Brookhaven, GA, April 14, 2016 – by Kathryn Gable, Guest Columnist – Success is always sweet. To a group of staunch environmentalists sharing a tent at the recent Brookhaven Cherry Blossom Festival in Blackburn Park, it was especially sweet. Melanie Bass-Pollard, representing Atlanta Protects Trees, Tom Reilly, representing The National Wildlife Federation and yours truly, representing The Georgia Native Plant Society, were all overwhelmed by eager visitors wanting advice on how to be more conscientious stewards of this earth we call home. Their curiosity inspired us to push forth with our commitment to save more trees, to plant more natives, and to make every effort to protect our dwindling wildlife population due to habitat loss from over development.
Two native plant gardens framing the entryway to the tent attracted the attention of festival goers and lured them in by the 100’s, provoking non-stop questions throughout the two day event. On one side of the tent, attendees could observe a typical sunny ecosystem found in Georgia; on the other side, plants occurring in shady areas were portrayed. Each plant was specifically chosen to mimic nature as one would observe it while hiking through a local forest and selected also to illustrate the importance of combining plants with their natural companions. Every groundcover, fern, perennial, shrub and tree in the two vignettes was intended to demonstrate a healthy wildlife refuge. My motto: “A wildlife haven is a haven for mankind.” Which begs the question: Why is Brookhaven having a “Cherry Blossom Festival” instead of a “Dogwood Festival” or a “Hawthorn Festival” or “Crabapple Festival,” all of which are native trees and favorites of Georgia’s Wildlife? Instead, the Yoshino cherry from Japan, with an expected lifespan of 15-20 years gets the honor. Yes, they can be attractive for short periods during spring and early summer and yes, some can live longer than 20 years, but on average, they put all their energy into the first two decades of life, then begin a slow decline. And, no, those inspirations in Washington, DC are not the originals. Most, if not all, have been replaced many times over.
But, back to the festival. In fielding questions posed by the visitors, it was evident how thirsty they are for knowledge about native plants. They want to be part of the tree hugging community that focuses on saving the environment for future generations. They want fresh air and clean water. And they want the “how-to-do that” answer right now. Time and do-diligence are the only necessities for learning a new way of life. As a poet friend once told me, “If you want to be really good at something, hang around with the right tools,” which could be interpreted in this scenario as: Acquaint yourself with the experts; the botanist, the horticulturalists, go to native plant nurseries like the one at Georgia Perimeter College on Panthersville Rd. in Decatur. Join the Georgia Native Plant Society or the Georgia Botanical Society. Purchase a few books. Gardening with Native Plants of the South by Sally Wasowski is an excellent one for beginners, as well as for established gardeners. Every page has two columns, each of which has a different plant with detailed information providing criteria for the plant to thrive, i.e; does it need sun, shade, moist or dry soil, what is its mature size, when does it bloom, is it evergreen or deciduous, etc. Plus, and this is a huge plus, the author gives examples of the wildlife drawn to specified plants.
Tom Reilly, who graciously volunteered his expertise, stayed busy teaching throngs of families the essentials required for having private gardens certified as a National Wildlife Habitat. In brief — food, shelter, water and nesting sights are musts and, hopefully, families willing to maintain their gardens in ways that protect the critters they attract. Keep in mind this essential point: Native wildlife needs native vegetation to thrive. Insects, birds and mammals, small and large, will search for indigenous plants and often perish in the process, either from lack of food or from (as a last resort) eating non-native foods they are incapable of digesting.
Over the weekend, one individual after another would describe the wildlife food sources on their property. Privet–NOT NATIVE. Mahonia–NOT NATIVE. Hellebores–NOT NATIVE. Hostas, Nandinas: fescue, centipede, Bermuda grasses-NOT NATIVE !!! An amazing reference book for learning how to wisely garden for wildlife is Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home. Not only does he have an intimate knowledge of native plants, he has a doctorate in entomology, making him uniquely qualified to teach the rest of us. I strongly recommend everyone buy a copy and read every single word until the book is practically memorized. It will forever change your perspective on gardening.
