By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
The pair of buff-coloured hens (we think they are Orpingtons) were purchased for their stunning good looks. The former owners assured me they were consistent layers but even after giving them a few weeks to adjust to the move, their egg-laying is sporadic at best.
A few months before that, I picked up a trio of spent Rhode Island Red hens from a small laying operation – ugliest things I’ve ever seen. With missing feathers, combs that looked like raw meat flapping on their heads and skinny bodies, they needed some space and feed. However, once they settled in and grew feathers, they started laying an egg a day every single day.
Funny how those ugly chickens have grown more attractive in my eyes. They are so productive! Meanwhile, the fat, “pretty chickens” eat piles of feed with little reward. They don’t seem as attractive anymore.
Practicality is a highly persuasive feature.
This month, The Rural Voice is featuring the voices of native plant gardeners. One has a goal of growing 80 per cent natives in his gardens allowing room for non-native favourites. The other, Jessica Smeekens, is an environmentalist who advocates for 100 per cent natives. In fact, when her Dutch dad plants tulips, she yanks them out. Why? Because imported plants do not support native bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators the way our native plants do. Our native plants and insects have adapted to each other, whereby insect’s mouthparts and body shapes match perfectly with their host plant’s structure. There are of course, generalists that can thrive on multiple plants. However, some of our imported garden favourites such as hostas are of little use to our native insects. Others, like the butterfly bush, are so attractive, they lure insects away from the plants they should be pollinating.
The problem is most people don’t know a lot about Canadian natives and most nurseries don’t carry a big selection of native plants. Many gardeners think natives are weeds for indeed, they will thrive in the right growing conditions and can multiply quite rapidly.
However, we DO have gorgeous native perennials, shrubs and trees says Smeekens. Instead of borrowing plants from around the world, why aren’t we cultivating our own? “When you go to Japan, you don’t see plants from Africa growing there,” she exclaims. Yet Canadian gardens are full of plants from Africa, Asia and Europe.
Is that so bad? Perhaps not for the gardener as much for the native insects and pollinators.
Smeekens says it’s time Canadians take “patriotic pride” in their native plant species and develop a “Canadian culture of gardening” showcasing what a true Canadian garden looks like.
Given the enormity of our country and the myriad of growing conditions, there isn’t just one type of native garden. Even within Ontario, we have multiple hardiness and life zones. We can grow Oak Savanna, Carolinian, Great Lakes or St. Lawrence vegetation and others depending on where you live.
So how does one know how to create a native garden? It takes a lot of research or using the knowledge of others who do know which plants grow where.
I created my own native plant garden after doing a LOT of research but when sharing what I’d planted with Smeekens, I learned I’d been “greenwashed.” While I usually use my phone to check if a plant is native to Ontario before buying, I did purchase three Scabiosa plants because the tags had “native” right on them. I took them home, planted them, and felt pretty good about it all. They were mixed in with purple coneflowers (not cultivars) liatris, cardinal flowers, tickseed and prairie smoke (all natives) but turns out scabiosa are NOT! Some growers and suppliers, realizing gardeners are becoming conscious of adding natives, are tacking “native” on the tags to make a fast buck.
It’s a learning process, for sure.
As I start the evolution toward growing more natives, I wonder how far I’ll take it and how my perceptions will change. Will I see the bold, showy plants (like my pretty buff hens) as pretty but useless? Will their looks lose appeal as I grow to appreciate that a turtlehead (native) is oddly cool to look at it and also feeds bumblebees? Will plants like our humble native coneflower with its muted purple petals start to outshine the flashy coneflower cultivars which look like they should attract the bees, but are altered just enough that bees fly past in search of the real deal? Will the plants we see as common or plain become like my once-ugly Rhode Island Reds – beautiful because they are so practical?
Perception is a curious thing. The more we understand about our environment, the less attractive exotics look when compared to a plant that is beautiful because of what it does, not just how it looks. ◊