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Colonial Vegetable Garden, Virginia

Natural Gardening

Charlottesville's temperate climate and geology mean our soil is able to support a large mosaic of plant communities. 

Natural gardening can mean a variety of things, but essentially it is using native plants, encouraging wildlife, composting, and avoiding the use of chemicals in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. 

Native and invasive species

In their natural environment, Virginian plants have evolved with other plants and animals to form a native community - or ecosystem - that's in a state of balance.

However, over time plants that are not native to Virginia have been introduced and in some cases have become commonplace.  These plants can threaten our native flora and fauna and cause huge damage to our landscape.

When plants are introduced from other areas of the world, the complex relationships and balances of these native plants are at risk of being disturbed.  Impacts can include invasive plants mixing with native plants and altering their genetic makeup, and producing toxins lethal to certain animals. When one species takes over a large area it can also alter hydrological patterns, soil chemistry, moisture-holding capacity, wildlife habitat, and erodibility.

Native species

Species native to North America are generally recognized as those occurring on the continent prior to European settlement. Plants that are native to Virginia are adapted for our climate and hydrology, and therefore grow without the need for costly, environmentally damaging fertilizers.  They will also grow without the need for additional water - increasingly important in our area. 

In turn, native plants can help encourage a wide variety of birds, butterflies and various pest-eating wildlife such as ladybugs into your garden, which will negate the need for harmful pesticides. Closely mowed lawns are of little use to most wildlife.   Please CLICK HERE for a spreadsheet of all the Central Virginia Native Species appropriate for natural landscaping according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Clockwise from left - examples of trees native to Virginia: Beech (Fagus grandefolia), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) and White Oak (Quercus alba).  Interestingly, the Wahoo Tree (Euonymous atropurpureus) is also a native of Charlottesville!

Other species native to the Piedmont include Big Bluestea (Andropogon gerardii), a wildlife attracting grass ideal for landscaping projects which has the additional benefit of being a sun lover but not a water thirsty plant, the Common Yucca (Yucca filamentosa) and the common Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefilia).


Purple Loosestrife, an invasive species to VirginiaWhat are invasive plants?

Non-native plants are species that have been introduced to an area from other countries and habitats.

Many arrived in the US as ornamental garden plants, or were introduced due to their economic value for agriculture and other industries. Others come in unknowingly, on various imported products or in soil and water used for ship ballasts.

Some non-native plants pose little to no threat to our natural ecosystems. However, others have become prolific, invasive and pose a serious ecological threat.  There are normally few natural controls such as herbivores and diseases to keep them at bay.

Common invasive species in the US include Purple loosestrife (pictured left), introduced from Europe in the 1800s as a medicinal herb and now can be found in 42 states.  Purple loosestrife colonizes then dominates wetland areas. This limits the variety of food and cover available to birds and may cause the birds to move or disappear from a region altogether. 

The Virginia Department of Natural Heritage has invasive species ranked and listed, to see the list, please CLICK HEREIn order to manage invasive plant species in Charlottesville, the City has developed and is implementing an Invasive Species Management Plan.

"The Vine that Ate the South"

Kudzu (pictured above in Tennessee) is a quick-growing vine that was widely introduced in the  Southeastern US in the 1930s as a fast growing groundcover for disturbed areas like highway embankments and to stabilize soil in erodible areas.

A native of Asia, it has now spread from East Texas to New England and currently covers an estimated 11,500 square miles - and adds another 200 square miles every year. (UVA)

Pesticides

A common mistake some gardeners make is in using more pesticide than the manufacturer instructs - thinking that if a little is good, more will be better.

Overuse of pesticides has a number of adverse effects.  It can make your food less safe to eat, it makes handling the plants more dangerous, and beneficial insects, earthworms, birds, even pets may be harmed or killed along with the actual pests.

Each time the gardener sprays, she or he is exposed to the risk of inhalation of the poison, and pesticides used near water may contaminate the water supply - some chemicals do not break down easily and can remain in the environment for years.

The most effective and cheapest way to keep pests at bay is by taking advantage of natural predators, such as the preying mantis (pictured above), ladybugs, lacewings, and ground beetles.   

So, what is the alternative?

There are many natural methods that can be used instead of chemicals to be rid of common garden pests and to prevent disease.   

