I am thrilled to have shared our first episode of In the Dirt live on air on Hunters Bay Radio 88.7 FM. The first episode aired March 7th and is available to listen to online at muskokaradio.com/show/inthedirt
Below is a transcript of the episode.
Hello Muskoka. This is In the Dirt podcast on Hunters Bay Radio with Laura Thomas.
On this program we will get into the weeds about gardening in Muskoka, sharing stories and tips from my experience as well as other landscape professionals. On the show we will also dig into the relationship our gardens have with Muskoka’s surrounding landscapes, as well as how our gardens support wildlife and biodiversity.
So let’s dig in.
On today’s show I thought I would first introduce myself and give you a little background on what type of gardener I am. If you are a gardener, you know we all garden differently. Some of us are into exotics, others purely heirlooms, many are just in it for the edibles, and I mean veggies too. We all know the gardeners that do it just for the curbside prestige. While others for the simple excuse to be outside with their hands in the dirt.
So what type of gardener am I? I’m definitely out there for the dirt and sunshine. I love plants, don’t get me wrong. But my gateway into gardening was definitely the simple and pure joy of just being outside, playing in the dirt. As a kid I was always playing in dirt piles and was even, to my parent’s horror, caught making a fort in our neighbours recently delivered pile of composted manure. As I matured, I knew I wanted to work outdoors and took one of those career aptitude tests in high school to see what type of career my interests best suited. My result was the disappointing suggestion that I was best suited as a gardener. I recall an audible scoff and disgusted sneer that only teenagers seem to be able to give. At the age of seventeen I had no interest in growing geraniums or planting roses. I wanted to do bigger things. I wanted to change the world, making it greener and more eco-friendly.
After I graduated I enrolled into the Environmental and Resource Studies program at the University of Waterloo. At university I was drawn back into the dirt through ecology, more specifically the practice of restoration ecology. I was intrigued with how complicated and inter-connected everything in ecology was … and as far as I know, still is. On top of that you were able to work outdoors while making a measurable difference to the environmental good. Whole landscapes could be transformed from barren mining sites to diverse grasslands where wildlife return to graze or nest. It was a career choice that appeared ticked all the boxes until I was introduced to the concept of ecological landscaping, landscaping using native plants to mimic natural ecosystems. It was a fairly new’ish concept, one that simply blended the principles of ecology into landscaping, resulting in gardens that were more resilient and biologically diverse. I was instantly smitten. I loved the concept of restoration ecology but was also intrigued with how more accessible and playful landscaping could be. Restoration ecology felt to be reactive and scripted. With this idea of applying the principles of ecology to landscaping you could be more proactive and creative. So for the first time I was seeing how the role of natural landscapes in unnatural places like city centres and suburban green spaces could influence ecological function, local wildlife populations, and even human behaviour. I was all in.
As years rolled by, I worked in traditional Garden Centres, a wildflower farm, an outdoor education centre and eventually started my own garden design business, Hidden Habitat. I used only native plants in my designs, promoted organic, low-emission maintenance and strived for gardens that were ecologically functional as well as beautiful. To be honest though, it was a slow start, native plants were not in the lime light then as they are now. They still had a strong stigma of being weedy and rather dull. I recall a conversation I had with my father, the gardener of my family about gardening with native plants. The conversation centred mostly around why someone would buy native plants, when to his mind they could just go ‘dig them up’ for free. He also pointed out that people didn’t really want weedy plants in their garden, they wanted big showy flowers that were different from what they could see while out hiking.
Fast forward several years and I often like to remind my father about this conversation with a cheeky but heart-felt I told you so. Not only because that garden design business has thrived and evolved to include a native plant nursery as well, but because as a gardener he too chooses to buy and garden with native plants. So this is my story on how I became a gardener. It definitely wasn’t a straight path but if anything I guess, for the first and likely the only time in history, a career aptitude test hit the nail on the head. I am a full-fledged gardener, growing wild geraniums and planting native roses. So that is me, my story of why I love to garden and what type of gardener I am.
But to me, the story of my evolution into a gardener is more than just that. It illustrates the journey gardening as a whole has taken. It’s not surprising to hear that in 1999 a seventeen-year-old hell-bent on saving the world from environmental devastation was going to reject the idea of entering into a career in horticulture or landscaping. It was akin to telling a student to be a proficient legal expert you should consider pursuing a career in dentistry.
However, now in 2020, the concept that gardening can help the environment has become mainstream. Just look at the transformation of milkweed from villain to hero in the garden. