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Ambler, Pa., resident Mark Eberle reaches out to pick some berries off of one of his American Service Berry bushes. Eberle and Dan Caprioli, his friend and fellow biologist, have slowly been converting their gardens from traditional lawn and exotic plants to native varieties that attract pollinators and help other wildlife. (Michael Bryant/Philidelphia Inquirer/MCT)

This garden belonging to Ambler, Pa., resident Mark Eberle features jewelweed, bottom right, as a ground cover. Eberle and Dan Caprioli, his friend and fellow biologist, have slowly been converting their gardens from traditional lawn and exotic plants to native varieties that attract pollinators and help other wildlife. (Michael Bryant/Philidelphia Inquirer/MCT)

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Spread the green with American plants

Friday, July 25, 2014 - Updated: 6:40 AM

By VIRGINIA A. SMITH

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Mark Eberle and Dan Caprioli are friends and fellow biologists with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

They're also major gardeners. Eberle and his wife, Heather Jones, a scientist with a pharmaceutical company, have a half-acre in Ambler, Pa.; Caprioli and his wife Griselle, a microbiologist, have the same in Harleysville, Pa.

But here's the most important bond they share:

With enviable discipline, both men are systematically converting more of their conventional lawns to native plants, replacing Japanese barberry with wild hydrangea and allowing jewelweed and pokeweed, more at home in roadside ditches than suburban yards, to thrive.

"Go, Team Native! Buy American plants!" jokes Eberle, 44, who was turned on to the natural world during a college summer internship with the National Wildlife Federation in Asheville, N.C.

This is actually serious business to Eberle and Caprioli, who -- like the scientists they are -- are promoting their native-plant beliefs by explanation and example, educating one neighbor, relative and coworker at a time.

"My neighbors are always asking, 'What's that in your yard?'" Eberle says, "and I'm happy to tell them."

Gardeners are not known for their rigorous planning and precise execution. Sounds great, doesn't it? So do small portions and getting plenty of exercise.

Really, who consistently thinks about right plant, right place, soil composition, sun vs. shade, how big the thing will eventually get, and what its ecological impact will be?

These guys.

Five years ago, Eberle and his wife moved to their 1950s subdivision, where the prevailing landscape consisted of everything from someplace else: English ivy, Norway maple, Japanese pachysandra, Chinese saucer magnolia and burning bush.

Eberle's native replacements offer nourishment and nesting space for our indigenous, and rapidly disappearing, birds, butterflies, and insects. Historically adapted to conditions in this part of the world, they nonetheless remain less familiar to gardeners and stubbornly underused in the landscape.

A partial list: winterberry, spicebush, foamflower, Joe Pye weed, sweet pepperbush, wood poppy, Carolina allspice, serviceberry, and Virginia sweetspire.

Among Eberle's favorites are the clove-scented spicebush, an important host plant for the spicebush swallowtail and the Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, and serviceberry, whose small red-purple berries are prized by birds -- and humans.

Eberle puts serviceberries on his cereal and bakes them into muffins. They taste like complicated blueberries, hinting of blackberry and grape.

At this time of year, Eberle's landscape is an elegant understatement of white blossoms and green foliage, which seems to bolster the notion that natives aren't colorful.

They can be. Eberle also has purple blazing star and coneflower, pink milkweed, red bee balm, and magenta garden phlox.

All this may sound like a half-acre mash-up. Not at all.

Eberle is nothing if not thoughtful. Case in point: His may be the only yard in America without a single tomato plant.

"Last year, my tomatoes got the blight," he explains, "so I'm taking a break."

Experts recommend giving the blighted bed a rest, meaning either plant your tomatoes in a different spot the next year or skip them for a summer.

And so he is.

Dan Caprioli discovered native landscapes as a biology major at Mansfield University and then, like Eberle, on the job. Even earlier, though, he gravitated to growing.

As a kid visiting relatives in the Pocono Mountains, he marveled at the terraced gardens of his Italian great-uncle, Louie. And at 16, having come upon Square Foot Gardening, Mel Bartholomew's intensive planting guide, at the library, Caprioli persuaded his parents to give him a 36-square-foot vegetable plot behind their Souderton rowhouse.

"I never liked vegetables growing up," he recalls, "but when you grow your own, they taste great."

Now this sophisticated gardener has two 20-by-20-foot raised beds behind the house he shares with his wife and 18-month-old son, Leo. (No. 2 is on the way.)

The beds overflow with Roma tomatoes, asparagus, beans, and peppers. Caprioli, 50, cultivates many fruits, too, among them peaches, apples, currants, pawpaws, grapes, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and elderberries.

He makes many kinds of wine, grows from seed, and propagates plants to fill out his landscape or share with friends like Eberle, who responds with gifts of his own.

Native milkweed, bee balm, and coneflower bring a parade of birds and butterflies, including endangered monarchs, to the property, proof that one need not have major acreage to create a vibrant wildlife habitat.

     

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