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Create Local Change by Building Community Support for Native Plants

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

The native plant community in Atlanta grew stronger yesterday with the first event of the newly minted Intown Atlanta Chapter of the GNPS (Georgia Native Plant Society). We planned for 30 or so people, ambitiously hoped for 50, and were thrilled to have almost 100 people come together for this event!

It was an overflow crowd at the inaugural meeting of the Intown Atlanta Chapter of the GNPS at the Nickelbottom Community Gardens in Zonolite Park!

It was the kind of 65-degree sunny November fall day that reminds me why I love living in the South. It could not have been more ideal weather for a meeting and to learn the history and take a guided nature walk through this special restored urban nature park that was once a brownfield!

We were fortunate to have Mary Leight and Ron Smith lead tours through Zonolite with some help from Pat Reynolds who volunteers with the ongoing restoration and knows just about every inch of the park from all the volunteering she's done there!

We met at Zonolite Park, a perfect example of the power of native plants to restore nature where we live. Sally Sears gave an inspiring talk about how South Fork Conservancy worked with a coalition of federal, state and local organizations (including GNPS) to turn an industrial wasteland contaminated by asbestos into a 13-acre urban sanctuary.

Sally Sears, Founding Board Member of the South Fork Conservancy and founding chair of the Dekalb watershed oversight committee generously shared the fascinating history of South Fork Conservancy's work to create Zonolite Park.

Sally spoke about the reality of our urban parks and gave an anecdote about meeting a photographer at the park the day before who had a stream of 20 families come to the park as a backdrop for Christmas photos. As someone who connects deeply to nature, I have a hard time with using nature as a prop. I don’t understand the disconnect between creating an ecosystem devoid of nature in your own backyard and travelling far and wide to get a selfie in front of natural wonders such as mountains, waterfalls, or wildlife. Yet Sally’s optimistic viewpoint helped me see the value of incremental change by explaining that only one of these families had ever been to the park. Now 19 new families are aware of Zonolite and are potential supporters. Some will come back with their children who will connect to the woods, creek, and wildlife they explore there. Nature will ultimately win.

Everyone who visits Zonolite Park falls in love with it. So far it is a fairly undiscovered urban park. In the summer young families play at the edges of the creek that runs along the length of the park.

Pete Densimore, the leader of Friends of Zonolite Park group spoke about the ongoing volunteer work necessary to remove invasive plants and replace them with native plants. Every month volunteers remove invasive privet to give to Zoo Atlanta. Apparently, giraffes love privet! Pat didn’t speak, but the thousands of native trees, bushes, forbs and grasses that have been planted in the last couple years as well as the little native prairie patches springing up around the park have her fingerprints on them. Acting locally means adopting your favorite local park to help restore and maintain it for wildlife.

If you look closely at this photo you can see the pink and yellow tags of trees and bushes that have been planted in the woods. Many of the native ferns and other perennials are from GNPS plant rescues Pat went on.

Niche Native plant societies have been traditionally geared towards older gardening enthusiasts who have the time and money to focus their energy on specific plants or types of gardens. Over thirty years ago when my husband and I realized the road to starting a family would be a longer journey than we expected, I started gardening to distract myself and process the ongoing situation. I was interested in Rosalind Creasy-style edible landscaping and the best resource I found to learn more about gardening was a local herb society. I was the youngest person by a good 30 years but the benefit for me was having dozens of new role models to learn from!

Back when I was trying to create a "cottage garden" I didn't realize I was buying and learning about native plants! In my freakishly well organized garden binder from the early 90s I found receipts for herbs and vegetable seeds as well as these ones. I ordered Jack-in-the-pulpits, lobelias, black cohash, trumpet vine, and monarda fistulosa from a mail order nursery and bought itea, red twig dogwood, and leatherleaf viburnum bushes from a local nursery that I now realize was focused on native plants.

There are still plant societies for herbs as well as for hydrangeas, daffodils, azaleas, roses, rock gardens, water gardens, even bamboo! I’m going to guess the average age of these groups is still about 60. I don't think learning about and collecting hydrangea or rose hybrids will ever be much of a young person's game.

Times have changed and a growing number the young people are now ripping up their lawns for the kind of edible landscaping that was so unusual back when I wanted to learn how to do this in my yard. New homeowners are also embracing naturescaping (landscaping for nature) with or without edibles. Their interest in using native plants is part of an effort to protect our fragile world. They are joining native plant societies from a socially conscious and environmentally aware place. The mission is the same with a slight tweak to the focus.

While Sally was speaking an American bumblebee visited some flowers in one of the community garden beds where we were meeting. It was a fitting moment to have this rare bee visit a restored brownfield while we were starting a new chapter supporting the use of native plants in public and private spaces. It would have been even more perfect if he was on a native flower not a marigold!

I tried to talk to as many people as I could and ended up speaking to one young couple at length after I asked them how they found themselves at this event. Their story exemplifies the encouraging trend happening all over Atlanta and the country.

Nick and Elizabeth kindly shared their story about finding their way to a native plant society meeting

Nick was inspired to start a vegetable garden in his yard because his grandfather had a farm. He noticed though that not all pollinators were attracted to the flowers he bought at the nursery and started researching the value of using plants native where you live. He’s currently reading a Doug Tallamy book. Like many folks now, he’s working from home and appreciates enjoying his own lawn-free front yard filled with wildlife when he needs a break. Elizabeth loves having a yard alive with critters and explained her appreciation for the habitat value of flowers. They are community-minded and give away seeds from their yard to encourage members in their neighborhood association to use native plants. They’re interested in going to plant rescues to add biodiversity to their yard. Their interactive and community-oriented ideas for events include plant and seed swaps, workshops to learn how to winter sow native seeds, and informal neighborhood open yard garden tours with a map of members who want to share what they’ve done in their yard with other members…kind of like a Christmas light crawl but with native plants. Elizabeth summed up their philosophy perfectly when she said using native plants is an ideal way to act locally and also gives the kind of instant gratification needed to feel like you are making a difference. They are the future of the native plant movement.

The native plant movement is attracting a diverse group of people who realize native plants are key to reclaiming nature in public and private spaces where we live.


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Dec 04, 2021

A wonderful accounting of the event. Thank you for all the effort that went into this article. I live near Zonolite Park. Reading your article is encouraging me to get over there often, and support its rebirth, even more than my attending the actual event! That's how captivating your article is.


Nov 09, 2021

Congratulations! What a great turnout.

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