How to Make Better "Native Plant Gardens" with Permaculture

(This post is accompanied by this morning’s pictures of some charasmatic native flowers at Lillie House) 

Hovering from flower to flower, the bumble bee embraces her partner and begins to sing. This is a new song, not the regular hum of flight, but a deliberate and intricate buzzing sung aloud for another living being. This is called “buzz pollination.” She knows exactly the notes and frequencies that will make the flower release its pollen, a living demonstration of how sound, song, and music can move something inside of us, too. 

I learned this, and many other beautiful things, by watching native plants in our Permaculture garden. It is a truly great joy to sit and watch the chorus of invertebrates foraging together in the ecosystem we’ve co-created. And while it’s true that many of the “busiest” plants in the garden are non-natives like yarrow, valerian, oregano and thyme, I take special joy in knowing the natives are providing for evolved partnerships and interactions that may be invisible to me as the gardener. 

Native plants also have a range of other benefits that most people these days are quite familiar with, and they bring those benefits with them into any kind of garden. 
As a native garden lover, it has become difficult for me to deny that the best way to use native plants in home, business, or public gardens is to include them with “exotics” into a productive, diverse Permaculture garden. This garden will integrate high-quality appropriate wildlife habitat with the production of food, medicine, cut flowers, materials for crafts, and other products. 

This garden will also have room for heirloom flowers and plants, gifts from friends, families and neighbors, and specimens that remind us of loved ones, even if they are “exotics.” 

It always makes me profoundly sad when I hear someone say they love their grandmother’s favorite lillies, but that they “have to” remove them because they’re not “native.” These plants are certainly doing no harm, and if the research on ecological “resiliency theory” and ecosystem health are to be believed, then more than likely these “invaders” are actually adding to the resilience and health of the ecosystem, providing additional connections and habitat that strengthens the natives. 

And finally, this ideal Permaculture garden will be appropriate to the architecture, history and feel of the home and neighborhood, which may also require some exotic species.  

Such a garden can include just as many “native species” as any “native flower garden”  and it will have all the benefits of the “native flower garden.” But it will also provide a multitude of additional benefits, a list too long to get very far into, but it starts with reducing the harm we cause to other humans and ecosystems by meeting more of our needs within our human habitats–the places we actually live– instead of exploiting “wild” places or other people. 
This is the kind of “integrated” garden that I design and recommend for homes, businesses and public spaces. 
People in Kalamazoo often ask me about the “conflict” between Permaculture and “native plant nuts” and I say “there isn’t one!” I’m a Permaculturist and a certifiable native plant nut.
“Native flower gardens” are wonderful gardens and I absolutely love them! Many native plant gardeners are doing amazing work and making beautiful living historical exhibits. 

And Permaculture Design is the perfect compliment to their work. Good design can make these gardens even better, increasing the positive impact of “Native Flower Gardens” or “Prairie Gardens.”
Here are some thoughts, from a Permacultre perspective, on how we can improve our already awesome “native gardens” :
1. Include appropriate productive plants. It’s simple and fulfilling to design native gardens filled with delicious and healthy native fruits and vegetables, materials for crafts, medicines, aromatherapy or building materials. It’s even possible to create a “natives only” edible forest garden. And the befefits are profound: any space used within a human habitat like a yard, a city or a suburb, that isn’t put to productive use, means that a much, much larger 4-40 times or even greater, judging from the research of the Grow Biointensive organization) piece of land outside of the human habitat has to be converted into desert for human benefit. (Yes, a corn field is essentially a desert.) 
Think about that. It’s self-evident, yet rarely considered. 
While habitat inside the human zone is of poor quality for wildlife, this conscripted land outside the human realm would be of high value, especially for the often “shy” endangered species. Meanwhile, productive gardens close to where humans live require DRAMATICALLY reduced energy intensity, going a long way to reduce our carbon footprint and environmental impact. 
This is just a matter of recognizing “highest and best use” and acting accordingly. 

2. Don’t till. Many “native gardens” require periodic replanting or tilling to maintain. You can make a case that tilling is necessary for productive land uses, but not for gardens that are essentially ornamental. This needlessly costs us soil, kills wildlife and wastes resources just to give us give us something pretty to look at and eleviate our “ecological guilt.” Find better ways to do both. 

3. Never, ever spray poison on the earth for a “native garden.” Does this honestly require explanation? It is literally insanity to spray poisons that are well-documented to destroy wildlife and soil life, in places where our children run and play, in order to “help nature” or “do something good for the earth.” Insanity. If we can’t plant our “nature gardens” without poisoning nature, we’re desperately confused. 

