What a year for the gardens -- plenty of rain in spring (too much) helps in some cases, and then we had not enough in fall. In any case, here are some of my favorite images captured around HQ this year, many of which you have seen or will see in various other posts. Which one is your favorite?
Implementing a native plant pollinator garden can quickly become complicated, especially when you're new to a lot of the design and ecological principles at play (plant communities, layering, root growth, bloom succession, reproduction methods, etc). From choosing the wrong plants for the site to matching those plants to one another, these are issues I've explored before on this blog. But it's not all that complex (well maybe it is), especially once you learn a few basic principles and dive in after you've done some healthy research. Let's attempt to distill what makes a natural pollinator garden beautiful for wildlife and people, all while requiring less management (water, mulch, fertilizer) than a typical garden.
LEARNING ABOUT PLANTS
So yes, you have to research plants. You can't just trust a plant tag or even a sales person, especially because when you put a little legwork in you learn way, way more. So let's say you've just picked up a pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida. The plant tag likely says it needs full sun and dry soil. That tag can't fit enough pertinent info on there to help you garden with more success, such as: what TYPE of soil; how it actually performs in various conditions; what wildlife it literally grows. Is it even native to the local ecoregion? Go online and type a search in for "Echinacea pallida." Websites that I've found the most helpful in learning about plants here in flyover country include:
Prairie Moon Nursery
Missouri Botanical Garden
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Once you've read about the plants from these sites -- and even a local / regional book, such as Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains -- you'll know more than most folks and you can plant with much more ecological confidence.
What you'll discover about Echinacea pallida is that it has a deep tap root, and planted as a plug it will take 1-2 years before flowering as it works on that tap root. You'll learn it prefers leaner, drier soils but can thrive in the moisture swings of clay soil. You'll learn it's a clumper that, in bare soil, will lightly self sow. Since it has a deep taproot it works well among other plants that have more fibrous root zones, that way the plants aren't always competing for the same resources. You'll learn its flower stalks get taller in more rich soil and that its basal foliage stays relatively short to the ground, with long, fuzzy leaves. Since its foliage isn't all that dense or large, other plants that require more sunlight -- including ground covers -- will do well right next to it. You may even discover in your reading that the dried flower heads, nearly jet black, remain all winter, and how cool they look with a backdrop of short prairie grasses (like little bluestem) as the winter sun filters in behind them.
KEY ASPECTS OF PLANTS & NATURAL DESIGN
So, what are some of the key aspects of a plant you should be looking for when creating your small urban garden?
1) Reproduction -- does it spread by seed or rhizome or both, and how aggressively?
2) Root Growth -- does it need room to spread or can it be happy with a limited vertical window?
3) Foliage Density -- the larger the leaf and more profuse the number, the more soil is shaded. That's good for suppressing weeds (as are plants with fibrous root zones)
4) Mature Size -- for your specific site conditions. A specific plant in full sun, plenty of moisture, and loamy soil performs much differently than when placed in gravelly loam or clay or part sun even if they adapt to both sites. Echinacea pallida is a good example -- tall and floppy in rich, moist soil where it's by its lonesome, but more suited to leaner soils with plant competition.
5) Flowering -- what time of year does it flower? Humans want flowers every day of the year -- and so do adult pollinators -- so plan for bloom succession in your garden using a variety of plant species (including grass and sedge).
6) Winter Interest -- does it have any special autumn and winter physical characteristic you might want to plant for?
7) Host Services -- which species of insects and bugs use the plant as a host for their young? Which use it for nectar and pollen? How do other fauna use the plant?
Learning about these seven aspects of a plant will help you plan the garden. For example, in 100ft you don't want more than one aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) since it tends to act like a small shrub getting 2-3ft wide and tall on average, especially in richer soils. On the other hand, you want more than 2-3 nodding onion (Allium cernuum) because the bulb takes a while to reproduce and the plants remain fairly inconspicuous for years -- so a grouping of 7-11 might be a good idea.
In general, you want a plant every 12 inches or less. You might want a thin 1 inch mulch layer after planting depending on soil type. However, you don't have to use wood mulch -- you could use a sedge as a base layer (Carex albicans or Carex blanda might work well), or you could sow in a low bunch grass like sideoats grama (Boutelous curtipendula). Why use a green carpet / green mulch / matrix beyond the fact we're mimicing natural plant communities and want less maintenance? Because one aspect of color theory is that an even baselayer of green -- especially when it's the same hue of green -- creates a legible calm upon which we can engage with and find a landscape legible or attractive.
If you want flower color ASAP in year one -- as well as weed suppression -- consider sowing annual forbs alongside the sideoats grama; plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) or clasping coneflower (Dracopis amplexicaulis) work well and fade out over time as perennials get going. A lot of garden designers have started using the biennial black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) as a nurse crop and weed competitor with its good basal foliage and self sowing habit; plus it all but disappears after 3-4 years as other plants fill in densely.
PUTTING THE PLANTS TOGETHER
So in a 100ft garden in 50% to 100% sun, medium to dry clay soil, a plant list -- massed by species -- for much of the Midwest and east might look like this (adjust for your region):
5 prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii) -- mid spring bloom, dense / large-leaved basal foliage, tends not to spread
3 dwarf wild indigo (Baptisia minor) -- mid spring bloom, open shrub-like foliage, taproot, black seed pods, tends not to spread, slow to establish
7 pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) -- early summer bloom, taproot, black seed heads, light self sowing
5 purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) -- clumping, thin foliage early-summer bloomer, light self sowing
11 nodding onion (Allium cernuum) -- short clumps of midsummer flowers, upright / thin foliage, bulbs slowly reproduce
5 dotted blazingstar (Liatris punctata) -- thick clumps of mid to late summer flower spikes, corm (tubor-like root), tends not to spread
3 zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) -- early fall bloom, slowly spreads by rhizome if adequate competition
1 aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) -- mid to late fall bloom, shrub like habit that shades out soil
If you askew wood mulch and weeds (wood mulch does NOT prevent weeds), place 50-75 sedge in the space. Or you can sow in a few handfuls of sideoats grama and some of the aforementioned annual and biennial forbs in spring to early summer.
The key to the plant list and design is this -- to mass the perennial forbs listed above. People scared of plants not lined up like a firing squad tend to view massing / clumping as a more legible and intentional space. Coincidentally, pollinators flying overhead can easier spot a clump of coneflowers instead of just one or two. And by the way, do not cut down this garden in fall or winter.
Another aspect of this plant list is that there's a diversity of heights, structures, and textures -- something we humans expect and enjoy in a planned garden. But that diversity of plants also means more opportunity for a variety of wildlife to use them in various ways, from feeding their young to getting nectar / pollen to winter seeds to shelter during hibernation and pupation.
What else can be said for this plant list? Zigzag goldenrod can be aggressive in the right conditions (loamy soil, less competition), but in a dense planting on 12 inch centers -- and many of those plants have similar root zone habits -- it's kept more in check while providing what we and pollinators desire. The blazingstar and onion will be happy since their corms and bulbs occupy their own zone in the soil. Indigo and coneflower will put down taproots below firbous grasses. There's a lot to consider but here's a secret -- observing these species in the wild (in prairies) will tell you a lot about IF they will grow together and HOW they will grow individually. When using plants that come from the same wild community we are one step ahead of the game in creating a sustainable space that's beautiful to both people and wildlife equally.
So what do you think? Is this helpful? Tell us what you've learned and what you might try differently.
Here are some images of the fall gardens at HQ over the last week (click to embiggen). I wish October lasted twice as long!
(From time to time I post thoughts in the spirit of the old blog which ran for a decade with a mix of subjects related to gardening, plants, nature, and environmental philosophy / literature. Today I share two thoughts with you that may be part of a new, larger project. This first section is a long thought that's been rolling around in my head for years -- this is my first stab at it, and to be honest, I'm a bit uncomfortable with the subject, especially in these warped nationalistic times:
There's a vein that runs through native plant detractors that is very disturbing to me, one which I don't condone on any level or think has any validity -- it's just frightening, in fact. Some clutch on to it for comfort and trot it out when the discussion devolves into emotion only. I'm talking about calling native plant proponents racist. The assumption equates plants with people, the culture of plants and ecosystems with the culture of people (white, western most likely), which is a way to practice dominion over nature.
