Lisa Bright Shares Her Garden Faves

Lisa Bright of Earth Sangha shares her vast knowledge of native plants.



Lisa Bright, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Earth Sangha in Springfield, Virginia, shares some of her favorite native plants for gardeners in the DMV. Seeds are collected in the wild, propagated and the plants are returned to natural areas for restoration purposes. We are fortunate that these plants are also offered to the public. Take advantage of this wonderful resource and introduce some life-supporting and uncommon plants to your gardens today.

Chinkapin (Castanea pumila) laden with fruit.
Photo courtesy Earth Sangha.

Alleheny Chinkapin (Castanea pumila): This is the first time we are able to offer this lovely species. It is extremely hard to find Chinkapin with its chestnut-like nuts in our region because of habitat loss, and it won’t be available every year. It is fairly quick growing once established. We decided to distribute it this fall because it’s better that the seedlings be planted in the ground now than to sit in pots at our nursery during the winter.

Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis): In moist open areas or at the edge of pond or stream, this multi-stemmed shrub will produce beautiful flowers and abundant fruits for birds. It acts like a salad bar for birds. You can also make jams out of fruits. This shrub would love to stand in water as well but also works well in ordinary soil. You can easily tame/control them by cutting the stems. It won’t hurt them.

Whorled Rosin Weed (Silphium asteriscus var. trifoliatum): If you like Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) which is not native, you will love this plant. It is 4 to 6 feet tall and upright and produces pale yellow flowers in summer. You see them in moist open meadows in Manassas, Centerville, or other power line meadow sites.

Broadleaf Ironweed (Vernonia glauca): It looks a lot like New York Ironweed except that it grows in open meadows. It attracts lots of butterflies and other beneficial insects.

Slender Bush Clover (Lespedeza virginica) & Hairy Bush Clover (Lespedeza hirta): To me, this is a must plant for open meadow. They offer important nectar as well as seed sources for birds and others. Lespedeza is largely overlooked by gardeners.

Tick-trefoil (Desmodium spp.: D. paniculatum, D. ciliare, D. marilandicum): I’m a big fan of all Desmodium species. Their intricate purple flowers attract lots of insects. They fix nitrogen in soil. They grow in open meadows and on sandy or rocky banks.

Downy Blue Lobelia (Lobelia puberula): You will find this elegant Lobelia more in the coastal region. I spotted at least two great habitats. They grow on moist sunny and sandy banks in groups. Their blue flowers begin in mid summer with its peak in September. It attracts lots of butterflies and bees.

Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium): If you cannot find this species in local meadows, it is not quite a fully matured meadow yet. The small white flowers cluster together at top. It attracts lots of pollinators, of course.

Roundleaf Thoroughwort (Eupatorium rotundifolium): Its presence indicates a healthy meadow.

Beaked Panic Grass (Coleataenia anceps): This grass is easy to grow and care for, and it offers abundant seeds. It grows in moist open meadows. If you think Indian Grass is too tall to handle, this grass will do.

Redtop or Dense Panic Grass (Coleataenia rigidula): It looks ornamental with its lovely and generous red plumes. It is about 1 to 3 feet tall and forms a pleasing bunch. It loves wet and looks lovely along pond or stream edges.

Lurid Sedge (Carex lurida): This sedge is very versatile and yet it is woefully underused. It can form nice weeping grassy banks even on dry sites near streams. Once established, it is virtually carefree.

Deertongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum): If you look at any healthy woodland, its moist edges are packed with this grass species. It keeps the soil moist and prevents invasive plants from entering the woodland. It also feeds lots of insects and birds. What more would you ask from a hard-working plant?

Silverrod (Solidago bicolor): It is the only white-flowering Goldenrod! It looks exactly like Erect Goldenrod (Solidago erecta) except that its petals are white! Its habitat is partially shaded woodland.

Crooked-stem Aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides): It took me several years to finally locate this species in the wild. It grows right along streams in shade. It also grows in drier and more open areas. It has lovely blue blooms in summer to fall.

Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve): This species of aster blooms quite late in the season. It grows on rocky banks or such rough sites. It has such an easy grace.

Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum): Unlike Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor), the growth habit of this species is less assertive. It grows up to 3 ft. only and attracts all sorts of butterflies. It won’t overwhelm your small garden! It’s biennial.

Hollow-stemmed Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum): We want you to plant this lovely species all over the area. It used to be everywhere in wet areas, on shaded banks, and at the edge of the woodland. But we are losing them. We are also losing them to non-native species of Joe Pye Weed.

Maryland Golden Aster (Chrysopsis mariana): If you have sunny, dry, and poor soil conditions and don’t know what to do? Maryland Golden Aster loves that kind of spot. It used to be abundant but we are losing them now. Please use more of this lovely carefree plant.

Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis): Again, this species of Goldenrod (short, 1 to 2 ft only) loves sunny, dry, and poor soil. There should be a lot more of this species along the roads or abandoned areas.

Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare): On moist meadows near streams or edge-of-the woodland, you will find this enchanting mound of aromatic plant. It is low growing. A lovely form to behold.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium): This grass is a healer of ground. If you are making a fresh new meadow from scratch, please you must use this grass first. There are certain basic soil-building native species that would work as healers. This is one of them.

An American goldfinch on hollow-stemmed joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum),
a favorite seed source.

We are also offering Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) and Wild Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum).

We offer these plants and many, many more. See you at the nursery!

Lisa Bright, Co-founder 

You can become an Earth Sangha member and also sign up for Lisa’s future newsletters at

A Garden Is a Potential Smorgasbord: Native Plants with Real Value

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is a powerful native plant. It hosts many different species of caterpillars and also specialist bees as well as other flower visitors.


Natives rock! They invite all kinds of wildlife into a garden. And because all native plants are not created equal, striving to plant the most beneficial of our natives is an important goal. Here are some beauties that are not only critter approved but are also ‘carefree’ and thriving in my garden in Northern Virginia.

This page is ever-expanding as I discover new plants that do well in a garden setting.

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) makes a great landscape shrub.

The first native shrubs we planted as little mail order twigs, these now tower at about 8 feet and make an excellent summer screen at the back of our property. Silky dogwood is perfect for streamside planting and erosion control. It is the larval host for the Spring Azure — and wildlife love the small purple fruit.

Note: Find a local source for purchasing native plants. Since this purchase I have learned that mail order plants grown in far away states may not do well in your specific region and can be drenched in pesticides in order to cross state lines. Local ecotypes are the best choices.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a favorite plant of hummingbirds.
Vivid red flowers adorn tall spikes for most of the summer. Cardinal flower is a favorite source of nectar for our ruby-throated hummingbirds. This riparian beauty demands a consistently moist site, near a pond, or water feature — I plant them next to a birdbath in part sun. Cardinal flower is a short lived perennial however the tiny seeds easily self sow in optimum conditions (nature does all the work). This is one native I will always grow in my garden to energize our resident hummingbirds.
New England asters support many pollinators including specialist bees.
Pretty rose-purple flowers bloom from late summer into early fall. Because this is a late bloomer, the pollinators swarm to it… in droves! New England aster is a great nectar source when there isn’t much else blooming. Robust and showy, pinching back the stems is recommended to obviate the need for staking — however the blooms may be compromised or delayed. Plant in full or part sun. This perennial will thrive with typical garden moisture but is not happy in times of drought. New England aster is the larval host for the pretty Pearl Crescent and checkerspot butterflies.
White wood asters make a great ground cover.
The clouds of tiny white rays and yellow centers illuminate the shady area under our black cherry tree. A tall and airy perennial, it is beautiful when massed. Plant white wood aster for our tiny pollinators and feathered friends who consume the seeds. The dried stems add interest to the winter landscape and birds also use the dried seedheads for nesting material. Low maintenance, once established it does well in dry dappled shade.
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a wonderful plant for pollinators and is the host plant for the monarch caterpillar. Here you see a monarch butterfly nectaring.
Butterflyweed is a lovely branching and erect plant that attracts our native bumblebees and butterflies. All asclepias species (and there are over 140 of them) are larval host plants for the endangered monarch and queen butterflies. This species is not a preferred host plant for monarchs in my garden, however; the large leaves of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) are definitely more attractive to egg-laying monarchs. But no matter! Tuberosa has neon orange flower clusters that light up the garden. It has a long bloom time and thrives in sunny dry areas. But please don’t let the inevitable aphids and milkweed bugs discourage you from this planting this perennial. The aphids feed beneficial ladybugs and other insects and the orange and black milkweed bugs are just plain fascinating.
American hazelnut (Corylus americana) supports a lot of wildlife from mammals to insects.
Here’s another one of those underused natives. American hazelnut has a pretty habit and long, soft catkins decorate this adaptable shrub from fall through spring. The edible nuts are relished by small mammals, birds and humans and are highly nutritional. This is a versatile shrub that does well in partial sun to shady areas and once established is drought tolerant. Its fall color is fleeting but fabulous.
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) attracts many pollinators and other flower visitors. This is a common buckeye butterfly.
Imagine every native bee on one flowering perennial. That’s what you get with clustered mountain mint. This powerhouse of a perennial also has a long bloom time. Happy in sun or part sun, clustered mountain mint prefers moderate moisture. Give it lots of room because it quickly spreads by rhizomes; happily divide and share it with your neighbors. In the winter the multiple stems resemble a miniature forest of trees.
Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) is a great garden plant. It has a long bloom time and attracts many pollinators.
I had always grown black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) until I discovered orange coneflower. A short-lived perennial, orange coneflower holds its green foliage longer than black-eyed Susan and blooms for a much longer period. I plant it with purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and low growing wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare) — the combination of yellows and purples is quite lovely. Small butterflies and other pollinators visit frequently and the goldfinches and other birds consume the ripened seeds. Situate in full to part sun in dryish to moist soil. As with all our meadow forbs, if grown with a high density of native grasses, orange coneflower can better handle dry conditions. It propagates freely.
An unusual bumble bee visits wild bergamot (Monarda fistuloa).
Wild Bergamot is a popular plant for gardeners as well as unusual insects. Our native long-tongued bumblebees and hummingbird moths are wildly attracted to the pretty pom-pom blooms. This mint family perennial prefers some moisture but is adaptable to drier soil. Plant in sun or part sun. Staking or support may be required as wild bergamot can grow to five feet tall and in my garden it likes to sprawl.
Blue-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago caesia) growing in a garden.
This beautiful goldenrod is also called wreath goldenrod. Its arching branches bloom in the fall with many of our other native goldenrods but unlike our sun-loving species, Solidago caesia tolerates shady conditions. It is adaptable to moist or dry soil. Small insects find it irresistible. Blue-stemmed goldenrod self-sows but not too aggressively.
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a great shrub for the garden.
Such a handsome shrub this is! Low growing and tolerant of drought, New Jersey tea is both versatile and no maintenance. I’ve seen it growing in open woods in New Jersey where it was about four feet tall. In my garden it’s in full morning and early afternoon sun and has reached a height of about three feet. Although Ceanothus americanus doesn’t have a long flowering period, the tiny insects that attract hungry hummingbirds buzz about non-stop while it is in bloom.

