Last night, I watched “Racing Extinction” on Discovery Channel. It got me thinking and inspired me to write this. It told me a lot of what I already knew, but a lot of what most people ignore. It talked about the countless sharks that have their fins cut off while they’re still alive. The sharks sink to the bottom of the ocean, and suffer until they die. It talked about the Manta Ray hunting that is nearly wiping them out. It talked about some species that are down to the last one or two animals – there is no future, when it dies, it’s gone. It talked about a specie of dolphin that was disappearing. The population was getting lower and lower. The man talking said he thought someone would do something. They see the numbers going down and someone somewhere will step in to save them. No one did. That dolphin doesn’t exist anymore. At the end of the show, it sends a powerful message. It says “Start with one thing.” “Find your thing.”
I already know what my “thing” is. I started it two years ago. I wanted to make a difference. I knew this was something that would make a real impact, even if only a little. I also knew if I could show others how easy it is, maybe they would do it, too. I’m talking about native gardening. Native gardening is gardening with plant species that are native to your area. You might think that there aren’t many beautiful plants native to your area, but you’d be wrong. There are brightly colored and interesting plants everywhere! I believe many people subconsciously see gardens as a museum of plants. That’s not an inaccurate way to describe a garden by any means, but that definition sets limits to what we expect from it. A garden can be so much more than a display of plants. A garden is a gift. It’s a piece of our property that we can use to change the world, literally. Our garden can make a difference. In a time where habitat loss is at an all-time high, it’s amazing to think that we have the power to create habitat just by gardening, and we don’t have to sacrifice beauty to make it happen!
When I started my native garden, I decided to make it a prairie-style garden. I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I knew how to figure it all out. I learned to throw out everything I’ve ever learned about gardening. It’s filled with myths and inaccuracies. I began to research native plants; what would be good in my garden and what wouldn’t. I went to the Scuppernong Prairie, which is the largest wet-prairie East of the Mississippi River here in the United States. I wanted to see how plants grow in a real prairie. I wanted to imitate it as much as I could while still making it look good. I wanted to see how truly close or far apart plants grow from each other. Plant tags often suggest a larger spacing than necessary. Plants tend to grow just inches from each other in the wild, and they thrive. They like to mingle with each other. They support each other. I noticed other things about the prairie, too. I found logs that were filled with life. Insects, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals all need those logs. I decided to add a few logs to my own garden. I was designing what seemed to be a garden, but was actually a much needed prairie habitat, and it was easy! In fact, it’s also inexpensive. Instead of buying a single plant, you can buy hundreds of plants-worth of seeds for the same price.
It’s easy and inexpensive. So, why is it taking so long to catch on? It’s tough to say. I imagine that one reason is because many people still see native plants as weeds. It’s horribly sad to see such an inaccurate stereotype placed on such beautiful plants. Nothing I have grows like a weed. Sometimes native species can be aggressive, but if you do a little research, you might see that they’re easy to control. or maybe they are too aggressive and you’re better off not planting them, but there are still hundreds and hundreds of other native plants that aren’t aggressive, or at least very easy to control.
Perhaps another reason is that people think a native garden is difficult to maintain. It’s not. It’s easier than most gardens, and after a few years, Mother Nature will do most of the work. Sure, there’s the initial weed pulling, and keeping the seedlings watered, but that changes. The garden grows up. The plants fill in and begin to outcompete many weeds. With drought-tolerant plants, like prairie plants, you won’t need worry about watering, either. Only in times of drought will you even need to consider watering. When you grow native plant species and you let them do their thing, they’ll be fine. Let them self-seed a little. Sometimes that means plants will pop up in new places, but that’s what’s fun about it. You never know exactly what to expect, but it’ll always be colorful and most importantly, beneficial to native species. Sometimes a plant might disappear completely, and that’s OK, too. That’s mother nature’s way of saying the plant wasn’t fit for the situation it was in. Its place will likely be replaced by something else that will thrive. Learning to be comfortable with decisions that aren’t yours is the key. You have to have trust that nature knows what it’s doing. If a plant is doing a little too well or one of your favorites isn’t doing good enough, you always have the option to intervene or make adjustments, but never forget that nature does things for a reason.
This year, I saw my own native garden begin to form into something. Plants that were added two years ago began flowering. Seeds that were planted last Winter began growing. Even with a garden so young, I saw it begin to make a difference. Over the summer, I saw countless Monarch Butterflies use my Orange Milkweed as a food source as well as a place to lay eggs. I found 24 Monarch Caterpillars. That’s 24 Monarch Caterpillars that might not have existed, or 24 Monarch Caterpillars that might have been crowded out by other Monarch caterpillars elsewhere. I saw Bumble Bees sleeping overnight on Blanket Flowers. I saw the occasional Hummingbird hovering by the Liatris stalks. I saw Soldier Beetles mating on Black-eyed Susans. I saw Frogs and Toads using the garden as shelter and as their hunting grounds. Towards the end of the season, I started seeing more and more Large Milkweed Bugs on the milkweed, and a Woolly Bear Caterpillar on the leaves of a young Purple Coneflower. These are only the things that I happened to see when I was outside. There was so much more going on than I could ever have noticed. All of that happening in a native garden that hasn’t even fully established itself yet!
A successful native garden can be created in small spaces too. I had an area that was 4 feet by 2 feet, and I decided to turn it into another native garden. You don’t need large spaces to make it work. When I planted the seeds, I began to wonder if it was even worth it. How much of an impact is a garden that small going to have? The impact was bigger than I expected. Bumble Bee after Bumble Bee appeared. I even found a Monarch Caterpillar. Toads were also spotted there almost every night during the peak of summer. Even a small garden can make a huge difference.
I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, I really am, but this post isn’t about my garden. My native garden means a lot to me, but it would mean even more if I were able to convince more people to start a native garden of their own. I’m focused on showing others how easy it is to do, and what a huge impact they can have. When I see gardens filled with Hostas, Daylilies and other non-natives, I see missed opportunities. I have both Hostas and Daylilies in other parts of my yard, by the way, and I’m working to replace them. I want the plants that I have to truly matter. It’s time to focus on the future. The world’s gardening community can make a massive impact, and while this post generally referred to plants native to the US, the truth is, the same thing needs to be done around the world. No matter where you’re from, plant native plants.
Plant native plants.