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Ramblings of a Native Plant Gardener Winter’s best kept secrets


Walking through Aquetong Spring Park in winter is like being in a living library; there’s a series of pleasant, slightly hushed rooms, brimming with history and life. Here is a landscape that looks like it’s sleeping, maybe even dead. However, if you look a bit deeper, or walk a bit slower, you can sense so much going on. Incipient life, now and for the coming spring, is in the blueprint of everything that lives there.

For a native plant gardener like me, this is the time to plan for spring. Seeds are an important part of this process, for everywhere I look, I see, clearly, these storehouses of life. A winter landscape is composed of seed heads and grasses, flung up against a gray or darkening sky. Straw-colored grasses soften a gray day, bringing a touch of warmth to winter chill.

Seeds are multi-purpose, for even as the plants manufacture and store their progeny, they are also feeding birds and small mammals. Birds love the winterberry and cranberry viburnum berries, and squirrels forage for the nuts and gifts of the trees. All seeds come in special packages; some are burrs, with spiny thorns that hook onto dogs. Others, like milkweed, come with feathery parachutes carried by the wind. Still others, like Baptisia (False indigo), come in shiny black pods that split open and fall close by.

In our native garden, we leave the dead flower stalks. I leave them for the coming spring, and I leave some for us. Just a few stems create a winter bouquet. The balloon flower creates miniature lanterns; paper thin vessels that contain one pearly seed. Penstemon (Beardtongue) has a candelabra shape; the seeds emerge from several small stems along the main branch, and they are wildly prolific. One branch with a sprig of red winterberry sits on my dining table.

Native shrubs or understory plants like buckeye or buttonbush bring other decorative aspects to the winter landscape. Buckeye seed (Aesculus glabra) resemble chestnuts; a golden brown pod that contains shiny black seeds. Buckeye is a native shrub that grows almost anywhere; moist or dry soil, full sun to partial shade. It blooms in early summer, has white spires that rise above a platter of leaves, and is an easy plant for screening out an unwanted view. Buttonbush shrubs have lovely white button flowers, which in winter, remain on the tree.

Walking in Aquetong Spring or any naturalized meadow will give you countless ideas about garden design. You can get information about companion plants, meadow grasses, or shrubs for a backyard fence. Different textured paths provide variety and interest. Some paths are paved; others are covered with wood chips or grass. A path that turns a corner is much more interesting when you can’t exactly see where it goes or what it’s doing. A small corner of Aquetong has a rain garden with many summer flowers. Echinacea, bee balm, and yarrow grow in a slight depression that holds rain water. These flowers are excellent companion plants, for they bring bright shades of red, pink, white, and yellow into the garden.

There is also a woodland path that rises above the springs through a beech forest. There are many spring ephemerals that could thrive here; dutchman breeches, trillium, and trout lily. These plants grow low to the ground and provide a delicate contrast to the beech. Their short flowering time makes them doubly precious, like a wink and a nod.

In these meadows I am given a history lesson as well. Once sacred to Lenni Lenape, the spring was dammed by colonists. Now Solebury has reclaimed this land and is paying homage to the Indigenous people. The spring’s waters are running free, and the sound of those rushing waters lifts my heart. Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer poet, wrote that witnessing an unleashed dog running free gave her pure joy. For me, a gurgling creek does it, too.

The silence is restorative to me. Nature is taking care of things. This is one of winter’s best secrets. Sometimes, the very best thing to do is nothing. In the Hippocratic Oath, it says, “First, do no harm.” I believe this is true in gardens as well. Sometimes, spraying, mowing, raking, or adding fertilizers is not what’s needed. For native plants, acceptance and appreciation saves the day. When I do that, my heart blooms, and I feel truly connected and held by our shared world.

Susan Talia Delone, Ph.D., a member of the Bucks County Chapter of the Woman’s National Farm & Garden Association, is a psychologist living in Buckingham. Her garden has been featured on the annual native plant garden tour offered by the organization in June.

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