This month’s article is going to get personal. It won’t be a “how-to” or a “what to grow where” blog. Instead, I’ll share a bit of my personal journey into native plant gardening – a journey that has gone from curiosity to complete addiction.
I was lucky as a kid in that we often lived in rural areas and, when we didn’t, I had my uncle’s farm to visit for the entire summer holidays. We also camped a lot. Because we moved around a lot, I didn’t develop many long-lasting friendships and so I became a bit of a loner. But I had Mother Nature around me as a friend so I was quite content.
Fast forward a few decades and I went off to university (in my 40s) and enrolled in a BSc in Environmental Sciences degree program where I took a major in Natural Resources Management and a minor in Landscape Ecology. This was followed by a master’s degree in Environmental Biology. After graduating from there, I took a year of Advanced GIS Applications (computer mapping) and at the sweet young age of 50 I was ready to start life over with a new job, a new mortgage – and a pile of student loans to pay off. I managed to get a job in Ridgetown, Ontario at a satellite campus of the University of Guelph that allowed me to teach part time, eventually becoming a full-time teaching gig.
After a couple of years of getting my life in order, it was time to start gardening again. I had been an avid gardener – veggies, mostly – most of my life. I started, as many do, by planting the things I knew – hostas, tea roses, tulips, and (I shudder to remember it) periwinkle, goutweed, and some other nasties.
Then, one day, I saw a packet called “Wildflower Mix” and thought these might be nice. After all, I grew up with lots of wildflowers around me on the farm and when camping. At this point I still didn’t realize that wildflowers and native plants weren’t necessarily the same thing.
The next year when things started popping up in the garden that I knew were European in origin, I started doing my homework. To my surprise (and, in some cases, disappointment) I found out that many of my favourite flowers in the fields of my childhood were also of European or other origins – garden escapees like chicory, mullein, teasel, and so on. And that packet of wildflower seeds? Of about 12 species, only one was native to where I live and a second one was a ‘near native’.
I decided to remove the non-natives from that new flowerbed and plant some true natives – goldenrods, beebalm, black-eyed Susan – and it wasn’t long before I started seeing that these new flowers had WAY MORE bees and other insects on them than the non-native ones did. And I started buying books about growing Native Plants – like Lorraine Johnson’s “100 Easy to Grow Native Plants” and “Grow Wild”.
In the beginning, I still gardened with my old gardening aesthetic – I bought plants that looked exotic (including a few cultivars like “Hello Yellow” butterfly milkweed, an almost purple cardinal flower, etc.) But the more I read, the more I began to appreciate that true species often provide more benefit to wildlife than their cultivars do.
Soon I had a second bed of natives, then a third, and eventually all the non-native plants and cultivars had been removed from my half acre back yard and replaced with natives or “near natives”. There are few thrills as satisfying as standing in front of a bed of flowering wild bergamot watching at least a dozen different species of bees, some wasps, butterflies and the fabulous clearwing hummingbird moth all busy collecting pollen and/or nectar. Or witnessing the perfect relationship between the giant black digger wasp and dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) – check out my blog on that plant to learn more about these two.
The more I learned, the more I planted. The more I planted, the more I wanted to share my discoveries and newly-gained knowledge. Pretty soon my focus was no longer on what I found particularly pretty, but what provided the most benefit to insects and birds.
By the time I hit about 250 species of natives and near natives in my yard, I started to look for some of the rarer plants for which I might be able to provide a healthy seed bank. Whenever possible, I buy almost exclusively from reputable native plant nurseries.
At last count (I am a spreadsheet guy, after all), even after I had over 20 species that didn’t make it through this past winter, I still have well over 320 species of native flowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs, vines and trees in my gardens – which have now expanded to the front yard as well. And I have a wish list of plants that is way bigger than what I can possibly find room for in my yard (well, perhaps I can squeeze them in somewhere).
And because I like to share what I’ve learned (as any good teacher does), I open my gardens to organized garden tours a few times a year and I talk to groups and anyone else who will listen about the benefits of growing native plants.
I’ve often joked that it’s an addiction – but what better addiction than growing beautiful native plants that feed the insects that feed the birds, or that provide seeds directly to the birds. It’s my little payback to Mother Nature for all she taught me when I was young.
Happy Native Plant Gardening