A native garden to call your own

Guest post by Eileen Davis

What is your earliest gardening memory? Was it planting a seed in a paper cup at school, and watching it sprout and grow on the classroom windowsill? Perhaps you gathered dandelion flowers and presented your mom with a beautiful, yellow bouquet. Or did you rake up a giant pile of leaves to jump in on a crisp fall day? You might even have visited the native garden at Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

My earliest gardening memory is helping my aunt and uncle in their garden. I was only about four or five years old, but I clearly remember the prickly feeling of the cucumber vines scratching my forearm as I helped pull weeds. No matter the memory, we are all doing the same thing—tending to our little piece of the Earth. It’s something humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. We are and always have been dependent on our environment for survival.

The author's daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
The author’s daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.

Our deep connections to the land became evident on a large scale in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Along with toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, it was also hard to find seeds this past year. As many have discovered, gardening is soothing to the soul. I know it has always helped me during difficult times in life to go outside and get my hands in the dirt. To plant seeds and be rewarded with new life poking through the soil.

Veggie gardens weren’t the only ones planted over the last year. Participation in and requests for the Forest Preserves’ Native Plant Landscaping programs have increased steadily. In 2019, our educators delivered five native-plant-related programs with 89 participants in attendance. In 2020, nine programs were run with 204 participants. And by the end of May 2021, we will have offered 16 programs and expect to have taught nearly 300 participants.

A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) visits butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo © Eileen Davis.
A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) visits butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo © Eileen Davis.
The author’s front yard native garden. Photo © Eileen Davis.

But what is a native plant? And why use them in your home gardens?

  • Native plants are those that were growing in our woodlands, savannas, wetlands and prairies prior to European settlement. They’re the plants that the local animals use for food and shelter, and they rely on our local wildlife for pollination and seed dispersal.
  • Not only are they beautiful, native plants are beneficial, too. Because they have evolved over thousands of years in our local climate with our local wildlife, they are uniquely equipped to handle our local conditions.
  • Once established, native plants don’t need as much watering as non-native plants. They’re adapted to withstand the variability of our climate.
  • Native plants clean our water and air.
  • Native plants are less susceptible to damage and disease—which means you don’t need to use pesticides.
Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.). Photo © Eileen Davis.
Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.). Photo © Eileen Davis.
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Photo © Eileen Davis.
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Photo © Eileen Davis.

More time at home during the pandemic has given me precious moments with my family and my native plant gardens. Without the morning rush to get everyone off to school and work, I’ve been able to start each day with a nice mug of tea and a walk around the yard to see what’s emerging from the soil or blooming, before trying to get two teenagers engaged in remote learning and starting my workday. As a friend and fellow gardener calls it, this was my one moment of stillness each day.

In the stillness, I was able to watch monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) lay eggs on my milkweed plants; hummingbirds visit my wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis); pine warblers (Setophaga pinus), Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula) and scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) forage for food; and in summer twilight, the fireflies slowly rise out of my garden beds for their nightly light show.

Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) grows in the author's garden. Photo © Eileen Davis.
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) grows in the author’s garden. Photo © Eileen Davis.
A pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) is always a treat to see. Photo © Eileen Davis.
A pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) is always a treat to see. Photo © Eileen Davis.

Our knowledge of plants and animals, and our understanding of natural cycles and relationships, are passed down through generations. Over the millennia, we have managed and altered the land to provide for ourselves, our families and our communities based on this treasured knowledge. Just as it was passed on to me as I trailed behind my uncle while he tended his garden, I pass it on to my children as I tend my own gardens.

This year, I hope you can give yourself the gift of a garden. Whether you’re a first-time gardener or have had a green thumb your whole life, there’s always something new to learn. Try adding a few native plants to your home, then a few more, and more after that. If you need a source, sales of native perennials, trees and shrubs are open now all the way through December 31, 2021 via our Online Native Plant Sale. You can order your plants online and they’ll be delivered directly to your door from our partners at Possibility Place Nursery. Not sure where to start with native landscaping? Visit our online resources hub.

We also offer many educational opportunities to learn more about using native plants at home. Join us the fourth Thursday of every month for our Native Gardeners Club program. In each session, we cover a new topic related to native plants, then open up the floor for questions from the group. It’s a great way to learn from your fellow gardeners. And check our website frequently for additional native plant landscaping programs. To schedule a program for your group or organization, please contact Eileen Davis, Environmental Educator, at edavis@LCFPD.org or 847-276-6030.

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