Autumn fern, fringetree win state’s plant of the year title

June 8, 2012 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Beauty pageants like to stress that it’s not just good looks but also talent and poise that make a winner. Likewise, the Delaware Nursery and Landscape Association Plant of the Year designation isn’t given to just any pretty plant but one “particularly well suited to thrive in Delaware,” notes Valann Budischak, executive director of the association.

That being said, the newly announced 2012 Plant of the Year winners are knock-out beauties – even if these plants weren’t easy to grow you’d want them in your garden. Dryopteris erythrosora, aka autumn fern, sports a copper pink color when its leaves first unfurl in spring, eventually maturing to glossy dark green. And Chionanthus virginicus, commonly known as fringetree, is a Southern charmer, with airy panicles of fragrant, fringy flowers in May.

“Fringe tree is an apt moniker for this delightful, small flowering tree, whose white blossoms do resemble a fanciful white fringe suspended in the spring sunlight,” wrote Landenberg, Pa., landscape consultant Rick Darke, a University of Delaware alumnus, in his 2002 book The American Woodland Garden.

Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania are the northernmost habitat for the fringetree. It also grows in south Jersey, nearly all of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, into the Deep South, and as far west as Texas.

With its ethereal appearance, you’d think fringetree would be a high-maintenance plant. But it’s a cinch to grow in full sun to partial shade. “Fringetree prefers moist, well-drained soil but it also will tolerate extremely dry conditions,” says Budischak. “And it’s especially well-suited to urban sites because of its high pollution tolerance.”

Dozens of fringetrees planted in the I-95 median north of Wilmington to the Pennsylvania state line are exposed to exhaust fumes 24/7 but look just as good as if they were growing in the wild. These trees were installed as part of the Enhancing Delaware Highways project, a joint venture between UD, the state Department of Transportation and Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH).

DCH also has planted fringetree in several spots in Wilmington, including a 911 Memorial Garden on Scott and 14th streets and along a railway embankment on Union Street. At the embankment planting, fringetree was mixed with Eastern ninebark, a hardy native shrub, and a variety of perennials, including false indigo. Fringetree also works well on its own as a specimen tree.

“I like fringetree because it’s very stalwart, very dependable and it’s a good habitat for pollinators and other wildlife,” says Lenny Wilson, assistant director of horticulture and facilities for DCH.

Female (fruit-bearing) fringetrees are especially attractive to wildlife. Bluebirds, thrashers, finch, vireo and eight species of caterpillars enjoy the tree’s dark blue fruit, according to Doug Tallamy, chair of UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. The trees aren’t labeled “male” or “female” at the garden center so the only way to know if you’re getting a female tree is to buy the plant in the fall, after the fruit has appeared.

Unlike fringetree, autumn fern isn’t native to Delaware. However, Budischak is quick to note that autumn fern is not invasive and spreads very slowly over time via creeping rhizomes. An arching, vase-shaped fern, it grows in medium to wet soils, in partial to full shade. Ultimately, it reaches a height of one and one-half to two feet.

June 13 Garden Day

If you have questions about growing fringetree or autumn fern, head to the June 13 Garden Day at the New Castle County Cooperative Extension office in Newark.

Master Gardeners will be on hand to lend their expertise at this event in the Native Teaching Garden. It is held from 9 a.m. to noon on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month, through September.

There also will be an evening open house in the garden June 20 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.  Call 831-COOP for more info about either event.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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Landscape consultant to discuss ‘Design for the Nature of Today’s Garden’

March 27, 2012 under CANR News

The nature of gardening today is much different than it was a generation ago. More households have two working parents who have less time and inclination to prune regularly and pull every errant weed. Money is tighter, too, not only for most households but for most municipalities.

Homeowners can’t spend a lot on chemical fertilizers and herbicides or new trees and shrubs. Likewise, local and state governments can’t devote much money or time to maintaining parks and natural areas.

Rick Darke doesn’t see anything bleak in this picture; rather he chooses to focus on the opportunities that exist in contemporary gardening.

“There has never been a more interesting or exciting time to be involved in the design of outdoor spaces,” says Darke, a University of Delaware alumnus who heads a Pennsylvania-based landscape consulting firm. His books include The American Woodland Garden and The Wild Garden: Expanded Edition. 

“There has been a sea change in how we approach our green spaces,” adds Darke. “This new trend embraces the dynamic nature of living landscapes and identifies conservation, functionality and viability as primary goals.”

Darke will talk about “Design for the Nature of Today’s Garden” on Tuesday, April 10, at UD’s Townsend Hall. Sponsored by the UD Botanic Gardens, the lecture is a kick-off event for the gardens’ spring plant sale, which is open to the public April 27-28.

Darke, who with his wife, Melinda Zoehrer, gardens on 1.5 acres in Landenberg, Pa., points to his own yard to illustrate how his approach to landscape design and stewardship has evolved over the years.

For example, he has become better at choosing the “right plant for the right place.” A dozen or so years ago, he planted native sweet bay magnolias in his back yard, which adjoins the White Clay Creek Preserve. Deer from the preserve quickly discovered these magnolias and rubbed the fragrant bark to the point that the trees wouldn’t have survived another season. Darke transplanted the magnolias to the front yard, which the deer tend to avoid. Although he solved his problem, he wasted valuable time.

“Melinda and I are busy with work, travel and socializing,” says Darke. “We don’t have endless time to devote to the garden.”

These days, he carefully considers site selection. A smart choice, in his opinion, was a stand of tall, warm-season grasses that he placed on the edge of the property. The grasses serve as a privacy screen while also providing habitat for wildlife.

To save both time and money, Darke lets the wind, water, birds and animals dictate — through seed dispersal — what new plants get added to his yard. He still buys plants but more often he enjoys these seedlings that arrive spontaneously.

“We have a group of nearly 30-foot-tall beeches that originated as seedlings 13 or 14 years ago,” notes Darke. “People don’t realize how fast a seedling can grow. In six years, a beech seedling can become a 12-foot-tall tree.”

Of course, you might not be thrilled with where the wind dropped your new beech tree — perhaps it’s growing between flagstone pavers or in front of your prized red-twig dogwood. That’s where judicious editing comes in, notes Darke. Feel free to transplant seedlings to different locations in your yard and to give away excess seedlings.

In the Darke and Zoehrer yard, the long list of “free plants” acquired by seed dispersal or self-seeding and sporing include viburnum, beech, sassafras, oaks, silver bells, spicebush, asters, ferns and dogwood.

The economic benefits of utilizing existing vegetation are even greater on large tracts of land. Currently, Darke is consulting on a project that will convert a Pittsburgh brownfield and abandoned steel mill, Carrie Furnace, into a mixed-use residential and commercial development.

“This 400-acre property has thousands of self-sown native sycamores and cottonwood,” notes Darke. “Any one of these 20- to 50-foot trees would cost more than $1,000 to buy. The most environmental approach is to allow these trees and other existing plants to form the backbone of the site’s new landscape.”

UD Botanic Gardens lecture

Darke’s lecture will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 10.  The cost is $15 for the public, $10 for members of the UD Botanic Gardens. For more info go to the UD Botanic Gardens website or call 831-0153.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photos by Rick Darke

This article can also be viewed on UDaily

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