By Warren Buckler
When Peg Mohar and I embarked on our Bringing Nature Home project ten years ago, in part as a way for older members to remain active, we had no idea what response we’d get from the gardening public.
Our goal, inspired by Doug Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home,” was to recognize home gardeners, businesses, and public agencies that devote at least part of their property to native trees and wildflowers. These, he argued persuasively, provide the shelter and sustenance that allow birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife to thrive. (We borrowed Tallamy’s book title with his permission.)
We also hoped to change the minds of folks who favor what has become the all too typical approach to landscaping — neatly trimmed, chemically treated expanses of lawn, and flowers imported from afar. Alas, living things are often all but absent from their properties and that has become not just an environmental concern but an economic one.
But, we wondered, is there a significant number of gardeners in our three-county area who share our concerns? Would they bother to fill out applications forms and submit photos?
That first year, in fact, we did get more applications than we hoped. Our follow-up home visits revealed that some plantings were at best modest, but others were gratifyingly ambitious.
In subsequent years we promoted our project with posters and handouts. The response exceeded my expectations. Not only did we discover creatively planned private gardens brimming with natives, we also celebrated the very visible efforts of important local institutions, public and private. Among them were the dune and swale acreage protected by ArcelorMittal in East Chicago; the prairie restoration at Porter County’s Sunset Hill Farm Park; the wildly colorful plantings at the indiana Dunes Welcome Center; the landscaped parking lot at the Porter County Library in Valparaiso; and the extraordinary (there’s no other word for it) prairie at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.
We also had a good time. Peg and Myrna Newgent knew good places for lunch between garden visits. Peg detested the widely planted Bradford pear trees, among the most pernicious of invaders, and expressed her negative feelings whenever we saw one. We urged her to bring a chain saw next time. We marveled at Laura Henderson’s remarkable ability to turn over a leaf, any leaf, and find an interesting caterpillar. I turn over a leaf — nothing!
So, some may ask, what qualified me to stamp around in people’s yards and pass judgment on what they plant or don’t plant. Well, I don’t have any formal credentials but try to learn from listening to smart people and consulting books. I’m also very tolerant. My own yard is a disorganized mishmash of species. Some have been in residence there for centuries. A couple arrived recently from faraway places. I plant what I like.
But I do try to persuade people that the natives are more appealing in their varied colors, shapes, and growth habits and far more nurturing to local wildlife — a benefit if you value bees, butterflies and birds —than the flowers you get at the grocery store.
Already this spring I have had masses of Virginia bluebells and bright yellow wood poppies, along with a few red and white trillium and tiny hepatica.
When they began to fade the columbine and shooting stars had their turn. I enjoy my droopy bellworts and watching the solomon’s seal grow straight up and then arch over as its hanging flowers begin to form. And of course, there’s Jack in the pulpit and cut-leaved toothwort, which were here long before I arrived. Later there will be cup plants and joe-pye weed, causing much excitement among the bees and butterflies. And finally sneezeweed brightens up the fall. Its scientific name, by the way, is Helenium — for Helen of Troy. How’s that for a weed?
And, yes, I have breathtakingly gorgeous peonies, from Japan, I think. I make no apologies.
My interest in plants and gardening goes back to the early days of World War II. I was six. Food and gasoline were rationed and public officials urged citizens to do what they could to provide for their families. In response, my parents laid out a large Victory Garden in an undeveloped area near our house. Within a year, we were harvesting baskets of tomatoes, corn, green beans, cauliflower and more. My mother learned a new skill: canning. We ate lots of good food and were proud of doing our part for the war effort.
Mom, always ahead of her time, refused to use chemicals in her garden, not even fertilizer. (We kids, however, had to brush Japanese beetles into jars of turpentine.) She also built the town’s first compost pile, a source of chemical-free nourishment for her plants. The neighbors considered her totally daffy. In her memory, I maintain a compost bin in our backyard.
I dabbled in gardening as I grew older, always proud of my tomatoes and azaleas, always wary of chemical assistance. But then, about 20 years ago, I wandered into Northwest Indiana and was introduced to a whole new world, horticulturally speaking.