Let's get one thing straight -- when a native plant advocate is labeled as racist it's a defense of privilege. We've assumed a hierarchy of species on this planet, constantly defending it with art, industry, & commerce. When our compassion for other species matches or supersedes compassion for humans, that's not racism -- that's liberation.
Native plants are social justice for all species. There is nothing racist about fostering equality for other species; however, human supremacists would lead you to believe there is. Those with privilege are threatened by decolonizing traditional horticulture, a horticulture which is grounded on new plant introductions, whether discoveries from around the world or new selections and crosses. Privilege is placing a plant in an ecoregion it did not evolve in, with fauna it did not evolve with, primarily because a human wants it there.
I think what's at stake is this idea that using only or primarily native plants in gardens is constrictive and speciesist, namely speciesist against human freedom / domination / privilege / supremacy. And then somehow the conversation devolves into an accusation of racism or purity along the lines of Nazi Germany. That's ridiculous hyperbole and an insult to those who suffered and still suffer under totalitarianism -- human and other. (For more on debunking the Nazi connection to native plant proponents, see this excellent piece and especially its links.)
A new garden ethic is not about denying human rights or freedom but expanding those of the plants & animals around us who are vanishing because we have been racist toward them, colonizing their culture and forcing it to conform to ours or die. If this feels threatening or makes you angry so you lash out, then we've hit the nail on the head, haven't we.
Make no mistake, fighting for justice on behalf of plants, animals, and ecosystems is directly related to the fight made for women, people who aren't white, people who aren't straight, people who live in poverty, people who don't practice Christianity, etc. When we allow for the freedom of wildness in our cities, for example, we are providing social justice not only for birds and bees and butterflies and milkweed, but for those humans who have no other access to nature but who benefit through cleaner air, cleaner water, and increased mental health.
In the end, we all agree on one primary point -- biodiversity is threatened at a level never before witnessed by humans because we are the cause. As we move forward to mitigate mass extinction / mass genocide, it's important we remember that native plants aren't divisive among the silent majority -- 99% of the tallgrass is gone, but the wildlife that uses it are still among us hoping for a revolution of compassion and an end to human supremacy.
And here are some thoughts on language -- how we use it to go down two different roads in garden thinking:
1) Knowing the names of fauna means we have to consider their rights more thoughtfully in garden design
Here's a new theory based on a growing sample size: when we learn the names of fauna in our gardens -- spider, beetle, bee, and wasp -- we learn their life cycles and what they need to thrive. But this will then also mean our gardens (how plants are arranged) and plants (origin and ecosystem services) will often need to change, which is a direct challenge to human privilege. This is why some garden designers get worked up or outright defensive when asked to i.d. a species because, in part, the garden design process has been complicated by considering other species alongside our own. While naming is considered a classic act of ownership in environmental philosophy, in this case naming may be a gateway to equality.
2) It matters how we discuss gardens because our words reflect, inform, and develop our values.
If, for example, we discuss gardens using primarily words like "texture," "form," and "color" we aren't necessarily valuing nature or wild interactions within it like we may assume we are. When we idealize plants as objects, putting them on a pedestal of visual gratification for us, we are practicing not only privilege but supremacy (the same idea goes for calling plants and gardens "magical"). This practice gives us tacit permission to see other species and the garden in a way that primarily if not totally benefits us alone; instead of gardening as part of a web, we garden as the top of hierarchy.
There is no reason a garden can not be beautiful to both humans and countless other species, but if the texture, form, and color are not appealing to specific species of fauna then the garden is not performing its primary role. Unfortunately, knowing what species of fauna are using the garden, and how they are using it, requires a more intense, complicated, and research-based step that prevents the garden from being an easily digestible painting we walk by and admire for a moment.
In a time of mass extinction it is not enough to discuss or design gardens purely for aesthetic value; doing so is an archaic and destructive way that continues a colonialist mindset over place and cultures for the benefit of a powerful minority. If we can't evolve our words, how can we evolve our knowledge and compassion for nature in meaningful ways that cultivate a deeper beauty beyond flower color and leaf form?
Nature doesn't cut down spent flowers or rake up leaves each autumn, and if we're going to garden for wildlife and less maintenance -- for bees and butterflies and aching backs -- then we need to take nature's lead in the way we garden.
When you walk in a prairie or forest each October there won't be animals putting detritus into compost piles or plastic bags to be hauled away, and I challenge you to get a picture of that occurance. Removing spent material from the garden is removing fertilizer, rich topsoil, habitat, and food -- or simply put, it's gardening against nature.
Do you see how trees drop leaves around their root zone? Yes, unless it's super windy. But trees are smart -- they are fertilizing themselves. This is one reason many organic lawn care firms advocate mulching leaves over a lawn (and mulching the lawn during the growing season), because dead leaves are rich in nutrients. The same goes for perennial flowers and grasses in a garden -- leave most of what you cut down in the garden, breaking it up a little by hand if you want to. You can do this in fall but, as we'll see below, it's better to wait until spring.
Leaves and other plant bits are broken down naturally over time by soil life, incorporated into the soil by bugs and micro organisms and bacteria and worms and ants and moles. This adds fertility to the soil and increases water penetration and storage -- it's the cycle of life. When you remove leaves and stems from the garden you are literally removing healthy soil.
Leaving flower heads full of seed can be critical for winter songbirds whose resources dwindle as the season goes along. Seeds tend to be high in fat content and lots of other good nutrients critical to a bird's ability to produce both energy and heat in the colder months. Of course, once spring comes, flower stems and grass clumps used for food and shelter from snowstorms become prime nesting material.
Plenty of creatures overwinter in garden litter, from queen bumblebees to mourning cloak butterflies to black swallowtail larvae to all manor of frogs, spiders, beetles, and bugs. Inside plant stems may be larvae of native bees, since roughly 25% of native bee species use cavities found in wood or stone as nesting sites. This is one reason why, in early to mid spring, you should leave 12-18 inches of stem when cutting back the garden -- you will soon see swarms of bees coming to lay eggs in hollow stems or to excavate pith before egg laying begins. After a few weeks the "ugly" dead stems will soon be covered by new green growth as insects keep doing their thing.
It's important to see the garden not just as a human space, but also one for other species and for nature in general -- think 50/50 at a minimum. Of course, gardens are about beauty for all species and certainly for us garden makers, and so the question has to be asked: in the depths of winter when there's less obvious beauty, would you rather see a flat moonscape or a rich tapestry of texture, form, and hues of color (brown is a color) with birds flitting in and out? Don't treat your garden like a living room after the kids go to bed, putting all the toys back on to shelves and in storage bins. Let nature be natural and enjoy the show.
No, it doesn't cause hay fever (that's our native ragweed), so let's get that out of the way first. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, not airborne like ragweed's pollen, so to have an allergic reaction to goldenrod you'd most likely need to be in physical contact with it.
Which is exactly what insects and various bugs want. This group of plants is like a 20 course meal. While goldenrod pollen has become less nutritious since the advent of the industrial revolution due to air pollution and climate change, it is still critical to the health of various insects and especially solitary native bee moms caching their larval nests with food. From bees to migrating insects, to beneficial predators relying on the hive of activity around blooming goldenrod, this group of plants could not matter more in both large landscapes and smaller urban gardens. Here are a few that are worth trying for a variety of site conditions and that won't spread nearly as aggressively as Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).
Oligoneron rigidium (Solidago rigida) -- Stiff Goldenrod
You do not want this in rich, loamy, moist soil as it will become far too tall and flop. In the prairie where it's try and ultra competitive, you'd rarely see it top three feet, but in a pampered home garden four to five is common. One of the earlier blooming goldenrods in late summer to early autumn, the flat-topped umbels are perfect perches for a variety of species -- including monarch butterflies who seem to favor its nectar. Stiff goldenrod is ideal for dry, sunny sites and benefits from similarly-tall plants to support it and increase root competition. Check the 100 or so species known to use this goldenrod.
Solidago flexicaulis -- Zigzag Goldenrod
Another case of the more rich and moist the soil, the more tall and potentially floppy it gets. However, this shade-loving, dry-loving goldenrod is an ideal creeper for tough locations under trees or on the north side of a building. It's also incredibly fragrant (I like to tell people it smells exactly like my dearly-departed grandmother's perfume). Usually about two feet tall and spreading to several feet over many years, this plant will bring in the pollinators where the sun don't shine.
