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Nebraska Prairie

Guest Rant by Benjamin Vogt

It’s late July and I’ve finally seen my first monarch butterfly, but only after the Liatris ligulistylis started blooming. This is a very, very late start. In 2010 I raised 200 from egg to wing, then in 2011 a solid 150, last year only 25. This year I found 5 eggs.

I slip quietly behind some tall coreopsis, hoping the monarch won’t see or sense me. But they do, they always do. It lifts off to fly circles above me for much longer than I have the patience to wait. It’s an incredible butterfly, isn’t it? The quintessential summer insect. But it’s not just monarchs I’ve seen less of these last years – it’s all kinds of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, and wasps. Pollinating insects which provide 1 in 3 bites of food – even China has resorted to hand-pollinating large crops due to a lack of insects.

Have you seen this lack, this absence? It’s a proverbial canary in the coal mine. Folks speculate on the cause – pesticides, habitat loss, weather extremes. What’s the magic bullet? Suburban sprawl. GMO agricultural fields producing toxic pollen and taking more pesticide sprays. Tar sands and mountain top removal coal mining. Plowing up the last remaining prairies at a rate exceeding the years just prior to the Dust Bowl – in the last 5 years the size of Indiana has been converted as publicly-subsidized crop insurance guarantees a farmer’s income, even if they plow up marshes and highly erodible lands.

As gardeners we have first hand knowledge of environmental change – birds, butterflies, soil, rain. We are also the first and last line of defense. How we garden is how we see the world. Gardening is an ethical act, like shopping locally, going to farmer’s markets, et cetera. We make the choices as gardeners, and we are powerful — there are tens of millions of us in North America. Gardening has become much more than an aesthetic hobby – it’s now also a protest (you front lawn converters know what I mean!).

Monarchs need milkweed – a genus that has over 100 species in the U.S. alone. A native plant. A host plant. Why would you not plant milkweed given the absence of monarchs you see? Why would you not connect the dots to other lives and plants, other hosts for skippers, and swallowtails, and fritillaries? It’s estimated that 3,000 species of flora and fauna vanish every year, due in large part to human action.

So will you follow me one step further? Choosing native plants may be a moral choice. Asking for them in nurseries is asking for change, for restoration, for healing. Native plants can connect us to our home ground in ways a non native might not be able to. Native plants help us learn about local ecology, attracting beneficial bugs, fixing soil, feeding birds – all adapted, all co-evolved with the nectar and the seeds and the taste of leaves over tens of thousands of years. In the Plains what was here before Europeans erased it? Is it ok that those species are no longer here? The prairie once acted like the Amazon rainforest – huge lungs that cleaned the hemisphere’s air and provided a wealth of life that created backup redundancies. In a monoculture of corn, soybeans, hosta, or daylily (all new norms we seem to accept as if they always existed), one pest or disease can wipe everything away in a moment – there is no redundancy, and less value to native wildlife. Nature thrives on diversity, and so do we, physically and psychologically. That’s what makes America so unique. If we plant the same things from city to city, state to state, country to country, haven’t we McDonaldized the world? What do local wildlife think about that?

I tell you honestly, I ache for the monarch butterfly. I feel that absence in my garden like I feel the absence of deceased family and friends. My heart feels weak, my body shudders. I will gather as much milkweed seed as I can this fall from my Nebraska garden – indeed as much liatris, coneflower, bluestem, sideoats grama, culver’s root, mountain mint, aster, goldenrod, and sunflower as I can. I’ll wintersow them in pots and plant out the seedlings next summer. I’ll hope, but what’s more, I’ll take a stand and believe I can make a difference – it’s time to bring ourselves back to the native landscape, to connect to our home ground, to heal, and ultimately to connect more deeply to  ourselves and each other as we garden for all of us.

Benjamin Vogt blogs at Deep Middle.   Click here to read more from Benjamin on this subject.

Posted by

Garden Rant
on September 20, 2013 at 7:19 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Guest Rants, It’s the Plants, Darling.

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  1. admin

    15th November 2016 at 12:18 am

    I couldn’t agree more with Benjamin–I feel we are voices crying in the wilderness. (See my book Design Your Natural Midwest Garden and my blog, http://www.naturalmidwestgarden.com). I don’t, however, think scolding and scaring is the best way to win converts. Converting gardeners, who already have gardens filled with exotic plants, is not easy and blending natives with their existing gardens is a start. One of my programs that I give is entitled “If you aren’t ready to go all the way…” I’m assuming that once one starts planting native plants, their beauty and low upkeep will win out over exotics. One doesn’t need a prairie in order to have a prairie garden–my lot is only 50′ x 124′ and my garden beds are planted exclusively with Midwest native plants. (It was featured in Better Homes & Gardens several years ago.)

  2. SAo

    28th November 2016 at 7:15 pm

    When I was a kid, behind my house there was a big patch of undeveloped land, including a few small fields full of milkweed. The town bought it as conservation land. Good, you are thinking. But they mow the meadow a few times a year and the milkweed is no more.

  3. Steve Hiltner

    30th November 2016 at 11:03 am

    When I moved to Princeton, NJ, a field along a popular canal towpath was being mowed every week or two by state parks. I noticed rosettes of cutleaf coneflower surviving the mowing but unable to bloom, and was able to talk the parks ranger into mowing once a year instead. Less work, and a great explosion of native wildflowers and grasses–JoePyeWeed, tall meadow rue, milkweed, ironweed, deertongue grass, even species I’d never encountered before, like figwort. They mowed a nature trail that winds through this field. This is a floodplain field, so may be more resilient, but your milkweed may still be surviving in your field, ready to come back with a change in mowing regime.

