Mt Cuba Center
Mt Cuba Center
Back to News Updates – September 21, 2018


From Student to Steward: Summersweet Natives

Joseph Russell, founder of Summersweet Native Plants LLC in Mays Landing, NJ.

Mt. Cuba Center’s students go on to do amazing things. Take Joseph Russell, Ecological Gardening Certificate student, who founded Summersweet Native Plants, a native plant nursery located in Mays Landing, NJ. Inspired by the beauty and diversity of native plants, he uses native plants to create a sense of place. Here, he answers five questions about gardening with native plants, and what inspires him. You can learn more about Summersweet Native Plants by visiting their website, here:

Question 1: What inspired you to take a class at Mt. Cuba Center, and which class did you take?

Joseph Russell: After visiting Mt. Cuba Center several times and reading about the Ecological Gardening Certificate Program, I decided to enroll in the program and began taking courses. I have taken Plant Propagation and Ecological Landscape Design. I still have a lot of classes to take to complete the program, but I am looking forward to each and every one! I’ve also taken a Rain Garden class, which was not a part of the certificate program.


Question 2: What was your biggest takeaway from the course?

JR: I have had hands-on plant propagation experience in a previous internship, so the Plant Propagation course built upon experience that I had and was a good reminder of things I may have forgotten. I think it is a great class for people who have no experience in plant propagation, but it is also helpful for people who do have a little experience but want a refresher course.

I learned so much in the Ecological Landscape Design class that I’m not sure where to even begin! Jenna Webster from Larry Weaner Associates is a wonderful mentor with a wealth of knowledge. My education and previous work experience is in ecology and natural resources, but I had no formal education in any form of design, so I expected to get the most from the design aspect of the course. However, I still learned a lot about plant ecology and communities, and I now have better grasp of how plant groupings interact with each other in the landscape, the different niches they fill, and how to use this knowledge to create cohesive plantings that provide a sense of place.

Question 3: What do you love about native plants? Do you have a favorite?

JR: I think that one of my favorite things about native plants is that they really create a sense of place. This is something Jenna talked a lot about in the Ecological Landscape Design class. If we were to all garden with the same few, non-native plants, not only would there be little benefit to local wildlife, we would be left with a completely uniform looking landscape across the country. Imagine if you were blindfolded and then removed the blindfold in a random suburban neighborhood. Would you know if you were in the coastal plain of south Jersey or the piedmont of northern Delaware? When we use plants that are native to our particular ecoregion in our home landscapes, it helps to not only maintain the natural aesthetic of our properties, offering a small glimpse back at what it may have looked like before colonial influence, but it also maintains the habitat that our local wildlife need to thrive. As more and more people garden with native plants, our yards can really serve as crucial habitat connectors; providing milkweed for monarch butterflies as they migrate, is one such example.

I have many favorite native plants, but I seem to have an affinity to some of the long-lived plants that take many years to mature to a flowering age, like Turks cap lily (Lilium superbum) or blue false indigo (Baptisia australis). From the standpoint of a grower, you really get to spend a few years with the plant before it is ready to be sold and planted in someone’s yard! At the same time, the time invested in growing the long-lived plants also allows you to appreciate the plants that germinate and are ready to go, like black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)! The different roles of the quick-establishing, shorter lived plants and the slow-to-establish, longer lived plants are equally important in both garden landscapes and natural landscapes.

Lilium superbum, or Turk’s cap lily, on the Woods Path.

Question 4: What inspired you to start Summersweet Native Plants?

JR: My inspiration to start Summersweet Native plants stems from my love of gardening with native plants, but in a few ways. As a new homeowner several years ago, we began gardening the way many people do, by running to Home Depot and grabbing what was available. Once I started becoming interested in native plants, I quickly realized that it was hard to find them in retail locations in southern New Jersey. By establishing Summersweet Native Plants as a retail nursery, I hope to change the limited availability for the home gardener.

(Read more about Mt. Cuba Center’s research about native plant availability at local nurseries here.)

Question 5: Can you tell me about a native plant you recommend for a beginning gardener, and why?

JR: This is a tough question! I feel like the best answer is also not the most helpful…  My best answer would be, “The plant that is best suited for the conditions of the planting site.” No matter what type of garden or habitat conditions you have in your yard, I guarantee that there is a native plant that will do well there, it just takes a little bit of effort getting to learn the site and the conditions, and then researching to find plants that grow in those conditions. Another possibility is to look for native plants growing in natural areas with similar environmental conditions. If you are having trouble or don’t know where to start looking, Mt. Cuba Center’s website has a lot of valuable plant information, visit your local native plant nursery and ask questions, or come see us at Summersweet Native Plants in South Jersey!


Thanks, Joe!