The Case for Native Gardening
Besides vegetables and fruit, my other huge and equally important passion is our native prairie gardens. It was probably about 10 years ago when first I became infatuated with common milkweed. I searched for it everywhere. I called every landscape center around, and finally tracked it down north of the city. The kids and I drove over 2 hours round trip and paid money to bring it onto our property. Once I brought it onto our city lot -viola!- the monarchs arrived, laying eggs on the tiniest milkweed plants nestled amid a sea of concrete. That was all it took to turn me into a huge native perennial enthusiast.
If you live anywhere in the heartland or up either coast -- or many places in between -- monarch butterflies likely pass through your area annually, sometimes more than once. For us, they arrive in late May on their way up to northern Minnesota / southern Manitoba, their offspring who lay the "super generation" make their way back down later in summer. Then that fourth generation does the impossible: migrates 2,000 miles to the protective, high altitude mountainous forests of Mexico.
Native gardening has become a deep passion for me personally. We have improved habitat for these and so many other incredible insects on every property we've owned in Minnesota. Once we witnessed the simple changes that make significant impacts to monarchs and pollinators at large, our desire to expand our butterfly and pollinator gardens were simply too easy and too important to not pursue. At our current home, we immediately found common milkweed in several areas and stopped mowing those areas to allow the plant to mature and sow seeds. Additionally, last fall we winter sowed 1/2 acre of our property back to prairie, which will be carefully tended for the next two growing seasons before blooming in earnest in the spring and summer of 2020.
The beauty of it is, it takes very little to make a difference. That's probably the best part. Even with just a single milkweed plant, you can and likely will attract monarchs -- and other beneficial pollinators -- to your yard, assuming you live in their fly over country. That's how it started with me. Just a single common milkweed plant in our south Minneapolis alley, an innocuous beginning. And now, every plant I consider adding to our landscape must benefit the pollinators, migratory birds, monarchs, or the like.
I've come to appreciate all of the unlikely benefits of native landscaping.
First and foremost, they are hardy, vastly disease-resistant plants. These are plants that have been around for millennia. They know what to do. And the insects that rely on these plants have also been around for as long, and their relationships strong. Native plants require so very little of the gardener, other than maybe some occasional dividing if that's your thing. Those that are short-lived will self-seed and those that are longer-lived with drop their roots deep into your land and slowly spread, filling out an area with remarkable ease.
Second, they do not need irrigation. Native plants have adapted to your region, and thus have an advantage over cultivated perennials. I am a huge proponent of no-fuss gardening and this is why I lean toward natives. I like to just drop something into the ground and see what happens. If it survives, welcome to my garden, love. If it perishes, well, it wasn't tough enough for my landscape. With native plants, they have the intrinsic advantage over cultivars. I really love this about them.
And what about the local fauna? Your yard will become a haven for birds, bees, butterflies, small mammals, and likely predators, too. Even a small patch of native prairie can and will provide important habitat for all the local fauna in your area.
Lastly, deer resistance! I almost forgot this awesome benefit of planting natives. They are the MOST deer resistant plants I have in my garden, hands down. They flower, they take care of themselves, and the deer don't find them appetizing. If you have deer pressure in your area, you know what it's like to wake up and find the herd had meandered through your garden and mowed down your plants. I love the confidence with which I can garden when planting natives, knowing they will provide themselves with everything they need, including being unappealing to our hungriest and most curious of neighbors.
If a more formalized look is what you prefer, consider massing native perennials together --- a backdrop of joe pye weed or ironweed with big bluestem -- the tallest ones in the back or center of your massing -- and then fill in with pale purple coneflower, penstemon, lupine, butterfly weed, asters, and others in the front or all around the bed. Any combination will look beautiful and benefit the local pollinators.
Bare Bones: What I Would Plant
Even in the smallest space, you can make a significant impact on the monarchs and pollinators, these benefits will be seen also in your vegetable garden with higher pollination and increased productivity. Our prairies are adjacent to our vegetable patch so the pollinators have a reason to come back time and again, a mutually beneficial arrangement indeed.
1. Milkweed. Whatever milkweed is native to your area, plant it. I love that we have several here, and they range in both color and height providing us with both compact and showy to tall and rosy blossoms in the height of summer. We of course plant them all, and you should, too!
2. Penstemon. For us, early nectar sources are really important since our springs can be late. I like to ensure we have nectar as early as possible. To that end, I love penstemon, or beard's tongue. Again, this is another highly cultivated perennial. I only have native varieties in our gardens. I believe we have foxglove beardtongue in our gardens. This is another one that really has done well for me, and every spring I rack my brain as to what plant greens up early with opposite, ovate leaves. Then it opens its flowers and I am wowed once again.
3. Meadow Blazing Star. This one is a non-negotiable to me. It is the ultimate monarch magnet in mid to late August, depending on their migration and your climate. We have planted both the cultivar and the native, and both have attracted monarchs at a rate higher than any other single nectar source. It is renowned for its attractiveness to them, and I have to say, I agree. It's one of my favorite August blossoms in my native planting.
4. Asters. This late blooming native is an unparalleled magnet in fall for the bees doing their final push before cold weather shuts them down for the year. I prefer native over cultivars because of all the benefits I've already mentioned. I love Aromatic aster. It's one of the last to bloom and it is a robust plant that will fill in a space quickly. You won't be disappointed.
Take the Next Steps
First thing you may want to do is read more. Here are some amazing resources to whet your appetite and get you and your family going on your path toward a pollinator-friendly and/or monarch attracting landscape.
The Xerces Society's website is a wealth of knowledge and resources. Go get lost on their site: https://xerces.org/pollinator-resource-center/
My favorite locally-owned and operated native seed source in the Upper Midwest. All of our seeds are from Prairie Moon and their customer service is off the rails: https://prairiemoon.com/
Understanding the importance of natives over cultivars can be confusing. I found this article helpful, and you may, too: http://www.wildones.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Nativars-Statement.pdf