A True Adirondack Garden

Emily Martin, Nora Teter and Rich Gast begin a native garden at the Paul Smith's College VIC

Jake Swamp planted a little white pine by the entrance of the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths on the day it opened, in 1989. The Mohawk chief died in 2010 but his peace tree grows on. Today it casts dappled shade over the ground.

Last weekend a group of volunteers turned the soil on a new native plant garden beneath the tree. In the shade we planted rose twisted stalk, striped maple, hobblebush, bluebead lily, red trillium, and the tiny plants of the forest floor: goldthread, twinflower, Canada mayflower, round-leaved pyrola, partridgeberry, wood sorrel, trailing abutus and bunchberry. In the sun we planted mountain ash, red osier dogwood, highbush cranberry and purple bee balm.

It’s easy to confuse native plants (those here prior to European settlement) with naturalized (introduced plants that have adapted enough to grow wild). Paul Smith’s College botany professor Daun Reuter led a hike at the VIC Saturday to collect plants for the garden and to answer a lot of questions. Lupines? Naturalized. Bee balm? Purple is native, red is naturalized. Columbine? Red-and-yellow is native; purple or pink, naturalized. Hellebore orchid? Naturalized. The Adirondack Park Agency offers a partial list of native Adirondack plants.

Richard Gast, of Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension, says the VIC garden will have photos and literature to help visitors learn plants they might have seen in their own yard or might consider cultivating. Contrary to popular belief, Gast says, native plant gardens needn’t look unkempt or disorderly.

Why does it matter? Nora Teter, a master gardener from Plattsburgh, says, “I think it’s good for people to know that the native plants support the native ecology. The introduced plants can create a sterile environment for insects and birds.” (The Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program offers a list of native plants that make good substitutes for especially aggressive garden-escapers.)

My own motives are somewhat selfish. I want to beat the deer that have turned our neighborhood into a salad bar. So I’ve been transplanting ferns, adding clubmosses and bunchberry for ground cover. Ferns are a shade alternative to hostas and cultivated Solomon’s seal. Garden guru Nick Woodin’s 2005 article for Adirondack Life, “Frondly Advice,” is a good guide to gardening with ferns.

Cultivating native plants also helps inform your sense of what grows where in nature, to view the world as a garden. It’s a means to seeing your own yard as a place not apart from the toads, sparrows and moths.

Teter grows native plants in her garden but does not take them from the wild; she gets them from friends or nurseries. Teter contributed three wild ginger plants to the VIC garden. The subtle, brown-flowered plant was once common in the Adirondack lowlands but was overharvested. Wild ginger is a reminder to proceed cautiously, she says; if everyone dug up native plants from the wild it could reduce populations.

Reuter says clubmosses were once commercially exploited (to make Christmas garlands, and for their spores, which were used in fireworks and to ignite the flash in early flash photography). She is careful to harvest only a small percentage from areas that have large healthy numbers of a species.

It is illegal to take any plant from New York State Forest Preserve, and you must have permission to harvest on private land. Additionally, a Department of Environmental Conservation list of plants that are rare in New York State provides guidance on those that should not be picked or moved, officially protected or not.

The Paul Smith’s College VIC garden is a work in progress, and volunteers are welcome to contribute plants. Naturalist Brian McAllister advises digging a large root ball with every plant in order to capture symbiotic fungi in the soil. Contact the VIC for more information: (518) 327-6241 or on Facebook.

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