There are a plethora of goldenrods to fill our third slot, so let's cheat. There's showy goldenrod (S. speciosa) with a nice upright flame of blooms, but it can get 4-5 feet tall even in dry, sunny locations (shorter if faced with more root competition). Missouri goldenrod (S. missouriensis) looks like Canadian goldenrod but is only 2-3 feet tall and less aggressive, preferring it dry and sunny. If you have a larger area that's wetter and you just need something to go go go, try grass-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), which takes full to part sun in medium to moist soils but will spread. If you have blazing hot sand or gravel soil try the 2 foot tall old field goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), perfect for slopes or barren areas where little else will grow; here's the list of pollinators noted to use S. nemoralis.
A mid to late summer culling of blooms might seem beneficial, but there are several instances when leaving the flowers is the better option.
There are instances when cutting back a plant to produce more blooms for us and pollinators is a good idea. For example, late summer and fall flowering perennials can be sheered back 50% before July 4 to increase color for us and pollen / nectar for insects. Think asters, goldenrods, ironweeds, et cetera. That sheering also reduces the mature size of a plant, often leading to a more compact specimen.
Stop deadheading and let nature take the lead -- it might be wonderfully surprising and rewarding for all of us who enjoy the garden.
I am frequently asked what my favorite native plant is and my new response is: whatever replaces some lawn. The other frequent question is how can we help gardens avoid weed control. Actually, it's more like someone says they got a violation notice and the image of their landscape shows why -- lots of overgrown plants that are mismatched and misplaced, and no design cues to care that show intention (walking paths, benches, art, signs, neat edges etc).
But here's the top mistake, or at least the one I'm feeling today -- mismatched planting. Specifically using plants that get too tall.
In a traditional garden border tall plants go in the back with tiers coming forward where groundcovers eventually dominate the edge. Now, this style can still be done with native plant landscapes (although we'd prefer a more ecological approach), but too often a "native plant landscape" appears to give folks a cart blanche to just plant whatever wherever.
I think of Ratibida pinnata, grey-headed coneflower, as a prime example. Out in its natural habitat of the tallgrass prairie this pioneer species often has big bluestem and indian grass to lean on, but bring it into a garden bed and it's treated like a specimen often marooned in wood mulch around shorter plants. You bet it's going to look out of place. One strategy is to surround it with other tall forbs to support it, but then you've created a garden of 4-6' tall plants -- and if this bed is in your front yard it's going to look overgrown to a lot of people with more traditional expectations. And just wait until the tall plants start leaning for the best light. With less competition in a manicured garden, plants like R. pinnata will be in heaven -- that's why we need to consider mimicking how plants grow and compete together naturally in more difficult circumstances.
Obviously we want to mimic wild conditions and bring in plant density and layers for all the wonderful ecological and environmental benefits, but in a smaller suburban or urban lot we do have to think about what natural plant communities might translate better. One strategy is to walk nearby prairies and observe how plants are growing and with whom they're growing. Here in eastern Nebraska you'll find little bluestem and sideoats grama going strong with Liatris punctata, Asclepias tuberosa, Pycnanthemum virginianaum, Callirhoe involucrata, and various sedge species. Not only do their root zones work with one another, they all stay in respectable sizes even in a more pampered garden setting.
At the heart here is choosing plants that have similar growth styles (shape, robustness, spread) and that intermingle to cover the ground. If the average height of these plants is 18-24" then you can go in and add a taller Liatris aspera or Eryngium yuccifolium for a pop of architectural je ne sais quoi. And perhaps an ancillary angle to this topic is -- at least at first -- limiting plant species especially in smaller beds so as not to visually overwhelm the space, adding diversity as you go along in the years and learn how the plants grow. Every garden is different.
What do you think? What has your experience been when bringing "wild" plants into the urban / suburban garden?
What are some of the challenges bringing nature back to suburbia? As a designer I've learned a lot from experimenting in my home landscape, and these lessons have improved my knowledge and success for clients. We all have to start somewhere, and it's often messy at first -- which is ok.
In autumn of 2014 I had a friend bring a sod cutter and remove much of our 600ft front yard. Part of the impetus was I hated to mow and water -- the lawn always burned in summer anyway -- and because a dozen dandelions provoked a neighbor to report me to weed control. So the two driving impulses were 1) I hate mowing and 2) you ain't seen nothing yet. In the nearly five years since, I have received no weed control violation notices for the front yard (but I did for the back meadow).
There have been a lot of ups and down in managing the space for both functional and aesthetic success. After we removed the sod I discovered, to no surprise, compacted clay which resulted in my spending almost a week trying to dig in the hundreds of plugs I had. In the first 2 years I had nothing but a mulch bed, and by year three black-eyed susans -- while stunning in bloom -- had colonized so much of one bed I had to weed out 50% of them.
Below is my original plan from the earliest days of my tinkering with garden design on a semi-professional level -- oh what I've learned since!
I was trying to mass and repeat, drift and repeat, but I did not take into adequate account how long it would take some species to establish (Baptisia, Amorpha) and how others naturally colonize naturally, especially in the early years (Rudbeckia, Schizachyrium). What I've learned here is that species like Rudbeckia, which self sow in open areas liberally, should be used as an early succession species to help combat weeds. That first year I had tons of weed pressure, even in 3" of wood mulch, along with remaining grass roots spreading quickly. But in the areas where Rudbeckia was taking hold there were far fewer weeds. I employed the Rudbeckia strategy to 2,000ft out back with great success -- especially since I direct sowed it into the fescue lawn which had no chance beneath Rudbeckia hirta and Ratibida columnifera.
One fall I tried adding Carex brevior to the grass matrix (which would replace the mulch over time) of little bluestem, sideoats grama, and prairie dropseed. In winter #1 I lost a lot of sideoats grama and dropseed, which taught me that warm season grasses don't enjoy being planted toward the end of October unless it's going to be an unseasonably warm fall -- they just don't have enough time to get rooted in. Luckily, the Carex immediately got out competed by little bluestem, and I say luckily because the sedge would have been too tall, too early for the small space.
It's taken 4.5 summers now to get a sort of balance among the plants as they've taught me what they want or how they need to order themselves. The neighbor's every-morning water schedule means half of the west bed remains too damp for drought tolerant plants that struggle and grow smaller than their counterparts on the east bed, so I've had to adjust and replace species, careful to keep some sort of aesthetic balance. Little bluestem has probably colonized a bit too much, but the autumn show is spectacular and the taprooted plants don't mind since they plow down below the fibrous roots of little blue. That same thinking applies to bulbs (Allium) and corms (Liatris)
I still have plenty of gaps, especially where our burgeoning vole population has had an autumn / winter snack, as is the case with any Liatris species. Last fall I added a lot of Heuchera richardsonii for May blooms and to add a clump of texture to areas that were becoming too grass dominated. I also added Eryngium yuccifolium for some height, replaced Liatris (I'm stubborn), and tossed in another Callirhoe involucrata groundcover since it looks stunning weaving among grasses and keeps blooming almost all summer long. I'll be adding some Geranium maculatum this fall for April bunches of color, and then it will naturally give way to the summer perennials.
What has this conversion taught me? Plans are only best guesses -- sites vary, weather changes, plants teach as they die or proliferate. I've edited out plants and tried to bolster others that provide the right color or texture at the right time. Every July I have to trim back grasses along the sidewalk so pedestrians don't get brushed by strangers, and I keep up on weekly mowing (even though it's down to 10 minutes or less I still despise it).
What's next? I have a growing love / hate relationship with the "small" dogwood cultivars along the sidewalk. I coppice them every winter but it makes no difference as they easily put on 6ft of growth every season when I want them at the advertised 3-4' on the plant tag. They provide superb privacy and bird habitat, but they also make the front yard look too overgrown; in contrast their winter red twigs are just phenomenal in a sunset or snowfall. What resulted from the great Rudbeckia cull was a dearth of flowers in early and mid summer, so each fall I add forbs where there are gaps, and am constantly fighting an invasion of black medic which has overtaken the central lawn pathway. I want to remove and replace the lawn with fresh sod; and yes I left some lawn on purpose to tie into the neighborhood because it provides both a sense of connectivity and helps frame the wilder spaces.
