Reflections on Establishing a Native Plant Garden…

Beverley Rivera, a transplant from Australia and world traveler, reflects on her most recent journey: discovering our native plants.

Reflections on establishing a native plant garden…

As summer starts to fade, a sea of late-blooming goldenrods explode with sunny yellow, their honey-like fragrance enticing thousands of busy pollinators to my native plant garden. Swarms of purple asters and fizzy white boneset create a buzzing corridor of life. Goldfinches, which my neighbor lamented hadn’t been seen around here in years, are now back in residence; and I was recently rewarded for my gritty labor by our first hummingbird sighting, now a regular visitor to our garden. When I first ventured into planting native plants, I was told that natives would attract wildlife to my backyard, but I was also motivated by the theory that thoughtfully-planted gardens could be used to help offset some of the monumental environmental destruction that modern society is inflicting on our larger landscape. Now, as my garden’s first full summer winds up to a showy finale, I’m witnessing those theories coming to life.

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) attract monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) attracts monarch butterflies and other pollinators to Beverley’s garden habitat.

A Journey of Learning

It’s been a journey of learning. When we bought our house in the spring of 2014, I was naïve not only to what grows in this region, but also to the culture here. Like many, I was moved by the plight of the Monarch Butterflies. For Mother’s Day, I wanted Swamp Milkweeds – but where to buy them? I found that local nurseries stock very few native plants; or they stock cultivars of native plants bred to better behave themselves in standard gardens – alongside the conventional crepe myrtles, azaleas, English ivy and mulch. For many of the native plants just don’t behave conventionally, they don’t confine themselves neatly to flower beds, they lounge around, they sprawl, they tumble, they multiply exponentially. They exhibit no tidy symmetry, they do what they please; they have total disregard for Home Owner’s Associations, they answer only to the regulations of Nature. As such, native plants don’t seem to rate much priority in standard nurseries.

An Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) shows off its glorious wings.

An Eastern tiger swallowtail in all its glory.

And buying these non-conformist plants from nurseries that sell large varieties of poisons also seemed inconsistent with what I was trying to achieve. I would question myself standing in the checkout line next to chemicals that were guaranteed to kill all forms of life for a long period of time, or your money back; an estimated seven million birds a year die from lawn pesticides. Another thing that bothered my conscience was whether I should be supporting nurseries that sell invasive plants, plants that stray from gardens and rapidly take over huge tracts of natural wilderness, and which I have since spent many freezing mornings trying to remove from natural areas. Recognizing the suffocation and the strangulation of new growth in the forests by invasive plants strengthened my resolve to plant what belongs here, and to buy plants from sources that don’t weather my conscience.

Beverley in her amazing garden. The underused deer-tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) (center) feeds a variety of insects, birds and mammals.

Beverley in her amazing garden. The underused deer-tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) (center) feeds a variety of insects, birds and mammals.

Our Discoveries Continue to Grow

So it really has been a journey of learning. I have learned what to plant, where to plant it and when; and then how to obtain these plants in clear conscience. My original two scrawny milkweeds are now a much-chewed many, the rest of my once-sparse collection of bare stalks and straggly stems has thrived, multiplying and blossoming into a colorful overflowing garden abuzz with life. The variety of birds and butterflies and other wildlife that come to our garden enchant us daily. And our discoveries continue to grow as the garden thrives, constantly seeing species we haven’t seen there before. I have learned that if you plant natives, your garden quickly becomes a haven for wildlife… Plant some native plants, and watch your garden come to life.

Photos courtesy of Juan Rivera.

Beverley grew up in Brisbane, Australia, and has lived in Hawaii, Spain, Japan, and Germany with her US Marine husband, Juan.  They have two lovely children, two indoor kitties and one large native plant garden.

Beverley regularly volunteers for Earth Sangha in Springfield, is an avid native plant gardener and is currently enrolled in the Virginia Master Naturalist program.  This past summer she and Juan had their property certified as an Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary.