Native plants for a living landscape

  • Native plants add beauty while supporting ecosystems. A row of wild senna and woodland sunflowers brightens an area at Checkerspot Farm in Colrain, where gardeners may choose from about 40 varieties of native plants. PHOTO BY JOCELYN DEMUTH

  • A monarch caterpillar rests on a milkweed leaf at Checkerspot Farm in Colrain, where native plants are sold to those interested in nurturing habitat gardens. PHOTO BY JOCELYN DEMUTH

  • Checkerspot Farm in Colrain offers native plants to help locals establish or expand habitat gardens. PHOTO BY JOCELYN DEMUTH

  • Christopher Laroche and Jocelyn Demuth operate a native plant nursery at Checkerspot Farm in Colrain to help locals plant and maintain habitat gardens. PHOTO BY JOCELYN DEMUTH

  • A fritillary rests on a milkweed blossom at Checkerspot Farm in Colrain. In Latin, 'fritillus' means chessboard. Native plant nursery proprietor Jocelyn Demuth taught Latin for 30 years before devoting her time to fostering habitat gardens. PHOTO BY JOCELYN DEMUTH

For the Recorder
Published: 9/12/2022 4:40:08 PM

For Jocelyn Demuth, bidding farewell to a dear friend led indirectly to an unexpected passion for native plants.

At the time, Demuth and her husband, Christopher Laroche, lived in Chelmsford. Upon the death of Lady Jane Grey, their 21-year-old cat, they honored the feline with a small grave, and Laroche memorialized their furry friend by planting pussytoes (Antennaria), a silvery stemmed plant with a flower resembling a cat’s foot.

“For most of my life, I haven’t been a good gardener,” said Demuth. “I’ve been known to throw plants into poor soil, and then get interested in other things and simply ignore the plants. When the neglected plants died, my response was: oh well, too bad. I had just never really been interested in gardening!”

That changed for Demuth after she noticed the pussytoes attracting new visitors, including a butterfly she’d never seen, an American Lady, whose caterpillars feed on pussytoes.

After her husband added other native plants to the grave area – including violets, cardinal flowers, coneflowers and partridge peas – Demuth was astonished to see even more butterflies, as well as birds. “Before that, I’d kind of dismissed native plants. I thought they weren’t very pretty,” she said. “But after just a few went in, the transformation was amazing.”

Demuth found herself deeply drawn to watching birds and butterflies, and felt inspired to plant seeds produced by the new plantings. Her curiosity was piqued, and she’s never looked back.

Now Demuth and Laroche have opened a native plant nursery at 30 Jacksonville Road in Colrain, with about 3,000 plants of 40 varieties. Open Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as well as by appointment, Checkerspot Farm is a resource for people who wish to learn about addressing the plight of birds, butterflies and other pollinators.

“People want to help ease environmental crises but often don’t know how,” said Demuth. “Each person can make a difference by nurturing native plants, and we don’t need a lot of space to do it.” Native plants can be difficult to find, however, and many sold at commercial garden centers are mislabeled, cautioned Demuth. “That’s why we started our business,” said the retired Latin teacher. “We want to help people get it right.”

Demuth and Laroche escaped to the Berkshires in the early days of the COVID pandemic. They rented a cabin and decided to check out real estate options. “We were just looking and dreaming,” she said. “We found land in Colrain that had been part of the Brigham Farm, which had been a working dairy and producer of show draft horses.” Much of the Brigham land had already been sold, but the couple purchased a remaining parcel.

Demuth and Laroche dubbed their new home Checkerspot Farm in honor of a rare butterfly they hope will someday visit in search of its favorite food. “We haven’t seen one yet,” said Demuth, “but we’re hopeful because we’ve planted turtleheads, a flowering plant that’s the main food for the Checkerspot. Turtlehead flowers are pretty but the plant is generally not sold commercially, so it’s largely disappeared from the landscape. And with it, unfortunately, the butterfly is also disappearing.”

In learning about the relationship between Checkerspot butterflies and turtlehead plants, Demuth realized that mowing what most people would consider weeds can contribute to endangering or eliminating entire species.

In addition to growing plants to sell, Demuth and Laroche maintain a habitat garden at Checkerspot Farm. “We use the term habitat garden instead of pollinator garden,” said Demuth, “because pollinators are just a small part of the habitat that must be restored to stem mass extinction of insects and the many kinds of life that rely on them. Pollinators cannot be isolated from their habitat.”

Their habitat garden consists of about 300 native plants Demuth put in the ground last fall. “I used overstock from our business, specimens that were still perfectly viable but that we couldn’t sell due to broken stems, or plants that wouldn’t survive another winter in a small pot.”

Demuth and Laroche feel that native plants add a new level of interest to your garden by attracting beautiful winged visitors. “Also, once the plants are established, they’re easier to maintain than imports,” said Demuth. “They require less water, can thrive in poor soil, and actually do better when neglected rather than pampered.”

Those wishing to give native plants a try can start with ones like cardinal flower, pussytoes and bottlebrush grass. “Besides feeding wildlife,” Demuth noted, “they look kind of exotic.”

A deeper reason to choose native plants, according to Demuth, is that “we‘re living in an insect apocalypse. Insect populations have decreased by as much as 80% in some areas. We must take immediate action to address such species loss in order to prevent additional extinctions further up the food chain.”

Life cycles of most insects are tied to a family of plants or even just one species. “Native plants in our yards, gardens, and fields have been replaced with exotic imports that don’t support insect populations,” said Demuth. She pointed to rampant pesticide use as another factor.

“All songbirds feed caterpillars to their babies,” she said. “Caterpillars have the right nutritional balance and are soft enough to be shoved into the mouths of tiny birds. So if there aren’t sufficient native plants – meaning not enough food for caterpillars – that’s going to impact baby birds.”

Demuth directs questions to people of a certain age who likely recall a more buggy era: “When was the last time you saw a cloud of moths or insects around an outdoor light? Remember when we used to have to scrape “bug guts” off our windshields after a long car trip? When’s the last time you had to do that?”

Those who consider insects a nuisance may think fewer bugs is a good thing, but Demuth notes a sobering consequence: “In recent years, hundreds of thousands of songbirds have fallen out of the sky in western parts of the U.S., and postmortems indicate that they perished from starvation.”

The good news is that ordinary people can address alarming trends by choosing not to use pesticides and by growing native plants. “I can’t do anything directly about starving polar bears, or rhinos being poached to near-extinction,” said Demuth. “But I can help rebuild my local ecosystems.” Seemingly small acts of conservation make a difference, she said. “Look, it’s serious. Insects are the foundation of our environment, and our foundation is crumbling fast. Let’s become part of the solution. Plant a native. Save the planet.”

For more information about how Demuth and Laroche became native plant growers, lists of their stock, and vignettes of their process, visit their website: www.checkerspotfarm.com. Demuth may be reached at 978-944-0108 or magistrademuth@gmail.com.

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an artist, gardener, musician and mom. She welcomes comments from readers: eveline@amandlachorus.org.


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