Doug Tallamy: A Man on a Mission

Doug Tallamy, renown entomologist, searches for caterpillars and other insects in the field.


Dr. Doug Tallamy: American entomologist and visionary native plant promoter. Our hero. His call to action singlehandedly knocked our gardening socks off and inspired us to get out there and plant natives in our own gardens.

In his lecture to a Green Spring Gardens audience in Alexandria, VA in 2012, Tallamy humorously and enthusiastically made the case for planting native species in our yards, no matter how large or small. In his 2007 book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native PlantsTallamy describes the consequences of “uncontrolled expansion”: the loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat across America, and how ceaseless land development drives biodiversity loss.

He explains the equally damaging role of the 50,000 non-native plants from all around the globe that now burden our landscape and our environment. Because most of our native insects cannot eat these ubiquitous ornamental invaders, and so many animals rely directly or indirectly on insect protein for food, these alien plants cannot sustain any life but their own.

It’s time for suburban homeowners and gardeners to rise up and transform their impoverished land by planting for the mammals, birds, bees, butterflies and all the other critters we may not find as appealing but which play equally essential roles in continuing human survival.

Tallamy eloquently argues, “Unless we modify the places we live, work, and play to meet not only our own needs but the needs of other species as well, nearly all species of wildlife native to the United States will disappear forever. This is not speculation. It is a prediction backed by decades of research on species-area relationships by ecologists who know of what they speak. And the extinction of our plants and animals is not a scenario lost in the distant future. It is playing out across the country and the planet as I write.

Our preserves and national parks are not adequate to prevent the predicted loss of species, and we have run out of the space required to make them big enough. For conservationists, and indeed for anyone who celebrates life on earth, this is perhaps the direst possible consequence of the human enterprise.”

Doug Tallamy is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark. His primary research goal is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. 

Worth Reading: Dr. Tallamy was recently quoted in a New York Times article about the disappearing Monarch butterfly.

Plant Natives to Feed the Birds

Chickadees and the majority of other birds feed their babies primarily caterpillars. Planting native plants in your garden will host caterpillars and therefore help make more birds.


If you are troubled about dwindling bird populations and you’d like to help our feathery friends, you need to know a few things like this: It takes more than a bit of bird seed in the winter months. Take chickadees, for example. They don’t eat seeds in the springtime when they are making and raising babies, they eat only caterpillars. So where have all the caterpillars gone?


Unfortunately, our own behavior is causing the loss of habitat for caterpillars, leading to a loss of chickadees, which eat more caterpillars than you might imagine. Think thousands of caterpillars for a single clutch of baby chickadees. But native caterpillars need native species for their own food. And thanks to our habit of landscaping with non-native ornamental plants the caterpillars are in shorter supply and so too become the chickadees.

If you want to attract and support bird populations all year round, start planting native species in your yard. Chickadees won’t be the only beneficiaries. 

Backyard birds at bird feeder. Planting native plants is the best way to feed birds and other wildlife.
We can do more than this.

North American bird populations have nose-dived for a variety of reasons. A big one, experts tell us, is habitat loss. Suburbia has created a huge negative impact by landscaping around our homes with lovely but unproductive non-native ornamentals such as azalea, privet, crepe myrtle, Japanese maple, boxwood, barberry, forsythia, heavenly bamboo, English ivy, pachysandra … plants that are native to other countries, not ours. People don’t realize that most insects cannot feed on these commonly used alien exotics because they do not have an evolutionary tie to the plants. If the insects can’t feed on your plants then the birds can’t feed on the insects. And it’s these insects that provide the food for our indigenous birds.


