On Being a Good Citizen

Recently I gave a Native Plant talk at Pine Tree Nursery in Chatham. There was good attendance and good discussion, and one of the participants asked a great question: “Why should I grow native plants?”

I’m so glad questions like this are coming from home gardeners. We assume that professionals take care of the environment by using use native plants, but that goal is often a lower priority to home gardeners. But there is so much discussion these days about the environment it is beginning to seep into home gardener’s awareness. Hence the question.

My short answer to the question is simple: We home gardeners should grow native plants in order to be good citizens.

Bee on Goldenrod, Chatham MA. Photo courtesy of Geri Appleyard.

Anyone who stops to think about it realizes that we need a well-functioning natural environment around us for our own health, for our food supplies, and for our emotional connection to nature. But we also think that there are plenty of wild places around us, like patches of woods, to sustain this environment, so we at home don’t need to worry. But recent studies have shown that this just isn’t so – small, disconnected patches of woodlands aren’t enough. Falling insect and bird populations demonstrate this.

We also think that one individual homeowner can’t make a difference, it’s a bigger problem that requires bigger solutions. Bigger solutions are indeed needed. However, it’s been clearly demonstrated that a network of individual home landscapes, when planted sustainably and with native plants, can substitute for a naturally wild habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.

Shrub Garden in New Hampshire

We can also help take carbon out of the atmosphere. Just by existing, plants sequester carbon in plant material and in the ground. One estimate said that if we had 50% tree canopy cover over the US, that would be a big factor in achieving our national goal of reducing rising temperatures. Trees are best at this, but concentrated plantings of shrubs and perennials are almost as good.

This means that we, individual homeowners, have the power and therefore the responsibility to make our landscape an ecologically friendly places for insects, birds, and wildlife. We do many other things voluntarily for the common good – we recycle and compost, we vote, we are polite to strangers asking for directions. Shifting our landscapes just a bit to be an eco-friendly patch in a neighborhood network for the critters is another step we need to take.

First generation of my pollinator garden, Chatham MA

We can do this without sacrificing the beauty we want in our home garden, too. Examples of small gardens turned into flower-drenched pollinator magnets abound. One gardener has counted over 60 different bird species in her 1/8 acre plot in a Boston suburb. Another took down her birdfeeders and is feeding birds with native plants, and they are happy. My own garden buzzes with pollinators all summer long.

No, individual homeowners can’t solve climate change alone. But we can make a big dent in mitigating the impact of climate change at the local level. It’s what we do to be good citizens.

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