Thursday, December 24, 2009

Curb Appeal, Co-existence & The Wildlife Garden

When the Home Bug Garden first started, I was worried that the neighbours might think I was an eccentric bugger with an eyesore frontage. As grass disappeared and the uniform mulch gave way to increasingly irregular eruptions of ‘wildflowers’, unmanaged horticultural variants of former wildflowers, grow-where-they-wish shrubs, and fallen autumn leaves, any claim to conformity with community norms was quickly lost. Nonconformity is rarely valued in our culture and under the relentless barrage of a monolithic media we are increasingly given one view of what is true, what we should think, and what we should not. Nonconformity, even in science, is denigrated and demonized. Living in Alberta, of course, I do have 6-7 months of a kind of conformity every year – the blanketing snow.

In Queensland, not smiling and saying hello to someone on a neighbourhood street would be unusual. Perhaps it is the constant sunshine, but an easy if superficial friendliness is the norm. Canadians seem far less welcoming to strangers on the street. I think the weather here encourages one to mind their own business and get where they are going before they freeze or are hailed upon. Most of those hurrying past the Home Bug Garden don’t stop to smile and pass the day. Those that do, however, have been uniformly pleasant and positive about my ‘woodland’. Even a door-knocking politician claimed to ‘like what you’ve done with your yard’. Well, maybe this office-seeker was just relieved there wasn’t a slavering dog or an old car up on cinderblocks. Still, none of these passersby had to say anything at all about the yard, let alone say something nice about something that is far from finished.

Of course, when neighbours ask, I am careful to describe my gardening as ‘wildlife friendly’, not as ‘bug friendly’: birds, bees, and butterflies come readily to my lips, wasps, spiders, and maggots almost never. I know then that I am on safe ground, because Wikipedia has pages for ‘Wildlife Garden’ and ‘Butterfly Gardening’. Never a reliable source of facts, Wikipedia, in its own 1984-ish kind of way, is a good guide to what are acceptable dogmas, politically correct attitudes, and proper forms of self expression. And according to Wikipedia (this morning anyway): “When one wildlife gardens, one acts always in accordance with the idea of keeping plants that are native to the area preeminent in the garden.” Sounds like a reasonable formula, I mean ‘native plants = native insects = native birds etc.’, right?

So how does one tell that a plant is ‘native to the area’? Unfortunately, ‘native’ isn’t a scientific term, but a collection of cultural concepts. As an adjective, it comes to us from Old French via the Latin ‘nativus’ for ‘produced by birth, innate, natural’. Appropriate to the season, ‘native’ has the same root as ‘nativity’, but also less savory derivatives such as ‘nativism’ and when used as a noun in Latin referred to a ‘natural slave’ – one born into bondage. As well as a plant bound to an area by birth, a ‘native plant’ is often taken to mean one that lived in an area ‘before people’ or, in a racist way common among some ideologies in North America, ‘before white people’.

The part of Edmonton that I live in was developed after World War II from a mixture of farmland and wetland. The wetland probably existed before European colonization, so its plants would count as ‘native’ by one usage. A pond is a great addition to any wildlife garden, but who wants to live in a slough?

Possibly there was some aspen forest earlier. That would be better, but if I converted my yard into an aspen forest there’d be little sun, lots of mosquitoes, clogged water and sewage pipes (aspen is bad), no veggies, and not many flowers. I suppose the largest plant in my garden is a ‘native’ spruce, so perhaps I could argue that I meet the ‘preeminent’ criterion, but a spruce forest would be a dark and oppressive place to live. If we try to expand our concept of ‘native’ and treat all peoples as equal, then the Clovis culture (~11,500-13,000 years ago) left the earliest human artifacts anywhere near here. But back then glacial ice covered all and algae was the only likely ‘native plants’. No thank you, I don’t think that kind of garden would be at all good for wildlife.

Should wildlife gardening be fun or a chore? Does ‘native’ have to imply a slavish devotion to what once grew in an area? Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a page called ‘Native Plant’ and (at least this morning) starts out with a not unreasonable definition: “A Native plant is one that develops, occurs naturally, or has existed for many years in an area.” Since I usually cannot afford the most recent horticultural fads and have no interest in putting in plants that are not going to develop, I think that a functional Home Bug Garden can be built around this concept of ‘native’. Moreover, such a garden could become a refuge of diversity in the increasingly developed and depauperate blotch of an ever-expanding Edmonton. Could be fun too.

Even for someone who has no interest in insect conservation, gardening does not have to be incompatible with bugs. Perhaps the biggest barrier is in the vegetable garden, because it is unfortunately true that there are a lot of insects that are far more efficient at harvesting our crops than we are. Tomatoes, potatoes, beets, spinach, radishes, arugula, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, and the like host far too many pests and many are of little use to foraging bees and butterflies. If you let your mustards (arugula, radish, and others in one of those plant families with two-names: Brassicaceae or Cruciferae) bolt they provide bees with some solace. Solanaceae (tomato, potato, pepper, ground cherry, eggplant) are better. But beans and peas (Fabaceae-Leguminosae) are probably the best veggies for bees. The more acceptable insects and the not too entomophobic gardener, however, can share the wealth of culinary herbs without any worries. That will be the topic of the next post.