4. Try sheet mulching or lassagne gadening instead. This method actually INCREASES soil health, life and wildlife value, often while recycling waste products that would otherwise go into land fills. Nature will thank you.

5. Accept that “native gardens” aren’t native ecosystems. Because they’re not. This should be obvious to people, but it isn’t. Take a look at a map of pre-settlement vegetation. Not a lot of “native gardens” on there! Not a lot of “prairie” either, in all those places with “native prairie gardens.”  Many of these gardens, especially prairie gardens, emulate the gardens that were tended by native Americans, rather than non-human habitats. In Michigan the natural landscape would gravitate towards forest without human intervention. This is called “natural succession,” and it is, as the name suggests, perfectly natural, even if it musses up our “nature gardens.” These gardens are beautiful places, but they aren’t themselves “native” or natural in any way. Hey human, you are literally planning and planting it! Yet, a lot of harmful practices are justified by the idea that it’s necessary to fight nature to “restore” this “natural” habitat. It’s time to correct that confusion. 

6. Work to make functioning ecosystems instead of “native gardens.” Ironically, this might require some exotic plants. Unfortunately, when we try to build “native gardens” these days, we’re doing so on “non-native soil” in “non-native ecosystems.” Our soil ecology has been changed dramatically by the inclusion of exotic worms and the microbes that travel in their worm guts. Not to mention an unknown amount of other non-native soil life that came here in our guts and the guts of all our domesticated animals. The conversion of leaf litter into worm poo creates soils with a “faster metabolism” than worm-free native soils, and in that new environment, it is difficult for a pure stand of natives to outcompete “weeds” that evolved in this “fast” soil type. (Yes, this is a simplification, but I think a pretty good one.) 
On top of that, these “native prairie” systems evolved with large ruminants, apex predators, passenger pigeons, horticultural human cultures, and a whole host of other “keystone species” that no longer exist. Our experience and research thus far indicates that it is likely impossible to create sustainable native plant communities without their native ecosystems. 
Exotic species can fill these niches, as they are often observed to in nature, creating “recombinant ecologies” that support native species and are well adapted to our modern “non-native” soils and ecosystems. You see this each time you drive past ditches where natives and non-natives live together in peace. 

7. Allow your “native gardens” to demonstrate ecological succession. This goes back to the confusion that native gardens are native ecosystems. In Michgan, no “prairie flower garden” wants to stay a “prairie” forever. Prairies existed in Michigan in brief periods of “disturbance” when forests are removed. Every “wildflower prarie” wants to “grow up” to be a forest. Most of the time, we end up fighting against nature to preserve our “nature gardens” against the process of “succession,” so we end up spraying, tilling weeding, etc. The best and truest “native gardens” will demonstrate succession, moving towards becoming what they want to be, old-fields, young forest and finally mature forest. Let it be. 
8. Design gardens that are historically and architecturally informed and harmonize well with homes and neighborhoods. While we’ve been working hard at preserving native plants and wildlife, our friends and neighbors promoting a “restoration” or “historic preservation” approach to our human environments have been making significant contributions to our future sustainability. This restoration movement  helps us make best use of embodied energy and durable materials, keeping our energy and resource impact low. Lets honor their work and the work and dreams of our ancestors by designing gardens that build on their efforts, instead of tearing them down and fighting with them. It’s very possible to make “historically and architecturally informed” gardens with native plants, and the experts on restoration point out that there are a whole host of benefits for doing so. 
9. Don’t be too purist. This only discourages people from planting more native plants! If exotics are necessary to make functional ecologies, support an architectural style or honor our loved ones, then let them be! Please never tell somebody to rip out their aunt Petunia’s petunias. 
10. Plan for nature to do the maintenance: embrace the “guilded age.” Perhaps the biggest benefit that native gardens give, is reducing the burden that landscape maintenance puts on us, lowering our resource and energy use, ecological impact, and giving us more free time. Native plants don’t generally require watering, or fertilizing once established. However, I do hear a lot of native gardeners say that their gardens require a lot of maintenance and take a lot of time, energy–and often–chemicals. In Permacultre, we try to create “guilds” of plants that work together to create plant communities that do this work for us. You can find information on “guild roles” online. One of the keys to making this work, though, is a hands-off, or light approach, understanding that if we create a system through constant intervention, we’ve created a syste that requires intervention! So sit back and let nature have her way, even if that means you have a few “weeds.” Many of these “weeds” are sun-loving plants with fast metabolisms that will eventually get out competed if the garden is allowed to follow succession into a forest ecosystem. 
So, keep enjoying all of our beautiful “native gardens.” And let’s see if we can’t use Permacultre to make them even better. 

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