Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Going Native

As an official “Plant Maniac” there’s no chance anyone is talking me into giving up my rare and unusual plants. Centuries worth of botanists, explorers and nurserymen have gathered, cultivated and shipped stuff across continents and oceans to feed the frenzy of gardening nuts throughout the ages. And I’ve got the bug.

And I’ve been told many times that gardening with non-indigenous or alien plants is not always the “right” way to go. Alien plants are invaders; they don’t “belong” in our backyards. They can overrun our existing plant life; are not as well adapted to our ecosystems as the plants that are originally from here. I can’t argue the facts of nature with these folks, because they’re not wrong.

The dilemma for me has always been that these eco-enthusiasts have faced off with me in an all-or-nothing stance. It’s either I rip out all my foreign ornamentals and replace it with native plants or I’m a bad gardener. Which, frankly, was kind of a turn off. And, besides, I think the aliens are prettier.

Then, last week, I attended a lecture by Doug Tallamy, the author of “Bringing Nature Home,” and my world changed. Professor Tallamy, who teaches Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, got my attention by telling us no matter how many butterfly bushes we planted, it was of no use if we didn’t have plants for the caterpillars that become the butterflies to eat as well.

Duh!! Of course I knew that I should have milkweed for the Monarch caterpillars, but he went further by pointing out that if I didn’t have native plants that the native bugs and other crawly things could eat, I wouldn’t have the birds and little mammals who eat the native bugs, and without them, there’s nothing for the bigger carnivores to eat, and, voila, we end up in a natural wasteland. A dead zone where there’s lots of color and flowers but very little other life. Sure birds like berries, he told us, but they feed their young mostly insects, and if there’s no bugs in your backyards, the baby birds are going to go hungry.

Then he told us that an Oak tree could support 532 species of caterpillars while a Zelkova supported 0. I was staggered. It had never even occurred to me to think of these kinds of plants as butterfly food, but there you had it. Oaks are yummy.

But wait, I thought, but if we have all these caterpillars etc eating my plants, they’ll look nasty and holey. It was like the professor read my mind, because he then explained, that when the insect life is back in sync with the rest of the world, more birds will return and when those birds populations get back to higher numbers again, my bugs will be kept in check. Back in the way nature had it all worked out for those millions of years it existed before we started to meddle with it. Hmmm.

In addition, there was no scolding for the plants I already owned or even the ones I still coveted. Instead, he suggested that I just add a few natives back into the mix. Give up some of my lawn he recommended. We have over 40 million acres of lawn in this country by the way, a number that is ridiculous. And if you don’t have a lot of lawn to begin with, just tuck them under trees, or at the corner of the house or in the front up by the road, even a few will make a difference.

Let some violets invade the lawn and you’ll make 29 crawling things available to those starving babies.

Not sure you have room for asters? How about if there are 112 moths & butterflies that would say thank you? I’m going to let some mingle with my perennials.

Blueberries support 288 critters, not including the two-legged short wearing ones that also enjoy their harvest, and they take some shade, so they’ll work almost anywhere.

And if you’re thinking about a shade tree, and want excellent fall foliage why not go for Acer rubrum, the Swamp or Red Maple that provides 287 different tasty birds snacks.

So the good professor has a convert. And although I’m not giving up my rose addiction, I’m now thinking there are 73 more reasons for me to indulge my passion for Sunflowers.

Paige Patterson has seen only one Luna moth in the wild. Now she’s planting to try and attract number two.

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