About the time I was becoming aware of environmental issues, I was also becoming acutely aware of the real history and plight of Native Americans. Earth Day had just happened, ecology was the buzz word, and who could forget the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign with the Native American coming ashore to pollution and litter which debuted in 1971. Then there was the landmark 1970 book by Dee Brown, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” which detailed the history and trials of Native Americans, and movies like, “Little Big Man” and “Billy Jack” which spoke of the atrocities endured by native peoples in history and still to this day. And I have come to realize how significant it was that these 2 issues overlapped right about that time given the fact that Native Americans are strong believers in being stewards of the land and greatly respect the earth and all its creatures.
Both of these issues, the environment and Native Americans, greatly influenced me as I moved from middle school to high school. They still affect me to this day. They have stayed with me and I believe have influenced who I am as a gardener; what I plant, how I plant, and my garden designs.
And as Native Americans have long advocated for us to be caretakers of the Earth, I find it is my responsibility as a gardener to do just that. Sure we can argue the facts about whether or not there is global warming, what are the best options for fuels or hundreds of other environmental issues. But no matter what you believe, it is our responsibility to keep the air and water clean and make sure we do no harm to animals or plants. And that responsibility is person to person. One small thing can make all the difference. And all these small things add up-yes they do.
So for me there are no excuses. I try do my part as a responsible gardener. I use the correct plants for the conditions thereby reducing water consumption. I have cut out the use of chemicals so animals, birds and insects are not harmed. I put in a pond and shelter for birds and animals to thrive. But I think the most significant and responsible thing I have done so far has been the use of native plants. I was formally introduced to the concept of native plants a few years ago at a symposium. As I learned more about the environmental issues of today, I kept hearing about native plants. While there are still differing definitions of these plants in essence native plants are those that evolved naturally in North America. They are specific to certain areas and regions of the country and have adapted to similar growing conditions. As a gardener it seemed a no-brainer that we would want to use plants in our landscape that are native to our region. After all they are more hardy, require no fertilization or additional water, help reduce erosion and are vigorous growers. They create what is called “low-maintenance” gardening. Then there are benefits to wildlife. The easiest way to attract wildlife (birds, butterflies, hummingbirds) is to plant natives because they are a great source of food and shelter.
So I have been slowly adding more native plants into the landscape. And what do you think has happened. I have pollinators galore. I see bees from March until late November. I have so many types of birds visiting, eating, drinking and bathing in our yard I could just spend the whole day doing nothing but watching them. Butterflies in many colors and sizes flit from echinacea to Joe-Pye and then on to asters and liatris from spring through fall. And the hummingbirds. They are constantly around the yard. I find I don’t need to put up feeders for birds or hummers. I would rather use the food the native plants supply. The seed heads of many plants like echinacea, rudbeckia and heliopsis supply seed all season into late fall when I may cut them down. Hummers have an endless supply of nectar from natives-lobelia, honeysuckle, bee balm, phlox and red columbine.
And I have found I love using native plants in my garden not just because they are more environmentally responsible, but they also are less work and more interesting. Natives come in many shapes and sizes; there are perennials, shrubs, and trees to choose from. The pictures I am using for this post are all natives that I grow in my garden. They are some of the most beautiful and unusual plants I grow. And definitely the most prized. Besides their uses, benefits and beauty, there is also the historical significance of many natives. Native Americans and early European settlers used native plants for food, medicine and dyes.
Recently I gave a talk on native plants to a local group of gardeners. I thought maybe by using native plants and telling others about them more people may follow suit. Since I can only really control what I do, then I know I am doing my part to be a steward of the land I own. It may only be a small patch of land, but I want it to be natural, clean, and animal and insect friendly.
Kahil Gibran said in his poem, On Beauty…
“It is not the sap within the furrowed bark, nor a wing attached to a claw,
But rather a garden for ever in bloom and a flock of angels for ever in flight”
So I will continue to be responsible for my land. In this way I am ensuring my welfare, what I can control, which I hope will add to the welfare of our world. And without getting preachy, I challenge you to try to do the same. Do your little part. If we don’t then who will. What legacy do you choose to leave your children?