[Beyond the Garden Gate]

Going Native

Planning and planting a garden with native species creates vital habitat for birds, bees and butterflies – habitat that has been slowly disappearing from our landscape.

It’s easy to get discouraged about humanity’s impact on the natural world. Pollinators and song birds are in decline, oceans are becoming more acidic, polar caps are melting. As Joni Mitchell sang, “We are caught in a devil’s bargain, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Yes indeed, back to the garden!

We’re all itching to get our hands in the dirt and to feel the warmth of the sun on our backs. But before we start digging, perhaps it’s time to rethink the traditional garden – to put ‘nature’ back in the landscape and to play a personal part in protecting the environment. But just how do you naturalize your garden and are there really that many benefits?

Be forewarned: going native in your own backyard may challenge some ideas you have about ‘good gardening’.

One of the first things you may have to come to grips with is control, a notion that goes back to the very formal landscapes constructed by nobility in the European countries where many of us have our roots. Back in the days of lords and servants, neatly trimmed lawns, topiary hedges and colour-blocked gardens symbolized status and control over nature. We’ve been aping those gardens ever since, mostly without thinking.

In fact, those manicured gardens might as well be deserts when it comes to contributing to the local ecology. The clipped shrubs and carefully clumped annuals may attract a few buzzing pollinators but that’s about it.

The problem is that the bulk of the plants you’ll find in nurseries this spring have origins scattered across the planet, even if they’ve been selected to survive in our climate. But the bees, birds, butterflies and other beneficial critters survive on native southern Ontario plants – the same plants they’ve survived on for food and shelter for tens of thousands of years.

Multiply your backyard by your neighbours’ and their neighbours’, add the millions of acres of native plant species replaced by agriculture, and you’ll have a clue why you’re seeing fewer birds. There’s not much habitat left for them.

The next challenge to contend with is, “What will the neighbours think?” In the past, ‘good gardening’ was often a matter of appearances. Well, in the first year, without irrigation systems, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and potted perennials, your native garden may not be a candidate for the annual garden tour. Gulp!

But all’s not lost. If you’re leaning in the direction of a native garden, but can’t quite abandon the elements of a formal garden, consider incorporating elements such as neatly maintained borders, patches of mown grass, and hardscaped pathways, decorative fencing and seating areas to offer contrast to those ‘out of control’ wildflowers and grasses.

Naturalizing your garden may, in fact, make you a better gardener. Rather than simply accepting what’s on offer as an instant garden from landscapers and nurseries, you’ll learn how local native plants have adapted themselves to southern Ontario conditions, and how you can optimize those conditions in your project. Along the way you’ll learn to recognize foreign invasive plants, which you don’t want, and tell them apart from native ‘volunteers’, which you will want.

A LESSON IN PERSISTENCE

Beate Heissler established Natural Themes Farms in 2006, beginning with demonstration gardens representing native woodlands, wetlands and meadows along a county road in Quinte West. Her ongoing story illustrates the triumphs and challenges of going natural, including the issue of control. It also speaks to the virtue of patience.

In 2008, Beate moved to the farm where she grew up near Frankford and expanded it to include organic vegetables and fruit, a wise business move that proved more profitable than selling native plants for ornamental gardens.

One of her first projects at her new location was to plough under about two acres of pasture to accommodate excess potted stock and thousands of wildflower and grass plugs prepared for a commercial order that fell through.

In conventional gardening terms, the first year was a disaster, with annual weeds taking over. “I threw in the towel and just let it go. The next year, the surviving wildflowers and grasses dominated along with other perennials. The meadow had taken on a life of its own. My labels disappeared and I was essentially told to back off and become the observer. These beautiful wildflowers are now popping up everywhere as they should,” Beate says with a smile.

While Beate’s wildflower and grass plugs appeared to be ‘doing nothing’ in their first year, they were, in fact, setting down the deep roots that enable them to be drought tolerant and virtually maintenance-free. Beate notes that if the palette of species you’re considering for a native plant garden involves those from the locally native tallgrass prairie family, you can probably dispense with irrigation, fertilizer or rich, amended soils. Tallgrass prairie species, which include such delights as big bluestem grass, blazing star, wild bergamot and butterfly milkweed, have evolved and adapted to grow in dry, nutrient-poor soils and will likely benefit more from benign neglect than a gardener’s manipulation or overkindness.

Beate, who plans to forge ahead with promoting native plant gardening again this year, sees a bigger lesson. “We go to parks and other natural areas to relax only to return home and stress over our unmanicured gardens. We have an obsession with control and spend a good part of our lives fighting the very forces which sustain us. This is the underlying cause of the environmental catastrophe the world is facing.”

RESOURCES

If you ask the right questions, a good nursery will have knowledgeable staff who will help you select native species. There are certainly plenty of sources of native plants at reputable nurseries in Watershed country. The Natural Themes website at www.natural – themes.com is a stimulating place to get started on your native plant gardening journey. It features plant lists, photographs and a highly informative blog.

Story by:
Norm Wagenaar