Dr. Doug Tallamy, at a speaking engagement in Northern Virginia this past February, put it bluntly, “There are millions of people who put out bird food all winter long and during the summer they starve the birds by the way they landscape because they don’t see the connection.”

A tiny green caterpillar walks along a leaf. Caterpillars are baby bird food.
Soft with a juicy center. This is what baby bird food looks like,
cruising along on American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).


“We all have chickadees at our feeders so we think they eat seeds.  And they do eat seeds, all winter long. But when they are making babies, they don’t eat seeds, they eat caterpillars. It’s not because caterpillars are the only things around them. They could eat grasshoppers or crickets or mayflies or syrphid flies or snipe flies or Cicadellidae—leafhoppers—or click beetles or caddisflies or sow bugs or centipedes or millipedes or spiders or all the other things that are out there when they’re breeding—but they don’t. They only eat caterpillars. And that means that if you don’t have enough caterpillars in your yard, if you don’t have caterpillars period, you’re certainly not going to have chickadees.”

Tallamy’s research, completed on his own native-laden property in Delaware, found that it takes between 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to make one clutch of chickadees. “Now sometimes they will bring back an adult caterpillar, a moth, but that’s actually fairly rare,” he said. “It’s typically the caterpillar itself.” While showing photographs of momma and poppa chickadees feeding their babies caterpillar after wriggly caterpillar (and sometimes a whole beak full of them), Tallamy explained that caterpillars are soft, easily swallowed and won’t rip the throats of the nestlings.

The tiniest of spiders are food for many birds including hummingbirds.
This fella is also bird food, hanging out on blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).


Tallamy then brought up one of everyone’s favorite birds. “Hummingbirds like and need nectar but 80% of their diet is insects and spiders. So that’s something that most people don’t know. If you don’t have those insects and spiders in your yard, it doesn’t matter how many hummingbird feeders you have, you are not going to be able to support hummingbirds. And that is true for 96% of the terrestrial birds in North America.”


There are as many reasons to plant native species around your home as there are natives. If you are a person who loves watching birds (and who doesn’t?), adding productive plants to your garden is the ultimate way to help nurture their habitat and natural food source. Landscaping with native plants instead of alien plants will attract our native bugs, and that’s the point. Feed the insects and in turn feed the birds.

Why Cultivars Could Be Problematic

This native plant cultivar of Joe Pye Weed may not be as productive as the straight species.


The topic of cultivars can be a polarizing one for folks in the native gardening community. It’s true, cultivars can provide food and cover for our wildlife just like our native species do … but … as well behaved and form pleasing as they can be to some, cultivars could prove to be detrimental to our ecosystems.

Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council points out the following in The Eight Essential Elements of Conservation Landscaping:

“Cultivated varieties (cultivars) are available for many native plants. These plants have been nursery grown as “improved” selections to provide plants with certain physical characteristics, such as a different flower color, a particular foliage shape, early bloom time, or compact size. All the plants belonging to a particular cultivar are genetically identical. 

A bumble bee rests on a goldenrod cultivar.
A native bumble bee on a goldenrod (Solidago spp.) cultivar

Although gardening with cultivars may be suitable to meet aesthetic goals, those planning habitat projects to provide food and cover for wildlife should use as many true species (not cultivars) as possible. No one really knows how these cultivars will affect the wildlife that depends on local native plant species for food. If a local native plant’s bloom period, color, fragrance, or flower shape is changed, it could have a serious detrimental effect on the hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife that may use that plant. True species are most suited for use by native wildlife, and planting them will increase your chances of attracting these creatures.

In addition, research has shown that some cultivars breed with local native plants and thus decrease a population’s fitness or ability to survive in an area. If the planting site is near designated natural areas, it is best to avoid using cultivars so that these genetically homogenous plants don’t end up cross-breeding with native species and “contaminating” or changing the natural gene pool. Since cultivars often lack the genetic diversity necessary to adapt to local environmental conditions, they may not thrive, and cross-breeding could lead to eventual extinction of existing natives. Since we can’t know the full extent of how this would affect local native plant populations and all life that is interdependent with them, we must work to protect natural biodiversity.”


I have purchased and planted cultivars just as I have in my other life bought and installed non-native plants. And I notice that the cultivars stand out as unnatural in a landscape of primarily native species — as unnatural as the hulking ornamental Asian camellia I planted against the house. Joe Pye Weed ‘Little Joe’ when massed, for example, grows to one even height and the flowers are an odd fluorescent pink — abnormal features in my wildlife habitat. The Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ is equally perfect in stature, and inarguably beautiful, but also not quite right among the native grasses and perennial forbs that grow beside it. I will eventually replace these cultivars, striving to be a purist of sorts. But if I had known years ago that I should be planting species sourced from the area I live in, oh the trouble I would have been spared. Huge wildlife benefits aside, choosing native species is less overwhelming than having to select from everything that is offered for sale and I find that natives are easier on my pocketbook. Live and keep learning, I say.