That's my story.... what's yours?
I want to share with you a few of our projects at various stages and describe some of the methodology, impediments, and successes of each. Every landscape is different, from start to management, and each requires different strategies for success. There is never one blanket solution or application, however there is often a common thread.
First up is a project from the fall of 2017. I crated a plan for the client and they installed some 1,500 plants. The soil was a mix of clay and loess (loam, silt, clay). Below are images from the summer of 2018 and early June 2019.
In the first image you can see our matrix -- the mulch replacement -- plains oval sedge (Carex brevior) looking good and growing up fast. The forbs will take a few years to develop, fill in, and then spread. In the second image you can see the sedge at full maturity, about 2-3 feet tall with the seed heads early this summer. The look, I think, is pretty cool, and the sedge is doing a superb job shading the soil and reducing weed competition. However, in places -- especially near the house where there's morning shade -- the sedge flopped over and smothered some plants. A 30 minute haircut of 50% will bring the sedge back into control, provide the look and weed management we want, and be all the work it takes until the same time next year. That's better than weekly lawn mowing in my book, or annual wood mulch applications. While the landscape probably needs an infusion of 100 flowers to bring it where it needs to be aesthetically and functionally for pollinators, my hope is that the species now present will reproduce soon.
The next project is also from 2017 and installed both by the client and myself in early summer (we used forb plugs and sowed in a bunchgrass, sideoats grama). The lawn was removed with a sodcutter and the soil was very intense clay -- not a surprise as lawn isn't the best soil ammender due to shallow roots. Once the sod was removed, however, a plethora of weed seeds where exposed and I felt like the garden was a goner in 2018 when the client sent images for advice (crab grass galore, among others). But they were incredibly diligent pulling some weeds and ensuring others never set seed, and in early June of 2019 the front yard looked like this and just about to bloom:
Finally, here's a new design and install from May of 2019 in an established downtown neighborhood. We spray-killed the lawn to double the size of the garden -- one the client wanted to feature a variety of sedge species and that would support pollinators in three seasons. The soil was very rich and loamy, thanks to decades of tree roots working their magic, so I expect this garden to take off quickly in 2020. Since it's a mostly shade location we chose a variety of shade and half shade forb species that, combined with a sunny corner, will provide pollen resources throughout the growing season. I enjoy the challenge of shade gardens since they force me to stretch my plant palette a bit. Here there are interweaving masses of 5-6 sedge species with drifts and clumps of flowers among them; I know it's hard to tell with just-planted plugs, but it helps illustrate the process a bit.
Well, you know what, let's also look at HQ where I do a lot of experimenting that I apply to client spaces. For example, the front yard prairie beds. Those spaces require constant tweaking and plants self sow too much or not enough, die out, or otherwise require me to add plugs or remove seedlings at a twice-annual rate. In early summer both the front beds and the back meadow (second image) already provide textural interest. And thanks to some color theory my friend Claudia West shared during a spring event we presented at together, I learned that in order for a "wilder" space to appear more organized and accepting, it's important to use plants with similar shades of green. Don't plant a bright green plant alongside a dark green plant, for example, as that will appear messy to our eyes. I think the same logic would apply to red or bronze foliage, like we see in the ninebark cultivars (which also makes the leaves toxic to insect larvae).
So there you go, a look at a variety of spaces with a little bit of context. They are all different but share the same goal -- to create an ecologically thriving, low maintenance, aesthetically pleasing space that brings Nebraska home. Each will require TLC over the years just like any garden, but in the end are a healthier option to high-input lawns and mulch beds filled with exotic plants wildlife can't use. Stay tuned for some exciting fall projects and meadow making....
If you don't have 40 acres, let alone 1/4 acre, but yearn to bring an echo of prairie home to a tiny space, all is not lost. There are a few key strategies to use when you have something like 100 square feet or less.
So let's say you have 100 feet in half sun to full sun with clay soil that's dry in summer but moist in spring and fall. What might your plant selection look like?
Something else you may notice about this plant list are the bloom colors -- they are essentially different hues of one another. That will help tie the space together and not visually overwhelm while still providing a succession of blooms in the growing season, and yet each one will appeal to a different set of adult pollinators while most are also host plants for larvae.
So there you go, a designed pocket prairie that's better than daylily or lawn or wood mulch and will get you ready for that winning lotto ticket and a new 40 or 400.
If our goal is to garden for wildlife and the ecosystems they depend on, then we need to eschew hardiness zones on plant tags. But if we do that, how can we know if a plant is suitable for our landscape? We can garden by ecoregion.
The USDA not only offers a hardiness zone map, but several ecoregion maps. Ecoregions focus on plant communities, and this will mostly if not entirely mean the use of native plants adapted to your region and the wildlife that live there. Let's compare two maps -- first what we're used to, then where we probably need to go.
Above is the map we're all familiar with. It's incredibly helpful when matching plants from other parts of the world to our gardens, but as a lot of us know these plants may not be recognizable (or of use) to local fauna like pollinator adults and insect young. Another obvious issue is what's native, even in the U.S.? A native plant from South Carolina has the same zone as a native from Oregon, but the two regions -- their weather, their wildlife, their ecological communities -- will be radically different for the most part. When we're trying to garden with plants best adapted to our locale and the wildlife, we need a different map.
The USDA provides several ecoregion maps, from level 1 to level 4, the latter which is pictured above (it's far more detailed and specific than level 1). If we look at eastern Nebraska where we're located, there are a few ecoregions. When we try to use plants endemic from one ecoregion we'll be more likely to have success not only in plant health and performance, but in wildlife support; this will be especially true if we can find plants grown from local ecotype seed -- that's seed gathered from within the ecoregion, sometimes even well inside that ecoregion on a hyper-local level of less than 50 miles.
You're maybe thinking, ok great, now how do I find what's native to me? Here's what we suggest, which is based on the more in-depth presentation Starting Your Native Plant Garden:
1) Consult with regional plant lists created by The Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership, and Audubon.
2) Once you have some plants you think might work on your site, further match them on the county level via a search at either BONAP or the USDA.
3) Then learn how the plants reproduce and their further cultural information. For much of the Plains and Midwest, we rely on a few sources to gather and collate horticultural details: Prairie Moon Nursery, Illinois Wildflowers, MOBOT, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. There are many others, for sure, including regional native plant societies, nurseries, county extensions, and books, like Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains as well as Jewels of the Plains.
So that's how you start, and if the journey seems complicated or long then that is ideal since you will learn so much more about your region and climate and wildlife than you ever dreamed possible -- and applying that knowledge to garden design and management will be a very good thing, indeed. Prairie up.
Climate change is altering our world in massively unpredictable ways, which will lead to severe cascade effects eroding biodiversity and ecosystem function. Earth will look and act differently thanks to our privilege and short shortsightedness. Plants already bloom at different times, and insects who sync their life cycles around those plants will soon be left with less food to feed themselves and their young.
But using exotic plants to extend the bloom season is a strategy rife with issues that got us into this whole climate change / mass extinction scenario in the first place. When I hear a designer promoting exotics as a way to help pollinators, I know they're missing information. Here are some issues that come up for me:
1) Exotic plants help both invasive insects and primarily generalist pollinators (native or not). Chances are invasive insect thugs evolved with the exotic plants we're using in our gardens, so all we're doing is helping them out, either with the plant being a host for their young or for the nectar and pollen they need. Exotic plants also appeal primarily to generalist adult native pollinators, like bumble bees or many butterflies. Often someone will say something like "I saw a bee on my snowdrops or hosta or russian sage" without knowing what the species is, and in turn what role that species has in the ecosystem.
2) Take oligolectic bees, which evolved to use the pollen of specific native plants to feed their young. Without that plant's pollen we don't have that bee. As an ecosystem loses these specialist bees other specialists are forced to become generalists, which reduces pollination rates of plants. Further, climate change is reducing the pollen protein levels, among other nutrients, so even if the right plants are available at the right time, they may not be as valuable.
