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The Civic Garden Center is changing the meaning of horticulture

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Thanks to ornamental horticulture, some plants that should be considered invasive are still legally bought and sold all over Cincinnati. English Ivy is one of these plants.

The vast majority of horticulturists in Ohio spend most of their time carefully pruning Filipendula ulmaria and Fagus sylvatica in their respective nurseries. On the other hand, Greg Torres, a horticulturist for the Civic Garden Center, spends much of his days in the middle of Cincinnati's forests, destroying plants. Torres isn't like most horticulturists, and he doesn't want to be either. "Sometimes I regret carrying the title," he admits, and for good reason. Torres is actively undoing much of the harsh work ornamental horticulturists have brought to our local forests.

There are over 40 invasive species in Ohio, many of which are currently busy taking nutrients from our native maples, oaks and beech trees. Thanks to ornamental horticulture, some plants that should be considered invasive are still legally bought and sold all over Cincinnati. English Ivy is one of these plants.

While English Ivy's habit of crawling along our porches and covering our tree lawns might look beautiful, it's deceptively dangerous. English Ivy has shallow roots that allow it to slowly creep into our wooded areas and imperialize our much-needed ecosystem. The small red berries it produces are eaten by birds who later poop out the seeds and spread growth.

"This is what happens: whether it's in the cemetery or in somebody's backyard, either way, it was purchased at a nursery, it's been growing," said Torres. "They then have these planted in people's backyards, for example, and maybe your backyard is right next to a forest, well, you might be a great gardener. And for 50 years, you're taking care of the Ivy and making sure it doesn't go into the forest. Or maybe you're a bad gardener. And once you plant it in the backyard, you never think about it again and it actually is creeping into the forest without you even knowing."

Once you notice English Ivy, you'll see it everywhere, and the damage is apparent. English Ivy forms a ground cover on the forest floor, sucking up sunlight and water that would otherwise germinate new plant life. Large plants aren't safe from Ivy, either. The pointy roots will penetrate the trunk of young trees making large holes that leave the tree susceptible to bacterial or fungal infection. When English Ivy climb trees, it forces the original leaves to fight for sunlight. Most trees lose this battle, creating a chain reaction that occurs through the winter: the original tree loses its leaves; the English Ivy remains through the winter and the Ivy catches snow and wind, which tumble trees to the ground, according to Torres. "It's terrible," he said.

As Torres described, without the work of "ecological" horticulturists, Ohio's invasive species could completely take over local forests. In some areas, it already has. Areas flooded with English Ivy have are known to environmentalists as Ivy deserts, and they could be a reality without dedication to invasive species removal.

The best way to get that work going, according to Civic Garden Center’s volunteer coordinator, Sam Settlemyre, is drawing in volunteers to get outside and help. "One, we want to introduce them to [the outdoors] and get them excited about it. But then, we want them to take trees home and do things that get them to further engage with us," Settlemyre said.

Having a robust volunteer group benefits both the Civic Garden Center and the local community.

"We rely almost exclusively on volunteers to do this work," he said. "So in order to provide a good volunteer experience for everybody, there's a lot of planning that needs to happen that make sure that however many people show up, we have enough tools, we have a plan for how to attack the day, that we have other kind of amenities like food and snacks, just the basic stuff. Even though it seems really overrated, it goes a long way to making sure people come back. And when people come back, they start to build up that knowledge base. And then we can start to actually get a lot done."

The more volunteers work, the more they can make a difference in the local forests, and volunteers benefit from that experience.

"It's a meaningful experience, people [volunteers] learn a lot and get captivated very easily by doing this kind of work," said Settlemyre.

Volunteering is more than just offering your time for one afternoon. It's a complete lifestyle change that will impact the health of our forests. When people commit to getting their hands dirty doing volunteer work, they better understand our environment and how to make a meaningful impact. Without hands-on experience, amateur environmentalists are subject to doing work that has reserve effects. Jumping worms are a prime example of these failed attempts, according to Torres.

Jumping worms can easily be ordered off the internet and used to break down compost. While they're excellent at breaking down organic material used for compost, those same skills damage forests when the worms inevitably travel to our green spaces.

"From there, they invade forests slowly over time, and they consume a lot of leaf litter and break it down," said Torres. "By breaking down leaf flitter so fast, they're reducing the organic material in the soil, they are consuming the leaves, which would have been eaten by other organisms in the forest. They're reducing the topsoil in the forest. And overall, drying up the soils of the forest, which harms the tree. There is a huge cascade of consequences just by introducing one organism into a new environment."

Having real experiences with nature encourages people to make educated decisions before turning towards the newest environmental fad. It teaches people to connect with interesting plants that already exist in our ecosystems instead of ones that are invasive.

"Yeah, to connect it to them like and that's the trick," said Torres. "That's the like that's the magic honestly, finding a plant and connecting it back to you. Like why did why do I care about this? This tree right here is sugar maple. [People think] ‘who cares,’ right? But like, if you like maple syrup on your pancakes and there's no other taste like it in the world, you're going to want to keep that tree. [You have to] connect it back to that person. That's why I use senses a lot. Smell this, taste this, rub this on your skin kind of thing. Because those things stick deep in your brain, it's visceral."

Features Editor

Katy McAfee has been with The News Record since 2020 as a staff reporter and now as the features editor.