Going Native at Home
A "garden tutor" touts natural yards.
Sitting near the butterfly garden of Connie Bank's home in Webster Township on an August afternoon is like being transplanted into a Disney cartoon. Monarchs dance through the spiky milkweed, sunflowers, and Technicolor blooms. A perky chipmunk crawls to the top of a rocky waterfall fountain. Birds twitter from crowns of bordering pines. A ruby-throated hummingbird zips around its feeder.
"Oooh, he's mad," Bank says. She launches into a lively tale about installing a beehive near her back prairie this year; recently the bees discovered the hummingbird feeder and drained it dry. "But they'll be okay," she says of the birds, gesturing with a tanned arm toward a feast of red, yellow, orange, and purple flowers, chosen for their beak-friendly tubular blooms.
In Bank's approach to gardening, the pretty flowers are only one element in a multifaceted "web of life."
"I've gone native," Bank says with conviction and a smile. It's the theme of talks she gives to gardening clubs, civic groups, and individual home owners. Through her consulting business, the Garden Tutor, she advises home owners about hardy and wildlife-friendly plantings.
Bank, a certified advanced master gardener, has established gardens at her church, Webster United Church of Christ. She's recruited Eagle Scouts to build raised beds there.
A member of the Wild Ones native plants organization, Bank lives on a National Wildlife Foundation-certified backyard wildlife habitat. She thinks everyone else should do the same.
"First, shrink your lawn," she says. "It does nothing for wildlife." She advocates planting native perennials instead: "They're drought tolerant, pest and disease resistant, and life supporting with their deep root systems." Native black-eyed Susans, other coneflowers, and prairie grasses are ideal, and widely available.
Don't cut your seeded perennials after they bloom, she advises, because joe-pye weed, liatris, sedum, and their ilk feed birds all winter. Even dead trees attract insects that birds love. She also tells people to stop spraying and fertilizing and instead rely on the "black gold" of compost to support the soil.
"Gardening is like painting," she says. "It's ninety percent preparation." Fall is a great time to get started, first by understanding the advantages of native or well-suited plants that thrive on their own.
"I'm pushing sixty," Bank says. "I'm not going to do all that watering and weeding anymore."
[Originally published in October, 2008.]