3) Helping pollinators by extending the bloom season with exotic plants ignores the plant's critical role as a host for larvae. Exotic plants may help some generalist adult native insects adapt, for a time anyway, but they won't help plant-dependent species or the ecosystem adapt. Simply put, climate change is happening so fast now most life can't and won't adapt. We're looking at a 50% total planetary species loss by 2100. You can't assume exotic plants are going to make much of a difference, especially when they aren't supporting young. Native plants support many times the insect biomass as compared to exotics. But should you be using native plants from an ecoregion south or downhill of you? I don't know. Again, the climate is altering so quickly and unpredictably that the help you may be doing could be short-lived at best.
4) Predicting the future isn't easy, and while we can make some logical guesses, how do we know if / when an exotic plant will become a problem plant? Especially in the face of really unpredictable climate and weather fluctuations? Isn't assuming we know better what got us into this mess in the first place?
I think when we hear that any flowering plant can help pollinators what we're really hearing is a defense of human supremacism; the idea that in whatever garden choices we make will do SOME good on SOME level, so let's pick what's pretty or functional to us as the primary or sole motivation. We are so far beyond this limited viewpoint which eschews empathy, compassion, and scientific knowledge of how the world works. If we keep defending our plant choices in distorted ways, we're simply continuing to feed the system and conditions that have fostered the sixth mass extinction. Our privilege doesn't give us the right to use any plant we want -- it gives us the wisdom and responsibility to see beyond ourselves into the ecosystem and the thousands of lives interacting with our homes (and us) every day. The real world is not a human one, culturally or biologically, and until we start to see nature and landscapes as something part of us -- not just a tool or an artscape -- gardens will fail to wake us to a more profound community of nature, to compassion, and to empowerment.
Honey bees may harm native bees. This is the sentence that launched a thousand arguments on social. For years media has brainwashed us into beekeeping as a means to help pollinators, primarily because honey bees are so easily identified and so well studied. Just consider, as well, how much the honey bee serves as an icon for pollinators and bees in general -- most every "bee" image you see is one that's gold and black, with dripping honey and honey comb hexagons. But it's not fair or ecologically correct to equate a foreign species with 4,000 native species. As our awareness grows about how ecosystems work, we're having to think in different, uncomfortable ways as we challenge comfortable preconceptions. Honey bees are livestock, part of an agricultural machine and so are an agricultural issue; native bees are an ecological issue.
Below are resources on the above subject so that you can become empowered and educate others. In the very least it's a list and a link you can give to people when the conversation turns deeper.
1) The Bee Apocalypse Was Never Real
Honey bees are not under threat of vanishing. Colony collapse disorder isn't what we think it is.
2) Competition Between Managed Honey Bee and Wild Bumble Bees Depends On Landscape Context
This one's behind a paywall, but you'll see links to other related articles down the page to broaden the discussion. From the abstract that explored two generalist groups (honey and bumble):
Honeybees might outcompete wild bees by depleting common resources, possibly more so in simplified landscapes where flower-rich habitats have been lost....Adding honeybees suppressed bumblebee densities in field borders and road verges in homogeneous landscapes whereas no such effect was detected in heterogeneous landscapes. The proportional abundance of bumblebee species with small foraging ranges was lower at honeybee sites than at control sites in heterogeneous landscape, whereas bumblebee communities in homogeneous landscapes were dominated by a single species with long foraging range irrespective of if honeybees were added or not.
3) An Overview of the Potential Impacts of Honey Bees to Native Bees, Plant Communities, & Ecosystems...
This is from the Xerces Society. Solid summary of all the issues that focuses on working with beekeepers for the best apiary placement.
4) Massively Introduced Managed Species & Their Consequences for Plant-Pollinator Interactions
From the abstract: First, we review the impacts of major insect and plant MIMS on natural comm-unities by identifying how they affect other species through competition (direct andapparent competition) or facilitation (attraction, spillover). Second, we show how MIMScan alter the structure of plant–pollinator networks. We specifically analysed the posi-tion ofA. melliferafrom 63 published plant–pollinator webs to illustrate that MIMS canoccupy a central position in the networks, leading to functional consequences. Finally,we present the features of MIMS in sensitive environments ranging from oceanicislands to protected areas, as a basis to discuss the impacts of MIMS in urban contextand agrosystems.
5) Bees Gone Wild: Feral Honey Bees Pose a Danger to Native Bees and the Ecosystems That Depend on Them
A professor of entomology looks at what happens when honey bees go rogue: "It’s these feral honeybees, especially, that pose a challenge to nearly all native pollinators since honeybees forage throughout the growing season for nectar and pollen from a wide array of flowers, building up vast numbers. When honeybee competition reduces the number and diversity of native pollinators, native plants also can suffer since they may receive less efficient pollination."
6) You're Worrying About the Wrong Bees
Another intro for those dipping their toes into the topic, complete with source material cited at the end.
7) Foreign Bees Monopolize Prized Resources in Biodiversity Hotspot
Here's a study that focuses on southern California -- as you may know, California is one of if not the richest state in native plant diversity. For this study keep in mind that many native bees have evolved to uses specific native plants for pollen to feed their young. "New research from the same team found that honey bees focus their foraging on the most abundantly flowering native plant species, where they often account for more than 90 percent of pollinators observed visiting flowers."
8) The Role of Honey Bees in Natural Areas
A recoreded video webinar with The Xerces Society and Pollinator Partnership. Non-native managed and feral honey bees negatively affect native plant communities by disrupting the co-evolved pollinator networks, and reducing seed set in native plants. They also preferentially forage on non-native plants (which they likely co-evolved with in countries of their origin) and thereby encourage invasiveness. Honey bee interference with native plant communities and their pollinators are found to therefore have compounding ecosystem effects.
9) Native Bees Increase Crop Production, Flowers Near Apiaries Carry More Bee Viruses
"One of the most important studies looked at 41 farms on six continents that grew almonds, blueberries, buckwheat, cherries, coffee, cotton, kiwi, mango, passionfruit, pumpkins, strawberries and watermelon. The results blew up the conventional wisdom. Wild insects increased fruiting in every single farm where they were present, but honeybees only produced a significant increase in fruiting 14% of the time. There wasn’t a single crop for which increased fruiting caused by honeybees outperformed that of wild bees. On average, wild bees delivered twice the bump of honeybees."
10) Focus on Native Bees, Not Honey Bees
Compelling summary by an ecologist on how native bees can engage the public's imagination -- and empathy -- even more so than honey bees, and how that will spur greater ecological awareness as we rewild urban and rural areas. Don't raise more turkeys to save birds = don't raise more honey bees to save pollinators.
I can’t remember the last summer when I had to clean off my windshield with a squeegee at the gas station. It seems like a decade since I had to make an emergency pit stop, making the seven hour drive to my folks two states away every July 4, to clean bug guts off the front of my car. Perhaps worse, as an avid gardener with over 5,000 square feet of lush beds filled with dozens of flower varieties, I’ve noticed a steady decline in buzzing visitors — especially since 2012 when my area received roughly half an inch of rain over the summer.
Undoubtedly, you’ve seen the articles about monarch butterfly populations dropping and the insect apocalypse, and maybe you’ve added more blooms to whatever small spit of land you have. While the issues we face are much larger than what’s happening in our urban and suburban gardens, the insect die off starts with the cultural mentality of human supremacism made evident just on your drive to work or the grocery store.
Every city looks pretty much the same. We start our day in homes where lawn makes up the vast majority of landscaping, then make our way past businesses and schools and churches where lawn makes up the vast majority of landscaping. And snug tight against the walls of most structures is a thin line of defense — scattered shrubs and a few flowers marooned in unnatural oceans of wood mulch. If you were a pollinator all of this habitat would be useless. It fact, it’d be lethal — there’s almost no source of food or a place to raise your young.
Humans are superb colonizers — we’ve made urban landscapes efficient for our uses. But we’ve left out the nature that pollinators need, and without pollinators we’d soon find ourselves without blueberries, squash, melons, apples, oranges, strawberries, almonds, and a seemingly unending list of food. We’d also find ourselves without many flowers we enjoy in parks or right out the front door.
There are some 4,000 species of native bee in the U.S. and a significant portion are specialists who time their emergence from nests to coincide with the bloom appearance of specific flowers. These bees forage for pollen from native plants they evolved with over millennia, caching egg-filled holes in the ground or in old wood with pollen for their future progeny. Without specialist bees — who depend on specific plants just as those plants depend on these specific bees to reproduce — ecosystems begin to falter. As flowers don’t receive pollination they set less seed, and entire fields lose diversity and gaps open up, potentially paving the way for invasive weeds to move in or for less beneficial flowers to take over.
