Gardening missionary Laurel Tormey Cole has native plants in her yard and in her heart

Laurel Tormey Cole is a woman with a mission. She has filled her Knox yard with native plants. She likes them because they are beautiful to look at and simple to care for.
"The whole idea of native plants is there is no soil amendment, no additional watering after the first year, no fertilizing, no nada," said Tormey Cole.

A native-plant garden doesn’t even require the usual fall cleanup.
"I leave everything up," she said. "The seed heads will spread their seeds. The wind and snow will topple stuff down."

Tormey Cole also has philosophical reasons for liking native plants. She likes growing natives that are endangered or threatened.
For example, speaking about the American Ipecac, a plant that no longer exists in New York State, she said with feeling, "I would love to see people growing this plant...It really needs to be brought back to its original home."

And, she is concerned about the overuse of water.
"One of the things that’s going to become an issue in the coming decades is water," she said. "You put a native plant in the ground for appropriate soil and sun or shade. You water it for its first season...After that, the plant doesn’t need to be watered.
"I really feel strongly about that," she said. "Water isn’t going to be available to cater to exotic plants."

Tormey Cole spent over a dozen years in the nursery business but reading the book Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards, by Sara Stein, changed her life.
"It gave me an inkling there was a way to garden differently," said Tormey Cole. "I like a natural landscape. It supports the local birds, the little critters, the insects."
She grew up in Westchester County in a place that was still "very rural," she said. But it wasn’t until she was on her own — having graduated from college with a degree in elementary education and psychology — that she started gardening. "I was renting, and had just a spot of land," she recalled.

She’s lived in Knox for nine now years with her husband, Jeff Cole, and their 15-year-old son, Ryan, whom she home-schools.
Ryan is an avid birder and her husband, she said, is tolerant as she reconfigures their yard. She recalled putting in sticks of shrubs, that looked rather like pencils, and telling her husband, "Look, this is going to be an elderberry; it’s going to be nine feet tall and have food for the birds." His reply: "Okay, honey."

Tormey Cole, who also teaches yoga, works half-time at the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center where she shares her knowledge of and enthusiasm for native plants.

Defining terms

She recently presented a three-hour workshop at the center, in which she explained the basics of gardening with native plants. She began by defining terms.
"An exotic," she said, is a plant that is not native to an area. "I tend to think of things that aren’t native even to the country," Tormey Cole said. "If you want exotics," she said, "don’t pick the invasive kind."

A cultivar is a variety of plant that has been created or maintained through cultivation.
"If you’re a purist, a stubborn Irish person like me, native can’t be cultivar. It doesn’t float my boat," said Tormey Cole.
She went on to explain that cultivars are propagated through cloning rather than from seed. "All that genetic diversity is now gone," she said.

An invasive plant is a non-native plant that has taken over part of the eco-system, she said.

She described the Pine Bush as a globally rare eco-system, an inland scrub pine barren.
"What makes it unique is it’s inland," said Tormey Cole.
While aspen trees are native to the area, they are considered invasive to the Pine Bush, she said, explaining, "It’s not native to that eco-system."

Purple loosestrife is an example of a plant that came from another country and is therefore invasive here wherever it grows, pushing out native plants like the cattail.
"To me, if it’s invasive, it’s not attractive," said Tormey Cole. "It came to this country for people to put in their gardens; 80 to 85 percent of invasives were brought to this country for people to put in their gardens," she said. "It’s important for gardeners to be aware of what they’re doing; we’re having a huge impact."
Tormey leads what she calls a "swat team" every Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon to uproot invasive plants.
"We go out and tackle the world’s weeds," she said. "I figure it’s job security."

She will hold an invasive plant training program on May 7 at 9 a.m. at the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center. Even those who don’t want to join the swat team can come to the session to learn how to rid themselves of invasive plants, said Tormey Cole.

Understanding soil

For native plants to prosper, each variety must be grown in the type of soil for which they have evolved. And gardeners must be aware of whether the plants thrive in sun or shade, matching the plant’s preference to the conditions their yards offer.
"When you have sun in the morning, get a shade plant," said Tormey Cole. "When it’s sunny in the late afternoon, even from two to six, you can get an almost full-sun plant."

The soil type can be a bit trickier to figure out.

Tormey Cole had workshop participants bring in soil samples from their own yards to pass around and compare.
"With natives," said Tormey Cole, "you really need to take the soil into consideration. You literally need to start from the ground up."

Participants rubbed soil between their fingers to gauge its texture.
"Feel how silky this is; it’s almost slippery," said Tormey Cole as she fingered soil that had come from the base of a stonewall. "The other clay soil has a little bit of grit, a little sand."
Soil from the yard of a newly-built house was very sandy. "You can feel the grit, almost like sandpaper," said Tormey Cole as the sample was passed from hand to hand.
"When you squeeze sand, it doesn’t hold together," she said, demonstrating. "When you squeeze clay together, it stays in a ball."
She went on, "These are the realities each of you are dealing with."

