Ithaca’s Designing with Native Plants Symposium

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by Daniel Segal

In less than a month (March 5th and 6th), Ithaca will host its second annual Designing with Native Plants Symposium at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The event was founded and is run by Rick Manning, ASLA, and Daniel Segal of The Plantsmen Nursery.  The symposium focuses on core issues of sustainability in landscaping at all stages, from landscape design to planting, and the fundamental role of native plants in this field.  See ‘About the Symposium’ below for details about content for each day.

Some Background
Traditionally, the primary goal of horticulture has been aesthetics in the broadest sense.  Gardens were made to please us and be pretty.  Gradually, as we have learned more about ecology and the intricate relationships that link all organisms in nature, a movement has grown around the idea that gardens can offer habitat and refuge to plants and wildlife alike.  The most significant aspects of this movement are that we begin to adjust our gardening techniques to maximize ecological benefit and minimize environmental impact, and that we work with native species, with their well being in mind.  While those may seem like common sense ideas, think of the Gardens at Versailles or other traditional approaches to horticulture—they may be impressive, but they don’t often relate back to nature.  And for today’s modern landscapes especially, we can evaluate them for their dependence on costly, resource-based maintenance (mowing, spraying, irrigation, dependence on synthetic fertilizers, etc.).

State of the Industry
Mainstream horticulture today, like most industries, has followed the path of marketing and mass production.  Casualties of this model include the almost total loss of genetic diversity, and the consolidation of plant production which eliminates many small nurseries that just can’t compete with the tactics, labor strategies, budgets and marketing blitzes of large corporations.  The model rewards the marketing company who brands a product line of plants, and the larger garden centers who fall in line with them, but punishes the independent small-scale local grower.

About the Symposium
The initial success of the Ithaca’s Designing with Native Plants Symposium directly reflects the interest in alternatives to horticulture’s current marketing/mass production model.  The symposium sold out in its first year (110 plus a waiting list). This year we begin a two-day format: Friday March 5th is geared more towards professionals in the industry (designers, architects, contractors, engineers, or the more advanced gardener), and Saturday March 6th is geared more towards homeowners, beginning professionals, and anyone with an interest in native plants or sustainable landscaping.

Most speakers are local and are professionals in fields including horticulture, ecology, stormwater management, climate change and its effect on plants, using native plants to support native birds, erosion control, green roofs, and progressive landscaping techniques for small-scale implementation.  Other presenters are coming from New Jersey and southeast Pennsylvania, areas where larger populations have spawned a greater interest in natural landscaping techniques for the purpose of mitigating and minimizing impacts of development.  The symposium can register 100-105 people for each day.  At press time, approximately 90 people are registered (each day is almost half full).  It is expected to sell out.

The symposium is a non-profit fundraiser for the Cayuga Waterfront Trail Initiative (CWTI).  This project is an attempt to link certain existing but unconnected green and public spaces along the south end of Cayuga Lake.  Some particular facets of the trail project that relate to the Native Plants Symposium are the Bird Garden and kiosk at Cass Park, efforts to reduce mowing and encourage meadow habitats along various parts of the trail, and possible long term goals toward ecological management of Stewart Park and the waterfront.

For information and registration link, visit the Cayuga Waterfront Trail website at

Daniel Segal is the owner of The Plantsmen Nursery ( and co-organizer of Ithaca’s Designing with Native Plants Symposium.

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