Start by selecting disease-resistant vegetable and fruit varieties, and buy plants from a reputable local grower who can assure you that they are disease and insect-free, or grow your own from seed.  If buying seed, ensure that it is a certified variety.

Diseases and insects in young seedlings may start in greenhouses or plant beds, so knowing what potential problems to look out for early on in the growing process is a huge benefit for early troubleshooting.   

Inter-planting the flowers and vegetables as opposed to solid plantings of a crop can slow the spread of diseases and pests, giving you more time to deal with them if you are unlucky enough to find some.  Inspect your plants regularly for insect larvae or eggs.  If you discover any then remove them by hand.  Boiling water can then be used to dispose of them inside a container.

These 'good' insects and other wildlife can be encouraged by arranging your garden so that it has some shaded areas and some water - such as a small pond or even a birdbath.  

Bird feeders, or shrubs that supply berries or nectar are useful as are areas that can offer protection,  woodpiles are ideal.  Planting a variety of different flowering species will encourage bumblebees and other pollinators into your garden.  

slug munching awayTo get rid of slugs, one popular method is to put a shallow can or bowl into the soil and fill it up with beer. Slugs love drinking beer, and they will fall happily into the beer and drown. 

Another method if that does not appeal is to place a copper wire in the soil around your garden -slugs and snails won't cross over it as it appears to give them a shock.

Slugs also dislike sand, gravel, egg and oyster shells and will not slide over them, so these are ideal to put around the bases of your plants.  Encouraging birds into you garden will help keep slug numbers to a minimum. 

Fertilizers

All plants need certain nutrients in order to survive, and artificial fertilizers add into the soil the chemicals that some plants need in order to thrive in that particular place.  

However, these additional nutrients also cause imbalances in ecosystems - and not necessarily just in the place that they are used.  Too many nutrients can often be as harmful as too few - and can affect systems miles away from where they were applied as they are washed away from fields, lawns and gardens into streams and rivers by stormwater runoff.  

Algae blooms in a lake as a result of excess fertilizer in the water due to runoff 

Excess nutrients in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus (the main components of fertilizers) run off from treated land and into waterways.  Excess nutrients boost algal growth, which blocks sunlight.  Material from dead algae are then decomposed by bacteria, and this process uses a lot of oxygen, lowering the oxygen content of the water to the point where fish and other aquatic animals and plants die.

Roseshell Azalea, a flowering plant native to Virginia

All living things - bacteria, fungi, plants, animals and other organisms - have evolved to live in specific areas. 

Local climate, geology, soils, available water and other natural factors influence which plants and animals live in particular ecosystems and habitats.  Native plants do not require artificial fertilizers - they have adapted to the conditions in which they naturally live.

To help your plants along and to return natural nutrients back to the garden, consider building a biologically active, healthy soil through regular addition of organic matter. Compost and manure can be incorporated into the soil and various mulches such as leaves and grass clippings can be applied on the surface.

Organic matter is essential for providing good soil structure, moisture infiltration and retention, and gradual release of nutrients. 

For more information on composting, please CLICK HERE.

 

Starting your natural garden

There are many great sources of information on natural gardening, native species, and how to get rid of invasive species.  See links for a few of these at the bottom of this page.

One thing to consider before you begin - you may encounter some curiosity from neighbors familiar and accustomed to the manicured and defined lawn!  Consider informing them about what you are doing.  Placing a border around the area you have planted with native flowers and grasses will help define the landscape - this buffer border should ensure that the natural landscape is a minimum of 5' from any developed roads, areas, or buildings in order to allow for maintenance of the area and to minimize risk of fire.  If you intend to design a non-traditional lawn in view of the street, you may wish to notify the Department of Neighborhood Development Services and send them a copy of the design (if you have one) so that they have it on file in case of queries from other property owners. 

Useful links

City of Charlottesville Community Gardens at Meadowcreek Gardens and Azalea Park

Gardening Club of Virginia - please CLICK HERE

Virginia Native Plant Society - please CLICK HERE

For the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's list of native plants for the Piedmont and their many uses, please CLICK HERE

US National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife Service - their comprehensive list of the invasive plants of the mid-Atlantic areas, please CLICK HERE

If you have any comments or questions, or would like to make suggestions for links to add to this page, please email us at greencity@charlottesville.org