Our New Guest Column: Pro-Pollinator

From January until the fall of this year, we’ll be hosting a monthly collaborative column with the good people of Climate Action Coffee featuring information on native plants, Takoma Park-specific gardening, pollinators, birds, and the processes of our planet. To kick things off, we have an interview with Maureen and Marguerite from CAC.

C: Introduce yourselves!

Maureen: I’m Maureen Malloy; I’m a member of Climate Action Coffee (a sub-group of Takoma Park Mobilization) since October 2019. I didn’t join right in the beginning, but soon thereafter. I came to this organizing after being involved with local environmental issues, and really felt like CAC was a group of like-minded people. Before that, I’d been working with Friends of Sligo Creek and my church on local issues, but this group really felt like the right fit.

Marguerite: My name is Marguerite Cyr and I’ve been with the Climate Action Coffee since November 2019. Since I had just retired, I was looking for something that I could get involved with and I was very interested in climate change mitigation — so I started attending the meetings.

C: Why is native plant gardening / propagation important to you + how does that relate to the area in which you live?

Maureen: It all goes back to climate change. When I left my profession, it was because I thought, “None of this really matters unless we can save the planet.” When I came to that turning point in my own life, deciding what to do with my time and energy — that remains on this planet (laughs) — climate change is the issue. During COVID I read and went to a lot of webinars, hoping to understand some of the issues and how they fit together and it stood out that we have natural ways to sequester carbon which can be a big piece of climate change mitigation…but I’m most interested in what we can do as individuals. It turns out that native plants are a key part in that individual carbon sequestering work. Native plants, native trees in general sequester carbon and conserve water, they provide food for animals and humans, and provide habitat for smaller creatures. I found out that native plants were the way that I could begin making changes. I became a Weed Warrior for Montgomery County and learned that planting non-natives goes hand-in-hand with removing invasive non-natives. If you pull out a bunch of English Ivy, you need to replace it with another plant! There’s a public and private partnership between public parks and homes; we can work with our neighbors and the county to work together and make the native plants shift.

C: Can you explain the term ‘carbon-sequestering’?

Maureen: Yeah! There’s a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that is one of the main things that is causing warming of the atmosphere. When we remove fossil fuels from the ground and then burn them, we create carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plants naturally take it in and hold it in the soil and in their roots; they keep it in the ground. We want to keep as much of that carbon dioxide in the ground as we can. That’s carbon-sequestering.

C: Okay, Marguerite, back to you: why is native plant gardening important to you?

Marguerite: Initially when I joined CAC, it wasn’t that important to me! I was a bit of a gardener, I had a really busy career. We split up into groups in CAC, and working on pollinators seemed like something we could actually do. As I began to understand the important of pollinators to the planet and the role of insects in our food chain, I began to realize that this was a lot more important than putting a few plants in your garden. I realized that the ark of gardening was going to change and I wanted to be part of that. I always call the insect population our “littlest stakeholders”. They’ve been bombarded by lack of habitat and chemical and development. There are some heavyweight people promoting a change in the way we garden, like Doug Tallamy and his concept of ‘home grown national park’ — you take all the land that we turned into lawns, and we turn that into natural habitats. We’re talking about bird and insect populations that have decreased by 40 to 50 percent. That’s how I got started, recognizing the work that we have to do and what needs to change. One out of every three bites we eat relies on a pollinator. If we don’t want to starve to death, we need to keep these little critters alive.

C: How did both of you get into this work? Were you ‘plant people’ before?

Marguerite: I love to garden, and I have a big yard. Everything I planted that was non-native, always died. In Takoma Park, we have really bad soil! And bad drainage! I started buying native plants because I knew that they would thrive in my yard, and I had a real passion for the natives that live in deep shade. I made the shift to natives unconsciously — when we started trying to educate people about native plants, I counted how many I had in my yard and I had 26. Unintentionally! Now, they’re the only plants I put in.

