Home-plant security

Environmental auditors will scope out foreign invaders in local home landscapes, and suggest native alternatives.


Everywhere you look in Zeta Cross' yard, it's green, green, green, which is good. But let's get a closer view.

Multiflora rose over there. English ivy down below. Isn't that tree of heaven . . . and Japanese honeysuckle? She's even got garlic mustard and purple nightshade, porcelain berry and vinca.

Oh, no! Cross has enough runaway stuff in her yard to give an environmental purist like Steve Saffier cardiac arrest. But he's looking healthy, keeping cool, doing his diplomatic best not to embarrass her or make her feel bad.

"These are invasives," he says, describing aggressive plants that are not recommended for home gardens, "but you're not alone. They pop up in most suburban yards."

Saffier is a bird enthusiast who works for Audubon Pennsylvania, part of the National Audubon Society. He's doing an environmental audit for Cross, a real-estate agent who has lived in this unpretentious 1950s split-level in Erdenheim for six years.

The audit entails an hour-long walk around her quarter-acre property, during which Saffier looks closely at the landscape, suggesting that Cross gradually take out the problem plants and replace them with native plants. Unlike plants that originated somewhere else, natives long ago adapted to our local soil and weather.

"They thrive in whatever comes naturally," Saffier says.

They're hard-wired to provide food, shelter and nesting space for birds and wildlife. They'll need less water and maintenance, blending seamlessly into the ecological fabric of Cross' yard, neighborhood and region.

"I think I would love that," she says.

Saffier does the audits free of charge as part of the Audubon at Home program. It's a joint effort - offered to residents of Northwest Philadelphia and lower Montgomery County - by Audubon Pennsylvania and Friends of the Wissahickon, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the natural beauty and wildness of the Wissahickon Valley and its watershed, which comprises all the land that leads to local waterways.

Cross, a Friends of the Wissahickon member, seems a perfect candidate for an environmental audit.

She doesn't use chemicals. She drives a Prius. A certified EcoBroker, she's trained to advise her clients on energy efficiency and other "green" issues that may arise during real estate transactions.

By the time Saffier shows up, in other words, Cross has a pretty good idea of what she wants.

"I'm looking for more plants that offer habitat for birds and wildlife," she says, "and I want a diverse lawn, a healthy lawn."

But like many of us, Cross needs help translating "caring about the environment" into specifics. Though she's heard of native plants, she isn't sure which ones will work for her.

"I do know this," she says, pointing to a small stream that runs along her property. "I have two ducks that come every year. I know whatever I do here affects them and whatever's downstream."

That sense of connectedness, and the need for diverse plant and animal life, are promoted by other groups doing audits in the region as well.

One is the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, which charges $100 for the walkabout and plant recommendations, and if the client wants an actual landscape design incorporating those recommendations, $65 an hour to prepare it. A typical design takes two to three hours, says Fran Lawn, director of land restoration at the Upper Roxborough center.

"Having a landscape that helps protect those qualities that we all want in our environment is really important," says the aptly named Lawn, whose background is ornamental horticulture and environmental landscape design.

Among his clients are David and Carole Soskis, Schuylkill Center members who have lived in their split-level ranch house in Bala Cynwyd for 35 years. He's a retired psychiatrist, she's a semiretired lawyer and social worker, and as the years went by, they became less and less enamored of their traditional suburban yard.

"We weren't plant and garden freaks at all," says David Soskis, "but the idea of planting native plants began to emerge."

The Soskises eagerly took Lawn's advice. Starting last fall, they cut down some pesky mulberry trees, killed off some English ivy, and planted natives. One sizable patch of native flowers replaced some lawn.

The couple now enjoy native bee balm and milkweed, purple coneflowers and woodland sunflowers. And lots of visitors: ruby-throated hummingbirds, Virginia cardinals, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees, tufted titmice, robins, catbirds, and song sparrows.

"It's been a real pleasure and a boon to our house," says David Soskis, who, as we spoke recently by telephone, described a monarch butterfly artfully landing on the milkweed outside his window.

In a few years, Cross hopes, that's exactly what her yard will be like. Saffier has suggested she plant natives like trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), sweet pepper bush (Clethra alnifolia), arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), and red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea).

She's thrilled.

"I needed a vision for this property, and Steve has given me something. Native plants make sense," Cross says, her words nearly drowned out by a leaf blower droning down the street.

Who Offers Audits

Here are some places that offer backyard environmental audits:

Southeastern Pennsylvania

Audubon Pennsylvania with Friends of the Wissahickon: Audubon At Home program offers free audit and native-plant recommendations to homeowners in the Wissahickon watershed (Northwest Philadelphia and lower Montgomery County). Program has a waiting list, but Audubon is considering training volunteer auditors. Info: http://pa.audubon.org or 610-666-5593.

Habitat Resource Network: Habitat Steward program offers free consultations and native-plant suggestions to homeowners, schools and others in Chester and Delaware Counties. Do-it-yourself garden design kit also available for $25. Info: www.habitatresourcenetwork.org or 484-678-6200.

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Philadelphia: Sustainable Landscape Consulting program offers audits for homeowners, schools, businesses in region for $100 fee, which includes recommendations for native plants. Optional: actual landscape design for $65/hour. Info: www.schuylkillcenter.org or 215-482-7300.

Valley Forge Audubon Society: Backyards for Nature program offers consultations and plant recommendations in the region to society members (family membership: $55). Donation expected. Nonmembers pay $50 plus donation. Info: www.valleyforgeaudubon.org or 610-666-5593.

South Jersey

New Jersey Audubon Society's Nature Center of Cape May offers members Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) in four municipalities in southern Cape May County: Lower Township, Cape May, Cape May Point and West Cape May. Family membership: $35. Donation expected for assessment and plant recommendations. Members then must submit a landscape plan and spend $400 on 20 to 40 new native plants to qualify for a $300 rebate. Info: www.njaudubon.org or 609-898-8848.

- Virginia A. Smith

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Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.