I noticed a few days ago that something has been noshing on my cabbage-leaf coneflower. Big, blue-green leaves, now with a few holes in them.
This irked me a bit. I felt like a bad gardener. It was hardly a life-threatening set of holes, the plant continues to grow well, but…holes. Clearly I was doing something wrong–or more likely, failing to do something right–to keep whatever bugs were chowing down on my plant in check. It reinforced yet again that I have no real idea what I’m doing–my gardening, like my art and my writing, consists of trying things over and over until something works, and then doing that again until I get sick of it.
Those people with their elaborately planned gardens and intense scrutiny of every microclimate, with the huge glossy photospreads in magazines and gardening blogs jammed with lovely photos and whatnot…those people are gardeners. I have a small yard surrounded by trees and packed full of individual plants in no particular order. I try to grow natives, and I get holes in the leaves. Woe.
Then I spent most of yesterday reading Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy, and came to a great realization.
This is the same great realization I’ve come to any number of times in my life, and each time it’s true, and each time it’s a revelation.
I’m an idiot.
My coneflower has holes in the leaves because it’s a native, because I’m doing something right.
I am, in fact, feeding a bug.
The world is made of bugs. If it wasn’t for bugs, the world’s terrestrial ecosystems would collapse. Bugs keep the world going. God’s inordinate fondness for beetles is an inordinate fondness for life.
This is a bit painful, because frankly, bugs squick me out a bit. I wish I was a better person, I can handle snakes and rats without so much as a qualm, but bugs I dislike. I am a big charismatic vertebrate and as a result, I like other big charismatic vertebrates. Birds, say. Toads.
And yet, if I wanted to be a really good gardener, if I wanted to do my tiny part, my single acre dedicated to making the world a better place–I’d make it better for bugs. Because you get the bugs, and everything else follows.
All those birds I love, that I sit and watch out the window and cheer for–did I think that they were coming because of my birdfeeder?
I’m an idiot. The number of birds that eat JUST seeds are very very few. Something like 95% of North American birds eat bugs…and while they love the berries for a quick jolt of energy during migration, while they’ll crack my seeds happily, what they feed their offspring are bugs. They’re not shoving safflower seeds into teeny little throats, they’re shoving little wiggly things with too many legs that make me go "ew!"
I could hang a birdfeeder on every single horizontal branch in this entire acre, and bird populations would continue to decline around me, because I wouldn’t be providing anything for the babies. In fact, bird populations are declining around us, horribly so–there’s been something like a 50% loss in the last half-century–and they’re being replaced with things like pigeons and starlings and the European house sparrow.*
And with other animals, it’s even more obvious. My island bed is rather smaller than most suburban garden beds. But it’s a whole world to the tiny Southern Cricket Frogs that live there. Did I think they were eating seeds? Were they sipping nectar, perhaps from teeny tiny martini glasses? Were the Carolina anoles that scuttled along the deck eating my hot peppers and waiting for the tomatoes to ripen?
Of course not. They’re eating bugs.
When I buy native plants, I tend to look for ones that have the big shiny pictures of hummingbirds on them, or such jaunty slogans as "birds love the seeds!" Because…well…nectar feeds butterflies and hummingbirds and bees! And seeds are good, because birds eat them!" I have passed over any number of lovely plants because they did not include these slogans, because damnit, I’m gardening for wildlife here.
And that’s where I went wrong.
I am trying to build a ladder, and I’ve been ignoring the bottom rung. I should be planting natives that bugs eat. The birds will take care of themselves. I should plant things that get their leaves turned to swiss cheese and cheer every hole. Those big glossy pest-resistant plants that fill garden magazines are no better than plastic as far as the ecosystem is concerned, and while my seed and nectar plants are great and fantastic, the yard needs more than that. A lot more.
As with so many things, my garden succeeds despite me. A thumbnail inventory says that there are currently thirty-odd natives that I have planted, and twenty-odd non-natives. (I’ve planted more than that, of both sorts, but not all made it, and probably not all of these will make it either.) And I recall going out with a camera last summer and being astounded–not just at the bees and the butterflies, although they’re the big impressive ones–but all the tiny little bugs, the flies, the leafhoppers, the grasshoppery things. The native plants brought them in despite my arbitrary selection. And following up to feed on them–the reason I know that the micro-ecosystem here is not utterly shot–are the dozens of spiders that I see scurrying everwhere.
My non-natives (all of which are nectar plants) are not nearly as good for bug production. Nectar, frankly, is cheap.
That’s the real cost of non-natives. We think that because they’re chock full of nectar and bees love them that they must be just as good. But they’re not hosts. Hardly anything eats them. That’s why they look so pretty…and why they don’t help as much as they should.
That doesn’t mean I’ll be ripping out my hyssop or my pineapple sage–nectar’s cheap, but I love them and they do it well. Feeding bees is also valuable in this world. But what I’m realizing is that, like bird feeders, just putting out nectar plants aren’t enough. If I want to actually help the birds, I have to feed the bugs–the chompers, the gnawers, the borers, not just the delicate sippers. I love my proud, ragged mourning cloak doing his patrols around the house, but realistically, whatever’s chewing through the coneflower leaves is probably gonna provide a much better meal for the bluebird down the block.
Unsurprisingly, the primary reason that things work well in the yard has nothing to do with me. It’s the wooded part of the property–the live oak and the white oaks and the pin oak, the half-dozen redbuds, the pine trees, the flowering dogwoods, the tulip poplar and the sweet gum tree. That’s what almost everything’s living on.
Still, my yard helps. Somewhere, a hive of bees got a really good set of meals because of these plants. The cricket frogs that live in the island bed are there because of what I planted–and anything I can do to help a frog is a glorious thing. The tobacco hornworms that nibbled delicately at my tomatoes got parasitized by wasps and those wasps provided any number of meals–and you know? I don’t think I lost a single tomato. (It hadn’t occurred to me until now that the reason I had no problems at all with pests on the veggies, despite my complete lack of any defenses against them–spray? Put up insect netting? Soak them with weird concoctions of cigarettes and soap? What? Why?–was because the flower garden was full of bugs. Hungry, predatory bugs. I didn’t get any pests of any significance. As usual, things worked because completely in spite of me.)
So, next time I head out to Niche Gardens, I won’t automatically ignore anything that doesn’t have a big hummingbird sign on it. Give me foamflower and bottle gentian and wild ginger for the shaded area. I’ll give spicebush one more try (this time in a pot, goddamnit, I have NO luck with that stuff, and I want to grow it bad…) and I will try, very hard, to work on feeding the bugs. Even if I don’t like them, even if I cringe a little at the waves of legs.
Give us ragged gardens with holes in the leaves. That’s how we know they’re working.
*There are those who say that there are just as many birds in North America now, so clearly habitat destruction isn’t doing anything. This is because they count a starling or a pigeon as highly as a red-cockaded woodpecker or a scissor-tailed flycatcher. If you meet one of these people, you have my full permission to punch them in the face and tell ’em it’s from me.