I have long held the notion that we humans need to be doing all we can to steward the ground that stewards us.  At the same time, I have always been uneasy with the apparently prevailing idea of stewardship as “dominion over” the land.  Of course, one only has to see how the mugwort you pulled is back nearly the next day, regrown from all the rootlets you left behind, to understand that nature laughs at our human notions of dominion.

At Rutgers University, I helped lead “conservation garden” efforts in the courtyard backing onto Foran Hall library.  Without really understanding the full implications of the why, I worked with faculty and student volunteers to replace the scraggly community of plants/weeds (including that mugwort) with native plants from Pinelands Nursery.

During one of our work sessions, Dr. Jean Marie Hartman of the Landscape Architecture department remarked that research at the University of Delaware had shown that native plants supported far more insect life than non-natives.

I’ve carried that remark with me for a long time, waiting for full understanding.  It joined other statements, including the one I read in a composting manual some time ago that advocated against turning the soil, since it threw all the penthouse organisms into the basement and vice versa.

It is often in sudden aha-wow! moments that I begin to understand things.  So it was when I had the leisure of reading The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy as I recovered from my knee replacement, that I began to understand Jean Marie’s observation—Tallamy and his researchers had done a meticulous study regarding insects being hosted by a long list of native and non-native plants, and shown that natives provided far more support to the insects than the non-natives did.  Actually, this is one reason for the popularity of non-natives—the insects here just cannot use them as food, so they leave them alone (except for such insects as Japanese beetles, which, like increasingly many of our landscape plants, are from elsewhere).  So the pollinators, ladybugs, and other herbivores that play crucial roles in supporting our lives are simply left to starve, as the non-natives replace the plants with which the insects laboriously co-evolved relationships over a long joint history.

Imagine my chagrin as I found that every plant in my fully renovated side bed was one of these aliens.

Many of the aha moments come when I am reading, of course.  The trick often seems to be in translating that to the landscape.  What do you do instead of turning the soil?  How should you transform your yard into one full of natives that will support the critters?  Will just any natives do?  And there is the ever vexatious question of what you should do with the non-natives—rip them out, or not?  If not, what role can you work to assign them in the landscape, insofar as nature responds to our assignments?

This is a new Participatory Ecology series that examines the aha insights and looks to see how to make them work in your own landscape—bearing with the conflicts that arise from changing human patterns of garden behavior and dealing with nature as she imposes her own dominion on each of our efforts.  I am hoping there are others of you out there on the same journey, who can contribute from your own experience, so that together we can begin to understand how to truly achieve a “participatory ecology.”


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