The case of bees is only one example of tens of thousands of insects that invisibly swarm our world. We know of monarchs — how they require milkweed since their caterpillars can only eat this one plant. As farm fields have grown and as prairie has been plowed away, milkweed and the grassland habitat monarchs and a plethora of other insects rely on has helped clean up our windshields but also starved the environment.
Just take songbirds. While their young are in the nest for roughly two weeks the parents are feeding the chicks a steady diet of spiders, beetles, moths, butterflies, bees, caterpillars, and more. Some bird species may require hundreds of insects a day while they are growing up. If you haven’t noticed, our cities are becoming quieter — the spring songs once so loud and diverse just a decade or two ago have become muted and more subtle.
What do home gardens or business landscapes have to do with any of this? In a time when wildlife is vanishing in perceptible fashion every spit of land matters, just as every plant matters. Native plants support many times more insect biomass than exotic plants imported from Asia or Europe because native plants have a shared evolutionary history with insects and other wildlife. Further, when we use lawn as default landscape mode we might as well be paving over everything with asphalt, because lawn has no flowers — and it certainly has no shrubs or small trees which create hedgerows, perhaps some of the best bee nesting habitat around.
In my neighborhood front yards are small and most families kick a ball around in the back, so that front lawn goes unused. Every week someone mows it down, making sure not a dandelion blooms or a milkweed takes root. What if we took even half of these small spaces and made our garden beds twice as large? What if we had drifts of short meadow flowers and grasses? What if instead of street after street of monochrome flat green, we created networks of wildlife refuges, islands of habitat and freeways of food and shelter? Our smallest native bees can travel only a few blocks before needing to refuel on nectar — and where can they find it when the landscape is lawn or hosta or wood mulch?
If we can’t provide for the nature that literally sustains us at home, how can we ever hope to steward that nature beyond our front door into parks and farm fields and marshes and deserts and forests and prairies? Our urban gardens matter — maybe not because they can prevent an “insectageddon,” but because our gardens reflect what we think of our natural world and how we see ourselves either as a part of the wild web, or as a near-sighted species who lacks compassion for the smallest among us.
My son is six months old and every day I think about the world I’m giving to him. While he’s smiling at me, rattle in hand, I’m apologizing to him in words he can’t yet understand but that, unfortunately, he will one day comprehend in more ways than my heart can bear. But soon enough we’ll walk the garden and identify as many insects as we can, learning about the plants they need for pollen or to lay their eggs upon. We’ll plant the flowers. We’ll listen to whatever birds we can, naming them and singing back. We’ll understand together that conservation, compassion, activism, and faith begin at home and quickly spill out on the backs and legs of insects making their way home, too. We choose the world we want to live in, and for better or worse, each choice affects every other human and non human life around us. I don’t know about you, but as much as my heart breaks under that sense of responsibility, it also feels amazingly liberating and empowering — especially when I’m down on my knees watching a butterfly dance around the center of an aster bloom.
Should you be using native plant cultivars? Are they as robust or as beneficial to wildlife as straight species natives? Oh my, what are straight species? As you plan your garden for climate resilience, wildlife benefit (pollinators and birds especially), and low maintenance design, here is some information to keep in mind.
What is a Straight Species Native Plant?
A plant that is found in the wild and has not been grown to produce specific ornamental traits. It's evolved naturally in the wild and reproduces via open pollinated seed (wind blown or insect produced pollination without the help of humans). That's the super simple definition, which is what we're going for throughout this piece.
What Is a Cultivar?
A native plant cultivar (or nativar) is a plant that differs from the straight species in some regard -- usually height, bloom color, bloom size, or leaf color. There are two main types of cultivars:
Selection -- A plant sport, showing any of the aforementioned differences, that's found in the wild or a garden then is humanly reproduced to maintain that different trait. So a plant hunter might find an aromatic aster in a prairie with a different bloom color or overall size than the more prominent straight species. The plant tag will read something like Asclepias tuberosa 'Holy Flower Batman.' Something like that. :)
Hybrid -- Purposely crossing two related plants, via human pollination, to produce a desired trait in a new plant. So think about orange coneflowers or pompom coneflowers. The plant tag will read something like Echinacea x 'Shiver Me Timbers.'
How Are Cultivars Problematic?
Overall, the first issue is one that's not just about native plants, but growing and selling all plants (native or not) in general.
Tissue Culture -- This is the process of reproducing plants for the mass market on a large scale; basically it's cloning. You take a physical piece of a live plant you wish to reproduce and get it to root and grow into a full-sized specimen. The problem here is that even if it's a native plant -- straight species, selection, or hybrid -- you're producing the same exact plant over and over thousands if not millions of times. One issue could be this: that if you reproduce a genetically identical plant native to the south, and then place it in the north, it may have a harder time thriving in the climate and / or have its bloom time out of sync with local pollinators. While many native plants have large ranges across the U.S., those ranges include many distinct genetic populations adapted with and evolved to the local climate and wildlife. Even a big bluestem in eastern Nebraska is different than one in western Iowa.
Pollinator Support -- When we alter bloom colors or shapes we're altering far more than what humans can see. We're also changing: UV runways that bees use to find flowers and access pollen; nectar (sugar) and pollen (protein) amounts and quality; and other ques insects use to find or assess the value of flowers, from electric charges to sounds. Until we fully study the thousands and tens of thousands of interactions occurring in even just a small locale between plants and insects, we can never know how cultivars compare to straight species. And if you ever see a cultivar that shows no pollen when the straight species does, know that we've effectively made the plant useless for bees even if we find the new form attractive.
Larval Host -- Different blooms are appealing to gardeners and designers (as well as the breeders and nurseries that sell them), but so are various leaf colors. But as you can imagine, similar issues arise when we alter leaf color as when we alter bloom color. For example, the straight species of ninebark and elderberry have green leaves, whereas several cultivars of both have purple or plum. What happens now is that the insects who evolved to use these native plants to lay eggs and rear their young (caterpillars are one example), can no longer recognize the leaves when they taste them to lay eggs. And even if those eggs hatch, the leaves are now toxic to the larvae who starve. Two issues here are that if you want more butterflies and moths, you'll need to have more larvae; and if you want more birds, you'll need more insect larvae, since over 90% of songbirds feed exclusively insects to their young while they are in the nest (and we're talking hundreds of insects a day, both larvae and adults as well as spiders and beetles).
What it Comes Down To
Trusting nature seems like a more sound option than trusting ourselves when we still know so very little. A few early studies have shown that changing the height or mature size of a native plant have minimal impact on supporting pollinators, but changing flower color and shape have more significant drawbacks. But even still, if we're going to buy a cultivar that is only somewhat different than the straight species, it's more often than not been cloned, and that's going to diminish the genetic diversity of the species -- especially if those plants breed with nearby wild (straight species) populations.
What's the Best Option?
Just as with human food systems, local may be best. In a perfect world we'd all have local and regional plant producers who grow their plants from responsibly collected wild seed of local remnant populations. This is called local ecotype or local genotype. These plants come from open pollinated seed and may be better able to withstand local weather and climate extremes while providing more resources for local wildlife (think about bloom times being in sync with pollinators who may use only the pollen from that species to feed their young, as is the case with ologolectic bees... and don't even get started about climate change altering bloom times so flowers appear weeks before the insect species that use them do). Of course, it's hard -- but not impossible -- to find nurseries selling local ecotype seeds and plants, but more and more are popping up in every state; I can think of several in Nebraska and Kansas, for example.
What About Climate Change?
That's the kicker. Plants and animals are trying to move uphill and north in order to keep pace with the ecosystems and weather they evolved with -- such is the case for bumble bees who evolved in a cooler climate. But they'll eventually run out of habitat. Do we use plant species from a state south of us? Do we assist in migration? Do we just try to use any plant material from any region that can survive in the new climatic uncertainty? The answers to the above will be varied depending on profession, beliefs, and practical experience.
