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THE FARTHERMOST VIEW

Selected Podpieces

WHY I'VE GONE NATIVE

Spicebush swallowtail baby.
Recently I read an article in Better Homes & Gardens that sets forth a number of terrific principles for natural-looking gardens. It emphasizes grouping both native and non-native plants with similar requirements to create a “natural” look in the garden; to grow the “right plant, right place” in order to effect waterwise, ecological gardening.

What the article left out is my main reason for gardening: the little folk of the Green Meadow and Green Forest, many of whom depend on native plants for their very lives.

We can design our gardens and yards to look “natural” and even “wild,” but if we don’t use plants that the insects and birds and other creatures need for survival, we’re gardening purely for aesthetics. Aesthetics is good; but in this world, “pure” aesthetics is a luxury we can’t afford.

Fewer and fewer landscapes in cities, suburbs, and agricultural areas across North America provide the number and variety of plants that insects, birds, and other wild animals need. In the last decade, the work of Douglas Tallamy and others has alerted us to the importance of home gardens and yards in replacing the diversity of plants that have disappeared, and preserving what we have. The knowledge that our gardens now play a very important role in sustaining biodiversity is exciting and inspiring.

The Monarch butterfly is the best known example of an animal that depends on native plants: we know that the adult Monarch can take nectar from just about any blooming plant, but the larva – the caterpillar – can eat only milkweed. If the adult butterfly can’t find milkweed leaves to lay her eggs on, or if in desperation or confusion she lays them on another plant, any caterpillars that hatch will die.

The Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly needs certain plants for her caterpillars too – spicebush, sassafras tree, or Carolina allspice.

The Pipevine Swallowtail needs a Dutchman’s Pipevine.

And baby songbirds need caterpillars. Just as baby humans don’t chow down on steak for their first meal, baby birds don’t start out with sunflower seeds. Mom brings them juicy caterpillars, which go down easy. According to Tallamy, Chickadee parents need to find around 500 caterpillars every day, depending on the number of chicks. Multiply that by the 16 to 18 days it takes to fledge, and that’s as much as 9,000 caterpillars to raise one chickadee family till they’re old enough to hit the sunflower seeds. And how many plants does it take to raise 9000 caterpillars?

And one reason to make as many of our garden plants native as we can, whether or not we know that our favorite butterflies require them, is exactly that: we don’t know. There are – sorry, but I have to say it – too many Unknown Unknowns. We just don’t know what creatures may die – or go extinct – without the native plants that are growing in our woods and fields.

Unless we are solely concerned with how the garden and landscape look – and even how well the plants grow – we need to pay attention to exactly what plants we’re using. We can arrange them artistically and pop in some introduced ornamentals that will look good (and provide nectar to our bees and butterflies); but foremost in our planning should be the wildlife that depends on the landscapes and gardens we design, and the plants we choose to plant.

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