I’m a carpenter’s daughter. My father built the suburban Chicago house of my childhood with his own hands in the evenings after working his for-pay job. Suburban sprawl put food on my table and paid half my college tuition where in environmental science classes I was taught about its horrors. I see both sides of the issue. Our current housing situation in a suburban style neighborhood doesn’t reflect our midlife, more stewardship-oriented ideas about where people should live. Sometimes it’s a challenge for our real lives to keep up with our evolving, growing faith. It gets stuck for a while in the too-tight clothing of ideas we’ve outgrown. Still, too-small clothes are better than none, and God meets us in that place.
When we moved into this home five summers ago, we soon realized we had an insect problem. Paper wasps, Japanese beetles, and stink bugs made being outside stressful and particularly painful when popsicles were involved. We made an intentional decision to add native plantings to the property and we’re pretty sure ecological balance is now keeping those pests in check. Predatory insects such as soldier beetles and assassin bugs are attracted to our native flowers. With native bees and other pollinators here, the pests moved elsewhere. Thank you, biodiversity.
Currently we are suburbanites with creation-care mindsets. We have half an acre on a corner lot with a rectangular 400 square-foot prairie plot right next to the street of our side yard. If you walk the neighborhood as many residents do, you will travel alongside the prairie for a good stretch of our property. It’s hard to ignore the turkey foot grass with its tassels overhead or the hum of pollinators at work or our posted “monarch way station” and “certified wildlife habitat” signs. Subtlety is maybe not our strength.
Although he’d been gardening for over ten years, it was a visit to our community’s only native plant nursery in August of 2017 that inspired Jonathan, a certified master naturalist and my spouse, to reimagine our property’s landscape. It was the first time he’d seen native plants or had access to buying them. He bought a few plants and that winter read Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sarah Stein. That inspired him to rethink gardening and the idea for a little prairie plot was born.
The following growing season was dedicated to creating the prairie and becoming a pollinator-friendly residence. “Pollinators were coming that I’d never seen before,” remembers Jonathan. “It made me excited to see what was enjoying the plants rather than just planting what made me happy.” The 2019 growing season had a different emphasis. “This year became more than just native gardening and more about ecosystem and habitat management and increasing biodiversity within our sphere of influence.”
As for our kids, they would rather Rip-Stik in the street with their friends than identify insects with their dad. But they are not afraid of bees anymore (having never been stung by native types) and have been known to pray for butterflies at the dinner table. They see where our priorities are, how much time the gardener spends outside, how in the winter he sketches plans and harvests seeds from dried pods to prepare for spring planting.
Whatever access you have to land, why not make a portion of it native? If you don’t own land, consider how your church uses its land. Even small areas can benefit pollinators. You might be surprised how quickly native plants can root and thrive because they are accustomed to your region. Going native can require less maintenance, too. Many natives have root structures that go deep so less watering is required. Also, the way plants in nature often shade one another cuts down on weeding.
Traditional gardening relies on human design and color schemes. Native plantings look natural effortlessly, unified with varied colors and heights of plants because nature has practiced gardening for a long time. “This kind of gardening is not about you,” says Jonathan. “Build the habitat for non-human life to enjoy; that’s what brings your own enjoyment.”
If fully native plantings aren’t possible consider integrating some natives into existing landscaping. “Do what you can with what you’ve got. In a suburban sea of sterile lawns and uninviting landscaping [to pollinators], you can provide food for nature, for the sustainers of our ecosystems. You will be amazed at all the insects and how they find them,” he says. “It’s about reconciling human use with nature’s use of the same space, allowing for more than just your own use of the space you’ve been given.”
Book: Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyardsby Sarah Stein
Blog: Milk the Weedblog by Benjamin Vogt
Sue Granger says
What a wonderful article! Thank you for helping to encourage people to help their environment like this. It’s so so important increase the biodiversity of our environment.
Susan Woodard says
Thank you for this, especially now! Nearly everyone is able to help the restore the natural environment to at least this extent. Feeling inspired and empowered…