Personally, I fall on this line of reasoning -- we need to give local plant and animal populations as much chance to evolve and adapt as possible for as long as we can (this might be only decades or centuries, even so it's not enough time for most species to evolve). This means using local native plants with immediate or nearby genetic origins, plants wildlife and insects can recognize. Further, it means gardening in a different way -- reducing high input lawn, not using fertilizer or chemical sprays, keeping as much water on site as possible, using more plants period, and using plants to reduce the amount of energy my home uses (think shade in summer and wind block in winter).
If you'd like to help discover the roles cultivars play for pollinators, consider becoming a citizen scientist. Project BudBurst has an ongoing nativars research project you can join in on.
And if you'd like to get going on your native plant garden -- learning about your local ecoregion and the native plants that thrive there -- consider the online class Starting Your Native Plant Garden.
I posted an image to Instagram that got some folks asking good questions. It's a 15x15 foot garden plan, a draft for a section of a much larger garden area that's several thousand square feet. The curve ball is that this section will be repeated until the entire garden area is covered; this is modular planting. Not only does it simplify the drafting process, but it helps installers move along while providing visual repetition for onlookers -- that last point is important when a wilder garden might otherwise be brushed aside as weedy or messy.
As you can see from the plan (and my chicken scratch handwriting), there's a plant list to the left; let me type that out for you:
Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) SO
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) AT
Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) AH
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) SS
Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) CI
Rough Blazingstar (Liatris aspera) LA
Pale Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) EP
Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) EY
White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida) DC
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) ZA
Prairie Coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata) CP
Blue Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) AF
Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) RH
On the bottom are seasonal bloom lists, and on the right some percentages I was trying to work out. The latter is key and site specific; since I anticipate weed competition on a dry slope, our goal is to cover the site quickly with plants and seed, then to manage for weeds the first year when their pressure will be the greatest. Some of the plants are aggressive spreaders, by runners or seeding, while others are behaved clumpers. I'm trying to find the right balance between clumpers and spreaders -- the former will give us more formal definition, appealing to a traditional expectation of what a garden looks like (think anchor or architectural plants), and the latter will help us replace mulch while providing seasonal color. How the roots compete with and support surrounding plants was also part of the thinking. I'm still playing around and have several iterations of the grid.
You could take this plan and make a 15x15 foot garden. Or you could treat it as a test plot for future expansion, repeating the plan in the years ahead around the initial plot. The key here is lots of plants. Under and around the forbs will be sown 1-2 short grasses (sideoats grama, prairie dropseed, etc), which in a year will fill in creating the matrix, base layer, or groundcover which will replace the need for wood mulch. The plant density -- on one foot centers or less -- will provide multiple environmental benefits: competing against weeds above and below the soil line, providing pollinator habitat year round, amending soil, slowing runoff, and providing seasonal color for us to enjoy. What do you think?
If climate change and mass extinction aren't the first subjects we're addressing in garden design and horticulture, then perhaps these fields are a waste of time.
For years and years the older version of this blog featured bold statements (see, I just provided one) via many thinking pieces, short essays that challenged our preconceptions of self and gardening. This post is going to revive that tradition as we plunge into the winter months where I know many of us are reading and reflecting.
I was recently inspired by an excerpt that the superb environmental philosopher and activist Derrick Jensen shared from his book Dreams. What I appreciate about Jensen is that he opens up doorways to the cross pollination that occurs between human and non human cultures -- and the reflections that ensue can be uncomfortable but also liberating. In the end it's the latter we're after, to be liberated from a culture of oppression, and to see how the oppression of other species is the oppression of ourselves and each other -- and for gardeners our managed spaces out the back door reflect a daily experience with nature that reflects our core values. The questions that arose while I read Jensen's excerpt where many:
In what ways does horticulture silence the voices of others? How does horticulture privilege one species over others? How is horticulture a form of colonialism? What tools or language or social constructs (capitalism, freedom, individual rights) do we use to help us feel better or accept the exploitation of other species, especially for purely ornamental reasons? How do we normalize human supremacy in horticulture so we hardly notice it, or when we do notice it, work even harder to defend it because our identity is wrapped up or based on that supremacy? I want to move through some of these ideas step by step based on excerpts from Jensen. Are you ready?
"Before you can exploit some others you must silence them, or rather deafen yourself to their suffering, and more fundamentally their subjective existence. As I wrote in “A Language Older Than Words,” “The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, education, psychology, medicine, literature, linguistics, and art have all been pressed into service as tools to rationalize the silencing and degradation of women, children, other races, other cultures, the natural world and its members, our emotions, our consciences, our experiences, and our cultural and personal histories.” Another way to say this is that it would be extremely difficult to rape (or enslave, dispossess, exploit, and so on) someone if you were to in any meaningful way attend to the suffering you are causing, if you were to perceive this other as a subject worthy of consideration, and not as a resource. Yet another way to say this is that objectification is a necessary precondition and precursor to exploitation. "
For years I've argued that nature is not a resource. When I hear someone mentioning "natural resources" I hear a code phrase for exploitation of nature for the benefit of one species. Nature is not a resource for us to use how we see fit; nature is an independent organism made up of diverse cultures and individuals who have rights equal to our own. What rights does a river have to flow where it wants vs. being diverted for hydro power or to irrigate crops? What right does a tree have to grow where its seed has landed? What right does a bee have to nest where it has chosen, a home it perceives as safe for its young? What right does a flower have to not be plucked from its stem and rendered useless to the ecosystem? Jensen makes me reconsider how we use ornamental horticulture as a way, at times, to ignore the individuality of plants and their natural inclination to do what they want. Consider how we remove unwanted seedlings from a bed, or manipulate plants to create hybrids with ornamental features we desire without understanding the ramifications for larval or adult pollinators attempting to feed on that plant; for example, what happens to palatibility when we change leaf color, or the nutrient make up of nectar or pollen when we alter flower size or color?
"This culture is based on exploitation, and the more invisible and normalized a society (or you as an individual) can make the objectification of others—through religion; philosophy; epistemology epistemology; folklore; social conventions; economics; law; government—the more difficult it becomes for members of this society (or you as an individual) to even attempt to perceive (and help members of this culture to perceive) the subjective existence of others, to see that these others actually exist."
While it is likely our intent in making gardens is to honor nature, to get closer to it, to understand it better, it's also true that the act of making a garden is an act of domination, exploitation, and objectification. We're taught, ideally, that women aren't to be objectified or seen as objects to be exploited based on their physical appearance, and yet we do the same to plants and even large natural vistas. I suppose the line between appreciation / celebration and objectification / exploitation is very fine or at least very murky. And that's understandable -- that' s part of a dominate species like ours working its self out, working out its role in the ecosystem, living our dichotomies which help us think critically through hard realities. Do plants exist apart from our placing them in our landscapes? Do plants exist separately from how we present them in combination with one another in an artistic representation above the ground plane? What about animals that inhabit and use our gardens?
One of the most contentious points of discussion I discover in conversations like this is the apparent incompatibility of a culture that values individual freedom and rights, and the reality of culture that jerks its knee hard when those practicing those rights don't conform to the idealized definition or examples of individual freedom and rights. For example, you are free to plant what you like in foundation beds around your home, but those beds must be narrow and mulched while the lawn constitutes a significant majority of the landscape. Another example not wholly unrelated is that we encourage one another to follow our passion and voices, but not to do so if those passions or voices ask us to think more critically about who we are, this is why we use labels like "radical activist" to dismiss those who challenge us. Racial and gender equality, environmentalism, and a myriad of social justice issues are all umbrellas under which fall voices that ask us to rethink who we are as we work toward a better and just culture -- a journey that will never be easy but is obviously necessary.
Here's the deeper question -- how do we transfer our idealized rights of equality to other species, thereby granting them the ability to pursue their own liberty and right to existence unencumbered by us? When we grant liberty to other species, we don't become less liberated or less free ourselves; when we list the sage grouse as threatened with extinction and create land management practices to preserve their species, we're not limiting human freedom. We're ensuring humans continue to have the ability to exist by maintaining an ecosystem that is healthy, diverse, and fully functional -- because our comfortable 21st century lives are based on the diversity and health of a thriving planet, not on thriving commerce. Freedom is predicated on a healthy, working, biologically diverse world. If we're cloning plants we're not adding to diversity. If we're using plants local wildlife can't recognize, we're not adding diversity -- we're erasing it by erasing entire cultures.
