After 500 folks came through my garden on an Audubon tour last Father’s Day, I was prodded to start a native plant garden coaching business. This spring, I had a table at Earth Day and at one of the largest plant sales in the Midwest called Spring Affair—thousands came through each day. At both events I was startled by those who knew little about native plants, and specifically native plants for butterflies—the latter which soon became my hook in a conversation. Everyone wants more butterflies.
“I have butterfly bush, and that gets lots of butterflies.” Yes, it does. It also gets huge and is only a nectar source. And if you plant mountain mint or joe pye weed or milkweed anywhere near, everything with wings vacates the butterfly bush as if it were on fire.
After sharing stories about monarch butterflies—which has become my logo, and so drew in lit-up faces from a distance—I ask if they plant milkweed. “Heaven’s no! Isn’t that a weed? And it spreads.”
And you know what happened to me? I got pumped. I got excited. I rambled off facts in the form of numbers and personal observations. I told them of the many “good” milkweeds like A. incarnata and sullivantii and purpurascens. I said “You can’t have a butterfly without host plants for their caterpillars.” And then I knew I had them, especially the parents with young kids.
Two things I sense—one is that native plants are still thought of as weeds, and the other is that plants should not be eaten by wildlife. I don’t like rabbits gorging on my veggie garden, but when I see milkweed without leaves I sing for joy. When I see holes in viburnum I’m excited to poke around and find out what made them. Chokecherry. Dogwood. Wild senna. Have at you!
Ok, three things. There is absolutely a desire for native plants and sustainable ecosystems even though there’s no real outlet or purveyor of that info. Yesterday I drove by a new / svelte housing division and all those big homes had lots of landscaping—roses, a few non native ornamental grasses, boxwood, you know the drill… professionally landscaped (and likely billed as low maintenance, but native ecosystems are too, and twice the cost if not more). I’m entering the struggle, deeper and deeper, of wondering how to on a larger scale push / force the issue on this topic. For example, a local call-in garden advice show on PBS always pumps chemical sprays for “pests” and diseases, only sometimes saying something like “you don’t have to use that” or “wait and see since it should resolve itself” before jumping in to mentioning “sevin” just in case the caller wants to be more proactive (thus negating any other advice).
I thought I would be preaching to the choir at my two garden events, as I often feel I am here, but I wasn’t—and that was a mix of sadness and optimism. It’s a feeling that comes to define working in and for nature, and is likely how one feels while being a parent or a teacher or anything that requires an emotional investment beyond the usual. At both events kids asked parents to buy a packet of salvia or aster seeds, a small coneflower plant, or a native bee house made out of joe pye weed stalks. Hope. The same hope I see in the riddled leaves of milkweed.
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