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?