Why I Grow a Native Garden

“Sir, your garden is full of weeds!” – “My friend, the native birds and bees are all delighted to feed on our local Butterfly-weed, Ironweed, Jewelweed, Joe-pye-weed, Milkweed, Pokeweed, and other native foods familiar to their genetic history, which are happily growing in my garden”.

Initially I naively thought that native plants would look after themselves and one could a have an idyllic, self-maintaining, riverside forest glade needing nothing done to it but the making of initial plantings.

The plants native to this area do grow readily here but they were not the ones that were growing when I arrived.  In Perrysburg, Ohio, we have traces of nearby ancient Black Swamp fertile humus over clay. A few miles distant are the Oak Openings sand ridges with a completely different flora and fauna.  These two soil systems support unique and tempting plants but neither system immediately describes the clay of our site where the river has washed away most of the fertile top soil, and the construction of: houses, an old and abandoned ‘hydraulic canal’ and buried sewer pipes has removed the ‘remnant’ earth of ancient days from before the arrival of us current ‘invaders’.  Such ‘remnant’ soil, if it were only available, would be ideal for the re-establishment of the original flora and fauna of the old savannah.

I was surprised to see that the widespread alien English Ivy and Japanese Honeysuckle offered no nutrition to our native Ohio caterpillars, and yet the many foreign English sparrows and Japanese beetles here happily fed on the Ohio native plants. I later read that butterfly larvae are picky eaters and look for familiar food, while plants are slow to evolve the bitter tasting protective juices needed to resist many beetle invaders.

I manually pulled out the aliens – the Asian Trees of Heaven (Ailanthus) were the biggest challenge. Sadly their good looking companion Ailanthus bugs went with them:but the rotting Ailanthus stumps are producing some interesting mushrooms. 

So, after vainly trying many different native species, I started listening to what the plants were telling me and began to grow: River Oat grass, Meadow Sunflower, Jacobs Ladder, Ferns, Jewelweed, Nine Bark, Pussy Willow and other natives,with good success. But not before being seduced by the Ohio spring ephemerals:Bloodroot (above), Spring-beauty, May-apple, Trilliums, Trout-lily, Dutchman’s breeches, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Wild-ginger, all of which can now make the exciting announcement that winter has finally ended in our back garden.

These early spring successes did not tell me they needed protection against the later seasonal invasion of the aliens: Myrtle, Indian Strawberry,Ground-ivy, Garlic-mustard, escaped Yellow Archangel, etc., etc..

We are still seeking the perfect native plants which will come later in the year and protect the spring ephemeral sites without overwhelming them.  Poke-weed, and Goldenrod:do grow well but seem to be too aggressive. Wild Senna, Snakeroot and Wingstem also flourish in the hard clay but even they might not leave enough room for our precious ephemerals?

To my great delight I found the native plants were starting to support a zoo of native animals: Monarch butterflies and a wide variety of weird and wonderful caterpillars:

Fox Snakes, Mink:

and many birds including migrating Warblers (below in a Redbud tree),

White Pelicans, Sandhill cranes, and even an uncommon pair of Red Headed Woodpeckers

The smaller ‘bugs’ have been most fascinating when one stops to peer at them closely:

These Striped leaf-hoppers:love the Jewel-weed plant (it has a water-shedding leaf: rain drops bead up on it and roll off like water from a duck’s back): 

Hiding under its leafy canopy is a beautiful flower:

Realizing that this location is one small step on two unofficial wildlife corridors: one running NE to SW, parallel to the Maumee River, as taken by the Monarch butterflies travelling between Quebec, Canada and Mexico, and the other taken by Warblers migrating between the Caribbean and NW Canada, I am now trying to entice them all to stop over for dinner on edible patches of native plants and bugs, hopefully visible from the air.  The latest effort has been a transplant of 40 Milkweeds, complete with their long horizontal roots, down to the river bank, from out front by the street where air turbulence from traffic tumbled the poor Monarch butterflies.

So I have learnt to plant natives, extirpate aliens, and never use any poison insecticides, herbicides or fungicides.  The results continue to amaze. One only has to learn to observe properly.

Meanwhile I hope that this small effort, by deed and example, can help a little to stem the current loss of so many species in our rapidly changing world.  Are you old enough to remember when a car windshield was heavily smeared with dead bugs after a short summer evening drive?  That does not happen now.  Why have those bugs gone? And what can we do to save the handful that are left?

Snow Stories and Ice Incidents

December 2017 and the first half of January this year have been very cold in Perrysburg, Ohio.

The frost patterns on my old, non-sealed, manual storm-glazed windows were fascinating as always: Are these frost lines built molecule by molecule showing us precise angles that exist at that very small level? How else can such a thin line be grown so straight?  And then sometimes they curve, to follow perhaps the fine line of a window cleaner’s scratch?  Some other lines must be following isotherm lines showing heat flow currents?