Native Plants for the Penny-Wise

Native plants are typically very affordable. Here you can purchase wild ginger (Asarum canadense) a a native plant sale for $8 a pot.


Sticker shock. That term is usually associated with purchasing a car but it can happen when shopping for plants, too. Plants can be fairly pricey — especially those larger-sized garden center trees and shrubs. The cringe factor is multiplied when landscaping sizable areas. But do you need such a large plant to begin with? I say absolutely no, you don’t.


If you have a little patience it’s a sensible idea to purchase a smaller, younger plant for a fraction of the cost. In short time, that whip of a sapling will be the size of the tempting five-gallon container of greenery you wisely passed over. And it will probably be healthier. Seasoned gardeners know that the joy of tending a garden is in nurturing, observing and in watching life grow. No instant garden is needed.

Native plants for sale with identification tags.
There are lots of choices for the habitat gardener.


Common garden shops, besides shrinking your wallet, offer very few native species.  When they do have them in stock, these natives aren’t necessarily found naturally growing where you garden — they’ve evolved in other regions of the country. They could also be cultivars.

 The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is no longer a sound tool to measure what to plant. It’s simple: we just plant local-ecotypes — and as many as we possibly can. We know that planting natives local to an area, in the conditions they evolved in, lowers water and chemical inputs and makes for strong, thriving plants. California is the perfect example. Many homeowners are replacing non-local landscaping and lawn with plants that originated there to offset the current multi-year drought’s effects.

People shopping at the Earth Sangha native plant sale.
Shoppers arrive early at one of Earth Sangha’s Spring Open Houses.


I sometimes point and ask an employee at my nearby garden center, “Do you know where this plant came from?” The answer is usually something along the lines of “not from around here.” Their plants could be propagated and trucked in from any number of nurseries, from many miles away (sometimes as far away as Oregon — and I live in Virginia). Another downfall is they’ve been previously doused in pesticides so they can legally cross state lines. With today’s grim environmental outlook, these are good reasons to buy local, don’t you think?

So, where are the best places to shop for well-priced, locally grown native species you ask? I recommend checking with your state’s native plant society, your nearby nature center or even your county. These organizations sponsor native plant sales at varying times of the year — and their prices are wonderfully low. The plants may be small but as we know from experience, size does matter.


Here in Northern Virginia we are particularly fortunate to have a grower of locally sourced and affordable native plants: Earth Sangha. Their Wild Plant Nursery is my very favorite place to volunteer my time and of course, to shop. More than 250 local-ecotype species are available to the public  and many are considered by Lisa Bright, the energetic co-founder of Earth Sangha, as underused in garden settings. She is more than happy to recommend specific species for your growing conditions.

Lisa and her Earth Sangha family are the driving force behind this progressive non-profit. By permission, they collect seeds from natural areas around the metro DC area and lovingly raise them for natural land restoration and for the gardener. It’s the perfect operation. 

I know when I purchase a plant from Earth Sangha, and I site it correctly, it will do well. Extremely well. I know it didn’t travel clear across the country and that it wasn’t indignantly dug from the wild. I know it’s not a manufactured cultivar that could cause problems for natural areas in the future. I further know it wasn’t drenched in harmful pesticides that could last for years in the potting soil and in the plant itself. It’s a no brainer  a win-win situation for all  me, my pocketbook and our Mother Earth.

Pretty women shop at the Earth Sangha native plant sale.
Shoppers arrive early at one of Earth Sangha’s Spring Open Houses.

Natives Are a Girl’s Best Friend (Forever)

By planting native plants like butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), you can attract beautiful insects like the monarch butterfly.


Diamonds, emeralds, rubies? No thanks, Dahlink, what I prefer is plants. Native plants, Dahlink. My treasures are not found in any jewelry store or at the nearest mall. No, no. My favorite gems are on display in the rapidly diminishing wild areas here and there across our land. And I keep some in my secret jewelry box: my garden.

Native plant gardens support many interesting animals. A hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, feeds on the nectar of the pollinator magnet wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).
A garden jewel. A hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) feeds on the nectar
of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

Yes, I could be charmed with much more expensive, sparkly — but ultimately useless — stuff. “You know it could be much worse,” I tell my sweetie, my arms cradling freshly purchased perennials. And he agrees. He knows a tiara would rest uneasily on my head. I am no princess. I’m a fierce warrior woman when it comes to conservation.

Native plant gardens attract interesting insects like this damselfly.
More gems. This damselfly rests on a stalk of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a pretty fall-blooming native grass.

