WE NEED NATURE. It is among the many important things we’ve learned about ourselves and our world over the last year. Now more than ever, we have a greater appreciation for nature. When other doors closed due to the pandemic, spending time outside was the safe haven we turned to. As we like to say, “when all else fails, you’ve got trails.”
And nature needs us, too. It’s human nature to want to give back. There is one important, easy, and aesthetically appealing way of giving back to nature that begins right in your own back yard.
Introduce native plants to your garden. Why? Because the incredibly valuable natural order—biodiversity—that once defined and helped protect where we live has been severely impacted by development. Let’s put it another way. The naturally diverse plants of our local woodlands, prairies, savannas and ravines have been replaced by lawns and introduced ornamentals. Our yards have become part of the problem; planting natives can make them part of the solution.
“In a leafy, tree-filled community like ours that looks incredibly green on the surface, the natural order really needs our help,” says Lake Forest Open Lands President, John Sentell. Adding, “What we’re talking about here is an opportunity to come together as a community and re-connect with nature at its core by helping to fix what’s broken.”
Biodiversity: the inter-dependent variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem
Native plant: naturally adapted to our area and shares the evolutionary history of the plant and animal communities in the ecoregion, including land around SE Wisconsin, NE Illinois and NW Indiana
Invasive plant: either accidentally or intentionally introduced to our area that competes with and displaces natives by spreading aggressively
Cultivar: scientifically cultivated for a particularly desirable attribute such as a specific flower or leaf color. They are cloned to ensure consistent attributes and therefore lack the beneficial genetic diversity of true native plants
The best way to fix it? Make a significant difference by simply planting locally-sourced, native plant species in your own garden and yard rather than relying so heavily on introduced ornamentals. Over time, this will restore the natural balance impacted by invasive species and cultivars introduced into our yards. Native plants are ideally adapted to our soils and climate, meaning there is a right plant for every spot in your garden. Lake Forest Open Lands’ experts can help you navigate and find just the right plants for your problem spot at our annual Go Native! Plant & Tree Sale. Or, ask a question in advance by emailing us at [email protected] for guidance in preordering today. It’s a win-win for nature and for your garden!
Why does it matter? Let’s get in the weeds. A biodiverse ecosystem is resilient and can sustain outside disturbances and change. Our unique, local plant communities—prairies, savannas, wetlands, ravines and woodlands—evolved so that hundreds of species interact and depend upon each other in intricate ways. Too many pieces in that beautiful eco-puzzle have gone missing. We can put those missing pieces back and make it whole once again.
A great example that shows the importance of planting native is the Monarch butterfly. Monarchs need milkweed to survive. Milkweed is the only plant for the Monarch to lay eggs for the hatched caterpillars to feed on before changing into a chrysalis. The need for milkweed is critical as the Monarch population has plummeted by 90% in the last 20 years1. We can all help out—it is as simple as introducing milkweed and other natives into your yard. These three species will not spread aggressively and are easy to find:
• Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) for dry to medium, well-drained soil, full sun, produces pink to purplish flowers and grows to 2 to 3 feet
• Swamp or Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) for moist to wet soil, full sun, produces pink flowers, fibrous roots and grows to 3 to 5 feet
• Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) tolerates dry soil, full sun, produces orange flowers, and grows to 2 to 3 feet
Does it matter where the native plants come from? Yes! Native plants and seeds from our own ecoregion, locally-sourced from within about a 250-mile radius are best. Plants labeled “Native to North America” can be misleading; they may not be native to NE Illinois. Also, it’s not uncommon for a well-intentioned gardener to think they’re buying a “native plant” from a big box retailer—but it’s actually a cultivar. As for where to purchase native species, there are dozens of great resources where it’s possible to obtain locally-sourced, native plants—both in-person and online. A list of these resources can be found at lfola.org.
What can you expect when planting natives? If you plant from seed, most native species will take a couple of years to start to bloom. If you plant from pint or gallon containers, most species will bloom that same year. Once established, natives will provide seeds for you to collect and spread to new spots. By selecting a variety of species, you can nurture a sequence of blooms starting in spring and extending thru fall. Your yard will become a beautiful, reliable destination for a wide diversity of bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies and other pollinators who require flowers throughout the seasons to survive and reproduce. Late season blooms provide fuel for the “super generation” of Monarchs on their long migration to Mexico for winter.
In addition to planting natives, there are many other ways Lake Forest Open Lands can help you give back to nature. As our community’s independently funded conservation land trust, becoming a member helps to support the critical mission to care for and restore our open spaces and wild places. For extra fun, celebrate nature at our spring fundraising event, Cattails & Cocktails. Better yet, participate in LFOLA’s native plant sale on May 22 to easily extend nature to your backyard. Go to lfola.org and order early!
John Sentell, LFOLA President, offers one additional and less obvious benefit, “When you get out there, get your gloves on and dig into nature, you’ll likely rediscover one of the most interesting native species around—you!”
1Center for Biological Diversity, Saving The Monarch Butterfly, biologicaldiversity.org.