  1. I have also had a range of reactions to our front garden - from curses to an almost tearful appreciation (this from a young girl and her grandfather who came to tell me how much it reminded them of her deceased grandmother's garden). I make no claims for the beauty of our front garden, but it is diverse in plants, lively in life and ever-changing. What annoys me most is the majority who walk by without even a glance - those who seem to have no interest in what the garden represents in an urban area. If that sort of indifference and lack of curiosity is typical of the population than what hope have we in the long run of conserving our wild places?

    I hope you and Heather had a good Christmas!


  2. Well, no one has cursed my garden, but then I look a lot more curmudgeonly than you and might chase them down the street with a spade if they did.

    My impression is that most city people have a NIMBY attitude towards conservation. Not too hard to understand: polar bears are cute, but who wants one eating you and your pets? Besides, people really do have a strong need to conform and to enforce conformity. Front Yards in Bloom is a good example - there's no 'eccentric' category and their 'natural' gardens tend to be very formal expressions. People that feel the need to be surrounded by nature tend to move to the country (but then tend to turn their yards into something more comfortable like a city lot).

    The importance of urban gardens as refugia has gotten very little scientific study until recently, and no press that I have seen. We can hope that will change and that the way we garden will inspire others to follow suite. Maybe the upcoming ban on weed & feed will lead to less lawns and more diversity.

  3. It hadn't before occurred to me to question what "native" really means in terms of local horticulture. I think these days I'm just happy to see people planting something that has any wildlife value at all and won't be invasive, much less something that is truely endemic to the area.

    Very interesting piece.

  4. Hi Ted,

    The Oxford English Dictionary is full of surprises and finding out that ‘native’ originated as a word for a slave was a bit of a shock. So was finding out that Nazi Germany had a strong and nasty ‘native plant’ movement. Doug Tallamy in his book “Bringing Nature Home” has the best treatment that I have read of the importance of gardening with plants that support indigenous insects and so on through the foodweb to the less charismatic megafauna (birds etc.). However, he stepped in the ‘native’ mess too, by subtitling his book ‘How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens’ and he’s told me that he wished he’d never used the word. I’ll deal with this in some future post, once I’ve figured out what I really feel. In the meanwhile, I’m trying to avoid my mind falling into the pitfall of the ‘native-alien’ false dichotomy.

    PS – Really enjoyed your Christmas post – this was the first time I’d seen it.

  5. Can't help thinking about this post of yours!

    Much of what you felt when you first began converting your garden happened to me as well. It was a scrawny eyesore to begin with (when the cursing happened) but there were still some people who seemed to understand what I was about. The first complements came from Europeans - they grasped what drove me and they understood that gardens took time to mature. Many Canadians are still naive about the diversity of gardens (and gardening for diversity!). As our garden matured and the planting density increased,the 'structure' became more noticeable and it began to get more compliments. I felt more confidence that what I was doing was right, even when people misunderstood the purpose. It was never meant to be a garden for straw-capped matrons to sip tea and eat cucumber sandwiches in(even though that has happened). I used to feel a bit embarrassed by the eccentric garden but now I feel sure enough about it. We may not be leading a desirable and necessary trend in gardening, but we should be!

  6. This was a very interesting post. It really touches on a topic that I am giving a lot of thought to these days.

    My Dad has long since done away with his front garden, but I suspect that’s mostly because the back was full and he needed more space for plants. You seem to have a more altruistic purpose in your approach.

    If I am following correctly, your purpose is to encourage wildlife diversity in your yard, to approximate an ecosystem that sustains and nourishes the native pollinators and other local wildlife.

    As I am developing my own sense of gardening style, I wonder if form and function can find a happy meeting point. I am drawn to an architectural, more formally shaped design for the garden, while at the same time, I want it to be a healthy place for local pollinators, toads, birds etc. (I’ll pass on the local coyotes as they seem to be thriving without me). My bare minimum scenario is that the garden be neutral and not contribute any unhealthiness to our neighbourhood environment.

    What would you suggest as some of the key requirements for a garden that is an inviting and healthy place for the local fauna? I welcome any advice.

    Perhaps I can find that meeting point that satisfies both my favoured form and desired function.

  7. Unlike ‘native’, ‘altruism’does have some precise scientific definitions and these include the necessity that the altruist bears a cost for any benefits they might give to another. Since I garden first and foremost for myself, and any benefits to wildlife usually come at no additional cost, I don’t think it would be accurate to claim that I am an altruistic gardener. I love biological diversity and I garden to maximize my enjoyment of it. So, I’m really a selfish gardener.

