Delaware Nursery and Landscape Association selects 2013 Plants of Year

March 11, 2013 under CANR News

Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low' can be found at the UD Botanic GardensIn her role as executive director of the Delaware Nursery and Landscape Association, Valann Budischak’s responsibilities are wide-reaching. She’s even expected to organize an annual beauty pageant. In this case, however, the contestants are plants, not people, and strength and vigor are just as important as good looks.

The association has just announced its 2013 Plants of the Year and both the woody plant – Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ – and the herbaceous winner – Heuchera macrorhiza‘Autumn Bride’ — are much more than just pretty faces.

“The idea behind the ‘Plant of the Year’ designation is to give recognition to hardy, attractive plants that are well-suited to local growing conditions but may be a bit under-the-radar screen,” says Budischak. “Heuchera macrorhiza ‘Autumn Bride’ makes a great groundcover if you have shady areas, like I do. Or, if you have sunnier conditions, consider Rhus aromatica‘Gro-Low’ for its multi-season interest.”

Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ is a cultivar of Delaware’s native fragrant sumac. It’s a dense, low-growing shrub that looks good almost every month of the year. In spring, tiny yellow flowers bloom at the twig tips before the foliage appears. During the growing season, Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ has glossy, dark-green leaves, which are accompanied by small clusters of hairy, red berries in late summer. In fall, the leaves turn brilliant shades of orange and red.

“This sumac cultivar makes an impact when planted in masses,” says Budischak. “When I am asked to recommend a plant for sloped areas, I usually mention Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low.’ Because it has the ability to develop roots as the stems touch the soil, it’s great for stabilizing banks and slopes.”

Birds, butterflies and other wildlife like it, too.

Budischak has bunches of Heuchera macrorhiza ‘Autumn Bride’ in her backyard. She loves this groundcover’s large, velvety foliage, which gives this plant its common name of hairy alumroot. Although it’s billed as being tolerant of full sun to deep shade, Budischak begs to differ. “Around here it’s not as happy in full sun unless you give it adequate moisture.”

Heuchera macrorhiza is a plant that really comes into its own as the growing season progresses.

“In spring it’s a nice, fuzzy, light green groundcover,” says Budischak. But by summer the large leaves are eye-catching. Then, in late summer, when almost everything else in the garden is solid green, Heuchera macrorhiza erupts in fountains of tiny white flowers that rise up out of the foliage mound on slender fuzzy stems.

The ‘Autumn Bride’ cultivar of Heuchera macrorhiza is considered to be tough and easy to grow. “It is great for covering bases of trees or other spots that get little moisture,” says Budishak. It also does well in moist shade.

The University of Delaware Botanic Gardens has a nice display of Heuchera macrorhiza‘Autumn Bride’ at the entrance. People also can find Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ there, planted alongside a fence next to the herbaceous garden.

The folks at the Delaware Nursery and Landscape Association aren’t the only ones holding beauty pageants for plants. The Perennial Plant Association recently named Polygonatum odoratum “Variegatum” as its 2013 Perennial Plant of the Year. Commonly known as variegated solomon’s seal or striped solomon’s seal, this shade-loving plant is a great companion to ferns, hostas and astilbes. In mid- to late spring it produces small, bell-shaped, white flowers. Its sweet fragrance makes it a great choice along a pathway.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo courtesy of Chad Nelson

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Members of UD, Delaware community celebrate green roof completion

October 3, 2012 under CANR News

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and members of the Delaware community joined University of Delaware students and faculty on Friday, Sept. 28, at Colburn Laboratory to celebrate the completion of the University’s first green roof on a classroom building.

The environmentally friendly green roof was made possible thanks to grant funding and some unique engineering by the school’s landscape design program.

“This new green roof project at the University of Delaware is a great example of the power of public-private partnerships,” Carper said. “With support from the state of Delaware, DuPont and the University of Delaware, this project is helping to lower energy use, clean the air and teach sustainable environmental practices to future generations at the same time.”

Mark Rieger, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), said at the celebration, “It’s great to see horticulture — and I’m speaking as a horticulturist now — come to the intersection of engineering and art.”

Chad Nelson, assistant professor of landscape design, thanked all of those who helped the project along the way. “I knew when we started that we could do this, that we could get a green roof on campus but I knew that it wouldn’t be easy,” said Nelson. “I really want people to see the roof and think of other places on campus or in the community where people might be interested in starting new projects. Green roofs, while they aren’t the entire answer, really are a beautiful and effective way of helping us to address some serious issues.”

