The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Plant native species to help the world just outside your door

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IMG 3876Gerry Moll is seen in the native garden of his home in the 4th and Gill neighborhood of Knoxville.  Ben Pounds/Hellbender Press

People are restoring native plants on their properties. You should, too.

‘There are a lot of messes out there and this is something that you can do right at home that has a positive effect.’

KNOXVILLE — If you want to help native wildlife and attract it to your yard, plant some native plants and kick back on your porch and watch them grow. That’s a good place to start.

That’s the message from Native Plant Rescue Squad founders Gerry Moll and Joy Grissom.

People walking by Moll’s garden in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood off Broadway just north of the city center will see tall plants; not hedges or other foreign plants, but various short trees and native flowers. It looks like an explosion of growth on both sides of the sidewalk, but it’s not chaos.

It’s far from a manicured lawn, but Moll tends to it with passion, mixing his herbs and figs with many native trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers. He’s eager to praise this garden, which he describes as 95 percent native.

“I’m always tucking things in and seeing how they do,” he said.

He referred to his front yard as a “test garden” to determine how native plants do in different environments. For instance, in a corner of his garden where a maple tree fell, he was testing which shade-loving plants that had grown there still thrived. He also said it was a chance to see how passion flower vines that had climbed over the azalea bushes there worked to provide shade.

“Start by paying attention to what’s there and what wants to be,” Moll said when describing his strategy. “I’ll often find that the plant knows best.”

The yard has its own logic. Moll said the area around his hose is wetter and supports swamp hibiscus, also known as swamp jewel weed.

As you start at his native garden, you'll first see native East Tennessee ferns. Then you’ll move through various native plants, including beauty berry, which has distinctly pleasant-smelling leaves and bright purple berry clusters. The azaleas along the side of the yard toward the neighbors came from a previous owner, but they fit in well with the other natives and provide flowers in the spring. On one side he’s growing a dogwood seedling.

“Over the next five years it’s going to get a lot shadier,” he said, explaining that the shade will bring a different type of garden when it comes.

Native strawberries grow in a small spot cleared for waterline repairs.

Closer to the road are buckeyes and token non-native figs, along with black-eyed susans, goldenrods and other native flowers.

His setup, he said, brings in wildlife such as hummingbirds and insects.

“You can even hear the difference,” he said of the sounds brought by birds and insects. “These are the plants that insects and birds and bees have coevolved with.”

Milkweed, which is common in his garden, is popular with monarchs, but he also spoke of jewel weed being popular with hummingbirds. He said native bees and butterflies also “go crazy” for clustered mountain mint.

He compared artificial environments to “food deserts” for animals. “It’s like bringing a grocery store back in,” he said regarding his approach.

Moll said one of his goals is to make the garden “more of a relationship between you, the plants and the other living things,” in contrast to conventional gardening in which “you’re not as focused on the complex long term ecological relationships.”

In front of his yard, a small, understated detail amid all the growing things is a plaque from the National Wildlife Federation.

It reads: “This property provides the four basic habitat elements needed for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover and places to raise young."

Native Plant Rescue Squad

Native Plant Rescue Squad sends out teams of volunteers to rescue native plants threatened by developments. They then sell the native plants they find.

Moll also spoke about educational programs in Knoxville regarding local plants and wildlife through the Fourth and Gill Wooly Bears and another land stewardship education program in Holston Hills.

“He’s more of an idealist, and I’m more of a realist in a lot of ways, which is kind of good for both of us,” co-founder Joy Grissom said by phone regarding the roles the two of them play within the organization.

Advice

“The root of my advice would be to get some native plants and try it,” Moll said. He also advised people to listen to the advice of the Tennessee Native Plant Rescue Squad or any other plant providers.

He listed a few “super beneficial plants,” specifically the white oak, which benefits at least 475 insects. Other plants he recommended for attracting insects were the red oak and wild cherry, along with the smaller mountain mints and milkweed.

Grissom said that native landscaping should start with an assessment of existing plants.

“Everybody’s a little different,” Grissom said. She suggested looking at soil, light, local wildlife and the plants coming up through the seasons and whether any of it is “somewhat beneficial or precious.” Consider the major types of vegetation involved and determine the amount of labor you want to invest.

“One of the powerful things about what we do is that it’s something really tangible that people can quite easily do,” Moll said.

“There are a lot of messes out there and this is something that you can do right at home that has a positive effect.”

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