Don’t worry; this isn’t a rant.
No, I’m just going to talk about bugs. Real bugs. Or, to be more precise about the nomenklatura in the garden: insects.
Let me tell you about the reeducation I’ve been getting as I pivot towards more native plants in the garden.
There are good reasons for gardeners to turn towards native plants. First, the choice of native v. import may help avoid introducing invasive plants into the local landscape. Second, native plants evolved in the native environment, so chances are they’re better adapted to local climate, both temperatures and precipitation. Third, they evolved as part of a local/regional ecology, which means they mesh with other natives in creating a local ecosystem, right in our own backyards.
Ah, ecosystem! So much grander than plain old backyard. It sounds so harmonious, so balanced, so God’s-in-her-heaven-all’s-right-with-the-world. Especially when you think of all the lovely native trees and shrubs and flowers serving as hosts for gorgeous butterflies like tiger swallowtails,
painted ladies. And yes, of course, the monarch.
Doesn’t that sound heavenly? Imagine yourself planted ‘midst your serviceberry and summersweet and black chokecherry shrubs, your wild columbine and butterfly weed and lupine and black-eyed Susans and cranesbill and wild bergamot on a spring-thru-summer afternoon.
There you are, admiring the tiny works of nature’s art fluttering about, sipping here, feather-landing there, doing loop-the-loops around the sugar maple and the pin oak. (Naturally, your fantasy should substitute other regional native plants and pollinators if you’re not in New England.)
Wellllll, let me tell you. If you’re setting up hosts in your garden, you’re not just laying out a buffet of floral sippy-cups. This is not exactly AirBnb—unless you’d offer a house where the guests, after draining the sippy cups, are free to set their kids loose to eat your curtains, your rugs, the furniture, the books, the paintings, and the paint off the walls.
Your lovely native-plant hosts, I regret to inform you, are there to be eaten.
It ain’t pretty
You begin to see where I’m going on the reeducation? Used to be, I’d look for plants advertised as virtually pest-free. Generally, that means plants so alien to the local environment that no self-respecting local-native bug would touch them.
Now, however, I’m supposed to put plants in because they attract pests. Because something buzzing or floating or crawling about will take a sniff and yell Dinner! and zero in to chow down. Or worse yet, yell Honey, I’m home! and zero in to lay a couple thousand eggs that will hatch into Very Hungry Caterpillars.
Granted, there’s payoff here for the local biome, not just for the individual species of guest I’m hosting. The caterpillars attract birds, who gather not for the aesthetic enjoyment but for the eating. And birds will help keep other insect populations (and annelids, aka worms) under control. So it’s all one great circle of life, kumbaya, amen. Right?
Still, when the leaves on my newly planted winterberry bushes started disappearing at an alarming rate last summer, Kumbaya ain’t what I was humming. It’s one thing to put up with the kids eating the drapes, but when they started in on the furniture, all I could think of was that those bushes came at 70 bucks a pop. A pretty steep price for a bug buffet!
Game plans gang a-gley
For this year, I planned to head off the sticker shock by buying seeds. Then I could start from scratch and keep refilling the smorgasbord in hopes of some leftovers.
I’m great on planning. On execution, not so much.
I got all the pots and potting medium and even put together a nice little nursery frame out under the Canadian hemlocks. The seeds should have gone into the nursery around January. Now it’s nearly June and I still have all the pots and potting medium. The seeds are still in the fridge.
Maybe next January.
Hope springs infernal
Meanwhile, incredible though it may seem, there are empty spots in the sunny-garden beds. And plenty of space in the shade border, where mulch continues to fight a losing battle against weeds, and needs some help from ground cover. So the weekend before last, after perusing several different sources and compiling a carefully curated list, I betook myself to the local native plants nursery.
Naturally (no pun intended) they were out of most of what I was looking for. “Crazy-busy” might best describe the scene; the manager and sole ringer-up on duty said it’s been hard to keep up with the demand. Apparently others share my preoccupation with native plants.
If I were cynical, I’d say a native plant nursery is the perfect business. You’re selling people stuff that begs to be eaten. (Thumper and Bambi are another issue. Having more cosmopolitan tastes, they’ll eat just about anything.)
Anyhow, I improvised enough to assemble a bug banquet, the members of which are still waiting for distribution to their homes-till-consumed. And I’m hoping that enough will survive, even after the painted lady and monarch caterpillars have eaten their fill, that the banquet will have staying power.
About the larger environment
What can I say? Huge swaths of the western US are burning (again), the gun lobby and its hired hands in Congress remain adamantly opposed to legislation on gun safety despite yet another horrific slaughter of schoolchildren, and the Supreme Court… well, I said I wasn’t going to rant.
I’ll just say that if you can figure out how to light a candle rather than cussing the darkness, go ahead and more power to you. If you want any recommendations: we gardeners know how important it is to get root systems well established—that goes for movements as well as plants! Two organizations doing essential work that begins at the grassroots are 350.org (action on climate change) and Movement Voter Project (assisting community-level organizing for progressive causes). I especially like the way MVP sends occasional bulletins describing in detail what it has been supporting, and why.
If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.
- What native plants for your region do you particularly love? (If you’re not sure what’s native and what’s not, you can use the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder.)
- Have you been trying in recent years to put more native plants into your garden? If so, what impelled you to do so?
- Do you know of any good sources for native plants in your region? Share a recommendation, please!
- Are there any good grassroots-oriented organizations you would recommend that other readers check out?
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Thanks, as always, for reading, and double thanks for responding!