  4. admin

    30th November 2016 at 11:51 am

    Mary–So, do those monarchs use the trees as a host plant? I suppose I could have used any number of insect, but this one is certainly a poster child. I don’t see monarchs evolving to use aster or coneflower as a host plant — the rush of climate change is outpacing evolution, wouldn’t you say? If we are losing 3,000 species a year, as E.O. Wilson suggests, what are the moral implications of that? Should we just have the cavalier attitude that what doesn’t adjust just wasn’t meant to exist, as I’m taking you mean? Where will monarchs go in Mexico when cold winter rains strike as a result of climate change, freezing them to death? Even if you planted oaks you’d still have the changing weather, right?

  5. Eric

    30th November 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Mary, is there not also scientific evidence that native plants are in fact “better” in many ways (see the work of Doug Tallamy)?

  6. Thomas Rainer

    30th November 2016 at 12:27 pm

    Great post, Benjamin. Right message, right tone. Inspired me to collect milkweed seed this fall.

  7. Jim Gardner

    30th November 2016 at 12:29 pm

    This is sublime, rational, necessary…this is pragmatic action and faith with power and belief as action. I will be sharing this one. A LOT! Thanks, Jim

  8. trey

    30th November 2016 at 12:49 pm

    How we garden is a moral choice? Who decides what is moral in the garden? Benjamin, you, your neighbor? This is a dangerous road to travel. If a certain type of gardening goes against your morals do your rightly tell your neighbor that they are immoral for having a non-native “food garden” in their front yard?

  9. Vincent Vizachero

    30th November 2016 at 1:02 pm

    I can’t speak for the author, but I will note that he never called anyone’s choices “immoral”.

  10. trey

    1st December 2016 at 3:16 am


  11. admin

    1st December 2016 at 12:19 pm

    Trey, there’s a deeper issue here. Obviously, if you vegetable garden, you are making a moral choice. Well, I assume you are, you’ll have to let me know WHY you have a vegetable garden, but I suspect it has something to do with access to cheap, organic food for your family (pollinated by insects, which native plants support in abundance).

  12. trey

    1st December 2016 at 12:52 pm

    My choice to grow vegetables was to enjoy the process, not use synthetic pesticides, and taste. I am not sure where “morals” played a part. My choice not to use synthetic pesticides is not based on a need to make a statement, but rather to not pollute my body with synthetics.

  13. Vincent Vizachero

    1st December 2016 at 1:08 pm

    Trey, I think you are misinterpreting the meaning of the word “moral” in this context.

  14. admin

    2nd December 2016 at 12:35 am

    Yes. That.

  15. admin

    2nd December 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Trey — I’ll be honest, I still feel like you’re missing the point; that’s fine, I guess. I’ll try once more.

  16. Kristin Landfield

    2nd December 2016 at 12:37 pm

    Hello fellows-
    To me, these are important and essential issues–certainly the care of diverse habitat. It seems to me that there are at least two threads here: gardening consistent with ones values AND assessing what role–if any–morality plays in making these choices. Indeed, they may be overlapping topics, but conflating the two may muddle the heart of the message. For many of us, gardening is in fact a reflection of values and a sense of duty to this earth we inhabit. But even the most native-intensive designed spaces are at best, an evocative and fertile interpretation of nature. We garden and shop and live with myriad influences and variables impacting each choice we make in each moment, and these are ever-changing from moment to moment. I might buy some seed or vegetable starts because I believe my neighbors will respect me more if I do, or because I got caught up in the scent of patchouli and hipster enthusiasm at my local garden center , or because it makes me feel better about all the ways I am negatively impacting the environment with the gas in my car, or because I have some romantic notion about food gardening, or because I like the narrative about myself that I am the type of person who gardens with natives. If I plant some Vernonia, I can ignore the big expanse of impermeable concrete in front of my house that sheets the herbicide from the park across the street into the creek behind my house that runs into a local wildlife preserve. I’m not intending to be glib or detract from the genuine plea for the maintenance of native habitats; it’s more about the recognition that I am human living in a human habitat, influenced each day by more impulses and drives than I realize–some much more noble than others–and all among us sit somehwere on the vast continuum of human consumption and impact on this earth. mae are all complicit by virtue of the spaace we inhabit. So placing the issue in moral terms is much like meting out moral dogma on people for the food they eat or watching tv or taking pharmaceutical drugs. As Benjamin notes, encouraging people to be intellectually honest about all the ways in which we impact our environment, pointing to the loss of beauty and destruction of ecosystems, calling people to operate with carenand compassn to this earth andnevery creature onit–even the human ilk–seems different to me than saying that my planting natives and food gives me moral purchase.

  17. Nina

    2nd December 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Hear, hear, Trey. Geez, people, it’s my garden, not a moral choice. Sure I have milkweed, but I also have roses & a host of vegetables. Please let’s not start dictating what can & can’t be grown in one’s personal space.

  18. Vincent Vizachero

    2nd December 2016 at 8:15 pm

    I don’t see where the author is trying to give himself the authority to dictate what is in your yard.

  19. skr

    3rd December 2016 at 1:07 am

    Where’s all this increased farmland that is being put under the plow? Both the USDA and the Census Bureau show farm acreage at its lowest level since 1945. The amount of acreage under the plow has been steadily decreasing for decades.

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