We deny the rights of others when we deny they have language, or a way to communicate or act separatly from our own conceptions of what language is or what actions are valuable or not. This act of denial is an act of superiority -- if we say others don't have will or language or subjective desire, we can use them how we want with no harm done.
"It’s the same arrogance (and ignorance) that somehow finds human superiority in the fact that chimpanzees who have been kidnapped and held in prison by scientists are able to learn only a certain number of American Sign Language symbols; these scientists insist that this means that humans are the only creatures who have language, and “that the chimpanzees are not using language, but rather simply using these signs as a means to an outcome, rather than to express meanings or ideas.” None of these scientists ever asks the question: if a bunch of chimpanzees kidnapped you, isolated you from your entire community, and started performing experiments on you, how long would it take you to learn chimpanzee? And more to the point, none of these genius scientists ever asks the question, “Between the kidnapped chimpanzees and the scientists, which of these creatures is bilingual?”
It’s actually much worse than this. Not only must we, when trying to comprehend the preferences of others, deal with the difficulty of speaking entirely different languages, and not only must we deal with the fact that the intelligence of these others are entirely foreign to us, but we also must deal with, as I’ve been discussing in this book, a several-thousand-year history of systematically deafening ourselves to the voices of these others in order to facilitate our exploitation or murder of them. So given all that, it’s extraordinary that I or any of us can routinely perceive the preferences of others at all. It’s so much easier (and more flattering) to just pretend these others are not subjects, and in fact to build up entire religions, economies, philosophies, epistemologies, and so on that buttress this conceit. Where do you draw the line, and why do you draw it?"
In the last chapter of my book A New Garden Ethic I briefly touch on the way plants communicate with one another, and how they interact with the environment and other species around them. From volatile organic compounds released in the air, to electrochemical signals in their roots, to ultraviolet markings on their petals and positively or negatively charged flowers, plants communicate. Whether that's enough language to grant them inalienable rights is something for philosophers to debate and scientists to discover, but what happens if we just say a plant or an animal has equal rights to us? What about a mountain or a prairie or a lake? I'll tell you what happens -- our entire culture makes a radical shift from seeing humans at the top of the evolutionary ladder and instead part of the web. When you are part of something larger than yourself you can either feel small and insignificant and powerless, or you can feel worthy and integral and connected in ways that are comforting and consoling (and empowering).
We have a horticulture system that tends to celebrate plants like they are designer clothes or shiny new cars -- models wearing our desire that's only skin deep. We manipulate life, we reproduce life as part of an industrial capitalist machine that sees nature as a commodity and a product. Does that mean the practice of gardening or finding plants pretty is bad? Of course not. But doesn't it depend on where that impulse comes from and how it's enacted? If our first priority it to create gardens people swoon over, and then champion we saw a generalist bees species or common bird using the plants, we've missed the point entirely and are simply trying to adjust our optics without making powerful and fundamental changes (aka greenwashing). If we're making garden choices based on how plants work together to form an ecosystem, considering how plants work with one another and how they support specific fauna, then we're elevating garden making by fostering greater understanding and appreciation for nature. I don't think you can plop the newest coneflower hybrid into a landscape and say you're helping nature because it's a native plant. Unfortunately, the kind of rewiring and rethinking I'm calling for is hard work -- it taxes us to not only read more and be more considerate in our actions, but it means we can't simply always follow our impulses at the nursery or in a shiny new catalog arriving in January.
Horticulture can and should lead us into an environmental awakening that reconnects us to the web of life and that ends our tendency to exploit nature for our own aesthetic desires only. Gardening is not just about pleasuring or honoring ourselves -- it is about addressing human supremacy by redressing wrongs we've forced upon the natural world (lawn, impermeable surfaces, CO2, deforestation, mining, climate change, etc). I'm not saying gardens are penance, and I'm not even saying they are necessarily places for social activism -- they can be both of those for sure. I'm saying gardens are not paintings, they are not sculptures, they are not composed for just one species. When the practice of horticulture is navigated with critical thinking -- what is being impacted when I do x, who am I effecting when I do y -- then we become empowered liberators of all life and ultimately ourselves. That's when horticulture becomes the instrument of hope meeting action that we all wish it to be.
Is that too much to carry or consider? I don't think so -- not in a world of climate change and mass extinction. Not in a world we have now remade as one giant garden we must tend to for the survival of all us together.
Tired of cheap trowels that don't work in clay soil? Looking for a book to revolutionize how you landscape? I've got some ideas for ya.
Slices and dices through clay, roots, plastic, burlap, and twine while never rusting or pitting. You won't need another gardening tool, even if you're in the Swiss Army. I prefer this A.M. Leonard version but you may like others, just make sure you get one with a brightly-colored handle.
Let's quit sprayers with handles that break off when cut on a branch or stem, or get brittle in sun and cold; I've got a bucket of them in my garage I can't stand to throw away. Fireman style nozzles are where it's at, and this Bon-Aire offering has remained functioning and durable as I sling it on the ground with reckless abandon.
Dutch Hoe or Push Pull Hoe
Choosing this type of tool is more about how you work and what you prefer, just forget the traditional hoe; there are many brands and styles so you might have to experiment. Use this tool in a gliding motion to easily pull up weeds from beds with looser soil (think veg, loam, or sand) without bending over or stabbing the ground.
Climate-Wise Landscaping: Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future -- Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt
Learn how to shrink your carbon footprint, clean air and water, provide habitat, cool your home, and much more. Lots of inspiring quotes throughout by noted authorities in garden design and environmental thinking to punctuate this easy how-to guide.
Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes --Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
Geared toward intermediate and advanced gardeners, this book will show you why and how to think of plants not as objets d'art but as parts of an ecological community that evolves over time.
Principles of Ecological Landscape Design -- Travis Beck
A slew of ecological principles that can be translated to garden design from small to large scale. It's a more technical book but written with grace and accessibility, as are all of the above books listed here.
I'm baring it all today and showing you what HQ looks like from a bird's eye advantage -- or a bee's eye advantage. This is obviously where a lot of my experimentation takes place; when I look at these drone images I see not only a personal landscape I didn't think looked like this, but also the many changes I'd like to make. I also see how crazy I might appear to neighbors. In any case, I believe employing drone footage on future garden designs may be a useful tool for myself and clients as we imagine a new landscape paradigm.
I'd say this is a pretty typical newer subdivision. I'm assuming most folks sink all of their money into the home and landscaping isn't part of the budget, or any sort of landscaping is seen as high maintenance. Of course we all know the benefit nature has to learning as well as mental and physical health, not to mention increases in property value (I once read a study that showed for each caliper inch of a front yard tree one could add $1,000 to the price of a home -- but sure, that sounds crazy, even though street trees alone increase neighborhood desirability). Have I mentioned how woody plants can decrease home energy use?
My back property line is city limits and behind are small acreage lots. In the top right corner you can see a bit of a pond as well as a thin woodland that stretches along a good chunk of our development. This is a significant wildlife corridor and bird flyway. I'm careful not to use any fertilizers so nothing gets washed into the pond or street, and the majority of rainfall stays on our lot due to plant density and placement. I've tried to pull that wilder area out into the neighborhood in my small way, extending habitat just a bit.
I manage the front yard more intently than the back, thinning aggressive species, cutting back tall ones in early summer, adding new flowers in summer and fall where gaps have developed, et cetera. While the space will certainly look wild to the lawn-only crowd (and at least 50% of neighbors have lawn up to the foundation wall), I'm still trying to create drifts and massing, as well as tiers or levels that we expect in traditional garden design. What do you think? Do suburban gardens like this matter? Can we evolve attitudes and help nature recover or adapt to a world of extinction and climate change? I hope the many people walking their dogs and babies will excitedly see the rabbit hunkering in the little bluestem, the goldfinch plucking seeds from flower heads, butterflies circling and settling on aster, and clouds of pollinators above goldenrod. But I also know many will see something that needs to be mowed, a place that harbors pests, and a homeowner who doesn't care. You already know of this year's weed inspection. Below are some more images I hope you enjoy. Prairie up!
Benjamin Vogt's thoughts on prairie gardening in Nebraska. With a healthy dose of landscape ethics, ecophilosophy, climate change, and social justice.
In a time of climate change and mass extinction how & for whom we garden matters more than ever.
"This book is about so much more than gardening."
The Deep Middle
Gardening & writing in the prairie echo
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