Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Journey So Far

A little more than a year ago, our first native plants went in.  Since then as you probably already know, we've decided to totally replace all our landscaping with native plants.  This endeavor still seems overwhelming as I walk through our suburban residential lot and see all the non natives that remain.  Two months ago, as I started to write about all the things I've learned, I got a painful attack of writer's block.  (Don't worry - the doctor said it's not contagious.)   With every new thing I learned, I discovered twelve more related things I wanted to know.  The list of lessons is pretty darn large now.  So I'm just highlighting three major lessons from the year.

Common Blue Eyed
First is patience. Actually I haven't learned patience. I've learned I need patience. (Lord, give me patience, and do it right now!) Some of our first plants were young native prairie plants. They evolved long ago to suit the environment they lived in. These guys become deep rooted, often 15 feet or more to help create the water reservoirs and drainage routes necessary for a healthy environment.. They also take time to get established. I guess that's one of the reasons they are so susceptible to the aggressive nature of non-native invasive plants. The tiny Little Blue-Eyed Grass plugs that worked all last year to get established showed us their stuff this spring with striking, yet delicate blue flowers.  On the other hand, the Prairie Smoke I wrote about last year has grown several times larger than the dime I originally compared it to. However working through this year's drought it continued to push those roots down. It did try to bloom and show the smoke like fruit but the heat and dryness kept it focused on drilling deeper. 

Just one load of Honeysuckle
removed from our backyard
in one day
I've also learned how important it is to stay on top of invasive plant removal. Last year I was more diligent than ever in pulling every Garlic Mustard, Honeysuckle, Buckthorn, and Multi Flora Rose we found. This spring's generous display of woodland wildflowers showed us the effort was worthwhile. The gentle slopes of our woodland ravine were filled with Trout Lily, Spring Beauty, Spring Cress, Cut Leaf Toothwort, Rue Anemone, and Jacob's Ladder. These displays were followed by Wild Geranium, Virginia Waterleaf, Round leaf Ragwort, and May Apple.  
Early Trout Lily nestled at base of decaying log
Most importantly, I've learned native plants are a critical part of the great web of life to which we all belong.   All life depends on plants.  All animals either eat plants directly or eat creatures that eat them.  By far, the largest group of these animals is insects.  As Doug Tallamy teaches in his book, "Bringing Nature Home", insects can only eat the plants they evolved with - native plants.  Without insects flowers wouldn't turn into fruit, birds would have nothing to feed their young, and if we existed at all, the world would be a pretty uninspiring place.  A great example of this dependence is the Monarch Butterfly.  It has to have Milkweed in order to survive.  The female Monarch only lays her eggs on this group of plants.  When these eggs hatch, milkweed is the only food the caterpillars can eat.  Simple:  No Milkweed, no Monarch Butterflies.  With the wholesale eradication of Milkweed plants, this stunning creature is in real danger of becoming only a memory.  So if you want Monarchs to survive, plant some Milkweed in your yard.  The Milkweed we planted last year has produced multiple generations of Monarchs this season while it also provided nectar for many other pollinators and food for scads of other creatures.  As the natural landscaping organization Wild Ones says, we are "Healing the Earth one Yard at Time."  I think we see this healing going on in our own yard.  In just one year's time, we've realized more wildflowers, birds, and butterflies, lower water bills, and life somehow seems more interesting and serene. 

Newly emerged Monarch

(Here's a five second video of a Giant Swallowtail nectaring on one of our Swamp Milkweeds.  http://youtu.be/KEyxOmU3BIc  Three different generations of Monarch used this one plant on which to lay their eggs.  The eggs hatched into very tiny caterpillars.  These young creatures ate the leaves, molting 4 times while they outgrew their skins.  Eventually the caterpillars matured, formed a chrysalis, and later miraculously emerged as Monarch butterflies.  Today I found another egg on this plant.  In about 28 days a butterfly that started as this egg will  hopefully survive and migrate the 3,000 miles to Mexico for the winter.  If you listen carefully, you can hear birds in the background. )

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