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Snakeroot, doll’s eye, green dragon — despite their quaint names, these aren’t ingredients in some witchy potion. They are native Charlottesville wildflowers, and among the plants residents can get paid to grow.
In January, the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District partnered with four neighboring districts to launch the Conservation Assistance Program. The program offers anyone who wants to convert a turf lawn into a native plant meadow or garden to apply for a grant.
“People are excited by the idea of planting native plants, increasing local wildlife and biodiversity, and decreasing stormwater impacts,” said Nicola McGoff, the district’s outreach and education coordinator who helped to found the program.
Some of those most excited are children. All of the plants in the Wildlife Garden at Charlottesville’s Clark Elementary School were purchased with a Conservation Assistance grant.
“[The garden] helps the kids learn not only the importance of native plants, but the ongoing lifecycles of pollinators,” said Mary Craig, the school’s librarian. “The whole community has been involved.”
Craig organized the effort as a project-based learning activity for second-graders. With the help of botanical artist Lara Gastinger, each students chose, researched and sketched a native plant.
Next, the children exchanged their pencils for garden spades. Under the direction of Eiley Patterson, volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit City Schoolyard Gardens, they turned a corner of the schoolyard into a lush home for salamanders, snakes and small mammals.
“At the end, we had a garden party,” Craig said. “Each student introduced their native plant to a younger child.”
In addition to the one at Clark, the conservation district is helping to fund native plant gardens at the city’s Jackson-Via Elementary School and at Nelson County High School .
But the cost-share program is not exclusively for school gardens.
When Ned Ormsby heard about the program, he decided to use it to install a rain garden in his yard.
“My property is directly on a creek,” said Ormsby, who lives on Druid Avenue. “The water off my roof used to drain into a spout that let out in the creek. The rain garden will hold and slowly release the water into the aquifer.”
As a project manager for Lithic Construction, Ormsby said he occasionally has the opportunity to salvage native plants — dogwoods, mountain laurels and serviceberries — from building sites . “They are part of the garden,” he said.
But even with salvaged plants, the cost of a rain garden is considerable. “[The grant] really was critical,” Ormsby said. “It was a 75 percent cost share.”
According to district manager Alyson Sappington, the idea of providing landowners with a financial incentive to become better stewards is not new.
“For almost 30 years, [conservation districts] have administered a very successful cost-share program to help farmers address non-point source pollution problems,” Sappington said. “As land use has shifted, developed areas contribute an increased share of water pollution problems.”
Native plants may be part of the solution. They often have deep roots, which filter runoff. And if they replace turf lawns, they reduce the need for water-polluting activities such as mowing and fertilizing.
“Our hope is that the success of this program will help initiate a statewide program,” Sappington said.
Meanwhile, another program is helping to grow Charlottesville’s native tree population. This spring, the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards issued “tree vouchers” to 149 city residents with properties of half an acre or less.
Recipients redeemed the $25 vouchers at participating nurseries, where they were encouraged to choose trees indigenous to Virginia.
“A lot of people live in housing developments with small lots, and trees that come down in snowstorms and derechos need to be replaced,” said Jacki Vawter, the CATS member who spearheaded the tree voucher program.
“The five cooperating garden centers suggested small native understory trees like dogwoods, redbuds and serviceberries,” Vawter said. “It was an opportunity for us to get the word out about native trees and improve our urban forest canopy.”
The program also required applicants to call Miss Utility before digging, know the mature size of the tree they hoped to plant and to water it appropriately during its first year of growth.
Vawter said she is gratified by the effort’s success. “It’s good for homeowners, for garden centers and for the citizens of the future,” she said.