About 600 engineering students take classes in the Colburn Lab’s one-story classroom wing, where indoor temperatures have been known to reach 86 degrees due to heat transfer from its southern exposure, wide expanses of glass and flat roof. Installing reduced wattage lights, ventilation maintenance and other measures failed to reduce temperatures to levels low enough for learning.

Among the chronically overheated were Annette Shine, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and her teaching assistant, Kathy Phillips, who thought a green roof might make a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly difference.

They connected with Nelson and student Aaron Hallett who were interested in starting a green roof project on campus.

The resulting green roof plan offers a variety of environmental, educational and fiscal benefits such as:

  • An insulating effect, with 4-inch deep plantings reducing the temperature of the roof and keeping the classrooms and occupants below cooler by six degrees or more;
  • Reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by reducing demand on building HVAC systems;
  • A sponge effect, absorbing storm water runoff to improve water quality in nearby waterways;
  • A teaching tool, allowing engineering students to study “green engineering” solutions in a living classroom;
  • An opportunity for students to get hands-on experience in growing the plants and installing the system;
  • A less costly option than replacing the building’s HVAC, reduced energy costs from operating the existing system with less demand — and a more attractive view from the three-story portion of the building overlooking the roof.

Built in the 1960s, the one-story building had been originally designed to have additional stories added later, so an initial study found the existing roof structure could support the additional weight.

With that key question answered, the project moved forward, with total costs of $72,000. The project received a $40,000 Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) program grant, administered by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Energy and Climate, plus a $10,000 from the DuPont Clear into the Future program for environmentally-beneficial projects protecting the Delaware Estuaries and $5,000 each from two UD programs, the University of Delaware Energy Institute and the University of Delaware Sustainability Fund.

Instead of using a membrane system that would cover the whole roof, Nelson opted for a modular system consisting of 2-foot by 2-foot plastic trays that could be installed by students and volunteers and moved for roof maintenance. A safety railing was installed around the roof edge, along with a locking door for roof access.

Beginning last spring, students from CANR propagated heat-hardy plants including several varieties of colorful sedum, plus chives and crocus. The students then established them in the trays with help from local Girl Scouts and began moving them to the roof into a pattern that echoes the layout of the building below.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Chad Nelson discusses invasive species on the James F. Hall Trail

March 8, 2012 under CANR News

Photo taken on 2/23/2012

When the City of Newark decided to remove the bamboo from the James F. Hall Trail, it got rid of an invasive species that had taken over parts of the trail. And while the bamboo was arguably the most visible invasive species found on the trail, it was far from the only one.

Chad Nelson, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has taught a class on invasive plants in the past, including a project focusing on those found along the trail, and he noted there are at least several dozen invasive species in and around the trail.

Noting that bamboo sometimes gets a bad rap because of its visibility, Nelson said that there are some other less obvious invasive plants that are prevalent on the James F. Hall Trail. Some of these include garlic mustard, tree of heaven, burning bush and Japanese honeysuckle, which will emit a nice fragrance in the summer but suffocates the plants through which it grows.

Some established woodland patches along the trail, like the one between Chapel Street and Library Avenue, would thrive with better management of invasive species, Nelson said. “There is pretty substantial woodland and it has lots of invasive species in it, things like burning bush and some of the bush honeysuckles, but it also has a really strong stand of native canopy species,” Nelson said. “That’s a place where you’ve got something good going on and if you could get the invasive species out, I think there would be a better chance of getting it back into a balanced succession.”

As to how these invasive species reached the trail in the first place, Nelson said that it was a combination of factors, but pointed out that being next to the train tracks likely didn’t help. “For invasive species, depending on how they propagate or invade, highways, roads, and train tracks are the perfect corridors for plants that have windborne seeds.”

Nelson also said that there are a large number of invasive species on the trail because the trail was built on an underutilized stretch of land where invasive species had years to develop.

It can sometimes be difficult, Nelson said, to identify invasive plants because “by a strict textbook definition, you need to be looking at plants that are not part of the regional flora that can persist and spread in conditions that they normally wouldn’t be in,” said Nelson. “It gets confusing because there are some native plant species that are aggressive, and so many people will call them invasive when by strict definition they are not.”

When it comes to bamboo, specifically, Nelson has had some personal experience dealing with the exotic species in his own yard.

Nelson said a neighbor had planted bamboo in their backyard and when it spread onto his property, he was a little leery and wanted to chop it down.

The more he thought about it, however, Nelson said he saw the benefits of the plant. “It makes a pretty good construction material,” he said, adding “it does run rampant if you just leave it alone but if you have a little bit of energy you can actually harness it.”

For those with bamboo in their backyards, Nelson recommended patience and persistence. “You have to keep after it for a couple of years but it comes up over a fairly short window in early summer and at that point, it’s like asparagus — very soft.” Nelson said cutting the asparagus-like bamboo during its two-week growing period will eventually sap the plant of its energy.

