Getting Started with Native Plants
The Colorado Native Plant Society hosts an annual conference early every spring, for which the keynote in 2022 was the great ecologist, Doug Tallamy. His presentation challenged what has become the status quo of talking about how much biodiversity we have lost to show how quickly it can be re-established by changing our relationship with the landscapes that surround us…starting in our own yards. He claims to have increased the diversity of wildlife around his home by 80% over three years and feels that no matter the scale, we may contribute to restoring webs of life by planting native plants in our yards: https://homegrownnationalpark.org
Here in the upper Rocky Mountain Steppe, we have unique growing conditions that may seem challenging if we try to cultivate plants ‘from away’. Denver was built on a former lakebed, so the soil is heavy with clay (and minerals!) Integrating native species in our gardens allow for robust displays of pollinator-supporting blooms that maintain their character year-round, while using a LOT less water.
The most economical way to get started with native plants is to grow them from seed. It takes patience because natives focus energy on growing deep roots the first year, which allows them to burst forth in bloom only in the second growing season. When plants are grown from seed, they become firmly established in the ground where they were sown. Early spring is the ideal time for planting native bunching grasses for pollinator habitat; little bluestem, for example, offers over-winter shelter for hibernating bumble bees. While most wildflowers need the cold of winter to break their tough hulls, there are some showy native species that may still be sown in spring including dogbanes, wild mints (including beebalms), echinacea, rudbeckias and for our driest areas, yucca. Through the first growing season, it is important to make sure the seedlings receive water once a week if it does not fall from the sky. Once these plants are established, they should not need any additional watering. Visit www.prairiemoon.com to source native seeds and find instructions on sowing them. For seeds that may be sown without cold stratification, search germination code A. To browse plants native to Colorado, tick the CO state box.
Why is planting native plants in pollinator pathways important from a Slow Food perspective? We are in the midst of an insect-apocalypse, with pollinators included in the collapse. Since pollinators and other beneficial insects are essential to growing food, it is important to maintain strong ecologies to support them year-round. According to the Pesticide Action Network, “On a per acre basis, American homeowners use 10 times more pesticides than what is used on U.S. farms. Every year, U.S. homeowners apply an estimated 80 million pounds of synthetic pesticides to their lawns.” As persistent organic pollutants, these pesticides do not ‘go away’. Once released into our landscapes and waterways, they are impossible to reclaim and disrupt endocrine systems of humans and animals alike.
Landscape designer, Rosalind Creasy is a master at integrating showy flowers with crops into landscape designs. https://www.rosalindcreasy.com – She has published a number of books that offer guidance into how to create beautiful displays of edible landscaping that integrate layers of pollinator support. When we think of ‘good, clean and fair food’ production, I always like to consider the non-human species as part of the equation, and a mindful approach to land relationships in our own spheres is the ideal place to start.
Echinacea, or coneflowers not only provide forage for pollinators, their pronounced seedheads offer nutrient dense seeds to resident birds through the winter.
Seeds from the hearty Rudbeckia species may be sown in early spring. Here, Rudbeckia hirta, or Black-eyed Susan grows out of gravel along a post and beam fence.
Post by Lee Lee, Associate Board Member
Lee Lee was born and raised in central Denver and maintains a creative practice at the intersection of visual art and ecology: www.virtualvoices.org.