Brendan pointed out similar patterns in BBC videos, findable on You-Tube, where people are freezing soap bubbles and watching the frost fronds grow – in time lapse movies?  One very cold and windy night I thought of going outside to make one, but never got there. Now it is too warm.  Anyone ever tried it?

Last month these sundogs at our local Fort Meigs forecast the good snow to come:though if you want to see some really great dogs go to the recent APOD image at

The cold made very beautiful, fine snow for 20 days of excellent cross-country skiing even though it lacked the base of heavy wet snow which usually falls first.  I only skied 18 of them because for two days it was below 10 F (-12 C) which is uncomfortable, unless the sun is shining and there is no wind.

The fine snow was almost too fast, and then got even faster as we skied it.  Peter D in Calgary told me how to iron in the blue ‘Glider’ wax I’d bought years ago in a Finland summer visit.  A dedicated domestic iron now lives in the basement for the new task.  So speed is no longer an issue.  But without a frozen groove set in the snow it was hard to control the direction of the skis.

A few day’s work had cleared the fallen trees and branches in the wilderness areas.  Fortunately two new skiers to the trail, Michael B and Bill T helped set the track.  So conditions were superb.  Now, Jan. 22, it is warm and the bees are flying!  The fun has ended but some of us hope for more in a few days time.

My lovely iPhone trail mapping ap. from Sierra Club stopped working when the latest ‘upgrade’ to the phone operating system was installed. Fortunately there are many other similar aps. out there (in cyberspace).  My latest one is “Topo Maps+” which, for a few $$, supplies great map detail.  But it will not email the resulting map (for copyright reasons?).  A “screen dump” used to give me a Photoshopable copy but the new iPhone op system now seems to block that too.  Finally, mailing the phone screen-dumped image to my laptop and then taking a “Print Screen” image of that at last gave me a file I could edit and annotate in Photoshop!

So here is this season’s Cross-Country Ski Map. From the Riverside Park Cannons to Fort Meigs and back is  3.74 miles, with an elevation change of reportedly about 200 ft.

The blue arrow indicates the ski trail starting at the USS Constitution (replica) Cannons at Riverside Park.  Follow the blue trail through the woods, into Orleans Park along the river, under the bridge, alongside Crooked Creek, around Fort Meigs (Clockwise for best speed), and back.  The more people who ski it the better it gets. Please come and join the fun!

Pay close attention to the section at the service road the west side of Fort Meigs.  Note the many contour lines close together!  Even cross country skis can get to 20 mph on this one.  Stick to the right hand side of the service road for good  grass conditions under the snow. Two days ago, on thin snow, I foolishly stayed to the center of the road but contacted the gravel surface.  Even at slow speed, gravel quickly stops skis while momentum keeps the skier’s body moving forward, for a little time at least!

More unexpected adventures were had in the Orleans Park section. Four days ago the ice break up created a dam – the Maumee river rose, flooded my ski trail, froze, and then subsided, leaving a thick flat ice slab poorly supported by shrub stems and such.  Under the ice was air, and then water below that. But the ice was unsupported by water and so had no strength.  It all resulted in one very cold wet skier.

Getting to one’s feet again is surprisingly awkward when immersed in cold wet, slippery ice, with nothing good to hold onto and with feet fastened to underwater skis!  Any tips anyone?

Back home about a thousand Canada geese have gathered from a large surrounding area at the only open water hole, and are leaving a large amount of phosphorous containing material to feed the summer river and lake algae.

The only other birds, apart from the local waddling ducks, are about 20 very elegant Mergansers which are far too wild to be photographed up close.

A Perspective Puzzle:

The top 4 or 5 ft. of this vertical slab of ice, about 50 ft. away, viewed edge-on in the photo above with the camera pointing due North, and with its lower edge firmly resting about 6 ft. underwater in the Maumee mud, has a strange perspective property.  When seen from about 15 deg. to the right side (camera pointing NNW) it seems to tilt slightly to the left. See photo below:

But when viewed from about 90 deg. around to the left side (camera pointing due East), see below, where its true (parallelogram?) shape can perhaps be better imagined, it seems to take on a huge tilt to the right. I assure you, it is still vertical but to me it does look like a good sloping launch ramp for some adventurous jumper.

Maurice C suggested making a video while I walk past it.  You can see that in the link below.  The perspective illusion still there.