The type of soil determines the amount of moisture it will hold.

Tormey Cole then went over the terms the gardeners would need to know in order to choose the correct plants for their locale.
"Wet" includes standing water; "wet-mesic" is an area that stays damp but is not likely to have standing water. Both of these have clay soils.
"Mesic" has the drainage quality of loam — it holds moisture but is crumbly.
"Mesic-dry" drains pretty quickly, and "dry" is soil like in the Pine Bush that "water pours right through," said Tormey Cole. Both of these have sandy soils.
"Drainage quality has to do with the spaces in a soil," explained Tormey Cole. Dry soil, she said, would be like having a mass of marbles; the water would run right through. On the other hand, wet soil is sponge-like, with nooks and crannies that hold the water.
"The grittier the soil, the better it drains," she said, but the moisture level also depends on the terrain — whether the area, for example, is sloped, or hollow.

Selecting plants

With the exception of blue lupine, which grown in the Pine Bush and is essential for the survival of the endangered Karner blue butterfly, native plants are not sold locally, Tormey Cole said.

(Students at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, under the direction of science teacher Dr. Alan Fiero, have featured native plants in their butterfly garden, open to the public in the summer.)
Tormey Cole said it is unethical to dig up native plants from their natural habitat. An exception, she said, are "plant rescues" performed by organized groups on ground that is going to be developed, killing the native plants.
The Northeast has "been very slow to get on board" with native-plant gardening, Tormey Cole said; the movement is widespread in the West, South, and Midwest.
"Almost across the board, you’re going to need to deal mail-order," she said, supplying workshop participants with a list of mail-order sources for native New York plants.
The nurseries, she said "propagate them from seeds they’ve collected ethically...not taking more than 10 percent of seed for an area."

Also, a native-plant sale will be held at the Thacher Nature Center this Saturday and Sunday, April 29 and 30, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. Native perennials, grasses, and ferns suitable for a full range of soil and light conditions will be sold; each purchased plant will come with growing instructions.

Tormey Cole shared pictures and descriptions she has assembled of local native plants. Each took four or five days’ work, gathering information, she said.
"Every plant," Tormey Cole concluded, "is like my favorite plant; they’re all from New York State."

Laurel’s list

Her descriptions follow.

— Trout Lily: "This lovely ephemeral is a woodland plant," says Tormey Cole. "It blooms before the trees leaf out. The common name for this plant indicates its connection — don’t go fly-fishing for trout until this little beauty blooms. It has mottled foliage that is especially attractive."

The Trout Lily likes shade or partial shade, and loam or clay soil that is mesic or mesic-dry. It roots deeply so is hard to transplant. It has yellow blossoms in April land May.
— Wild Bleeding Heart: "The foliage of this plant is ferny and the flowers bloom well into summer," says Tormey Cole. "It’s related to the common, exotic Bleeding Heart but does not go dormant and blooms over a much longer period of time...Works as an excellent ground cover when protected from the hottest afternoon sun. Would look gorgeous with Ohio Spiderwort and Wild Geranium.

The Wild Bleeding Heart likes shade or partial shade, and sand, loam, or clay soil that is wet-mesic, mesic, or mesic-dry. It has pink flowers in June and July.
— Big-Leafed Aster: "These cheery flowers will light up a shady area," says Tormey Cole. "Like all asters, they bloom in the fall — just in time for the Monarch migration. They spread by rhizomes so can act as a ground cover and slope stabilizer and are drought tolerant."

Big-Leafed Asters like shade or partial shade, and sand, loam or clay that is wet-mesic, mesic, mesic-dry, or dry. Its blossoms are bluish-white in August, September, and October.
— American Ipecac: "This lovely little sub-shrub is semi-woody. It has been extirpated from New York State, a sad loss. Its ferny foliage is very attractive and new growth has a reddish tinge," says Tormey Cole. "The delicate-looking white starry blooms can completely cover the plant....This beautiful carefree plant is no-maintenance and deserves to be re-introduced to its native locale."

The American Ipecac likes full sun to partial shade and tolerates heavy clay; soil can be mesic-wet, mesic, or mesic-dry. It has white flowers in May, June, and July.
— Wild Geranium: "Lovely open-faced lavender flowers," says Tormey Cole. "The foliage of this plant is deeply and palmately lobed," she goes on, explaining this means, shaped like the palm of a hand. "It makes a long-blooming wildflower in the shady garden or in a sunny area with sufficient moisture. It spreads by rhizomes so it can act as a spring-blooming ground cover."

