F. Sweet

Cartwright Describes Benefits of Native Planting

By David A. F. Sweet For the second year, April is Illinois Native Plant Month. It came to be thanks to the efforts of the Lake Forest Garden Club (LFGC) and others in the state. The LFGC's efforts in conservation hearken back a century, when Fanny Day Farwell and Laura Donnelley served on national Garden Club of America conservation committees. 


LFGC member Marion Cartwright, who serves on the non-profit’s conservation committee and who has led plant exchanges for the group, is well versed in the benefits of native planting. She’s been involved with planting The Garden at Elawa Farm, serves on the board of Lake Forest Open Lands Association (LFOLA) and has offered her environmental input elsewhere. Lake Forest Love caught up with her recently. When did you first understand the importance of native planting?

It dawned in me over time and became full-on recognition and worry some 40 years ago. Because I have never missed a summer going to our family summer home in Leelanau County, Mich., I witnessed the gradual but steady change over two decades in the woods where I loved to roam.  Like a film played in slow motion, I watched as introduced ornamental shrubs and ground covers planted in yards near the woods gradually spread, popping up here and there and everywhere and eventually smothering more and more of the native woodland plant community. 

"Native plants have taken a back seat on nursery shelves for decades now. Time to bring them back front and center," says Marion Cartwright.

Before anyone bothered to notice, the entire understory in large swaths in the woods was only non-native Amur Honeysuckle introduced from Asia. The entire ground-layer along the length of the rail system and fingering out into pathless sections was covered in European forget-me-not and sweet woodruff, also introduced from Europe. The native spring ephemerals had disappeared. The native forget-me-nots and Galiums, members of the native woodland plant community, had been replaced.  In my lifetime, I witnessed the degradation of this beloved 24-acre woodland. All due to what was planted in yards nearby.

When I started volunteering with the Lake Forest Open Lands Land Stewardship staff in 1996, I saw the fig buttercup taking over areas in the East Skokie Nature Preserve. First introduced for wet ground on estates along West Westminster and Green Bay Road, fig buttercup is now showing up all over Lake Forest.


I saw how European buckthorn and three introduced honeysuckle species had taken over the native understory and ground layer in large sections of oak/hickory savannas in Lake Forest and in many yards around the city. The ground under the buckthorn thickets is bare. Biodiversity is wiped out. The gorgeous mature oaks and hickories are hidden, and their offspring can’t grow.


An invasion starts slowly: a few here and there, a seed left in a bird’s droppings, a seed carried on the wind, roots spreading from the edges of the woods into the interior, a few feet a year. As these “garden escapes” take hold, mature and being to reproduce, their numbers gradually grow.  At some point, a tipping point of sorts is reached, their numbers explode, and finally people take notice.


How have you seen the benefits of native planting first-hand?

My husband and I bought our 2.7-acre property eight years ago. We removed all the buckthorn on the northern and eastern borders and replaced it with native shrubs and trees. We killed 7,000 square feet of squishy wet lawn in one corner of the backyard and sowed seeds of 28 native wet/moist prairie plants and planted three wet tolerant native shrubs in wet areas along the edges. Within a year, it started flowering. We continue to enrich it with more seed.

The Cartwrights' property is teeming with native planting.

There are changes in species dynamics over time in a meadow. We keep our eye out to make sure tall goldenrod does not dominate. (We did not plant it; it just showed up on its own.) The diversity of native insects has grown, and I keep adding to my photo library. We collect the seed each fall to overseed the area, with extra to share with fellow gardeners and to sow it in other areas as we continue to shrink the lawn. Bit by bit, we nibble away at the lawn, using cardboard to smother the grass. We cover the cardboard with soil/compost/chopped leaves. We can plant into that spot within 10-12 months.


I have had the privilege and the joy of witnessing the transformation of Lake Forest Open Lands nature preserves, from the time of their purchase through the hard work of clearing buckthorn, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and the sowing of native seeds and planting of native trees and shrubs.  I was leading school and family programs in the Mellody Farm Preserve right after it first opened to the public and the native plants had not yet gotten underway.  Yes, there were mature oaks and hickories in the savannas on the preserves.  It was a challenge in those first years. But year after year, native plants took hold. Mellody Preserve is a whole new world now since it was first purchased in 1994.  I have seen the same transformation in other LFOLA preserves.  The work will never be completed; “the cathedral will never be built.” Stewardship work is forever work; we are needed as land stewards in perpetuity.


Where in Lake Forest are the best examples of native planting?

There are three good examples: 1) The native plants, all with name markers, planted around the perimeter of the historic buildings at LFOLA’s Mellody Farm Conservation Campus. These native plants were selected as good examples of native plants that look great and are easy to maintain in a formal garden setting. They are all clearly identified. A great place to get ideas for one’s own home.

2) The native plantings on the terraces on the sides of the stairway down to Forest Park Beach. These native beds were planted and are taken care of by the Junior Garden   Club of Lake Forest. Hats off to that garden club!


3) The corner of Waukegan Road and Deerpath on the Mellody Preserve Conservation Campus. That native planting, done about 10 years ago. That corner had been a buckthorn thicket with a few dead ash, killed by emerald ash borers. LFOLA was required by a city easement to keep it in buckthorn as a screen for the neighbors from traffic at that busy intersection.  LFOLA requested to plant a new screen with native plants. And the dead ash trees gave the request legs because they would have eventually fallen over and that highly visible corner was going to look like a mess. The Lake Forest Garden Club gave a generous donation to cover the cost of the transformation of that corner. And I had the joy and privilege of helping design the new planting and then being there every day while the plants went in and returning to weed it that first year when the weeds came in hard, fast, thick.


Why is bringing attention to native planting through Illinois Native Plant Month important?

The nursery trade needs to hear from gardeners that they want more native plant choices. Consumer demand drives markets. For years, and to this day, you walk into a nursery, and you find a sea of introduced non-native ornamentals. 


Many crew members of landscaping services and school and park grounds keepers are unfamiliar with care and maintenance of native species. They don’t know what’s an unwanted weed and what’s a desirable native plant.   Some native plantings are jokingly referred as “that weed patch.”

Designating April as Native Plant Month raises awareness of the value of native plants. They have taken a back seat on nursery shelves for decades now. Time to bring them back front and center. 


How hard was it to persuade the governor and others to dedicate a month to native planting?

It was not hard. But now, here in Illinois we need to contact our local state senator and representative to ask if they would sponsor a bill to designate April as Native Plant Month in Illinois as a statute. At this time, it is a proclamation, and garden clubs submit an annual request for the governor to sign a proclamation. A statute would stand year to year. Three states have passed into law that April is Native Plant Month. 


What challenges remain in increasing native planting in Lake Forest? They include:


1) Getting natives on nursery shelves.

2) Education about how to garden with native species. Which ones perform well in a more formal bed setting? Which ones will self seed and take over an area if you don’t collect the seed before it falls? For which ones is it safe to leave the seeds for the birds to eat? 3) Teaching gardeners and landscaping company crews what is a weed and what is a desired native plant? Learning what plants look like in all growth stages takes experience.

4) Finding a landscaper who knows how to prune native shrubs and weed a native flower bed.

5) Protecting the native insects that do a proper job of pollinating native plants.

6) Changing the garden aesthetic. For many, the criteria is showy color. Consider the native over the introduced ornamental because it will function ecologically as well provide color and beauty.




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