Maureen: I was never really that much of a gardener — the house I purchased was kind of a mess when I moved in, the yard was overgrown. I was learning how to make it look prettier using very traditional landscaping plants, which got me into gardening. That kind of gardening is totally different from what I’m doing now. I ended up removing most of the things I put in over the last 25 years so I could put in native plants. I was always interested in nature and being out in the parks and in the woods, and I really got into it more through the Weed Warrior program and Friends of Sligo Creek. The intellectual part came first for me; I had to learn about why native plants were important and then I started trying to implement them in my own yard. Like Marguerite, most of the stuff I planted that wasn’t native died anyway. (both laugh) Native plants are very forgiving and very resilient.

C: Tell me a little bit more about the group you represent, specifically Climate Action Coffee.

Marguerite: Well, one of the things is that we’ve been meeting continuously, every Wednesday, since we started in October 2019. Now we Zoom in an 8:00 meeting. We have three sub-groups; one of which is Pollinators, one is a Storm Water Group (looking at ways to mitigate run-off and the damage that occurs in our houses) and the third is a Food Forest Group. The Food Forest group has three sites at Montgomery College, and they’re working at the Takoma Park Elementary School as well. They have designers on their team, they’ve received grant money for soil and plants, they’re doing an amazing job. They meet once a week, and Pollinators meet every other week. CAC is full of very knowledgeable people, bringing interesting thoughts and research to every meeting.

Maureen: CAC is technically part of TALL-E, the Takoma Alliance for a Local Living Economy. One of the big issues that TALL-E took on is resiliency; how are we going to protect our communities from the impacts of climate change? Racial equity is another piece of that. Food forests are fantastic because we need to be less reliant on bringing trucks of food in from other states and other countries. We’re more resilient as communities if we’re producing food. When you have a food forest at a school, you’re educating a new generation on the importance of hands-on experience as well as local food. As we saw during the pandemic and at the Co-op, when the supply chain doesn’t function it makes it terribly hard to acquire food. Part of resiliency comes from learning how to navigate feeding a community. Educating people around storm water too, because around Takoma Park as climate change escalates, what we’ll start seeing more are really intense rain events. These will cause a lot of flooding. We have buried streams, a lot of pavement. This will only be a bigger issue going forward — our Storm Water group is being really creative with figuring out how to finance solutions. People can pay individually to protect their own homes, but there is the larger issue of equity. A family living in a ground-level apartment was flooded out during one of our biggest storms — these issues reach all people, not just home-owners. CAC is project-based, and we’re like an action branch of TALL-E.

Marguerite: Right, because for the first six months all we did was throw out ideas. (Maureen nods) We brainstormed until something stuck on the wall. Did we mention we’re part of Takoma Park Mobilization?

C: Yes!

Marguerite: Resiliency is the key focus of CAC’s sub-groups and Takoma Mobilization.

Maureen: The major themes are food security, getting to carbon neutrality, and trying to make the city government and the county government accountable for the goals that they’ve put down for their Climate Action Plans. As new issues come up, we want to be the ‘squeaky wheel’ saying, “Ok, you want to implement this new piece of legislation now, but how are the effects going to affect the climate?” We’ve started to look at everything through this lens — new idea, what will be the impact on the climate?

Marguerite: We’re in an officially-declared climate emergency by the city and the county. People were talking about switching out their gas appliances…but nobody was talking about anything else. And now, we’re talking about planting trees on heat islands, especially in neighborhoods that don’t have a lot of trees. You go into Ward 1 and it’s heavily wooded, but you go into some of our wards and they’re pretty bare. This permeable surface issue is really big because we have so much water that just runs off our parking lots and it’s not staying in the ground. So we are the ‘squeaky wheel’, we have to be the ‘squeaky wheel’. (laughs, Maureen nods) Our group, with the latest Public Space Management Plan — we were all over that plan. (everyone laughs)