Quite Affordable

Native plants are necessary for our survival. It’s a fact. Science says so. And considering what natives provide, they’re surprisingly affordable. Bank accounts need not be bled dry to add these essentials to any landscape. But wait, there’s more! As a bonus many of our natives give back. They self-sow, sometimes insanely, finding and filling garden space and asking for no more than some time and patience. Sharing the bounty with friends and neighbors is also self-fulfilling.

So go native! Thanks, Dahlink, you’re my BFF.

Planting butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) attracts beautiful insects like the monarch butterfly.
Planting butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) brought monarch butterflies to my garden.

Rat Poison Kills a Hell of a Lot More Than Just Rodents

Rodenticides kill more than rodents. They kill wildlife like raptors and other carnivores and omnivores. Exclusion and sanitation should be people's first priority when dealing with rats and mice.


I inspected the tiny creature closely. It must have died recently, its brown and white furred body still soft and supple. Was it an outdoor cat that killed it? It certainly could have been. Free roaming cats have left quite a number of birds and small mammals for me over the years. But there didn’t appear to be any signs of trauma; no puncture wound and no blood. Hmmm. I dismissed the thought that this animal was poisoned—surely my immediate neighbors know that rat bait is a wretched solution? I left the mouse where it was, figuring it could be food for some other critter. Unfortunately, this was a mistake.


It turns out a neighbor did have a rodent bait box on his property. He explained that he had mice entering his house and insects that needed controlling which prompted him to hire a pest control company. When I mentioned the effects of poisoned rodents on our foxes and other wildlife, my neighbor, who equally enjoys our wildlife, insisted the bait used wasn’t poisonous—the exterminator told him so. Hmmm?! Evidently some pesticide companies tell customers only what they want to hear, no matter how big the lie.
dead wild mouse killed by rodenticides
The dead mouse.
A hawk sits in a residential backyard.
How many poisoned meals have our resident hawks had?
A deadly rodenticide bait box in Mosaic District. Rodenticides kill more than just the targeted rodents.
A rodent bait box stationed outside a nearby Chipotle.
Little thought is given to the other animals that live in
this mixed-use development.


Today’s most widely used rat poisons are second-generation anticoagulants: highly toxic not only to the rodents that directly consume the bait but also to the non-target animals that eat the contaminated rodents.

Although the EPA has prohibited the sale of products containing brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difenacoum and difethialone directly to consumers, pest control companies and farmers are still allowed to use these second-gen anticoagulant rodenticides.

Like the first-generation of anticoagulants that preceded them, the “superwarfarins” prevent blood from clotting, induce internal bleeding and inflict a prolonged, painful death. However the newer poisons are many times more potent. “Second-generation anticoagulants,” the EPA explains, “are more likely than first-generation anticoagulants to be able to kill after a single night’s feeding. These compounds kill over a similar course of time but tend to remain in animal tissues longer than do first-generation ones.” This means that by the time the rodents die—five to seven days after consuming the bait—they can have up to 30-40 times the lethal dose in their bodies. Meanwhile, they stumble about and are easy prey for predators and pets.

It turns out a neighbor did have a rodent bait box on his property. He explained that he had mice entering his house and insects that needed controlling which prompted him to hire a pest control company. When I mentioned the effects of poisoned rodents on our foxes and other wildlife, my neighbor, who equally enjoys our wildlife, insisted the bait used wasn’t poisonous—the exterminator told him so. Hmmm?! Evidently some pesticide companies tell customers only what they want to hear, no matter how big the lie.

Collateral poisonings of carnivores and omnivores alike are widespread wherever bait boxes are being deployed. The affected wildlife are more likely to get hit by moving vehicles, crash into structures or be killed by other animals. These non-target animals are also more susceptible to disease and vermin. In California, most coyotes, bobcats and cougars that die from mange—a skin disease caused by parasitic mites—also test positive for rodenticide exposure.


  • Rodenticides are indiscriminate killers that attract and kill all kinds of animals, not just rats and mice.
  • Second-generation anticoagulants are persistent and bioaccumulative; they remain in the victim’s bloodstream and accumulate in the liver.
  • Non-target predators like foxes, coyotes, owls and hawks, and scavengers such as vultures, raccoons and opossums, suffer lethal and sub-lethal poisoning when they feed on poisoned rodents.
  • Where second-generation anticoagulants are used, entire food webs are contaminated.
  • By killing off the predators that would otherwise control rodents, anticoagulants actually generate rodent infestations.
  • In one Canadian study of dead raptors, nearly 100 percent of owls had at least one anticoagulant rodenticide in their livers.

    The Centers For Disease Control receive about 15,000 calls per year from parents whose children have eaten rodenticides.

  • Cats and dogs are also harmed from eating poisoned rodents.


