Gardener: Native plants have plenty of benefits

Amy Milgrim’s Cherry Hill home is lush with plant life, even early in the spring season.

Her gardening skills have been honed over the last 20 years. She has been able to minimize the dirty work by understanding the environment and filling the ground with native plant species.

She is a member of the Sustainable Cherry Hill gardening task force, where she shares the benefits of native plant gardening with the group, including the lack of excessive dirty work.

With a branch of the Cooper River and Woodcrest Country Club behind her house, Milgrim pulled out much of the grass on her lawn and planted a non-invasive ground cover instead.

“Instead of having a bunch of mulch, we did vinca,” she said. “We have dogwoods and the river birch. If things do well, then they do well. If they don’t, they don’t. I don’t cry over them.”

Shrubs, perennials, wild germaniums and blueberry bushes are planted throughout the lawn, successfully drying up the wetness, as they are the “right plants for the right place,” she said.

The walkway to her front door is similar to a dry riverbed.

“It’s so shady,” she said. “There’s always something new and blooming.”

In the backyard, a brick patio minimizes the amount of grass. Also found are “volunteers.” Pointing to a dogwood, Milgrim said that birds planted the seed and she decided to keep it, successfully changing the appearance of the yard without any physical labor.

Despite owning a sprinkler system, the Milgrims hardly have to use it since the plants thrive naturally. Part of the thrill of gardening at home is finding the same plants along paths in the woods and in parks and being able to identify them by name.

Milgrim is a member of Sustainable Cherry Hill’s gardening task force, a group of locals focused on bringing gardening education to the community on a volunteer basis.

“It’s really just coming out and seeing what we’re doing,” she said. “It’s really what people are interested in.”

She brings her native plant expertise into the regular meetings and private Facebook group, citing suggestions of planting native species that don’t bring harm to the ground, have a benefit to wildlife, and can be enjoyed while taking out the effort of replanting.

The task force will again be at April 27’s free Earth Festival at Croft Farm, 100 Bortons Mill Road, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at a plant swap table.

“You dig up a little something from your garden,” she said.

Split it, wrap it or plant it in a pot, bring it, label it and leave it at the table, while choosing a plant from another garden.

“It’s something you don’t have to buy,” she said. “It was really well received last year.”

According to Lori Braunstein, Sustainable Cherry Hill’s executive director, the group is a five-year-old non-profit that works closely with the township, Camden County, local schools and neighbors throughout South Jersey in hopes of turning the tide toward sustainable practices. About 10,000 people have been reached so far.

“I think the secret is that we’re not really coming to it from an environmental standpoint,” she said.

Sustainability affects everyone in one way or another, she said. Aside from native plants, gardeners in the group share tips on how to make lawns more sustainable, organic gardening and community supported agriculture.

Sometimes, they partner with the Master Gardeners of Camden County for events, Milgrim said.

“It connects you to the earth,” she said of the perks of gardening. “It’s a part of who I am. It’s a really good feeling. It gives you a lot of respect for the farmers who grow our food.”

Gardening is a personal pursuit with different results for each green thumb. But, many times, those tips can be shared freely in the task force.

“I learn from them and they learn from me,” she said. “It’s part of a community.”

Online gardening resources

Want to start a garden, but have no idea how? Cherry Hill’s gardeners want to help. The following is a compilation of many suggestions from local green thumbs.

• Check out Sustainable Cherry Hill and the Gardening Task Force by visiting http://www.sustainablecherryhill.org/task-forces/local-foodcommunity-gardenins/.

• Learn about upcoming events through the Camden County Master Gardeners, who partner for events with Sustainable Cherry Hill, by visiting http://camden.njaes.rutgers.edu/garden/.

• Find gardening guides at http://davesgarden.com/.

• To learn more about native plants, visit www.wildflower.org and www.bhwp.org.

• Even more can be found about native plants by visiting http://www.pinelandsalliance.org/.

• For information on protecting the environment at home, visit http://www.epa.gov/wastes/wycd/homeandgarden.htm.