Hope Is Riddled With Holes

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!

First monarch of the season laying eggs

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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  1. says

    AS I contemplate retirement, I know I will have more time for my design business in earnest. I too have been thinking of how to push the concept of native gardens and plants within the business and get the message out…you have certainly given me hope that it can be done.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Gardens Eye Journal-May 2012

  2. Stacey says

    I love the idea of native garden coaching.I’m from Nebraska, but now write and teach environmental education outside Washington, D.C. What I’m learning is that people plant things like butterfly bushes because they honestly don’t know what to plant or why. As a result, they go with what’s pretty and don’t realize there are more complicated factors to consider. (And, of course, the nurseries aid and abet by pushing the butterfly bush over the Joe-Pye weed and milkweed.) You hit on many good points in this post, and I look forward to future posts from you.

    • says

      Wow, DC ain’t NE! :) I struggle with nurseries–in fact, I’ve stopped going to most of them, order online. I suppose if the consumer doesn’t demand more natives, they won’t be sold. But then again, as a species, we don’t change until we’re forced to. Or we pretend to change for a while (gulf oil spill).
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Oklahoma Fortune Teller

  3. says

    I wish you every success. Even non gardeners are attracted to the wildlife benefits of native plants. It is a slow process changing the message horticulture has ingrained in the minds of so many. Strangely seeing many landscapers “getting it” has been a source of hope for me.
    Gloria recently posted..Pollinators In The Garden In March

    • says

      That’s so true! If we can hook non gardeners on even an aster just because of butterflies and bees, they will surely soon enough go down the rabbit hole with us. Maybe I can give one to my neighbor who mows his lawn every 2-3 days, doesn’t even mulch the clippings, blows, edges for hours every night after work.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Oklahoma Fortune Teller

  4. says

    I feel your pain Benjamin, but I can offer some hope.

    I do a LOT of outreach at community events and you are correct, the biggest hook is the butterflies. I also bring live insects (good and “bad”) in display cases for kids to handle and adults to learn about. I also bring “weeds”…and more men that women will say…”come on…those are just weeds” to their wives….where I jump in with the facts about natives, pointing out that so many are the larval hosts. I also explain about the insects mostly being all good, even the “bad”, since they feed birds. I point out that using chemicals eliminates the bugs which in turn harms the polllinators and remark…hey…we all want nice plump tomatoes. The lightbulb begins to go off in their heads.

    Surprisingly, people don’t equate killing some aphids and grubs with killing pollinators and birds, or limiting their numbers. The 50+ crowd I draw in with the ephiphany that there are considerably less butterflies than when we were kids…right around the 60s when perfect lawns and chemicals came into play. “When’s the last time you saw a firefly” I say.

    The reward, I found, was monitoring the table at the most recent master gardener plant sale. Back in 2009 when I started, maybe 5 people came in and inquired about native plants (and mostly milkweed). This year, 100+ came in asking about how to plant their gardens using natives (it also helps that a week hard freeze in 2011 killed all their exotics). Even more were drawn in by the butterly conversation. A little cudweed and the realization that it is a larval host for a not-often seen butterly is a great sales pitch. I’ve gotten many to say they are going to give a small back area to the “weeds” and a few even vowed to get rid of their pesticides. Education is the key.

    As an aside, one of the power companies had a gal who was a native plant advocate and went to the “powers that be” in her company. Their new landscape is 75% or better natives and the balance is florida-friendly. The president of our club got in early on the landscape plans for a local school because there was an eagles nest. She sat with the landscape architect who was clueless regarding natives. The entire school is now planted with natives…and that planner is now on board with recommending natives to his customers. It’s a slow process, but the movement is moving forward…thanks to your help and many others who are aware. You are doing a good thing!

    Ok, enough of my drivel…..think I’ll go outside and admire some “riddled” milkweed leaves.
    Loret recently posted..2012 Bird Broods II

    • says

      I loved your comment, Loret! I’m trying to get into some local farmer’s markets last minute, and one suggested an info booth like the master gardener booth they often have. We’ll see. Like you, when I started talking “when did you last see x” or “chemicals start a chain reaction” you could really start to see the fog clear a little. I’d LOVE to do a school native garden! YES!
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Oklahoma Fortune Teller

  5. Bertha says

    The idea of starting native plant garden coaching business is ingenious. I think that a lot of businessmen should take a look at the side of being green. And you really have a bright mind to have come up with this amazing plan. And by the way, congratulations on your success! So what native plants are growing in your garden?
    Bertha recently posted..website

    • says

      Well, no success yet. Not one phone call or email. I grow far too many natives to list here, but since my focus is butterflies (and monarchs in particular, though I’m branching out to other lesser knowns) I do: joe pye weed, mountain mint, liatris aspera and ligulistylis, milkweed (not tuberosa–it stinks), new england and smooth asters (A. laevis), culver’s root, coneflowers, ironweed, and various shrubs like ninebark and viburnum. Those are the main ones for me here in Nebraska.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Oklahoma Fortune Teller

  6. says

    I looked and looked for someone with knowledge of native plants for the past 2 years so I would hire you. I have tried in vain to get my neighbors not to mow down all the milkweed along a woods that borders a pond, but I can’t get them away from the mowed grass look so I have my path of milkweed and I saw one monarch already here in western NY. If I am able, I am going to raise some more monarchs this year and take them around to the neighbors to show them..I will keep trying..but it does get depressing when I watch all the lawn spray companies spraying…Michelle

    • says

      Yup yup yup. I always wonder IF I should be gently pushing like you’re proposing. The other day two neighborhood kids stood on my sidewalk staring at me as I planted some seeds. What was that about? A foreign event? Was it my beard? Next time I’m taking them around back to show them the monarchs. Parents too.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Oklahoma Fortune Teller

      • says

        Monarchs are a great hook, but I don’t even think that would sway my neighbors not to mow down the milkweed or stop spraying their properties with chemicals that run into the ponds. Some where along the line we got it into our heads that a green grassy lawn and neat, tidy non-native plants are some kind of status….When one of my neighbors asked me if I was one of those ‘Green Peace naturalists”, my husband replied, “no she wears clothes most of the time”……Michelle

  7. Pershy says

    I have tried in vain to get my neighbors not to mow down all the milkweed along a woods that borders a pond, but I can’t get them away from the mowed grass look so I have my path of milkweed and I saw one monarch already here in western NY.
    Pershy recently posted..How to Make a Solar Panel

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