My passion for gardening has evolved over the years.
A Real Beginner
My horticultural focus began when, as a newlywed, I purchased my first houseplant–a mother-in-law’s tongue—and 45 years later it’s still going strong!
I bought oodles more houseplants, only slowing down after my husband’s nightmare of being chased by lanky, green monsters!
Our first house had a huge back yard so we thought we’d grow some vegetables. We literally didn’t know beans about growing vegetables, but enthusiasm won out. After innumerable backbreaking hours, we ended up with three delightful (and quite tasty!) sweet peas. That was it, for the whole season. By the next year, with a new baby and a full time job, there was no time left for tending the “farm,” so we mulched it over and put the shiny new swing set there.
In the front, there were yews, roses, and barberry bushes in a bed of dirty white rocks. I actually washed those rocks in a big trash can of water and bleach, then spread them on a layer of fresh black plastic. I didn’t consider soil quality or beneficial insects; my focus was on how it looked and, with baby #2 on the way, making sure it would be easy to maintain.
I wanted welcoming, vibrant spring colors and lush autumn hues in my yard; it was all about the attraction to my human eye.
Deepening My Awareness
On family trips to the Flint Hills of Kansas, I reveled in its endless, meandering vistas. While studying the subtle, yet glorious, prairie grasses and wildflowers, I began to glimpse the relationships between plants and trees, soil and water, insects and wildlife, weather and humanity from a broader and more nature-aware perspective.
This was the first step into my evolution as a gardener.
Yet, I kept planting daylily, iris, burning bush, and spirea. I chose what the garden centers had, based on which colors and forms caught my eye.
We moved to a wooded area where I studied the wildflowers and native trees that I found in my yard.
We installed a rain garden to slow runoff and absorb the chemicals from the front yard (yes, we used fertilizers and insecticides on our lawn … oblivious that bees and butterflies might fly from the backyard woods into the front yard!)
And then we moved to a maintenance-provided neighborhood. Talk about chemicals!!! By this time, I was passionate and knowledgeable about the negative impacts of chemicals in our waterways and their role in worsening the declining populations of beneficial birds and insects.
We planted a native wildflower meadow as a buffer to the neighborhood storm water runoff. I delighted in the progression of bloom and color throughout the season and the shimmer of life within this garden. Knowing that these glorious plants were preventing flooding while providing habitat for frogs and beavers buoyed my spirits!
I began to give presentations about native plants, water quality, and the county cost-sharing funds that are available to help homeowners install native gardens.
And then I took the the Extension Master Naturalist training and that’s where my understanding of the symbiosis between plants, soil, insects, wildlife, air, water, and humans really took root.
I learned how hybridized or non-native garden plants, bred solely for the human eye and often without nectar and pollen, are of zero benefit to our native pollinators.
I learned that luna moths (are they really faeries?) overwinter in fallen leaves. (What?!?! Don’t rake?!?)
We weren’t taught these things in school.
A friend planted milkweeds a few years ago and was delighted to find Monarch butterfly caterpillars happily chewing the leaves, their sole source of food. Appallingly, a well-meaning neighbor plucked the caterpillars off and squashed them all, worried that these “bugs” would destroy her friend’s special Monarch butterfly plant.
We have a lot to learn.
So in my evolution, I now get it: my garden plans could support nature–not just my human aesthetic.
Because the plants I choose can provide chemical-free benefit for all of nature’s seasons–mating, breeding, nesting, feeding, sheltering, and overwintering.
The future of a sustainable humanity depends, without question, on beneficial gardens.
Will you join me in gardening for nature?
Originally published in the Kansas City Gardener Magazine April, 2018.