How To Save The Planet: Start With Your Own Yard (Part 1)
Jimbo and I share a deep reverence for the natural world. When we started Jimbo & Jules, we knew we wanted to give back in some way. The Conscious Garden Project was born as a bold and ambitious initiative to change the lens through which our culture perceives the natural world in our own front yards. Through education and empowering communities to implement sustainable landscape design, we hope to inspire a movement to restore our natural habitats and the wildlife populations that depend on them!
Have you ever heard of the atala butterfly? If you’re not from Florida, or an entomologist, the likely answer is no. At the start of the 20th century, their pretty black and blue wings dotted the Floridian landscape, dancing low to the ground as they bounced from plant to plant.
By mid-century, the atala was thought to be extinct.
Fast forward to today, and the atala thrives again. How, you might ask? It’s all thanks to some landscape designers who just happened to start incorporating a little palm-like plant called coontie into their garden plans.
European settlers learned of this, and by the early 1900s nearly 80% of Floridians identified as “starch-gatherers” by occupation, working hard to gather up all the wild coontie they could find for use in the starch industry. In just a couple decades, the booming industry had eaten up nearly all the wild coontie in the state.
Getting Acquainted With Natives
To help keep our local creatures happy and healthy, the best thing you can do is plant native.
Non-natives are often referred to as sterile, meaning they can’t be utilized by the local environment like a native can. Take for example a white oak (Quercus alba), which is native to eastern and central North America and supports an astounding 557 different species of caterpillars - providing them with food, shelter, and habitat. Compare this with the Chinese ginko tree (Ginkgo biloba), a beautiful, but non-native tree in the U.S., which supports less than five species.
The food web highlights another very important point in the case for native gardening. While some non-natives may do something for insects, when we zoom out to see the bigger picture, the harm always outweighs the benefit.
Zoom out one notch further and we remember that butterflies are not the only creatures that need caterpillars to survive! A mama chickadee needs to find six to nine thousand caterpillars to raise a single clutch of babies. If her home is suddenly overrun with invasive butterfly bush, there may be plenty of butterflies around, but certainly no caterpillars to feed her chicks.
Be sure to choose plants that are native to your very specific region. For example, the state I grew up in, Maryland, is divided into three regions. What’s native and grows well on the coast won’t necessarily work in the Piedmont (central) region.
You may be surprised: most of the plants you’ve grown up surrounded by are not native! In the 50’s and 60’s, the “American Dream” was born, and with it, the image of a picture-perfect home. I’m sure you can see it in your mind now: white picket fence, immaculate lawn, neat, tidy garden beds with not one hole in a single green leaf. (Think: non-native plants.) But the dreamers left out a very important detail: wildlife!
So do you need to go out and rip up every plant in your garden? While I’m all for a good native garden rehaul, the short answer is no.
This excludes invasives. If you have invasive plants growing in your garden, I strongly urge you to do your part and remove them! Invasives can be detrimental to our wildlife, and the impact extends far beyond your garden. Many invasive plants, like the stinky Bradford Pear tree (Pyrus calleryana), pollinate rapidly, popping up everywhere and choking out native plants.
On the other hand, some natives are not invasive. Take daffodils for example. Hailing from Europe, daffodils did not evolve with our local creatures. However, they won’t rapidly self-spread like an invasive, so the negative impact is limited to the space they take up in your garden, where they stand in place of more ecologically beneficial natives.
It’s useful to think of non-invasive non-natives as decorations. Some are undeniably beautiful and may hold some deeper meaning to your life - and it's okay to indulge in a few of these! Be selective, and choose a small number of non-native “decorations” to dot your garden if it’s important to you. But try to fill in the rest of your space with natives!
[Still not convinced? Need more info? Check out Part 2, where I dive deeper into the benefits of bugs and the nitty-gritty how-to.]