Cues of Care, Helping People See Plants in Georgia

By Jennifer Ceska, Conservation Coordinator, State Botanical Garden of Georgia


It is 92 degrees in mid-May, but we are safely tucked inside an office suite in Ponce City Market in midtown Atlanta at a reception celebrating environmental and community non-profit organizations in Georgia. With the music and conversations rising, a sponsoring patron comes to our display table for the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (SBG) and says over the swelling din, “Tell me in 20 seconds what it is you do.”

This, I’ve got.

“We help people see plants. We help people realize plants are essential to their lives, and that native plants are not optional on Georgia lands if we want to keep all the other layers of diversity that rely on those plants for survival, like birds, bees, butterflies, and bats.”

She did not blink but leaned in closer. “Ok, keep going, what is your goal?”

Resetting the land toward diversity

“Our goal is to prevent critically imperiled plant species from winking out in Georgia, to keep the common species common, to remove the invasive species and reset the land towards diversity. We need to show people that a mosaic of habitats in a Georgia natural area includes open grasslands that have mostly been lost. And because those early successional sites have been lost, extraordinary numbers of species are eking out their existence on roadsides and rights-of-way.” At this point, the patron sets her drink and purse down, indicating we had her attention.

SBG Graduate Assistant Carly Evans invites the sponsoring patron to feel the soft leaves of Rhus michauxii displayed in a large clay pot on our table and explains how close Georgia came to losing this species, how the males and females were separated by many miles, how the females hung on underneath a water tower, how driving pollen to the ladies never worked nor did bringing males and females in to cultivation and hand pollinating them. Carly explains how the last four males only perked up and flowered when planted in a natural area, a pocket prairie, with the ladies (on Valentine’s Day, of course).

“Well, what happened?!” she asked, properly engaged.

“The females made viable fruit and now Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance partners have babies of Dwarf Sumac for the first time in many decades. In fact, you are touching one of those juvenile plants right now.”

“I had no idea,” she said, truly listening and long past her 20 seconds of time.

Helping people see plants, in this case    Solidago   . Photo by Jennifer Ceska

Helping people see plants, in this case Solidago. Photo by Jennifer Ceska

Our plant projects, our restoration work on behalf of woodlands, prairies, and bogs is engaging, and we are good at telling their stories when we get the audience, even across a table. Helping people to “see” plants is truly our first and best goal as it opens all the doors and the hearts needed for conservation and restoration. In these times of documented “plant blindness,” we can help heal the blind with our stories and lessons. But getting that time with audiences, having those conversations isn’t reaching enough people quickly in Georgia. Articles and publications, social media like that created by the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, has been a game changer for the SE US. (I do love it when audiences ask me if I’ve seen the video from that grasslands group in the SE US.)

But how do we help people “see” native plants in their daily lives, and especially when prairie-like habitats are basically erased from our collective memory in Georgia? We ask audiences, even university audiences of science peers if they’ve ever seen a Georgia prairie, and perhaps 1% of the room ever raises their hand. In natural areas, and in gardens, we have to help people “see” native plants through “cues of care.”

We have the goal as the State’s Botanical Garden of adding cues of care—signs that an area is being managed purposefully and not neglected—throughout Georgia to home gardens, city displays, and roadsides to help people see and value native plants. Botanical Gardens traditionally get pushback from visitors when a garden is not “high and tight” or absolutely packed with riotous color. If a display is overgrown, going to seed, flowers heads picked at by birds, leaves eaten by caterpillars, we get pushback with negative comments. Until, that is, we start telling stories and helping people see.

If you love birds, you will include native plants in your garden

So how do we get people to see? Over the last few years we have received repeated lessons in cues of care. The lessons began 15 years ago when initiating the Georgia Native Plant Initiative, hosting our first symposium with agencies, major land owners, growers, universities, and land managers. We held a panel discussion on tweaking the management of rights-of-way towards diversity of warm season grasses and wildflowers. A career fellow at GDOT (Georgia Dept. of Transportation) explained how they were using strategic mowing in some parts of the state, particularly along 185 near the exits to Callaway Gardens, with good success. The return and showy orange waves of warm season grasses was getting unsolicited praise. In other parts of Georgia, this same strategy of unmown roadsides elicited complaints from citizens who said the roads look unkempt, making their towns and counties look “poor.” To these counties, mowed meant cared for. These Georgians had been conditioned to think tightly mown green spaces with shaped woody plants are examples of success, of money, of care.

