Jimbo and I share a deep passion 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 cute little palm-like plant called coontie into their garden plans.
The coontie plant is native to Florida, and was highly revered by Native Americans for its starchy roots.
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.
The coontie plant is what’s known as a “host” plant for the atala butterfly. This means that the coontie is the only plant in the region that supports the atala’s lifecycle; mother atalas lay their eggs on the coontie’s leaves, then once hatched, the baby caterpillars munch on the leaves as they grow. Without the coontie, the atala mama has nowhere to go. No coontie, no atala.
Reintroduce the coontie plant in gardens, and suddenly the nearly extinct butterflies come out of the woodwork, rapidly restoring their population to its former glory!
This story is not one of a kind. Many of our Earth’s creatures can only live off of plants they evolved with for thousands of years. You may have heard about monarchs and milkweed, for example.
Getting Acquainted With Natives
To help keep our local creatures happy and healthy, the best thing you can do is plant native.
What does native mean? “Native” plants are those that have evolved in your region over thousands of years, along with the insects and all other wildlife. (Don’t like bugs? Think of them as bird food! More on that later.)
“Non-native” plants, you may guess, are those that evolved somewhere else in the world. Many of these plants do not support local wildlife. And even worse, some non-native plants are considered “invasive,” meaning they spread like wildfire and take over landscapes. This is because non-natives typically don’t have any natural controls to keep them in check - like other plants that have adapted to compete with them, or those bugs and animals that eat ‘em.
Not all non-natives are invasive. However, any non-native we plant is taking up space that could be occupied by a beautiful, ecologically beneficial native.
To be clear, any plant becomes non-native (and potentially invasive) when it’s removed from its homeland and planted somewhere else. A plant from California could become a serious problem in, say, England, or China, or Ecuador.
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 maybe five species.
The Bigger Picture
Remember the food web? I’ll wait while you dive down into the depths of your elementary school science class memories!
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.
Take butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii): non-native and invasive in North America. Originally imported from China, butterfly bush is a common choice for gardens because it’s a butterfly magnet - the nectar attracts all sorts of fancy flying friends.
Some may argue, “But hey, clearly it’s feeding the butterflies, so it can’t be that bad, right?” Not necessarily.
Butterfly bush is highly invasive in many parts of the U.S., meaning it spreads rapidly and stifles the growth of other plants, including natives. While a butterfly bush may provide nectar for the few months it flowers, it does not provide any other services to the butterflies. To maintain a healthy population, the most important thing for butterflies is a suitable place to lay their eggs - and newly hatched caterpillars will not feed on the leaves of butterfly bush.
In most cases, only native plants can offer this vital service. Not only does butterfly bush fail to truly support the lifecycle of a butterfly, it also chokes out the other crucial plants that do.
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.
Over time, there won’t be a butterfly or a chickadee in sight.
You may be wondering, “Okay, how do I know what’s native and what’s not?” Oh, what a wonderful time to live in the 21st century! Sites like this one will provide you with beautiful glossaries of native plants for your region, as well as the number of butterfly and moth species they support. And if you’ve got a plant you aren’t sure about, just snap a picture on an app like Picture This to find out everything you need to know.
Be sure to choose plants that are native to your very specific region. For example, my small home state of 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!
It’s important to remember that wherever we build, we replace nature. We pave over lush, natural landscapes teeming with life in the name of offices, shops, schools, homes - we need buildings for our society to run, and that’s okay. But to dig up nature and replace it with different, sterile nature seems… a bit silly, don’t you think?
Why not allow our nature to be, well, natural?
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!
You’ll be surprised by the beauty and ease of a yard full of natives. Many ornamental or decorative non-natives take lots of work to maintain. Think: weed and pest killers, frequent watering, tons of fertilizers.
Native plants are wonderful in that they grow in your region naturally! They come already adapted to the climate, rainfall patterns, and soil type of your garden. This means way less work and bigger, fuller, happier plants - so you can put your hose away and sit back to feast your eyes on a beautiful garden teeming with life.
Who knows, you may even help bring back an entire endangered species you’ve never seen before!
Stay safe and get outside!
[Still not convinced? Need more info? Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll dive deeper into the benefits of bugs and the nitty-gritty how-to]