On Feb. 13, as winter weather reports swirled throughout much of the East Coast, Annkatrin Rose updated her Plants Map page with a sure sign of spring.
“This year’s first seedling is working its way out of its dead coat on my windowsill,” she wrote next to a close-up photo showing an embryonic plant creeping up from its seed covering. “It reminds me a bit of a baby chick still wet with yolk trying to shake off its egg shell.”
Poetic, well-photographed posts like this draw you in to Rose’s profile, but spend some time sifting through the plant pages and collections she’s posted, and you’ll quickly find a treasure trove of detailed information about her work growing native plants from seed on her property in Boone, N.C.
Professional knowledge feeds passion for plants
Rose is an associate professor of plant biology at Appalachian State University. She moved to North Carolina from her native Germany, and bought her first digital camera shortly thereafter.
Being in a world full of plants that were new to her and having a new way to document them soon yielded a new passion for Rose. She began photographing wildflowers to try to identify them, then began leading wildflower hikes in the area. From there, she became involved as a board member for the Daniel Boone Native Gardens, a 3-acre nonprofit native plant garden in Boone.
The next logical step was to begin planting in earnest in her own yard. This year she is working toward a goal of growing 100 native plant species in her gardens.
Rose gardens not just for the beauty of the plants themselves, but for the beauty of the bigger picture—the ecosystem that develops around them.
She rejoices in finding little snakes on her property, birds nesting and caterpillars chewing holes in the leaves on her plants, because that’s a big part of the role plants play—they are habitat.
“I am a biologist,” she says. “I like to sit in the backyard and watch the wildlife.”
Starting from seed
Because she wants her plants to be friendly to bugs, birds and critters, Rose prefers to start from seed, so that she can be sure no pesticides have touched her plants.
But germinating the seeds of native plants often isn’t as simple as tucking them into starter pellets and turning on a grow light. Many native plants have adapted built-in dormancy mechanisms that protect them from sprouting before conditions are right.
To break this dormancy, gardeners must use a process called “stratification”—placing seeds in a cool, moist environment—to signal to the seeds that it’s show time.
While stratification can be done in seed starter pellets using a regular refrigerator, Rose quickly filled up her spare basement fridge, and started placing seeds in flat zip-top bags between moist paper towels to save space.
Many of the plants on her Plants Map profile include detailed notes about how she started her seeds, including specific dates when she started certain steps.
And as with any scientific process, some methods worked and others did not.
“I’m a scientist by training, so any type of experimentation, that’s what I do,” Rose said. “I have fun trying it out and seeing what works.”
For spring 2016, she is working with a few new varieties of seeds that present a particular challenge.
“I can’t find any instructions on how to grow them,” she said, betraying much more excitement than exasperation with that prospect.
Very hungry caterpillars
Rose planted milkweed in her yard in spring 2015. In July, she brought home some Monarch caterpillars she had used for a children’s program at the Daniel Boone Native Garden, and they fed on the plants, became butterflies and migrated on.
Then, one day in September, she found a new crew of Monarch caterpillars happily munching on the milkweed. “I was really surprised!” she said.
She registered her yard as a Monarch Way Station with Monarch Watch, and in 2015 she tagged 15 butterflies, after bringing many of them into butterfly cages to protect them from predators in her yard.
Many of her gardening methods at home are focused on creating habitat for pollinators like butterflies. For example, she has planted her lawn with clover to attract bees, and many areas of her yard she either mows rarely or not at all to make them more welcome to birds and bugs.
Using Plants Map helps her tell her stories
As a scientist, Rose naturally keeps detailed information on everything she does in the garden, but when she discovered Plants Map, she realized a new potential to truly tell the stories of the plants in her world.
Her plant profiles include all kinds of details, like how she found the seeds, why she chose certain plants, what difficulties she had in getting them to grow and what kinds of wildlife they attract.
“I’ve been keeping excellent spreadsheets, but that’s not suitable for pictures,” she said. “I’ve been using Plants Map to organize and add some photographs. The idea is for each of these plants, to have photographs at different stages—seedling, immature, flowering—so that whenever I go out gardening, I know what plants look like at different stages of their life, so I know what’s a weed and what to keep.”
“We’d been talking about ways to deal better with our plant inventory,” she said. Larger database systems were far to expensive for the nonprofit garden’s budget. “Since Plants Map was free and online, we decided to give it a try.”
The garden has started to implement Plants Map interactive plant signs and tags, and Rose hopes to recruit Appalachian State University students this spring to help further populate the plant profile pages and install more tags.