This article I wrote for my local Master Gardener Association's newsletter received enough feedback I know I am not alone in my awakening to the importance of native plants and the vital role gardeners can play in getting nature back on track.
This past winter as the climate crisis and scale of the biodiversity crisis became more apparent to me, I had an epiphany regarding the importance of gardening with native plants. It’s no exaggeration to now say I see the gardening world with new eyes. My evaluation of a garden is no longer just about its beauty; I now also evaluate it based on how interconnected it is with its surrounding environment. And I’ve realized just how under-represented native plants (and the ecosystems they support) are in our gardens. Including my own.
The world’s top scientists have asked all of us to reexamine our lives and make changes to reduce our overall carbon footprints. As a passionate gardener, my gardening practices are one of the most important areas of my life to examine: how am I investing my rather significant effort, my time, my money, my energy? What kind of impact is it having on the world? The answer for me, and for many gardeners, is we can do better. Much better.
Ever since I had my yard certified as a ‘Naturescape’ by Fort Whyte Alive and registered as a Monarch Waystation over 5 years ago , I think of my yard as habitat as much as pretty gardens. Thanks to the influence of the other Master Gardeners in the River Heights study group and the passionate gardeners in the Prairie Naturals Gardening Group I understand much better how my current gardens do not provide nearly as much habitat as I once thought. With vast swaths of lily-of-the-valley, bishop’s goutweed and daylilies, I don’t have the volume of native plants to support the ecosystem I thought I was supporting.
It was a struggle to admit it.
I even went through a number of the stages of grief as I came to terms with this recognition.
• Denial – I already have a certified wildlife garden, surely it must be good enough?
• Anger – why do so many retailers seduce me with the beauty of non-natives while making it so difficult to purchase native plants?
• Bargaining – what per cent of my gardens need to shift? Which non-native plants can I keep?
• Depression – I am going to need to undo much of the work of the last few years; how am I going to explain to others, including my husband, our wasted energy and money?
• Acceptance – I am already seeing the evidence – more butterflies and other pollinators – as a result of a recent increase in native plants in my gardens; I can hardly wait to see what more will join me as I provide a space for it.
Not all non-natives are equal.
According to Doug Tallamy, researcher and author of the seminal book on creating habitat in our urban spaces “Bringing Nature Home”, there is room for both native and non-native plants: “It’s not as simple as plant natives and save the world. I’d use some non-natives, so long as they’re not invasive…the goal I’d focus on more than anything in home gardens is reducing the lawn.”
And so this is the path I will take. I will continue to prioritize my long-term strategy of annually reducing the size of my lawn, primarily replacing it with native plants. At the same time, I am now paying attention to the non-natives already in my yard in a way I did not prior to this year, by trying to determine which are being used by local fauna and which simply do not appear to be giving enough back.
Daylilies (originally from Asia), German Iris, Chinese Astilbe & Jacob’s Ladder (originally from Europe) all appear relatively bereft of pollinators and have been added to my list of likely candidates for removal. Blessedly on the other hand my beloved Stachys Hummelo and Echinops, while non-natives, are absolute bee magnets and will not only remain but be given more room to support their pollinators.
From now on I will no longer move these plants from my garden to a friend’s, or pack them up for sale at a charitable fundraising plant sale. That would only be shifting the problem. Instead, I will take the dramatic step of having a farewell toast and then composting these past garden treasures.
I am aiming to have 75% native species, a number put forth by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and as good as any goal I could find. It will take me time to get there and I look forward to learning more along the way. There are so many people and organizations so much further ahead than me – what a great opportunity to focus my learning!
If you are also interested in learning more about striking the right balance between crucial native plants and the potential of beloved pollinator-friendly non-natives, here are some suggestions based on my early research:
• Canadian Wildlife Federation Gardening for Wildlife
• Doug Tallamy BringingNatureHome.net
• Info on the Pollinator Victory Garden
• Mary Reynolds WeAreTheArk.org
• RHS Native and non-native plants for pollinators
If you are ready to take some action, here are some ideas on how you can join in and help ensure we are supporting biodiversity in our gardens.
• Engage in a citizen science project:
o Bumble Bee Watch
o Go Wild Manitoba
o Nativars Research Project
o The Great Sunflower Project
o Government of Canada’s Citizen Science Portal
• Certify your yard
o Canadian Wildlife Federation “Wildlife-friendly Habitat”
o David Suzuki Foundation Butterflyway Project
o Fort Whyte Alive “Naturescape”
o Monarch Watch Waystation Program
o The North America Butterfly Association Butterfly Garden and Habitat Program
If you have resource recommendations for me, or stories of how you are changing your own gardening habits to play a bigger role in our planet’s recovery, I’d love to hear from you.