It all began when I encountered [Past Executive Director] Ron Trigg in a botany class at the Field Museum, of all places. After he described his work at Shirley Heinze, I offered a small contribution and signed up for a couple of hikes. I was intrigued by the wildflowers — some of them beautiful, all interesting and most unfamiliar to me. Other hike participants helpfully pointed to them with their hefty walking sticks. (I went on many more hikes over the years and always listened closely to Myrna Newgent, Barbara Plampin and Carol Lerner.)
And then — I don’t recall exactly how it happened — I agreed to work as a member of the organization’s stewardship crew under the stern supervision of Jan Hunter.
I quickly learned to distinguish between two important plant categories: natives and invasives. My job was to get rid of the latter. For six months I hacked, pulled and poisoned garlic mustard, autumn olive, glossy buckthorn and multiflora rose, mostly at Shirley Heinze’s Hidden Prairie and Ambler preserves. With Jan’s encouragement I became familiar with many natives, including my favorites, prairie dock and bottle gentian, both of which I have in my home garden.
My education continued when I went on several trips, organized by the Fernwood nature center in Niles, Michigan, to the annual spring wildflower festival in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We went on long exploratory hikes led by biology graduate students from the University of Tennessee. After we crawled through many dense rhododendron thickets, they told us we qualified as rhodorooters.
Among the many plants that caught my attention were Iris cristata, a small ground-hugging, spreading iris that puts on quite a display in early spring, and the small but beautiful silverbell tree (Halesia carolina). The iris is native to southern Indiana but the silverbell grows mainly in the Appalachians. Both do well in my yard.
I bought other plants at plant sales or from catalogues. I have planted a number of oaks (red, bur, black, white, shingle) because they are said to be especially welcoming to native creatures.
But sometimes plants come uninvited. For instance, long ago when [Executive Director] Kris Krouse was young and rambunctious he arrived at my house clutching two seedlings and said: “These are bald cypress trees that someone gave me and I want you to have them.” Before I could protest, he was gone. Cypress trees are at home in the swamps of southwest Indiana but, like people, I guess they can adjust. I planted both, one survives and keeps getting bigger.
I once came across an ad offering buckler ferns (Dryopteris dilatata). No, they aren’t named for a celebrated or notorious ancestor. They are the British version of what we call shield ferns. I couldn’t resist planting a few. They still grow but I think they’d be happier in Scotland.
After a trip to Isle Royale National Park I planted a ninebark, a plant, some say, only a Michigander could love. It’s a cousin of the rose and produces fragrant flowers in the spring but is quite messy the rest of the time. Maybe that’s why we understand each other.
What’s especially satisfying is that the goals Peg and I discussed a decade ago have now become almost mainstream.
Dr. Tallamy recently published a new book that promotes his idea of a Homegrown National Park, many times the size of Yellowstone. It would be made up of many interlocking private and public parcels planted in wildlife-friendly native flora. The April issue of Smithsonian magazine features a long article about him that includes comments by both supporters and doubters. While opinions may differ, the decline of the beloved monarch butterfly and the honeybee, the latter essential for food production, has drawn widespread attention to his research.
The Minnesota legislature, meanwhile, recently allocated nearly $1 million to support landowners who agree to give up herbicides and allow their lawns to “rewild.” The goal is to make yards more bee-friendly and specifically to save the endangered rusty patched bumblebee. The Xerces Society, a wonderful organization based in Oregon, continues to promote native plantings on farms and in backyards as well on public land. And NiSource, in its annual report, says Columbia Gas of Ohio is “transforming” pipeline rights-of-way into “pollinator habitats,” by planting native grasses, milkweed and, coneflowers. Similar programs are planned in other states.
All of which sounds a lot like progress.
[Warren Buckler is a past Board President of Shirley Heinze Land Trust. As one of the founding members of the Friends of Shirley Heinze, a group of former board members who wanted to remain active, he was instrumental in the creation of the Bringing Nature Home program in 2011. He continues to volunteer his time, expertise, and light-hearted passion for gardening with native plants.]