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Mt Cuba Center
Back to News Updates – July 2, 2021


Let’s Learn About Native Annuals

Gardening with native plants is what Mt. Cuba is all about – and we can’t forget about native annuals! Explore the value of underappreciated native annuals in a new online course, Native Annuals: An Underutilized Resource. Not sure where to begin? Join instructor Ethan Dropkin as he presents the life cycle and environmental functions of native annuals. Then learn which ones to add to your landscape and enjoy their beauty in your garden while providing ecological value and sustaining local wildlife.

Read below to learn more about Ethan Dropkin and his experience as a professional landscaper at Larry Weaner Landscape Associates (including his favorite native plant!). Then explore the world of native plants on Wednesday, July 14 from 7-8:30 pm.

Ethan Dropkin has a Master’s in Landscape Architecture and a Masters of Professional Studies in Horticulture, both from Cornell University. He worked for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates before joining Larry Weaner Landscape Associates in 2016, where he has worked on a number of landscape designs, plant lists, and seed mixes on projects in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Michigan and at RBG Kew – Wakehurst in the United Kingdom.  

Mt. Cuba Center: You hold a Master’s in Landscape Architecture and Professional Studies in Horticulture from Cornell. Can you tell us about your professional background and when your passion for landscape architecture began?

Ethan Dropkin: As a kid I was really into dinosaurs and animals, and I grew up in a relatively rural part of New York State and spent a lot of time in the woods. I got a book called “Small Pets from Woods and Fields” by Margaret Warning Buck from the library, which was about making terraria for small animals (among other things) and there was a section about plants you could use from outside in terrarium construction. This little section got me thinking that plants and animals are interconnected and that if I was so interested in animals, it might be worth my time learning more about the plants that support them. This opened the door to learning about wild edibles and medicinal uses, which led to me getting into the world of native plants. I was self-taught for years and while I took a few horticulture and botany classes in college, I tried to keep plants more as a hobby. That said after I graduated, I got a job as a gardener with the NYC Parks Department and got to do some design work and planting selection for the parks and gardens I worked in. I eventually decided that I really liked the design piece of the work, and I didn’t want to be the one digging the holes for the plants when I was old and grey. So, I applied to landscape architecture programs and eventually picked Cornell. Post grad-school I worked for Michael Van Valkenburg Associates as a designer for about three years before starting at Larry Weaner Landscape Associates where I am today.

Mt. Cuba Center: That’s quite a path to landscape architecture. Can you share your favorite landscape project/design or a project that you are particularly proud of? What makes you proud of it?

Ethan Dropkin: I don’t get to do a lot of green roof design, but I have gotten to do a few, and I love the challenges and opportunities that green roofs offer. One of my favorite projects I was able to work on was Kingsland Wildflowers in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This is a native wildflower meadow on a green roof in one of the most industrialized sections of New York City. As part of the LWLA team that worked on the project I got to help shape the initial plant list, layout, and seed mixes. LWLA does not get mentioned very often as a design partner in all the press this project has received, but nevertheless it was a great project to work on and one I am very proud of.

Mt. Cuba Center: In this course, you focus on native annuals. Why do you think they are an underutilized resource?

Ethan Dropkin: I think one of the reasons native annuals and other short-lived native plants are under-utilized is that they are not that well-known in horticulture. Also, since they are not well-known people don’t always know how best to use them in the landscape and so they may eschew their use in situations where they might be very efficacious.

Mt. Cuba Center: What aspects of this course can benefit both the home gardener and the professional horticulturist?

Ethan Dropkin: Native annuals can be applied in a wide range of landscape conditions: green mulch, meadow cover crop, cutting gardens, green roof overseeding, etc. Whatever level of landscaping you do from casual gardener to seasoned professional there is a place for native annuals in your garden or landscape.

Mt. Cuba Center: We love native plants here at Mt. Cuba. What native plant is your favorite and why?

Ethan Dropkin: A favorite native plant, that’s really tough! If pressed I think I’d have to go with Hypericum prolificum – shrubby St. Johns-wort (and the other native woody Hypericum species: H. kalmianum, H. frondosum, etc.). They are deer-resistant, have very flexible sun/shade regimes, are not particular about soil-type, bloom prolifically, are great for pollinators, can have glaucous foliage, have excellent fall color, are drought tolerant, etc., etc., etc. I may use these plants too frequently in my designs, but they haven’t let me down yet. Also, while they are somewhat more popular in the trade than they once were, they’re still a plant that not everyone knows about, which I like too.

If I had to pick a favorite short-lived plant, I’d have to say Nuttallanthus canadensis – common toadflax is up there. It’s a biennial that almost looks like a sedum in its first-year basal rosette form. The flowers are showy but fairly diminutive, however in a big swathe it can be breath taking.


Native Annuals: An Underutilized Resource (Online)
Wednesday, July 14 from 7-8:30 pm.

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