I recently started a native plant garden at Tufts University. I have been dreaming of starting a garden like this for some time, but backyard space is scant in the city. The site that I chose is a relatively under-used meadow behind the Tufts University gym that only gets light foot traffic from local residents and the occasional biology graduate student project. The field is filled with industrial-grade soil (read: rocky and clayey) and dominated by non-native grasses and forbs like English plantain (Plantago lanceolata), Broadleaf Dock (Rumex obtusifolia), and Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). It’s mowed monthly throughout the growing season and leaves are cleared in late October, leaving a uninviting, barren crust for winter. I had spent some time at the field in the summer as an undergraduate and never noticed much diversity in the way of insects or birds. This was alarming since it’s the largest green space in a sea of cement for at least a mile, and I’d expect a space like that to be readily used by wildlife. But non-native plants are less productive than native plants and unpalatable to many native insects, and without insects or native fruits, upper tropic levels stay away. In other words, if it was to sustain wildlife, it badly needed a native plant makeover.
So, in late fall 2017, with permission from the university, I tilled a 25’ x 35’ area of the field, removing large rocks and patches of grass. After the first frost, I seeded the plot with Prairie Moon Nursery’s “Pretty Darn Quick” mix. I chose this mix because of its decent diversity (~30 native species), hardiness to a variety of conditions, and fast establishment rate.
The garden has several purposes. Chiefly, it should support native insect populations via season-long, native flowers. To quantify this, I will be collecting data out of personal interest on the insect visitors, focusing on pollinators, to see whether urban bees use the field near the garden more than in an undisturbed section of the field. Second, the garden will provide white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) leaves for experiments with Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly caterpillars in my lab. Selfishly, I want to improve my skills as a field entomologist, and this is a perfect opportunity to do so. I also hope that it will provide undergraduates with the opportunity to design small field projects using native plants. Lastly, I have met the residents whose homes border the field and many of them are excited at the prospect of a garden in the space. With a little planning, the native plant garden could become a wonderful way to offer community outreach events too.
Stay tuned to follow the garden’s progress, my trials and tribulations as a native plant gardener, and my musings on native bees!