Why do you think they lump warm season grasses, calling them “poverty grasses?” The collective memory of seeing grasses with scattered wildflowers as beautiful has been lost.

We took this lesson from GDOT to heart and have been using push-pull marketing to draw attention and revenue towards native plants for the Georgia Native Plant Initiative, teaching the need for plant diversity to support insect diversity, illustrating the presence of Georgia prairies and woodlands through our Certificate in Native Plants program, our Native Plant Symposia, our propagation manuals for Georgia Green Industry growers, and our flourishing Connect to Protect for Biodiversity (CToP) program (visit https://botgarden.uga.edu/ for more on these programs).

It is true that Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home was a game changer in how we teach about gardening and restoration with native plant diversity. “If you love birds, you will include native plants in your garden” became our opening line. We find we spend less time defining what it is we do, and yet, we are still getting pushback about getting native plants on the land (see photo below).

Photos above: Georgia Leaf Cutter Bee on Butterfly Weed in Downtown Athens/photo by Don Hunter. CtoP (Connect to Protect) bed at the State Botanical Garden with formal walls and lines/photo by Shannah Cahoe Montgomery.

Introducing the characters of the play that is the performance of the Piedmont Prairie

Two years ago, we were denied putting a native plant garden in a public area in Athens because the voting committee thought native plant gardens looked messy, despite photos and drawings of our intentions. We regrouped, created CtoP demonstration displays at the botanical garden, and now are winning contracts for these native plant gardens (see photo above). The Athens Downtown Development Authority (ADDA) Connect to Protect beds in downtown Athens has been a rousing success.

These are formal displays with sidewalk and stone edges, and they have received a great deal of attention as people report seeing butterflies and goldfinches in downtown Athens. Downtown visitors are being introduced to the characters of the play that is the performance of the Piedmont Prairie. We hope to see these same plant species restored to the roadsides of Loop 10 around Athens.

In rights-of-way, we also use cues of care. Georgia Power and the Wildlife Conservation Society have funded a larger scale prairie restoration project under the high-tower electrical line right-of-way (ROW) that runs through our botanical garden grounds. At the crest of the hill is a remnant of an original Piedmont Prairie, surviving through time because of the management of the ROW by Georgia Power. We are expanding the prairie down the hill, removing the Bermuda that has been in place for nearly 50 years over the old cotton terraces of this slope. This is a potential worst-case scenario for Piedmont land use history. Here again, we’ve had to use cues of care.

Beginning the cure for plant blindness with single species planters

While letting the mid-grade prairie to the west side of the ROW grow up, exposing over 120 stems of natural Asclepias tuberosa, warm season grasses, and some old-field non-natives, visitors asked questions about what we were doing with the site -- weren’t we afraid of snakes in that tall grass; why did we just “let this site go?” Interpretive signs now explain strategic mowing. We added a sharply mowed edge along the road and poles with colorful yarn as a gentle fence running up the sides to help people see that this was purposeful, that the area was not being neglected.

Our plans include planters along the picnic area by the Prairie on the Hill restoration site with a single species in each so that guests can learn to see each prairie species at each stage of its lifecycle (dormancy to seed heads). Here they can meet Oenothera, Monarda, Pycnanthemum, Solidago, Helianthus, Symphyotrichum, Sorghastrum, and Schizacharium species. Guests can then walk widely mown paths through the powerline prairie and find these species in the mix that is a grassland. Here we still have cues of care, examples of intention like the planters, interpretive signs, mowed paths, inviting guests to walk among the plants.

We look to take this work with Georgia Power to other sites across Georgia, restoring and managing rights-of-way and teaching people to see that these areas are not eyesores, but essential pockets of diversity, migration corridors for birds and insects. Three years after our first planting of 10,000 prairie plugs grown from local seeds, volunteers have documented a tremendous amount of insect and bird diversity in this small pocket prairie, including Monarch and Zebra butterflies and the return of Sedge Wrens, not observed in Athens by our birding colleagues in several decades.

