Native Plants in Gardens: Is there Progress?

At a remote fly-in cottage this past summer, I came across a well-aged copy of Cottage Life magazine from June 2003,  which featured an article by Lorraine Johnson: “The Natural Garden”. Lorraine has been writing about using more native plants in gardens since 1995’s The Ontario Naturalized Garden.

Lorraine and I served on the board of the North American Native Plant Society at the same time. I sought out and saved many of her native plant gardening magazine articles from that time but I missed this one in Cottage Life. Like the others, it is a fine article full of useful and accurate information, written in Lorraine’s light, sometimes humorous, style. I’d like to be able to say that I have visited many cottages in the intervening years where the plant choices reflect an increased awareness, thanks to the efforts of Lorraine and others, but I can’t.

Remote cottages in the north woods seldom see any gardening efforts at all, which is just fine, and the most ecologically responsible approach. However, more accessible cottage areas are increasingly turning into a new suburbia, carpeted with the same few, cheap-to-produce, often invasive, plants that make suburban gardens so dreary and lifeless.

Also last summer, a local gardening society Michael and I belong to offered two garden tours of large country gardens nearby. According to the write-up, one garden was entirely devoted to hostas, the other to day lilies. Now, I do quite like some hostas and am appreciative of their merits, and if I had a small, shady urban garden, I suspect I would be growing a few hostas. They are easy; they stay put. So easy, they are the mainstay of people who own a piece of land but have no real interest in husbandry of the land. I cannot imagine, being interested in, and skilled enough in gardening, to proudly open my garden to visitors and yet have so little interest in the natural world as to fill a garden with plants that have so little connection or meaning. Needless to say, I was not interested in visiting these gardens.

In the news this summer was a story about lack of compliance of cottagers at Meech Lake in Gatineau Park with a regulation regarding shoreline restoration. Essentially, the cottagers have had 4 years to plant some native wetland species in a strip at the edge of the lake to try to counter the ecological degradation in the lake, and more than 80% have not done it. Native plants are not difficult, not punishment. What’s not to like about more dragonflies and hummingbirds? Who so hates blue flag iris that they must break the bylaws to avoid planting a few?

Although the internet, and social media, and blogging has connected me to other native plant enthusiasts, I wonder if we are merely preaching to the choir. A few gardening bloggers have posted recently about hearing Doug Tallamy talk — if you haven’t yet read Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, it should be on your list — and some of the comments were the same dispiriting things I have been hearing for years.

For the record, native plant gardeners are not purists, nor tyrants. Nobody wants to take away your peonies and tulips. We all agree the gardens are for enjoyment. Just, please, tip the balance a bit by including  more plants that have connections to the ecology of the place. Because so many North American natives have been neglected by horticulture, learning about native plants actually increases the choices gardeners have to make their gardens colourful and fragrant and easier to maintain. Yes, we ask you to please not grow the invasive purple loosestrife, but in its place we offer prairie blazing star, rough blazing star, New York ironweed, Virginia meadow-beauty, shining rose,  Douglas spirea and many others.

DSCN0528The Ye Olde Gardening Emporia are full of twee crap* from China: facsimiles of the real birds and dragonflies and butterflies and bees that  impoverished non-native plant selections banish from gardens. Bird-feeders are everywhere while actual birds are decreasing in variety and in absolute numbers. I think Liveliness is a quality that, for most gardeners, and garden visitors, adds to enjoyment, and is a quality that many are seeking.

*Full disclosure: I actually own some twee Made-in-China garden crap, only when I own it, it’s not twee, it’s whimsical (or so I tell myself); it is a small addition to a garden where we try to restore ecological diversity through planting native plants.

Wild fruit photos

All those native perennial plants with great fruit for the birds of which I have written? I have to show some pictures. The selection is by no means exhaustive: trilliums and twisted stalks, blue cohosh and mayflower, starry false Solomon’s seal and bunch berry, and many others are not shown. Spikenard and poke and other star players are featured…

Fruit of Solomon's seal, Crawford Lake CA, September 2011.

Continue reading Wild fruit photos