    I’ve been studying insects and other arthropods for about 40 years, so I know their importance in maintaining functioning ecosystems. Birds don’t grow on trees – they grow on insects their parents feed them. In Edmonton, if you don’t have insects, you don’t have songbirds. House Sparrows are exceptions, they prefer plant matter and can probably get by without insects, but the rest depend on invertebrates (e.g. insects, spiders, snails, worms) to raise their young and for much of their adult food. No matter how much seeds and suet you put out to help them overwinter, songbirds will still need insects and the like in the spring to feed their young. Ditto for toads, frogs, salamanders, and even most small mammals.

    I’m not attracted to symmetry in a garden or to compositions that seem too formal or stiff. But that is me – I like the seeming irregularity and informality of natural settings. But, formal gardens do not have to be incompatible with wildlife gardening. The ingredients can be the same – just put together differently. I’ll try to expand on this idea in subsequent postings, but as a quick first stab, here’s a first go:

    1. Structural diversity. There are many reasons to dislike lawns, but one that is high on my list is that their uniform height and species composition provide limited habitats for animals. The more layers of plants your garden has, the more homes and resting places it provides for animals. Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants of varying height all make a yard attractive to wildlife. Also, grasses are wind pollinated, so they are useless for feeding pollinators.

    2. Plant diversity. A diversity of plants provides for a diversity of insects. If you are trying to encourage pollinators, for example, you need to provide a continuity of blooms across their entire foraging period. Insect herbivores tend to be on the host-specific side, so in general, the more plant species you have, the more insect species you will have.

    3. Water. Our small pond / bubbler has an affect on wildlife all out of proportion to its size. Backyard bird species number has quadrupled since it was lawn – mostly from migrants that stop for a drink and a bath – and a rest in the shrubs and small trees. Others have discovered the bounty of snails. The number of dragonfly / damselfly species has increased tremendously too.

    4. Nesting spots. Planting flowers isn’t enough for pollinators: bees, for example, also need a place to nest. This may be as simple as a shrub with hollow twigs, a clump of bunchgrass, or a patch of bare ground. Cavity nests help bumblebees, mason bees, and hunting wasps. Chickadees, nuthatches, tree swallows, bluebirds and others also benefit from cavity/box nests – but you have to be sure that they are inappropriate for pests like the House Sparrow.

    5. Appropriate pesticide use. If you spray your garden everyday, then wildlife won’t thrive (although you may have more undesirable insects – parasites and predators tend to be susceptible to chemicals, while pests are often resistant). But, pesticides used properly can contribute to a successful wildlife garden. It isn’t the chemicals that are bad, but how they are misused.

  8. Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful response. I shall keep this information as a reference as we continue with the planning for our gardens. Much appreciated!

    As always, I look forward to your future posts. Cheers.

  9. Dave, I'm equally impressed by your insightful response to The Garden Ms. S. Very useful advice to follow, even down here in Zone 5b/6a :)

  10. Hi Ted - My first point is rather MacArthurian (birdy), but valid for insects too. I should point out, however, that the more trees and shrubs you plant, the more you will need to explore shade gardening.

  11. Our house sits in a large acreage forest - most of my yard is lightly shaded by tall, native (sorry!) oaks and hickories that were retained from the forest in which the house was built. The ground underneath the trees in a 1/4 acre patch in front of the house was planted in grass to create a lawn, but even though it's not heavily shaded it takes a lot of maintenance to make the grass thrive - I'm not into that, and I generally detest lawns anyway. I'm gradually reducing the lawn area to irregular bands between "islands" of trees grouped together with raised soil beds underneath into which I'm planting woodland-type shrubs and perennials. I prefer but am not limiting myself to native (there's that word again) species, but I would like to maximize the wildlife (i.e., insects) benefit in whatever I do choose. Progress is slow as I'm on a budget, but I've got all the beds created. I'm now trying to settle on shrubs that will add structure and, if possible, attract pollinators. This post and your followup comments have helped organize my thinking.

  12. Hi Ted - Yeah, it's hard not to use the word 'native' - seems to subsume a lot of how we (mis?)-think about things natural (another problem n-word). My current bias is towards 'functional plants' and against pretty for pretty's sake.

    Your lot sounds dreamy (and Zone 6, sigh) and should be years of fun planting it out. If you haven't seen William Cullina's "Wildflowers, A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America" (details are in the sidebar), then I would highly recommend it - lots of detail on propagation too. Among the shade books that I have consumed, I found Larry Hodgson's "Making the Most of Shade" the most informative and useful (but then he had gardened in Zone 3 and includes lots of plants that can survive here).

    My wife just found the first proturan I've seen here in Alberta - I can't find any records for the Province, so this could be an alien. Certainly looks like it came from Mars.