  • Residents, homeowners associations and business owners have the power to prevent rodent infestations and not resort to using rodenticides.
  • Remove trash and food that attracts rodents to your property. This includes pet food, birdseed waste and compost piles.
  • Plug holes and cracks leading to the interior of homes and other structures.
  • Keep shrubs and trees trimmed and the foundation of buildings free of wood and junk piles that provide shelter to small critters.
  • Remove invasive English ivy—it’s known to harbor rats. Replace it with native plants that support beneficial wildlife.
  • Seek poison-free solutions to help reduce the market for poison.


  • Snap traps don’t always kill instantly. If you plan to use them, never set them outside. Birds and other wildlife that help control rodents can be seriously injured. Check and empty the traps regularly.
  • Do not use glue or sticky traps because they are cruel and can also catch other small mammals, birds and even reptiles and salamanders.
  • And although drowning is not an ideal way to die, it could be a better alternative to other methods… And then there’s the “better mouse trap.” From Ted Williams’ article Poisons Used to Kill Rodents Have Safer Alternatives: “You take a metal rod, run it through holes drilled in the center of both lids of an emptied tin soup can so the can becomes a spinning drum. Fasten both ends of the rod to the top of a plastic bucket via drilled holes. Coat the can with peanut butter, and fill the bucket with water and a shot of liquid soap (to break the surface tension and thus facilitate quicker, more humane drowning). Mice and rats jump onto the can, and it spins them into the water. The first time I deployed the device in my New Hampshire fishing camp, it killed 37 mice between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.” To avoid killing other small mammals, set this device indoors.

If you are considering a trap and release, please read Nancy Lawson’s article Stranger in a Strange Land before you do.

For more information:

A Raptors Are the Solution anti-poison poster.
One of’s many educational materials.

Push Power! Making Our Native Garden Greener

Push mowers do not emit toxic compounds or pollute the air like gas-powered mowers do.


I have been mowing the lawn since I purchased my first townhouse in the 1990s. At the time I owned a manual reel or push mower. The lawn I tended was as small as two king size bedspreads laid side by side so it wasn’t a whole lot to cut. But after mowing, the little green patch never quite looked like the other lawns in the neighborhood. Typically, multiple passes were necessary to get the grass height slightly level. An uneven lawn in suburbia? Oh the shame! And these were the days when I was single and would rather be doing anything but lawn maintenance and certainly my garden was not a priority. So when my neighbor asked me if I wanted to go in on a gas powered mower with her, I eagerly agreed.


Since I married and moved into our house on .24 acres 9 years ago, we’ve been using this same ol’ faithful noisy, toxin spewin’ mower.  I’ve always known the gas mower was environmentally unfriendly but like everything else that’s just plain bad, it takes time for me to decide to make a change. (Hey – it’s only been two decades). Now in our more experienced years, Marc and I have become, well, somewhat earthy crunchy.

Recently poking around the web for info, I found that the volatile organic compounds emitted by mowing with a gas powered engine for an hour  — compared to miles driven in an automobile — ranges from 45 miles to 350 miles to 1300 miles and all the way up to 3400 miles! (Naturally the EPA, who has sold their soul to the devil multiple times over, gives the 45 mile stat.)

High CO2 emissions are the evil effects of using an engine without a catalytic converter. According to Ecomowers, “One type of pollutant emitted by lawn mowers is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are classified as probable carcinogens by the CDC. In an hour’s mowing, twenty-six different PAHs were found in the exhaust of the mowers.” An unfathomable 54 million machines are roaring during an average weekend in the U.S. alone… you get the picture.

An environmentally sound push mower with thumbs up.
Achieve a zero carbon footprint while mowing your lawn.


Marc and I then discussed the option of purchasing a rechargeable battery powered mower. But the darn thing needs to be plugged in — like in, it uses electricity. Do you know where your power comes from? Our provider, Dominion Electric, supplies power to our area with a combination of five sources, coal and nuclear being the bulk of them. Coal, according to Greenpeace, is THE dirtiest form of power, and nuclear is neither cheap nor safe says the Physicians for Social Responsibility — no matter what the pro-industry ads may try to sell you. Also, the rechargeable battery could live a short three years. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are not likely to be recycled and could end up in a nearby landfill.  Ultimately, it’s all about the conservation of our resources.

So… we opted for the only green solution — a push mower. I guess I’ve come full circle. We’ve reduced our lawn quite a bit to plant native trees, shrubs and perennials so there isn’t a whole lot of area to cut compared to other typical properties. A turf path was created in the front yard with an island habitat of critter and pollinator-attracting plants within its borders, but the back yard, although very much reduced, still has a decent chunk of turf.

When mowing, the blade height is set to four inches to help grass roots grow a bit deeper – an important function in times of drought or heavy rain.  We are also letting the clover thrive while we slowly reduce more of the grassy area. The clippings that are flung from the quietly spinning blades are left to lie where they fall and they will ultimately feed the lawn. Naturally, we never water and turf finds a way to survive.

