Garden InvitationApril 12, 2021
Your yard is a garden no matter the size. Whether you have a balcony with potted plants, a half acre or a few, outside of your home is an oasis that can afford you and local wildlife rejuvenation. A garden can be formal with emphasis on greenery, modern with an emphasis on hardscapes, or informal nodding to wild spaces. One thing is for certain, prior to human disturbance specific plants, insects, birds and mammals evolved to live there. Won’t you consider inviting them back to help do your part to reduce the global crisis of habitat loss and climate change?
There is a magic surrounding looking out your window or sitting on your porch seeing a finch eat from the top of echinacea, a hummingbird sip nectar from a lobelia or a specialist bumblebee prying open a chelone. If you tend to a plant in your garden that evolved there just imagine the magic that awaits! This doesn’t mean you are St. Francis and will have deer following you out to get your mail. But, any truly indigenous plant will put out a beacon to the native species that are endangered or in mass decline that your garden has food and shelter.
The monarch butterfly only lays its eggs on Asclepias, a genus of herbaceous, perennials known as milkweeds. However, local nurseries sell many beautiful flowers toting them as great for pollinator plants. I urge you to dig a bit deeper here – what pollinators, how are they beneficial, is that good enough?
For example, a shrub called Butterfly Bush, buddleia davidii, has the word “butterfly” in the name and is ubiquitous in nurseries and big box stores but it is indigenous to China. It is basically candy for butterflies but doesn’t support butterfly reproduction and lifecycle; as in they won’t lay eggs there and the caterpillars won’t feed on the leaves. So if all you are going for is beautiful flowers and passing out candy to lure in butterflies and send them off drunk then buddleia davidii will do.
The plants in your garden are for you and the environment or for you alone. What you plant and tend to is either just for beauty and relaxation or for that and to regenerate the landscape before European settlers. It’s difficult to know what belongs and what doesn’t since traditional landscape practices, design and stores all cater to a dominion over the natural world.
As a Master Naturalist in Cook County, IL I volunteer within the forest preserves and work tirelessly to remove highly invasive non-native species that are crowding out the natives. Some examples are butterfly bush, Japanese barberry, burning bush, honeysuckle, buckthorn and garlic mustard. Without native plants there are no native insects to pollinate. Without the native insects the birds don’t have food. Without birds, well…do you see a pattern? There is a massive decline in both bird, butterfly and bee populations. These are just the ones the news is talking about but essentially every bit of wildlife that evolved where you stand has been crowded out either by industry, pollution, roads, lawn, farmland and traditional landscaping.
Native plants can also help sequester water and keep it out of your basement. Deep taproots of prairie natives are highly effective at soaking up rainwater. Native plants that include a groundcover, shrubs and other forbs are a “green mulch” and also absorb water 30% more than lawn. Keeping this organic matter on your property reduces runoff, flooding and it filters pollution out of the groundwater reserves.
Incorporating native plants to your containers, beds or going whole hog and removing all non-native invasive species (like lawn) helps no matter the size. Perhaps start small and just incorporate them in a pot on your stoop mixed with your favorite annuals. Try a Little Bluestem (schizachyrium scoparium) in the center and tendrils of Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) or Wild Sedum (sedum ternatum) spilling over the edges complimented with annuals from your local nursery filling in the gaps.
Or perhaps gain some confidence in this style of garden by getting the plants in the ground. Devote one bed on your property that gets great sunlight and drains well to some native grasses, shrubs or forbs? A combination for that could be Prairie Dropseed (sporobolus heterolepis), Lead Plant (amorpha canescens), Butterflyweed (asclepias tuberosa), Bee Balm (monarda fistulos) and Coneflowers (ratibida pinnata and echinacea purpurea). Have more shade and a moist environment? Well, plants evolved for that space too and seek them out. Turtlehead (chelone), Swamp Milkweed (asclepias incarnata), Bottlebrush Grass (elymus hystrix) and Cardinal Flower (lobelia cardinalis) work well as do many, many others.
For a full landscape design and plant list get advice from a pro for some help. Plants can get expensive, gardening is at times back breaking so it’s best to be guided by someone who knows how native plants behave and what environment they are best suited for before you waste money and energy trying to do it on your own. A plan is key as well as a long term vision. Some plants flower every 2 years, some go dormant in drought, some need protection from harsh western sunlight. With a plan you can compartmentalize your project and work on only what is doable for the current season or your budget. Walking into a nursery without a plan is just as bad as grocery shopping hungry. Don’t do it.
One more note about shopping for plants. Cultivars. Most plant sellers sell cultivars, or plants that have been crossbred to highlight specific attributes. Native insects and birds however really like the original. If you’ve ever fed a 4 year old you know they like things specifically a certain way. Well, so do the pollinators. I’ve included throughout this blog species names because that will always be the true indicator of the specific plant. For example, Bee Balm (monarda fistulos) has been cultivated into ‘Petite Delight’ and ‘Raspberry Wine’ and the pollinators can see right through it. A cultivated plant is likely to get 50% less traffic from pollinators than a native plant.
Gardening season is upon us. Enjoy observing what sprouts up, who visits the garden and the subtle shifts that happen week to week. Lastly, cultivate a way of seeing your garden as a space for not just you but all of life. A gardens impact can be felt through every intentional act by its steward.
Sara Strother is the owner of Planted Green, a landscape design and gardening service focused on ecologically mindful practices. She has been a certified Master Naturalist since 2017 and is the site manager of the rain garden at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, IL. Seasonally she is designing containers with The Potted Garden and working towards her Garden Design Certification from the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, IL.