Of all the plants in our exhibit, the ‘attention-getter’ prize went to a lovely azalea (Rhododendron canescens) with pink buds, opening into delicate white flowers. People came from far away tents to touch its velvety leaves and inhale its fragrance. With its propensity for attracting bees and butterflies, it’s a must-have for a wildlife habitat. Now, if the Rhody was the plant star, Melanie Bass-Pollard had to be the arboreal Oscar winner. Her obvious passion and concern for the tragic tree loss in the metro area drew people of all ages to her as she emphasized the dire straits our environment faces when developers are repeatedly allowed to clear cut properties in order to build houses (often too many and too big) on properties that once sufficed as the perfect site for modest ranch homes. Destruction for Construction must cease.
Melanie pointed to the old white oaks in the park that are threatened by fungi, most likely the result of compacted roots from incessant foot traffic, but more likely due to the ill-advised habit of parking earth-moving machinery and vendors’ trucks underneath their canopies, not to mention the impervious asphalt pavement, blocking their capacity to self sustain. Trees are vital to everyones well-being, from the microscopic organisms invisible to the naked eye to all that looms above, including us. They are Kings of the Forests. At least, they should be regarded as such, especially in cities where pollution is rampant. They clean our air by removing toxic carbons and by supplanting the carbons with oxygen. They keep us cool by shading our houses and our streets. They ameliorate storm-water damage by allowing rainwater to filter through their leaves into pervious soils. In doing so, they restrain gully washers that would otherwise spew into paved streets and onto the private property of others, in most cases creating financial hardship for the property owner. Eventually, this unchecked storm-water empties into various waterways; streams, creeks, rivers and, finally, the oceans. All rivers run to the same sea; consequently, all life on earth suffers from environmental mis-management.
And think about this. In the botanical evolutionary chain, trees were the first woody plants to grace this planet. Specifically, Magnolias. Yes, those glossy evergreen monsters, seen in practically every southern garden. While thinking about that, remember this, too. Everything in nature has a chain reaction. If one tree is destroyed either by an act of nature or by the hand of man, the results can be devastating. A fully mature tree may have roots that extend for a mile or more, roots so irrevocably intertwined with their neighbors, it’s difficult to know where one tree ends and another begins. It should not be difficult, however, to understand when a tree is destroyed, others entangled in its roots will probably follow the same fate, taking with it an irreplaceable ecosystem.
So, those are just a few of the million things said to revelers walking through Blackburn Park April 2 and 3, and the positive take away from the festival was simply this. When the public has a forum in which they can learn how to connect with nature and wildlife, merely by planting native trees, shrubs and flowers for pollinators, birds and other mammals, they will become the kind of citizens environmentalists long for and the kind of neighbors everyone should have. Australian filmmaker George Miller summed it up well when asked if movies like Mad Max: Fury Road or An Inconvenient Truth changed attitudes regarding the environment. He responded, “When you give someone a purely logical argument, you’re only involving the intellect. Which is fine in itself, but it’s not a story. A story touches the entire human being. It works with the viscera, with the intellect, and with the spirit. If a story is any good it will follow you out of the theater. It will come back to you, and you will reflect on it.” In other words, it hits you in the gut. It makes you think. It touches your very soul.
I hope the stories Melanie, Tom and I told in our tented theater stay with all those who listened and that when we reconvene at the next Cherry Blossom Festival, they will have amazing stories to tell us about their reflections. Like, how many trees they have fought to save. How many birdhouses they have erected. How many native plants they have incorporated into their own gardens. And even how they have developed tolerance for our number one forester, the ubiquitous SQUIRREL. Wow! That would be one big sweet success!
— Kathryn Gable
Ms. Gable is the Past President of the Georgia Native Plant Society, a Master Naturalist and a Lifetime Achievement Master Gardener.