The push mower’s cut still isn’t perfection but it’s just a lawn after all. I no longer need it to look manicured. We do need to keep on top of the mowing but now this usually distained ritual is actually kinda fun since we just grab the thing and go. I can even lift it. No noxious, cancer causing fumes, no noise pollution and no ear plugs needed. What is necessary is some muscle. So when it gets hot, Africa hot, 90+ degrees with what feels like 100% humidity, it makes me want to reduce our lawn even further. Power to the push mower!

Man up! The Art of Manliness sings the praises of the reel mower.

The Straight Dope has fun with the EPA stats.

How To Control Mosquitoes Without Killing Pollinators

There are many actions people can take to eliminate breeding mosquitoes.


by Susan Gitlin

Warm weather and mosquitoes will be here before you know it, leading many of us to look for ways to enjoy the outdoors without being pestered by those annoying little—and sometimes disease-bearing—biters.

There is a lot of information being disseminated by health organizations about health risks to humans from mosquito bites (see CDC links, below). But besides protecting ourselves from being targets, we need to work at eliminating mosquito habitat and controlling their numbers. There are a number of ways we can do this safely and effectively.

USDA photo of a mosquito on human skin.
Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that can spread viruses
like Zika and Dengue. Photo courtesy USDA.

Because mosquitoes have no trouble flying from yard to yard, the best way to combat them is to work with our neighbors to collectively identify and implement opportunities to reduce mosquito populations. Below is a set of approaches that are suggested by entomologists, public health organizations, and agricultural extension programs.

1. Eliminate potential mosquito-breeding grounds. Mosquitoes can breed in any water that stagnates for just 2 or 3 days. Actions to remove potential mosquito habitat include:
  • Unclogging gutters
  • Covering, turning over, or moving indoors any equipment, containers, or toys that might collect water
  • Straightening sagging tarps or other covers
  • Filling in areas under outdoor faucets or air conditioning drains
  • Repairing damaged screens on rain barrels
  • Removing English Ivy (The dense nature of ivy allows it to hold in pooled water where mosquitoes can breed, provides a humid area that mosquitoes like, and protects mosquitoes from pesticide sprays.)
English ivy is an invasive plant that kills trees.

2. For areas of uncovered water, like ponds or bird baths, consider these approaches:

  • Changing the water regularly
  • Using Mosquito Dunks ® (deadly to mosquito, blackfly, and fungus gnat larvae, but harmless to other living things), or
  • Keeping the water moving (e.g., with a fountain)
3. Treat mosquitoes like foes, but treat bees and other beneficial insects like the friends they are! The pesticides used to kill mosquitoes also kill other invertebrates, including pollinators and other insects—insects on which birds feed and insects that eat mosquitoes. Mosquito-spraying companies typically use pesticides of a group of chemicals called pyrethroids, many of which are highly toxic to honeybees, fish, and small aquatic organisms.
Mosquito control pesticides kill pollinators like bees and hover flies.
Our pollinators need to be protected from pesticide spraying.
4. If you spray pesticides or hire a company that provides such services, please consider taking the following precautions and/or asking the pesticide spraying company to do the same:
  • Spray only in the early morning or early evening. Most pollinators are not out and about during these time periods.
  • Do not spray flowering plants. (One company that provides pesticide spraying services says that before spraying flowers they “shoo” away bees with bursts of air. It is doubtful that this truly protects bees, as the majority of native bees are less than ¼” long and therefore difficult to spot. Moreover, bees will return immediately to those flowers, either into the path of the spray or to the flowers, where there may be pesticide residue.)
  • Make sure that no spray enters your neighbors’ yards, and notify your neighbors before you spray so that they can take any desired or necessary precautions to protect any bees or other insects that they have in their yards.
  • Consider using nontoxic repellants in lieu of the toxic pesticides. Some mosquito-spraying companies offer such alternatives.
5. If you use sprays, do so only when needed, and not on a preemptive basis. (Spraying on a predetermined schedule can waste pesticide product, and therefore money, and may also contribute to the development of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes.) By taking these steps, we can work together as a community to fight this annoying pest while protecting our other precious environmental resources.
Bifrenthrin is toxic to bees and aquatic organisms.
Many mosquito-spraying companies use Bifenthrin
which is highly toxic to bees, fish and aquatic organisms.
It is also considered a possible human carcinogen by the EPA.

Useful websites:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Westnile Prevention & Control
Avoid Mosquito Bites 

Help Control Mosquitoes that Spread Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika Viruses Fact Sheet

Mosquito Control—Environmental Protection Agency

Avoid Asian Tiger Mosquitoes—Maryland Department of Agriculture

Backyard Mosquito Management—Beyond Pesticides

Honeybee Love: Keeping Honeybees Safe While Using Pesticides

Mosquito Dunks ® Fact Sheet

Much thanks to Susan Gitlin for allowing me to post her article. How to Control Mosquitoes Without Killing Pollinators and Other Important Wildlife originally appeared on the Arlington Regional Master Naturalist site. Susan is a Virginia Master Naturalist and enthusiastic pollinator advocate.