Roadside safety strips are also “cues of care”

The safety strip on roadsides is also a cue of care. This is the first 12 feet or so along roadsides where the grasses are kept short. We are talking with GDOT partners looking to adapt roadside management in Georgia from broadcast spraying to spot spraying and strategic mowing. This will save GDOT money, will increase grassland habitat across the state, will provide essential forage for birds, bees, butterflies, and bats, and can showcase roadsides of flowers and native grasses telling a Georgia story of open habitat. GDOT partners explained the critical need of the tightly mowed safety strip along the immediate road edge, but said that the back slopes could be managed to let the grasses and flowers grow taller and flower. They appeared surprised and relieved when we explained we are thrilled by the need for this mowed safety strip because this will give Georgians that cue of care that makes the roadside look purposeful, while highlighting an edge of native prairie plants in the back slope.  

(See banner photo, 2-acre pocket prairie in northern Georgia, with border cue of care/photo by Patrick Ceska.)

In a two-acre prairie in North Georgia that we have been restoring for 14 years with strategic mowing, spot spraying, and planting specialty wildflowers as “seeding in plots,” neighbors asked us repeatedly when the site would be mowed (it had been a cow pasture for many decades). They said our tall grasses were hiding that “beautiful split rail fence we had installed.” Within a couple of years they asked to pick berries in this same site and to run their dogs through there to flush the birds on site. I answered a resounding “oh hell no, you can’t run your dogs through this meadow and nick stems of wildflowers we want to collect for seeds.” The fellows chuckled good-naturedly, proud of their teasing and my reaction, knowing how invested we are with this prairie project. We did add rocks and mowed edges to the prairie to help our neighbors see that this un-mowed land is intentional.

Another cue of care: being a good neighbor

At the Georgia Native Plant Society annual symposium in March 2019, “Caring for Our Living Landscapes,” Andrea Greco, Professional Landscape Architect and Senior Project Manager with Pond & Company gave a talk on reducing lawn and adding back in native plants. She broke this talk down into doable steps illustrating with photography and hand drawings methods for removing turf, and then design elements displaying native plants in large patches, ribbons, and swaths. Her practical advice about checking in with neighbors and the need to be a good neighbor by explaining gardening intentions while removing sod was essential.

Neighborhoods and communities want to see cues of care and to know that a project is intentional and not neglected. Laying cardboard and mulch across parts of a front yard for several months is part of an intentional plan that will have beautiful results. Letting an old field grow up to see what emerges and then managing the invasives and colonizing plugs can look messy to fresh eyes as an old pasture is restored towards prairie. But a tightly mowed strip along the edge of old field provides that cue of care that helps people see that this is intentional.

Mowed edge “cues of care” in Austria/first and second photo by Patrick Ceska, last photo by Jennifer Ceska.

We saw this throughout Germany and Austria in the summer of 2018. City parks and home garden lawns from Berlin to Vienna were letting their public park spaces grow up, letting the clovers and dandelions flower, letting the cool season grasses go to seed. Even the “hell strips” along city streets were left long. Cities used mowed edges as a cue of care for many of these green spaces. Everyone knew this was intentional because of the recently documented precipitous decline of bees in Germany, published in peer reviewed literature but also shared in a series of popular articles.

We heard people talking about bee decline in check-out lines, restaurants, guesthouses and bier gartens throughout our travels. We saw signs posted routinely explaining why turf areas in historic gardens and public spaces had let their lawns grow, inviting people to still bring a blanket and lay among the flowers and bees. (Chiggers are not a problem in Germany and Austria as they are in Georgia, I learned.)

My own home garden is at times a riot of color and tall stems of flowers at various stages of going to seed. We leave the seeds for the birds and for their increase on our land. Our picket fence, rock-lined edges, and carefully weeded gravel paths provide cues of care to our neighbors in our downtown historic neighborhood.

Neighbors no longer ask us if we aren’t afraid of snakes and other critters in our plants. They instead tell us about the birds, butterflies, bees, and bats they saw darting in and out of our garden. They still think we are “plant crazy,” since we are out tinkering in our garden throughout the year, but they also stop while walking their dogs, strollers, or sweethearts and tell us how much they enjoy our garden. They ask us what the different species are and where they might get them. Most of these are native plants of Georgia, and we can indeed tell them where they can purchase these species for their own gardens.

And so it grows, one cue of care at a time, returning ever more native plants to the land. Neighbors ask, “So, what do you do at the botanical garden?”

“I help people see plants.”