Gardening with Native Plants
My time here at the Hawaii Outdoor Institute has inspired me to me to look further into how I can best help the environment around me. Seeing first hand the damage done to Hawaii’s native ecosystems by cattle, sugarcane farming, housing, and commercial development really put into perspective the negative impacts humans can have on the environment. Visiting places like Kohala Forest Reserve, a pristine forest filled with native plants and animals, gave me hope for conservation. Tending the taro crop with Uncle Les helped me realize how important it is to get your hands dirty to give back to the land. Finally, visiting the Waikoloa Dry Forest Preserve where Rob showed us the incredible amount of work he and other community members had done to restore a native ecosystem inspired me to try a similar but much smaller idea in my own backyard.
For a long time I have thought about planting a garden of native plants to support native animals, especially pollinators, in order to create a thriving ecosystem in my own backyard. We learned that the Wiliwili and Uhiuhi in the Waikoloa Dry Forest Preserve, as well as many other native plants, attract the native Nene’s to rest at the reserve instead flying over. The Nene started to do this because they recognized their native habitat. This really inspired me to go through with my garden project idea and create a plan to make a miniature “preserve” in my own backyard.
Before I get into how I want to accomplish this, I want to take an aside to talk about the environmental consequences of traditional gardening. First, watering lawns and gardens take up 30% of the average American households potable (potable=drinkable) water, 50% of which is lost to evaporation. Not only is this a huge waste of resources, as it takes a lot of effort to create drinkable water, but in places prone to drought it wastes water that might otherwise be used for drinking. Most of this water used on lawns is not even needed to keep the grass alive, it is used to keep them green in seasons they would normally be dormant in. Secondly, pesticides and fertilizers are used in massive amounts on lawns and gardens and most of them end up running off down storm drains into the surrounding watershed. The fertilizers eventually get to rivers where they can create huge algae blooms cause dead zones lacking O2. The 70 million pounds of pesticides we use annually on our lawns and gardens also wash of into the surrounding watersheds causing untold harm to native wildlife. Thirdly, the EPA estimates that 5% of our air pollution comes from gas powered lawn and garden equipment (Poppenheimer).
These statistics on our lawn usage and their effects puts the importance of residential land use into perspective and throws the benefits of gardening with native plants into sharp focus. First, as we see in Hawaii, urban development fractures ecosystems into small pockets separated by housing, comercial development and the roads that connect them. Native plants provide habitats for native animals that support complex food webs. For example, Ginkgo trees native to Asia host 5 species of caterpillars where as oak trees native to america host 500. Small habitats created by native plants also act as a sort of stepping stone allowing some native animals to travel across large urban sprawl by sheltering in these pockets similar to their native environment. Second, native plants require much lower maintenance and are much more cost effective than plants traditionally used to gardens. This is because they are designed to thrive in their native environment, so they don’t need nearly as much pesticides fertilizers or water as most garden plants (“Why Native Plants Matter”).
Because of all the benefits of native plants and the habitat they provide, I am going to plant 5 different species in my garden that flower at different times of the year to provide a consistent source of food for local pollinators. These native plants also grow at much different levels so they will not compete for resources and groundspace will be maximized. I will provide habitats for native pollinators, and other animals, to nest in dead wood with 3-5 inch holes bored into it and other debris animals use to live in. To maintain this garden I will use natural fertilizers like compost and avoid pesticides all together by hand picking weeds, allowing natural organic matter build up and attracting insects that predate on pests with native flowers. I have already removed most of the invasive weeds that would compete with the plants in my garden by covering them with a black tarp for a couple months (Pendergrass).
If this garden works out well and is easy to maintain I plan to help others in my local community replicate some aspects of it, especially the use of native plants to minimize the negative ecological impacts of gardening while simultaneously creating positive environmental impacts.
Pendergrass, Kathy, et al. PLANTS FOR POLLINATORS IN OREGON . plants.usda.gov/pollinators/Plants_for_Pollinators_in_Oregon_PM 13.pdf.
Poppenheimer, Linda. “The American Lawn – Environmental Impact of Turf Grass.” Green Groundswell, 12 July 2018, greengroundswell.com/the-american-lawn-environmental-impact-of-turf-grass/2013/07/25/.
“Why Native Plants Matter.” Audubon, Audubon, 18 May 2017, www.audubon.org/content/why-native-plants-matter.