Fuel for the fire

I know I’ve said it before but it’s good to get out. Yesterday Gail, Julie (our education coordinator) and I went to the Perennial Plant Conference at UCONN in Storrs, CT and came back jazzed all over again about things like native plants and edible landscaping.

Rosalind Creasy has been advocating and demonstrating edible landscaping –beautifully – since at least the early 70’s and we have certainly been playing with the idea here for the last few years too. But now I’m all over the idea for my own garden – all over again. Truth be told, I haven’t been much into planting vegetables at home unless they’re exceptionally pretty. But I’m coming to realize that they’re almost all exceptionally pretty if they’re worked into the design in the right way. Not to mention the benefits of growing your own food. And she makes such a compelling case for replacing lawn (preaching to the choir) – I don’t even have kids but if I did maybe I’d already know they prefer a garden to a blank expanse of turf. Gardens are always more interesting. Plus I came home with her cookbook …

And Doug Tallamy who wrote Bringing Nature Home (a book I have mentioned being excited about before) made an even more compelling case for replacing sterile suburban wastelands (ie. lawn and other exotics). He of course makes the case for planting native species. Tallamy recommends “flipping the age-old landscaping paradigm on its head. Instead of designing where your flower beds will go in a sea of lawn, design where you need lawn for walking spaces and plant the rest of your property with native ornamentals.” And here’s why we should all do that:

As he puts it, “humanity’s life support systems are failing.” We have to remember that the ecosystem provides services such as the air we breathe, water management and purification, food, weather systems, carbon dioxide sequestration, waste recycling and so on, and we have to quit taking all of that for granted. If we lose biodiversity, we literally lose it all. 33,000 species of plants and animals are considered “imperiled” and unable to perform their function within the ecosystem. Not good.

Everything is connected (just like in Avatar) and “insects are key!”, says Tallamy. They convert the energy from plants into food for other animals. Did you know that 23% of a black bear’s diet is insects? (In my family we always joked about all the protein we were getting every time we accidentally swallowed a bug. Turns out to be true.) Trouble is, most insects are specialists who will only eat certain native plants. If you worry about planting things that will just become defoliated and ugly because of all the insects, he says that doesn’t actually happen – and has the data to support it. Something always comes along to eat the insects. That’s how it works – and why it works. Here are his lists of great natives listed in order of how many butterfly/moth species will be supported by them.

I could go on and on … but instead I’ll just recommend reading his book yourself if you haven’t already. And in the next few weeks, take a look around and make a note of what is leafing out. Asian species are generally ahead of the natives by a week or two. Do you need a few more natives in your yard? In my own garden I have decided to evict a few things including a favorite young styrax tree. For one thing I know it can escape cultivation because mine had originally planted itself where it didn’t belong. And for another, it supports a whopping zero native caterpillars. I’ll also be evicting more lawn for vegetables… You too?