Of course there is a U-Tube example of a similar effect which Maurice showed me. You can find it by Googling “Amazing Rooftop Illusion “ or at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ui6j-j1jXcE

Winters on Toronto Island

The best story this month was the New York Times article by Catherine Porter on the winter activities of the Toronto Islanders: shinny; ice boating; even polar bear dipping.  But there was no mention of cross-country skiing: That was where I first learned the sport 50 years ago.  David Hendry found you could buy very old wide wooden skis for about $2 at the then politically incorrectly called (but perhaps accurately because those skis had the old and dangerous ‘rat trap’ bindings) “Crippled Civilians” store on Jarvis Street.  It is now the “Goodwill store.  We planed the sides down to about 2/3 of their original width and got great cross-country use out of them.

The NYT article should be available at:

Here is a poor photo of it in case the above link doesn’t work:

Time now to take down the Xmas decorations:

A Very Happy and Peaceful New Year to All.

We’d love to see you on the Trail!

Caterpillar Cuisine: How to Grow Bugs and Feed Birds

Professor Douglas Tallamy came to town last summer and gave a great lecture, with stunning bird images, at Toledo Zoo on the valuable role we can all play in providing clean, native garden spaces for butterflies, which lay eggs, which hatch into what I call picky-eater caterpillars, (they much prefer to eat certain native plants), which are then fed to hungry baby birds.

Native bugs have evolved over time, along with native plants, to co-exist with their toxic defenses.  Such bugs are called ‘specialists’ by the entomologists.  Native plants, such as Milkweed which has a special relationship with the Monarch caterpillar, are vital to the survival of these specialist insects.  Other plants, like the native Oak tree can host over 100 different species of caterpillars.  But 90 percent of butterfly and moth larvae eat only particular plants or groups of plants.  Desiree Narango, a doctoral student with the University of Delaware says: Nonnative trees may support insects, but they do not support the insects that the native birds want and need to feed to their young.
So I’m sorry to be losing my spectacular alien Tree of Heaven bug (Ailanthus Webworm), see photo below – such is the price of progress!

The key fact is that we need to have native plants if we want native insects to survive.
Tallamy says: While adult birds may eat a wide variety of seeds and insects, their babies only thrive on fresh insects and caterpillars.  According to Dickinson (Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1999), 96% of the terrestrial North American bird species feed their young with insects and other arthropods.  So if we plant only lawns of alien green grass, or if we spray a hybrid cultivar flower garden with insecticides, we will have no butterfly eggs, no caterpillars and hence no food for the next generation of baby birds, and therefore no more adult birds.

Some of the butterflies are spectacular, as are some of the caterpillars.  Here are a few that I found in my native garden last summer:

Incidentally many of these hairy ones should not be handled. Their hairs are like glass or asbestos fibers and could reportedly harm us!

Some are very hard to find, but when you see holes in leafs, or empty chrysalis cases, then you know some nibbler, or its metamorphosis, can’t be far away.

This little one went totally unseen, until it moved – like an inchworm – along the flower stalk.

The caterpillar camouflages itself with flower parts stuck to its back.

This colorful caterpillar was not so lucky:
While I was trying to get a good photo, a wasp (alien European Paper I think) landed, stung it, stripped off and rolled up the caterpillar’s skin, leaving the digestive system full of fresh leaf juice on the leaf, and then flew off with the meat, presumably to its nest, all in the space of a few minutes.
There is no end to the variety:


I’m told this one is an Ohio native Giant Silkworm Luna Moth caterpillar.  It was at a nature show and not in my garden. I’d love to see it there:
Farmers are prisoners to the economics of cost-effectively producing the food that we so selectively and cost-consciously purchase.  They fertilize and spray as needed to produce a commercially viable crop.  By contrast, we home-owners have a totally free choice as to what we can do with the little bits of vacant land around our houses – or perhaps it is not a ‘free’ choice but rather a huge moral obligation to do the right thing: stop poisoning the earth and stop driving species into extinction at a rate greater than that of the great asteroid impact crater: Chicxulub, Gulf of Mexico, about 66 million years ago, and start saving our native species before they are lost forever.

The answer is simple: make room for native plants by removing the aliens.  The native plants will grow native bugs which will be fed to the native baby birds. You don’t need artificial fertilizers (nobody is measuring the cost effectiveness of your yield) and you certainly do not need insecticides.  Yes, there will be considerable manual work involved but we will all be physically and mentally the better for doing it.

So I’m extirpating (by hand) Myrtle, Chinese Tree of Heaven, Japanese Honeysuckle, English Ivy, Wild Strawberry and more before they cover my garden.  Replacements with Jewel Weed, Milkweed, Wild Senna, Cardinal Flower, Jacobs Ladder and others are slowly taking deep root.  Another blog will show some more of the colorful fauna they have already encouraged.

This moment made all the work worthwhile.  A local Junco was so happy to find native Prairie Dropseed grass seeds in the snow covered garden:

If you need more details I happily recommend Doug Tallamy’s classic book on the topic: “Bringing Nature Home” or “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”, published by Timber Press.