As an introduction to the Iowa Native Plants website, I want to talk a little bit about the idea of gardening for wildlife and a bit of the philosophy behind why it’s so important.
I think it makes sense to start with this common idea, or at least an implicit idea, that humans, are separate from nature. Nature is something that is “out there,” while we and our homes are over here. We might have a little bit of controlled nature in our home landscapes, but that is us controlling nature mostly, not being a part of it.
Many of you might recognize that this idea is not true nor particularly good. We all rely on nature and on the land to give us food and life. We’re not separate from nature, we’re part of it.
But often the way people landscape the formerly natural spaces around their homes does not build on this idea of us being part of nature. It doesn’t try to work with nature, but against it, tries to control it. And that might “work” in the short run, but it has a lot of bad effects in the long run. The plants, birds, insects, and larger wildlife that we share the world with evolved over millions of years to create a beautiful ecosystem that keeps everything alive and in check. In a couple hundred years, humans have literally bulldozed through a huge percentage of that ecosystem.
One striking example of this destruction is the ubiquitous turfgrass lawn.
If you start reading much about native plants you will pretty quickly run into this idea that turfgrass lawns are essentially wastelands for ecological activity. They don’t support wildlife, they’re just there because people think it looks nice and its one of the few living things that you can walk all over and have kids play on without killing it completely.
Turfgrass is really good at one thing: being nice for people to walk on. That’s useful, but it’s worth taking the time to think about better ways to use the spaces around us. You probably do want some turfgrass, especially if you have kids, but how much will you actually use? And what better use can the rest of that space be put to?
The answer is planting lots and lots of native plants!
Native plants support natural ecosystems much better than lawns. Just one striking example: a native oak tree supports something like 500 species of caterpillars, while a ginkgo supports only about 5. Those caterpillars aren’t just one day going to be beautiful butterflies that we like to see, but they are also an important food source for many of the birds we like to see. And it takes about 6,000 caterpillars for a chickadee to get its young raised to maturity- so that oak with 500 species is doing a lot to help the birds, while a gingko is doing almost nothing.
More than that, native plants are better at retaining soil and preventing runoff, which is increasingly becoming a serious issue here in Iowa. Once they’re established they often require less work than turfgrass- you don’t need to fertilize and mow and all that. By cutting down on fertilization and mowing, these native plant beds help limit the pollutants we produce, and many of them are also really good at sucking carbon out of the air and storing it, so they help, in a small way, with climate change as well.
On top of all that, native plants can be really beautiful. It’s not like you need to have just wild, ugly stuff growing everywhere.
So how do you learn more about native plants, check what is native, and all that? There are all sorts of great resources out there—on websites, in videos of talks and presentations, in books. There are so many great resources, in fact, that it can be hard to keep track of them all!
“If you want this thing, go to this site and search for this and you’ll find a couple different lists. To do this, go over here and find this page.” It’s a lot to remember. So I wanted to put something together that could bring many of these great native plant resources together in one easy to find and easy to navigate place. And that’s what IowaNativePlants.com is all about.
IowaNativePlants.com is a collection of educational and instructional resources put together by real experts, all gathered in one place.
There’s a link to the USDA’s Native Plants Checker, where you can type in the name of a plant and see if its native to your area.
There’s a large and growing collection of lists put together by Iowa State University about native plants that thrive in different environments (shade vs sun, wet vs dry soil, etc).
There’s even a whole page of educational resources for you to share with others, to help bring them into the native plants mission.
I plan to continuously update the site with new resources, guides, and information as I find it. To keep up with everything, you can subscribe to get occasional email updates when there’s new information. If you've found a cool native plant resource you want to share, or just have your own awesome native plants story, you can contact me here or leave a comment below.
I'm looking forward to learning and growing with you all. Now let's get to work!