In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time around people who are knowledgeable about various aspects of the natural world: ornithologists, entomologists, and botanists — both professional and amateur. Like me, most of my friends are passionate about their interests in birds, insects, or plants. Our idea of a good time is heading out into a nature preserve with binoculars and a camera to investigate and document what’s currently blooming or breeding.
We contribute to citizen-science projects, sometimes obsessively. We go birding and enter our bird counts into eBird. We find dragonflies or wildflowers and enter them in iNaturalist. Sounds sort of geeky, doesn’t it? Yeah, it is.
And I love how much richer my life has become since I’ve begun paying closer attention to the natural world. Being a nature geek is a badge I wear proudly.
I’ve begun to think of it as earning “merit badges” in natural history. I’ve got my birder badge, and I’m working on badges for wildflowers, butterflies, and dragonflies. I think my writing on this blog probably qualifies me for some type of badge too, maybe for helping to share what I’ve learned with other people. (Hey, I like this idea of inventing new badges to award myself!)
I’m about to begin work on my next merit badge as an amateur naturalist: Native Plant Gardener. Ever since I read “Bringing Nature Home” (by Doug Tallamy) several years ago, I’ve yearned for a garden where I could begin experimenting with native plants. And now I finally have the perfect opportunity, so I’m going for it.
In North America, native plants are defined as plants that existed in a particular area prior to European settlement of this continent. These plants evolved to thrive in local growing conditions, and are therefore much easier to grow – they need less water, fewer pesticides, and less tending in general. So they save the gardener time and money, for starters. And, just as important, they are food sources for our native insects, so they are an integral part of the web of life.
I’m still studying this, but I’ve learned that the specific chemical composition of each plant makes it edible by specific species of insects. The ability of an insect to digest a particular plant is something that evolved over thousands of years, and if the insect’s food source disappears, the insect will soon follow because it often cannot eat the non-native plants that have taken the place of the native plants.
In this first phase of my project, I’ve started making an inventory of all the trees, shrubs, and flowers that are already growing in my garden. I’m researching them all to find out which ones are natives and which are non-natives, and starting to compile a list of the native plants I’d like to grow here.
My goals are to provide host plants for important pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths. (Fun fact: Did you know that moths pollinate flowers at night in the same way that butterflies and bees do in the daytime? It’s true.) I’ll try to choose plants that are hosts for the insect larvae as well as providing nectar for the adult insects.
In the next few weeks I’ll be removing some undesirable plants, and over the coming winter I’ll be making plans for my first native plant bed. I’m trying hard to restrain my enthusiasm at first, because I don’t want to get in over my head and not be able to handle it all. It’s tempting to go around the yard digging up everything non-native, but that would be the wrong way to go about this. And it would look awful too.
I’ve joined the local chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit association with the mission of promoting “environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.” I’m excited to be attending my first meeting soon and I hope my membership in Wild Ones will accelerate my learning process. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more there still is to learn.
In the meantime, I’m continuing to daydream about the beautiful Ohio prairie flowers that will soon be growing in my yard, and all the interesting insects who will come to live here with them.
Resources: I highly recommend Doug Tallamy’s book, shown above. But if you want a clickable source of more information about why native plants are important, check out this article on the Audubon website (“Why Native Plants Matter”). It includes a video clip of Doug Tallamy, as well as a searchable database that will give you a list of plants that are native to your particular zip code.
[…] Going Native in Toledo – September 6, 2017 — in which I define “native plants” and dream about my garden plans. […]
[…] may recall that I recently wrote about my desire to plant native wildflowers in the yard at my new home. I also mentioned that I had joined my local chapter of Wild Ones, a national organization devoted […]
Wonderful, encouraging post, Kim! We walked in the woods this weekend and found more hummingbirds hovering near jewelweed than we saw at feeders. Thanks for the book recimmendation, too. I plan to check out the book and the author.
You should earn a badge for your work! I heard Doug Tallamy speak in Virginia a few years ago and happy to say he is coming to New Hampshire for a talk on Oct. 1. My reservation is made…
I may pick up that book, Kim. While I am more about whitetail management here – doing what I can to make this place and the orchard deer and mammal friendly, I also hope to bring back native plants to the landscape. It takes a lot of time and patience.
Each night when I take Mr. T and Oscar out to do their business for the last time of the day, I have a high-beam flashlight with me to check for predators. Always, I find moths flittering around in the flowerbeds and yard. Dung beetles are doing their work too. The night time is alive with all sorts of flying insects. And I love that you point out larvae and eggs hidden on plants. It’s all there for us to see and observe if only we take the time. 🙂
Lori, I learned recently that a black light flashlight makes it easier to find caterpillars and other insects at night because they glow. I’ve been walking around my yard after dark with my black light, and it’s amazing what you can see with it! I haven’t found any caterpillars yet, but that might be because my yard is full of non-native plants they can’t eat. But I’m going to fix that and in a couple years I expect to find bushels of caterpillars on my nighttime yard prowls.
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I did not know about a black light flashlight. I’m hoping to have night vision binoculars some day. It sure would make it easier for me to see what lurks around our yard and woods at night!
I already have some natives in my garden, Kim, and even let a lot of the Jewelweed grow wild this year, much to the delight of the hummingbirds, but you’ve inspired me to learn and do more. And, I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do with your space. Thank you for a great post!
Judy, whenever I come across patches of jewelweed in the metroparks, I stop to look for hummingbirds. And very often, I find them. I should add that plant to my yard wish list.
A great and interesting read! Love what you are planning on doing. I can’t wait to have a home of my own with a garden to grow things 😊
Thanks, Rhona. I hope you get your own garden soon. 🙂