Is the Extra Effort Worth It?
The effort to base ecological restoration efforts on Natural Community data appears to have substantial benefits.
How plant selection is commonly done in restoration efforts
The approaches used today are informed by substantial experience. A common method would be for a restoration manager to consult with one of several curated native plant lists that are available. These lists suggest plants known to do well in the region and provide the water, light, and soil requirements needed by each species. As an example, Simmons and Zell published a thoughtful and comprehensive guide in 2010 (See Appendix 1). The Simmons and Zell list contains 112 plants, all local to the area, and each categorized by where it is found in the landscape and the moisture requirements.
Plant NOVA Natives has also created high quality information regularly used across ARMN for similar purposes and other lists are also available.
The restoration manager's task, in conjunction with experts from Earth Sangha, Arlington County, or Alexandria City, is to match the characteristics of the location needing new plants with the light, moisture, soil and other requirements of the potential plants to create a list of plants that where the mantra of “right plant, right spot” is fulfilled.
This approach has several strengths, including that it leverages the insights of many experts who have contributed to the plant lists over time, it is based on local conditions and plant surveys, and it is relatively simple conceptually. Simmons and Zell pointed out the need to blend new plants with the existing plants on site, pointing to the need to better match to the natural community already nearby.
Altogether, a reasonable and practical approach. Until one considers the alternative of using the Natural Community research as guidance.
Natural Community Data Likely Results in Better Planting Results.
Identifying a Natural Community in the field, particularly in a highly degraded or altered setting, is difficult. Using more traditional methods of selecting plants is quicker in the beginning. At an early stage of this research, an assessment was done to consider the benefits of going to the extra work up front. That research considered two potential benefits-- avoiding planting a species in a Natural Community in which it is not found (Type 1); and including species which would not normally be considered to add to a Community (Type 2). Using an actual Arlington County Park as a case study, the research found that roughly half of the species from traditional approaches would not be optimal to add (Type 1) and roughly half of the species that should have been considered for the Natural Community would be missed (Type 2). The magnitude of the Type 1 and Type 2 improvements was what has provided ongoing motivation to pursue this research.
The following document explains the research that was conducted and is available for download and discussion.
 Rod Simmons and Greg Zell, KEEPING IT NATURAL! A Local Guide to the Use of Native Plants For Natural Land Restorations and Post-disturbance Project Plantings Within Natural Woodland Sites, Riparian Buffers, and Forest-edges in Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, Virginia, 2010.