Maureen: We provide input whether it’s particularly wanted or not. (laughs) Seriously, they often ask for public comments and we make very detailed comments, really thoughtful, well-documented…one of the things we did is we went around to many of the parks in Takoma Park, because when they go to update them they’re looking at the playground equipment, they’re looking at picnic tables, but they were not considering if more trees could be planted! It’s hard to balance the needs of people and recreational needs, but we’re just sort of saying, “Well, could you also look at what kind of native trees and removing invasives?” The Vegetation Manager of the city is wonderful, and she’s got groups going out and removing invasives. The city Arborist as well, Marty, is all about putting native trees in as we lose our big trees to stress and disease and old age.

Marguerite: Our group has helped with a lot of the removing of invasives. We’ve gone out and weeded with the Vegetation Manager’s team —

Maureen: Because they really need volunteers!

Marguerite: In the Public Space Management Plan, they actually had a section on developing ways that people could volunteer to help. So we’re helping to push through, with the city.

C: What is your favorite native plant species?

Maureen: I’m just going to say Echinacea, ‘coneflower’ because it’s the first thing I planted and it’s beautiful. It has big flowers, and you can just see the bees all around them in the summer. Marguerite has a beautiful painting of one that she did.

C: (looking at an image on Marguerite’s phone) You did that? It’s beautiful!

Marguerite: I did it as something special for the group.

Maureen: I’m sure the Co-op has a lot of products on it’s shelves that have echinacea in them, because it’s a medicinal plant.

Marguerite: The goldfinches love echinacea.

Maureen: (pointing at an image) The center of the flower is where all the seeds are. After the flowers die, you have all these wonderful seeds. Birds are all over them in the fall.

C: Okay, Marguerite, back to you: favorite native plant?

Marguerite: I just don’t know where to start. (laughs) I have a lot of new favorites. Give me a second to think it over — I have to say that the Black Eyed Susan, Maryland’s state flower, has been my friend for a long time. When nothing else grew in my garden, Black Eyed Susans did.

Maureen: We tend to give a lot of those away when we’re doing tabling events, because it’s a good native plant to start with and people recognize them.

Marguerite: A lot of insects go to them; insects love them. Both plants are generalists in that way. Now I’m remembering how much I love the Obedient Plant — yes, that’s it’s real name! Now I’m thinking of the whole list that I love…so many plants that are so beautiful. Their beauty is not showy, but when you get a whole bunch of them together it’s very showy.

Maureen: I still have my coneflowers standing in the depth of fall, and to me they look beautiful. It’s a different look. In the fall and winter when they’re all scraggly, insects are still living in them and making use of the plants. Stuff is going on all year for native plants. Many bugs overwinter in the stalks of these plants — that’s why we discourage leaf blowers! I want to say, too — there are over 400 species of native oak trees. Phenomenally important to the ecosystem, because of all the plants and animals they shelter and feed. Oaks are my favorite, I think. ‘Quercus’, I remember the latin name!

C: How does the work of the Co-op align with the work of native plant gardening / the work of Climate Action Coffee?

Marguerite: Well, we’re working within our community, Takoma Park, to make a better place to live — which is a similar mission to that of the Co-op, I imagine. We can support each other, we can do the things we need to do to prepare for our future.

Maureen: I think it’s incredibly important to work on the local level, supporting legislation…with regard to alignment with the Co-op, I think back to the past — I was one of the early members of this Co-op. I wanted natural food! Natural food is still, to me, food that is grown naturally without pesticides. And that’s how the two of us originally approached working with the Co-op, discussing our community’s mosquito issue and asking, “Why are pesticides so bad for the pollinators?” It’s a perfect dovetailing with the Co-op’s whole philosophy and values, in terms of the natural foods side of the operations. Everything we do is interrelated to the web of food and food systems; how it’s produced, keeping it local, and caring for the network of people who are going to eat it.

Look forward to a new Pro-Pollinator column next month!