When native plants are incorporated into our cities, parks, and yards, numerous benefits are realized.
Written by David Warners and Gail Heffner
Much has been written about the damage that’s been done to the Plaster Creek Watershed over the past 80 years, yet it still offers signs of resilience, strength and beauty that contribute to placemaking in Grand Rapids. Over the past two years, Plaster Creek Stewards has been conducting an oral history project with residents, young and old, who have memories and experiences with Plaster Creek. One interviewee gave rich descriptions of what he’s observed since moving back to Grand Rapids.
“When I came back as an adult, it has been neat to rediscover the Plaster Creek watershed and Ken-O-Sha Park, in particular, through my eyes and ears of listening to the birds and seeing the birds. There’s a lot of diversity of birds in that little wooded patch in this urban environment… And, that’s a really neat way to engage myself with a place that I know well from the past. And rediscover it," says the research participant. "It’s the urban oasis effect of these small green spaces. To hear that over a hundred species of birds can be seen in just an acre size patch, you know, it is just WOW… that’s a really neat way I’ve rediscovered Ken-O-Sha and the Plaster Creek Watershed.”
These kinds of rediscoveries can lead us to consider how we Homo sapiens might better fit ourselves into our places – in ways that are more affirming of the other nonhuman creatures with whom we exist. Nature is a tapestry of knit together, intertwined and interdependent relationships. Species need species. Indeed, in nature there is no existence, only coexistence.
Some of these ‘natural’ places, like Ken-O-Sha Park, still exist as remnants in our city. Unfortunately they represent isolated islands and the contrast between these natural places and our residential neighborhoods is usually stark. What if we were to shift our focus for home landscaping from ways that exclusively appeal to our personal tastes to a landscape that is done with intentionality and care to benefit the broader community of creatures who live here?
Even in the most urban and industrialized areas, gardening with native plants induces butterflies to appear (as if by magic) and birds in abundance. Nature is knit together by so many coexisting interactions. To borrow a phrase from the movie "Field of Dreams," “If you plant [a native garden], [native creatures] will come.”
When native plants are incorporated into our cities, parks, and yards, numerous benefits are realized:
1. Gardens with native plants help connect us to the places where we live. The natural landscapes of North America held stunning beauty and integrity. Urbanization has essentially pushed back that beautiful tapestry and laid down a much simpler, less healthy and less interesting replacement. When native biodiversity surrounds our homes we gain back a sense of that original beauty and affirm the natural history of the places in which we now reside. This approach also challenges the metaphor that humans and nature are somehow separated from each other; it helps to reconcile past harms.
2. Landscapes with native plants are good for us. Interesting studies in the newly emerging field of Ecopsychology are showing that natural areas encountered on a daily basis contribute to the health and well-being of people. Frequent encounters with nature help us heal quicker, keep our spirits up, enhance our attention span and promote more hopefulness and joy. Moreover, some communities have rules against lawn chemical use because of their adverse effects on our physical health.
3. Native plants mean less yard work. Native plants ‘knew’ how to thrive in their places long before human beings arrived. When you find species that are adapted to the conditions of your yard, they will need no fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide nor irrigation. And when leaves fall, most native species benefit from the layer of insulation and the fertilizer they provide—native plants prefer that we "leave the leaves!" Native plantings do need some initial weeding but generally after two to three years of careful maintenance, they will require minimal work. Less yard work, for most people, also means less fossil fuel combustion and less noise.
4. Native plants attract native pollinators. Butterflies and hummingbirds depend on native wildflowers for food. Butterflies also require native host species upon which they lay eggs. Many pollinators are highly specific for which species of nectar or host plant they require. Planting native species is like putting magnets out in your yard for attracting native pollinators. Even in highly urbanized settings it is amazing to see the creatures that show up to visit native plants.
5. Native plants attract native seedeaters. Many homeowners maintain birdfeeders, yet our native birds are best served when native seeds are available. Planting native plants in our yards is like planting birdfeeders. And if possible, it’s best to leave the dried seed-bearing stalks standing through the winter. Even for birds that don’t typically eat seeds, the native plants will support insects that provide food for birds.
6. Gardens with native plants offer genetic diversity for wild populations. As natural vegetation declines, the genetic diversity of each species declines as well. Plants, just like animals can suffer from inbreeding problems. Native species in our landscapes (particularly if they are local genotypes) can benefit natural populations of these plants by offering new sources of genetic diversity when pollinators move between them.
By creatively designing urban green spaces to restore health to a watershed, these areas become magnets for biodiversity. They also contribute to managing stormwater runoff and improving the quality of urban streams such as Plaster Creek. To learn more, join the Plaster Creek Stewards on April 26 from 9:00 AM-noon at the Bunker Interpretive Center at Calvin College
for a short presentation on ways to attract birds and butterflies to our yards, parks, and school and church grounds even in highly urbanized settings. Following the presentation, there will be opportunities to plant native species as a way to contribute to the restoration of the Plaster Creek Watershed.
The research participant's name has been withheld to uphold research ethics standards.