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Why grow native plants? September 26, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Silence Dogood here. Sitting on my deck yesterday afternoon, I saw the clearest explanation possible for why we should choose to plant the often plainer native plants, or allow them to live and thrive on our properties, when much more stunning cultivated varieties (known in horticulture as cultivars) and species are available.

I’m by no means a native-plant purist. I love my peonies, irises, roses, spring bulbs, chrysanthemums, hostas, Japanese maples, you name it. But I make room for the natives alongside the others: the asters and goldenrods, the gorgeous white-flowered nettles, the milkweeds, the pawpaws, the rudbeckias (black-eyed Susans), the jewelweed along our creek.

Why? Well, because they support life. Last week, at our farmers’ market, I bought some stunning cultivated asters and mums, rich and full, bursting with purple, cream-and-yellow, and red blooms. I wanted to add some color to our deck and eventually plant them out in our yard. Wow, were they colorful!

So there I was, sitting out on the deck enjoying the beautiful afternoon, as the sun began its descent and lit up the leaves of our trees and the foliage of our deck plants. It also happened to light up the blooms of native asters, much paler and lankier than the ones on the deck. And I could see that the blooms were teeming with life, as bees and other insects swarmed over them, collecting pollen and sipping nectar. Looking to the side of the deck, I saw bumblebees galore visiting the orange jewelweed blossoms. Nearby, the white blooms of the nettles were alive with insects.

Meanwhile, there was not a creature to be seen on the souped-up asters or mums on the deck, despite the wealth of flowers. Not one.

I love plants that support all life, not just our life. I allow milkweeds to flourish here because they provide food for monarch butterfly larvae, not just because their flowers are amazing. I grow pawpaws because they provide food for zebra swallowtail larvae, not just because their fruits are so delicious they’re known as “banana custard.” I allow red cedars, generally viewed as a weed tree, to grow here because they provide food and shelter for birds in winter. And I love the clover that grows in our lawn, adding beauty and inviting bees.

I hate it when the nuts crash down from our black walnut, butternut, and shagbark hickory trees every fall. I’m always convinced one of them is going to brain me or our friend Ben or our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, or cause us to slip and break our necks in the dark. Yet these trees provide a wealth of food for squirrels and other local wildlife, just as winter is closing in and they need to build up fat reserves to survive.

Seeing those native asters, lit by the sun, inviting so much life, and seeing the sterile though much more showy version on our deck, really brought the point home to me. Life isn’t just about us. It’s about sharing our beautiful earth. And providing food and shelter for our fellow creatures, rather than creating a sterile landscape solely for our own enjoyment, is the way to do that. No, we don’t have to plant exclusively native plants. Yes, we can allow natives to share our yards with the exotics and cultivated varieties we choose to add for show. In the end, we’ll all be better off.

‘Til next time,



“Wildflowers” on our highways. October 31, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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When our friend Ben and Silence Dogood visited West Virginia a couple of weeks ago, we were shocked and appalled to see great drifts of cosmos blooming merrily in the median strips of the highways. We probably don’t have to tell you that the scenery in West Virginia is spectacular, and we were lucky enough to be there during their peak fall foliage season.

From the trees and shrubs along the roads to the mountains rising on every side, we were surrounded by the glorious reds, scarlets, oranges, golds, yellows, and purples of autumn foliage. We would have liked to see those colors reflected along the roads rather than the soft and hot pinks and cerise of the cosmos, which struck us as jarring, sort of like ordering chocolate mousse and seeing a carrot sticking out of the middle of it.

We also feel that it would be far more appropriate to plant our roadsides with native wildflowers rather than fake “wildflowers”—garden annuals like cosmos introduced from other parts of the world. Real wildflowers and grasses would be easier to care for, too. Rather than having to be replanted every year like the cosmos and babied along all season, once the natives were established, they’d just have to be mowed each fall.

We would have loved to see a colorful mix of asters, goldenrods, black-eyed Susans (rudbeckias), purple coneflowers, and grasses like bluestem (andropogon) brightening the roads with their fall-friendly hues. But Silence raised a good point. We both have backgrounds in horticulture. “If typical drivers and passengers saw this cosmos, don’t you suspect they’d just think ‘How pretty’?” she wondered.

Just two days later, we had our answer when we went to the Tamarack crafts center with the Hays family. As we passed yet another strip of cosmos, Cindy Hays exlaimed delightedly, “Look! Isn’t that beautiful!” 

Hmmm. We still think garden flowers belong in the garden and our beautiful native wildflowers and grasses belong on our roadways. What do you think?