Nelson said that this is preferable to more intense solutions he has seen. “A lot of people get extreme — they get out bulldozers, and I think that’s just bringing too big of an arsenal to something that can be controlled if you just have a little patience over a longer time frame.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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College converts cow pasture into thriving wetland

May 19, 2010 under CANR News

Several times a week, Chad Nelson begins his workday with a trek through a wetland near his Townsend Hall office on the University of Delaware’s Newark campus. With spring in full swing, he enjoys the sight of the butterflies, migratory songbirds, mallard ducks and their ducklings, frogs and tadpoles that make the wetland their warm-weather home.

Later this summer Nelson, an assistant professor of landscape design in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, will be on the look out for dragonflies. And even in winter, he says the wetland teems with life, with such species as glossy ibis and over-wintering songbirds.

Two years ago, about the only animal life this two-acre site supported were dairy cows and migrating Canada geese.

Jenny McDermott, facilities manager for the college, spearheaded the effort to convert a poorly draining cow pasture into a wetland.

Her go-to man on the project was Tom Barthelmeh, who is a wetlands restoration expert with the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

“This project had a lot of challenges and Tom’s help was integral,” says McDermott. “Our goal in creating this wetland was not only to provide wildlife habitat but to improve water quality in the White Clay watershed.”

Once it is fully operational, the wetland will reduce runoff to Cool Run, which is a tributary of White Clay Creek. And that’s just one of the ways it will help the watershed.

The University’s farm and main campus are where Cool Run starts, the headwaters of the stream, and thus are a critical area for influencing environmental quality.

“Wetlands, especially in this area, do a lot of good things for a watershed,” explains McDermott. “By taking the pressure off the rate and volume of water that flows into a stream, wetlands reduce problems caused by stormwater runoff downstream.”

From a wildlife habitat perspective, the wetland gets high marks from Doug Tallamy, chairperson of UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology.

“The new wetlands will raise the carrying capacity of the UD Farm for decades,” says Tallamy. “The wet areas churn out insects that develop on detritus. These support swifts, martins, swallows and bats. Wading birds eat the aquatic insects and frogs in the wet areas. The wetland also provides habitats for breeding birds. It’s very productive. And none of this was happening when it was a cow pasture.”

Barthelmeh says he enjoyed the project, especially because it gave him the opportunity to mentor students. UD undergraduate and graduate students were involved in every aspect of the project, from site design and installation to the two rounds of planting that occurred, most recently last October.

Nelson spearheaded plant design with plenty of assistance from his students. Almost 2,000 trees, shrubs and perennial seed plugs have been planted at the site, ranging from blue flag iris, which provides purple-blue spring blooms; buttonbush, which blooms in summer; bald cypress, with its brilliant rusty orange fall foliage; and winterberry holly, known for its red berries in winter.

A whopping 90 percent of the first year’s planting survived despite dry planting conditions and some damage by waterfowl.

“I was concerned last year because a lot of Canada geese were browsing the wetland but most of the damage wasn’t significant since it was confined to the stalks and not the roots,” says Nelson.

The wetland is one component of a comprehensive plan to make the UD Farm a model of sustainable, environmentally friendly agriculture.

McDermott is now busy overseeing other conservation projects. Additional channel and wetland restoration will take place along the entire length of the Cool Run tributary running through the farm. A stormwater retrofit will address building and parking lot runoff that flows into Cool Run.

“These restoration efforts wouldn’t be possible without a lot of partners within the university, from DNREC and from the New Castle Conservation District,” says McDermott. “Grant funding from several DNREC departments and from the University’s alumni-supported Sustainability Fund have been matched by funding from our college to not only implement environmental protection but to provide a teaching opportunity for students and a demonstration of watershed protection.”

The UD wetland has been utilized as an outdoor classroom by landscape design, landscape construction, ornithology, wildlife management and wildlife ecology students. And it serves a public education function, as well, especially now that it has become a part of the UD Botanic Gardens.

“We offered wetland tours on Earth Day and Ag Day and the public is welcome to take self-guided tours any day from dawn to dusk,” says McDermott. “Wetlands are sometimes seen as a ‘no man’s land.’ We want people to appreciate the positive impact they can have on water quality and the diversity of wildlife they support. Wetlands are incredibly important.”

To learn more, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the UD Botanic Gardens wetland from dawn to dusk daily. The wetland is located on UD’s Farm off Route 896 in Newark, near the Girl Scouts building.

Click here to see the article with photos online on UDaily.

Article by Margo McDonough
Photos by Danielle Quigley

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