The Wild Geranium likes sun, partial shade, or shade, and sand or loam that is mesic or mesic-dry. It has lavender flowers in April, May, and June.
— Ohio Spiderwort: "This lovely plant has strappy leaves that jut out from the base of the flower clump — giving it its spidery appearance," says Tormey Cole. "It will seed about so you don’t even have to dig it up and divide it." The species is endangered, she said, and she planted three in her garden of heavy clay where they have thrived.

The Ohio Spiderwort likes full sun or partial shade and grows in sand, loam, or clay that is wet-mesic, mesic, mesic-dry, or dry. It has blue flowers in June and July.
— Prairie Smoke: "This diminutive plant is a must for every gardener. Try to find a spot for this beauty," says Tormey Cole. "I have had mine at the base of our mailbox where it gets abused by road salt, asphalt heat, and baking sun. It is never given any additional water."

Prairie Smoke is endangered and Tormey Cole says it is unlikely that, here in the East, it will ever get the fluffy seed heads that give it its common name since the insect pollinator no longer exists here.

Prairie Smoke likes full sun to partial clay, and sand, loam, or clay soil that is wet-mesic, mesic, or mesic-dry. It has red to pink flowers in April, May, and June.
— Purple Milkweed: "This gorgeous plant creates a striking color accent in the garden with its cluster of deep rose to purple flowers," says Tormey Cole. "As a member of the milkweed family, it is a larval host plant for the monarch butterfly. It doesn’t usually produce seed pods but, if it does, they are flat and downy but not warty."

The Purple Milkweed likes full sun to partial shade, and sand, loam, or clay soil that is wet-mesic, mesic, or dry-mesic. It has red to purple blooms in June, July, and August.
— Golden Ragwort: "A yellow daisy in spring — what more could one want" But this plant also has beautiful, leathery evergreen to semi-evergreen basal foliage that sits well below the blooms," says Tormey Cole. "It can spread rapidly to make a fine ground cover; on my heavy clay soil, it is slower. A must for rain gardens, pond-side, and those low, wet spots, but will do well in average garden soil."

While Golden Ragwort attracts bees and pollinators, it is poisonous to grazing animals.

Golden Ragwort likes full sun, partial shade, and shade, and grows in sand, loam, or clay that is wet, wet-mesic, or mesic. Its yellow flowers bloom in May and June.
— Golden Alexanders: "Typically about two feet tall, this is a bright yellow flower that tolerates shade but can also take full sun in a moist site. The blossom is akin to an airy Queen Anne’s Lace flower — in yellow," says Tormey Cole. "It actually belongs to the carrot family and is therefore a food source for butterflies...a larval food plant for the stunning black swallowtail butterfly. So don’t be concerned about a few munched leaves — this plant can take it."

The Golden Alexander likes full sun and partial shade, growing in sand, loam, and clay soil that is wet-mesic, mesic, or mesic-dry. It has yellow flowers in May and June.
— Culver’s Root: "This distinctive plant creates a wonderful vertical accent in the garden," says Tormey Cole. "White is a welcome resting place for the eye and this plant looks great with mounds of yellow, orange, and pink." It ranges from three to six feet in height, depending on the water and sunlight available."

Culver’s Root grows in full sun to partial shade and likes sand, loam, or clay soil that is wet-mesic, mesic, or dry mesic. Its white blooms are seen in July and August.
— Marsh Marigold: "This beautiful plant has lush, heart-shaped foliage that is a deep, rich green. Flowers are about an inch...across and the effect when blooming is quite showy," said Tormey Cole. "Marsh Marigold will flower best in sun. This plant is perfect for those soggy areas or a rain garden."

The Marsh Marigold can grow in full sun, partial shade, and shade, in sand, loam, and clay that is wet or wet-mesic. Its yellow flowers bloom in April and May.
— Swamp Milkweed: "This gorgeous plant is a must for every butterfly garden," says Tormey Cole. "It has elongated lance-shaped leaves that can stand up to the munching of monarch butterfly larvae for which it is a host plant. The blossoms are bright, beautiful, and upward-facing."

The Swamp Milkweed likes full sun and can grow in sand, loam, and clay that is wet, wet-mesic, or mesic. Its red to pink flowers bloom in July and August.
— Wild Blue Phlox: "This lovely plant is a sure sign of spring! And the hummingbirds seek it wherever they can find it," says Tormey Cole. "Paired with Columbine and Cinnamon Fern, you have the basis for a wonderful hummingbird garden. (Hummers use the wool of the Cinnamon Fern to line their nests and they nectar at Columbine.) It spreads slowly by rhizomes. I have not found it to be at all invasive."

Wild Blue Phlox grows in shade and partial shade, in sand, loam, or clay that is wet-mesic, mesic, or mesic-dry. Its blue flowers bloom in May and June.

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