I’ll just come out and say something to alienate lots of folks: I believe our landscapes should be planted with mostly native trees, shrubs, flowers, sedges, and grasses. And by mostly I mean 80%, 90%, 100%. I know, I know. But I’m the kind of guy who sees a cause and knows that to even get halfway, you have to push for all of the way. And yet folks still aren’t sure what “native’ means or where it is. Nurseries often have a sparse collection; independents have more, big boxes have practically none. All have cultivars and hybrids — not the straight species plants. Here’s a list of resources.
Ok, so, I believe we should have at least 50% straight species native plants. Trees, shrubs, flowers, sedges, and grasses that, before westward expansion, were prevalent in your town (it’s like the current food movement — most of what we eat didn’t even exist 100 years ago, the same could be said for plants). All of this is not because I have any belief that we can or should return to some pre-settlement perfection; no, it’s about the insects who evolved in ecosystems alongside plants, both adapted to one another from flower to leaf, both symbiotic, all the beginning and end of the food web from bee colony to human dinner table.
“I love monarchs,” someone will tell me, eyes brightening as we both ogle a photograph. I ask them if they have milkweed. “Oh no, should I? I have lilac and butterfly bush, and see them on there.” Do you have baptisia? Willow? Elm? Oak? Do you have side oats grama grass? Viburnum? Bird’s foot violet? Zizia? Bluestem? If you don’t, I bet you see just 1/20th of the butterflies (and their larva) that you should, not to mention other pollinators you never knew existed.
Gardening with natives is about giving up certain levels of ownership to your landscape. Life isn’t a battle royale with nature. Gardening with natives is about sharing, about living with the world and not in it; with the world and not against it; with the world and not apart from it. Bridging the gap. It’s about taking a leap of faith that you are this planet’s faith given momentary form, bound to its rhythms, and when you struggle to remake or ignore those rhythms everything seems intangibly off kilter — we suffer higher food prices, eroding shorelines, dirty water and air, new bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
My wife told me a story she saw on Facebook where someone was concerned about the masses of bees at their blooming crabapple tree. Their kids often climb the tree and might get stung. Should they spray the tree, they asked? Remove it? Someone suggested a dousing of chili powder spray. Finally, someone talked about colony collapse, pesticides, habitat destruction. I have put my head into bloom after bloom for six years now, literally had bees and wasps landing an inch from my nose and ears, and have not been stung. I have, though, been transfixed, overjoyed, unburdened, and generally at peace. Come to my table, I think, come share this great purpose and hope. There’s more divinity in a bumblebee pushing open a baptisia bloom and pulsing its body than there is in a hymnal or stained glass window.
This is my plea, and a sort of pledge I want you to take with me if you are new here or want to do something massive with minimal effort: plant one milkweed. Tell your neighbor about milkweed and the decline of insects. Tell your child. Plant an aster, a mountain mint, a joe pye weed, palm sedge, oaks. Plant one native something that helps insects. Put the plant out front with a spotlight, maybe one of those flashing arrow signs you can rent. Have the sign read: “This is a native plant, adapted, low maintenance, of benefit to dwindling wildlife, and I’m in love with it.” Feel free to change the sign’s wording. Somewhat.