The Native Plant Garden: A Noah’s Ark of Our Time

by Linda Wiggen Kraft

The story of Noah saving the animals two-by-two is only part of that life saving feat. Noah had a wife named Naamah* who gathered plants and seeds far and wide. Together plants and animals created a new world when the ark arrived on solid ground.

Today our city, suburban and rural gardens need to be arks that save the life of plants and animals that have lived together for thousands of years in our local native habitat. A garden can be more than just a home for plants. A true garden is home to a vast and diverse community of insects, spiders, birds, wildlife, microorganisms, soil and plants that work together for the benefit of all. The community of native plants and animals have lived and worked together for eons. They can only survive if all parts continue to work and live together.

The survival of native plants and animals wasn’t a problem when vast areas of native habitat supported these ecosystems. Unfortunately these habitats are shrinking and broken up with human development. Along with shrinking habitat is the love of gardeners for plants that didn’t grow up in the long evolutionary co-dependency of plants, insects and animals in local land. These alien plants, as beautiful as they are, do not contribute to the symbiotic relationships of the ecosystem. Some become non-native invasives that overtake the land, not only eliminating other plants, but also the life of insects, birds and wildlife. Their import also brought non-native invasive insects like Japanese beetles to our gardens. Even alien plants that don’t become invasive, don’t contribute nearly as much, if at all, to the other living parts of the ecosystem.

Like all ecosystems, a garden’s ecosystem depends on simpler life forms to sustain more complex life. In a garden, insects that feed on plants are food for birds and other wildlife up the food chain. Of all the insects, 99% are beneficial. In the evolutionary process a complex web of insects feeding on specific plants has evolved. Insects will only feed on specific plants, getting enough food but not destroying the plant because both need to continue to live. For example, butterflies and moths will only lay eggs on specific host plants because caterpillars can only survive on the leaves of that plant. Monarch butterflies only lay eggs on asclepias (milkweed) plants. If there are not enough asclepias plants in areas where they live and migrate, there will be no more monarchs in our world.
Alien plants do not provide food for the native insects. Native oak, cherry and willows support over 1,400 species of insects, while alien trees support very few. Native plants are necessary for insects to feed on. Insects feed birds and other animals. Baby birds need the high protein of insects, not seeds or nuts. If the insects are not available, birds cannot survive. If native plants are not around, native insects don’t survive, birds don’t survive, and on up the food chain.

How can gardens become the arks that save these ecosystems? First think of a garden as a community, and invite the local ecosystem to live there. It is not necessary to get rid of non-native plants in a garden, but it is necessary to plant enough natives to support native insects, and other animals. Plant more and more native trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. More and more are available at nurseries. Reduce the size of the lawn. Use organic methods for lawn and garden.
Find out about the possibilities. Learn more about beautiful and important native plants and the life they support. Let your garden become a Noah’s Ark of our time.

Visit the website: www.grownative.org for native plant information. Visit Shaw Nature Reserve to see native plants and ecosystems: www.shawnature.org. Read Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy.
* From the children’s book, Noah’s Wife, The Story of Naamah by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.
Linda is a holistic garden designer, garden writer and mandala artist whose work is designed to enhance body, mind and spirit. Visit her website: www.gardensforthesoul.com or (314) 504-4266.

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