What is this blog?

This blog seeks to answer questions about sustainable gardening for those who are not familiar with the practice. The author holds a master’s in environmental science, works as a journalist, and practices a combination of permaculture and native plant gardening in Madison, Wisconsin. Leave your own questions as a comment on any post, and they will be answered soon!

This blog is best read from the beginning.

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What is this blog?

What is the status of That Blog?

A lot has changed since That Blog was launched four years ago.

Around the same time that the first posts were being published, the National Pollinator Garden Network – an association of conservation non-profits, civic organizations, and garden industry trade groups – was beginning a campaign to bring about the creation and registration of 1 million new pollinator-friendly gardens.

By the end of 2018, the Network had not only met that goal, but passed it by tens of thousands of gardens. The association estimates that over 8 million people contributed to this remarkable achievement, and that the new gardens represent more than 5 million acres of habitat for pollinators. The vast majority of the gardens – 85% of those registered for the campaign – are small plantings in urban and suburban residential neighborhoods.

This shift in gardening behavior has been accompanied by a massive change in attitudes towards native plants and natural gardens. Since the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge began, associations representing garden centers report a 92% increase in consumer demand for pollinator-friendly plants. 83% of landscape architects say that more and more of their customers are asking for sustainable designs using native plants. And the idea that gardens can and should provide important ecological functions is rapidly replacing the idea that gardens are solely for decoration.

Over the past four years, much has changed for That Blogger too. Since creating That Blog, the writer has completed a master’s thesis about the importance of native plant gardening, successfully established a native plant garden, and moved into a communications position with a major national conservation non-profit.

Due to the increasing weight of competing obligations, and the declining need to produce and share information about environmentally-friendly gardening practices, That Blog will no longer be actively updated. All 230 posts will remain published indefinitely, to educate and inspire all readers.

That Blogger thanks you for your support, and wishes you great joy and success in all your gardening endeavors.

What is the status of That Blog?

What is the 10-step solution to insect problems?

Insects have been eating your plants! What to do? Insect experts recommend this 10-step solution:

Take 10 steps away from the affected plant, and look for any damage.

Plants are meant to be eaten. It is their function within the food chain. Unlike animals, plants can tolerate having quite a large amount of their body eaten, and they continue to be just fine.

From close up, your plant may appear to be in tatters. But from ten steps away – the distance from which we more typically look at plants – you probably cannot see any evidence that the plant has been munched by insects or other hungry animals. If this is the case, then the plant is fine and so is your visual enjoyment of it. There is no need to reach for pesticides.

Remember that when you decided to put native plants in your yard, your goal was for them to form the foundation of a healthy ecosystem. This means that the plants will be eaten by the insects that have evolved to eat them. It also means that bees and butterflies will arrive to collect nectar and pollen from the plants. It means that predatory insects will come to hunt the insects that are eating the plants. It means that birds will be able to feed themselves and their young on all that plentiful insect life. And it means that you will be able to enjoy watching many species interact and thrive in your yard.

Take 10 steps back. Take a deep breath. Your garden is functioning exactly as intended.

What is the 10-step solution to insect problems?

How do you establish a natural yard?

One day, That Blogger was taking a walk, and encountered some neighbors sitting in their driveway, enjoying the profusion of native plants that surrounded their home. “Your yard is one of my favorites,” That Blogger said. “How did you do it?”

The neighbors smiled.

What was their response? It was not work. Nor was it money. It wasn’t even knowledge.

What the neighbors said was: “Time.”

As explained in a series of previous posts, time is the key ingredient in successfully establishing a natural yard. Plants know how to grow and reproduce, and will do so if just given a chance. A compulsion to constantly work in the garden – to water, mulch, trim, and spray pesticides – only interferes with the natural behavior of plants, and can quickly become counterproductive.

Similarly, throwing money at the problem – by investing in tools and chemicals, buying larger plants, or hiring landscapers who claim they can make your yard look like a magazine photo virtually overnight – disrupts the natural processes that lead slowly but powerfully towards a thriving ecosystem.

