Under the snow, gardens wait to grow

Snow falling softly outside, I sit at the kitchen counter, responding to work emails with a stuffy head and a pile of Kleenexes at my side. The scene outside is calm and beautiful and I’m able to appreciate the snow now, unlike during a dark drive home from Forest Lake last night on curvy country roads. Now and then a flicker of movement catches my eye and I turn to see a bird light on a bare branch outside one of the windows. Tiny tracks across the fresh blanket of white tell me that other animals are here still as well, hiding quietly under the curving arches of snow covered plants in the garden or in piles of rock near the trees at the back of the yard. Under the snow, the gardens wait patiently for spring and another chance to grow.

On February 20, Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes will hold its annual Design with Nature Conference in St. Paul at St. Thomas University. The event is an opportunity for gardeners, native plant enthusiasts, habitat restorationists, and landscape designers to learn more about gardening with native plants and making use of residential landscapes to improve habitat for birds and pollinators, and keep stormwater pollution out of local lakes, rivers and wetlands.

Keynote speaker Heather Holm will open the day, describing her work in a 3-year study to determine what types of native bees are present in cultivated blueberry farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Holm will also discuss strategies to enhance nesting sites and provide more food sources for native bees. The rapid decline in pollinator species, such as honeybees, monarch butterflies, and native bees has become a big concern locally and has also led to new initiatives at the state and federal level, such as the Pollinator Initiative, led by Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, and the 1500-mile butterfly corridor President Obama has proposed along Interstate 35 from Mexico to Minnesota. Native plants that provide nectar for bees and butterflies also tend to be deep-rooted, so they are well suited to prevent erosion and help rainwater soak into the ground – a benefit for surface and groundwater resources as well.

Later in the afternoon, Benjamin Vogt, a professor, author and gardener, will talk about a side of native prairie gardening not often seen among images of purple coneflower and big bluestem – the prairie garden in winter. Like me, Vogt finds beauty in a winter garden and he designs landscapes to provide wildlife habitat and aesthetic appeal, even in the midst of snow and cold.  The final set of speakers, Chris Behringer of Behringer Designs and Arlys Freeman of Midwest Floating Islands, will talk about innovative floating eco-systems made from man-made materials that are designed to support native plants and bio-engineered soils. These systems are designed to increase native plant habitat and improve lake and wetland water quality.

Wild Ones is a national, nonprofit environmental education and advocacy organization founded in 1979 to promote environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. Other sponsoring organizations for the conference include Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water, True Nature Design, and the Bush Lake Chapter of the Izaak Walton League.

The Design with Nature Conference will be held on Sat., Feb. 20, 9am-4:30pm at the James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall at St. Thomas University, 2115 Summit Ave, St. Paul.  Early registration saves $15 and closes midnight January 28. Regular registration closes February 10. Learn more at www.designwithnatureconference.org