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 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent. 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, but big boxes have practically none. All have a large number of cultivars and hybrids—not the straight species plants, which can sometimes be more robust and particularly attractive to wildlife.
OK, so, I believe we should have at least 50 percent 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, and the same could be said for plants; I mean, did Lewis and Clark see Native Americans tending to their tall fescue?) I say all of this not because I have any belief that we can or should return to some presettlement perfection, because we can’t; 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. Of course, since 2008, we’ve plowed up over 30,000 square miles of remaining prairie —often marginal land that cannot sustain crops; commodity prices soar and crop insurance takes the risk out of the equation. With those prairies go native bee species, which are many times more effective at pollinating food crops than honeybees. Furthermore, 100 percent of songbirds feed their young insects, and songbird populations decline every year.
“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. This winter the overwintering population of monarchs dipped to its lowest ever at just 3 acres, way less than the record 45 acres nearly 15 years ago. We spray pesticides too much—lawns use up four times as much as all agriculture in the U.S. We have GMO corn pollen laden with pesticides that insects carry off with them. Our lawns are barren wastelands for wildlife, druggies dependent on more juice atop zapped soils full of dead soil microbes. The CDC tested 9,000 people for 23 common pesticides and found the average person had 13 in their system.
Don’t buy into those big-box home improvement commercials where a crazy man in a flame-retardant suit gets out his blow torch to attack his weeds, or the exasperated young couple needing only Miracle-Gro products to make their landscape fit the suburban ideal. You can garden more cheaply and easier—use prairie plants adapted to our clay soil and weather extremes so you won’t have to rush to replace them or buy fertilizer or feel tortured anguish at your needlessly black thumb.
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 about 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 a want to do something massive with minimal effort: plant one milkweed. Tell your neighbor about milkweed and the decline of insects. Tell your child. Get them to touch caterpillars. Plant an aster, a mountain mint, a joe-pye weed, a liatris, a goldenrod. 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.