And, while knowledge can certainly help a gardener move efficiently towards the outcome they envision, it’s not necessary to have an encyclopedic knowledge of botany and ecology before beginning to establish a natural yard. It’s important to remember that when your goal is for plants to grow and flourish in a healthy community, the plants have the same idea. When we work with nature instead of against it, our odds of success vastly improve.

Still, it’s one thing to know all of that while looking at a plot of land that has not yet begun to transform into a native plant community. It’s quite another to look at a well-established natural yard, and hear the gardener tell you that the most important thing they did was wait.

Have patience with your garden and with yourself. A great part of the joy of having a natural yard is watching it grow and develop. Some day in the future, when you are the happy gardener sitting at ease in your driveway and watching your plants take care of themselves, you will look back in wonder at those fleeting years when your yard changed from a barren space to what you now enjoy.

How do you establish a natural yard?

What happens when an area has a lot of natural yards?

A post from a few months ago reported that when a HOA changed its landscaping from turf grass to native plants, it won awards. But that’s just one natural yard. What happens when a small geographical area has a lot of natural yards?

It wins awards.

Last fall, Medina County in northeastern Ohio accomplished its goal of having 400 natural yards. The tally included 360 private yards, 13 gardens at schools, 20 gardens on farms, and 7 gardens in public places. A garden counted towards the total if it provided the four things that wildlife need: food, water, cover, and places to raise their young.

After officially reaching its goal, Medina County received an award from the National Wildlife Federation, honoring them for their achievement in providing wildlife habitat. The county originally decided to embark on this project in order to help pollinators – and, indeed, gardens that counted towards the goal have been observed to host more pollinators and other wildlife.

Medina County doesn’t plan to stop establishing native plant gardens now that it’s had this important success. Rather, the county is seeking to add 100 more gardens to its tally each year for the next several years.

The fact that Medina County wants to create lots of native plant gardens is important. In doing so, the county is making a statement that native plant gardens are not harmful or unsightly. It is saying that native plant gardens should not be tightly restricted in number or size or location. It is expressing its belief that, when it comes to native plant gardens, you can hardly have too much of a good thing.

Native plant gardens are good. More of them is better. You can do your part by adding native plants to your land, and by encouraging friends and neighbors to do the same.

What happens when an area has a lot of natural yards?

What is plant rescue?

The previous post told a happy story about a native plant garden being acquired by some new owners. Not all stories have such positive endings, though. Sometimes a natural yard – or a wild area brimming with native plants – is bought by someone who isn’t interested in protecting the thriving ecosystem they now own.

It could be a private homeowner who doesn’t understand the value of native plants, and who plans to revert the garden to lawn. It could be a developer who intends to bulldoze the plant community in order to build a big-box store or some condominiums. Either way, those plants are in trouble.

Enter plant rescue.

If you know of native plants – especially rare species – that are going to be destroyed by the property owner, you may be able to save the plants by moving them to a new home. While you might be tempted to just swoop in and take the plants before they get flattened, it’s better to follow these practices:

  • Work with the property owner to get permission to remove the plants from the site. Agree on a time when the plant rescue will happen, and take full responsibility for the safety of all the people who will be involved in the plant rescue.
  • Provide all the necessary tools for digging up and transporting plants. Don’t forget to bring drinking water and wear appropriate clothing for working outdoors.
  • Once on site, be sure to stay within the property lines. Do not take plants from neighboring lots.
  • Take only the plants that you can truly rescue. That is, do not take more plants than you will be able to quickly place in a new home. If there are any rare species present, prioritize rescuing those.
  • Follow good plant-moving practices: Dig up a large ball of soil around and beneath each plant. Have a pot ready to immediately transfer the plant into. Put the plant back in the ground, at its new site, within a day or so – and provide it with shade and water to help it survive the move.
  • Before leaving the plant rescue site, refill the holes from the plants you took. Clean up after yourself and repair any damage you might have caused.
  • Afterwards, send a thank-you letter to the property owner.

If property owners can be persuaded to keep healthy native plants on their land, so much the better. But if not, working together to find creative solutions can be the next best thing.

What is plant rescue?

What happens when a natural yard gets sold?

“What will you do when you have to move out and can’t control what the next person does with the yard?” That Blogger once asked a dedicated natural gardener who was beyond retirement age.

“Never come back,” the gardener replied.

A pair of natural gardeners in Minnesota took a different approach to this problem: they showed up on their former home’s porch to talk to the new owners about the thriving ecosystem they had established in the yard.

The new owners hadn’t been looking for a natural yard, and hadn’t even realized they were getting one: they bought the home in winter, when snow made it hard to tell that the house was surrounded by anything other than lawn. But just a day after they moved in, the previous occupants dropped by to talk about the eight years of effort they had invested in replacing non-native turf grass with a healthy prairie.

Their friendly outreach worked. The new owners have been tending the native landscape for over a decade now, adding more species of plants and removing the small amount of turf grass that remained, preserving the sustainable habitat that their predecessors established.

One downside of working hard to create a natural yard is that we can’t take it with us. (Some have been sued by their property’s new owners for trying.) It is for this reason that many people, not expecting to stay in their homes for very long, don’t invest in a long-term landscaping plan.

But, with nature being lost all around us at an alarming rate, we must do all we can to protect the nature that we have preserved or restored. Just as it is our responsibility to educate friends and neighbors about why our yard hosts thriving plants rather than a barren lawn, it is our responsibility to educate our successors, when we pass on the stewardship of our land. As leaders in the growing movement towards natural yards, it is our duty to help new homeowners understand that they are inheriting a landscape that reduces waste, combats climate change, requires little maintenance, supports life, and creates joy. Destroying such a self-sustaining ecosystem and turning it back into a needy, labor-intensive, lifeless lawn is as much a loss for the new owners as it is for those who worked so hard to do exactly the opposite.

By sharing our knowledge, we can all work together to restore nature to our neighborhoods.

What happens when a natural yard gets sold?

What is the Anthropocene?

Just as we divide our lives into months and years to help us keep track of passing time, scientists divide the history of our planet into geological eras. We met some of these eras in the previous post: the Permian, the Triassic, the Cretaceous, the Paleogene.

The last post also mentioned the Holocene era. The Holocene has been going on for 10,000 years now, and it’s been very important in the history of our species. While humans essentially identical to those of us living today have been around for 200,000 years or so, human civilization – in the form of cities and farming – only arose about 8,000 years ago. Why is this?

For most of our planet’s history, living conditions have been wildly unstable. Continents moved around. Sea levels rose and fell dramatically. Glaciers advanced and retreated. Nobody could stay in one place for too long.

But all that changed in the Holocene. For thousands of years – a long time for living things, even if not much more than a blink for a planet – the climate was remarkably stable. The weather changed in a predictable way from season to season, and humans were able to learn these patterns and time their farming activities to greatly increase their chances of a successful crop. Once we were able to produce food from fixed locations, we could start living in the same place year-round – and because the oceans remained at consistent levels, we were able to build our cities along reliable shorelines.

Now, though, the stable conditions that defined the Holocene are changing. They’re changing so much that scientists have proposed labeling the present day as a brand-new geological era: the Anthropocene, the Age of Man.

A period of time gets marked off as its own geological era when it is distinctly different from surrounding time periods. Our own time is not in the geological record yet, but scientists are certain that when it is, our own activities will be clearly visible – if, several million years in the future, there is anyone around to look.

The record of our time will include evidence of the mass extinction that is already underway. It will preserve signs of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and of rising global temperatures caused by this increase. It will contain the remains of human garbage. And it will bear the imprints of how we changed the landscape by building vast cities, engaging in industrial agriculture, and destroying ancient forests.

Although the Anthropocene is not really an official geological era yet, there is no turning back from the changes that it represents. Human-scale time is cyclical: we know that March and spring will come again. But geological time goes in only one direction. The Holocene is never coming back.

What is the Anthropocene?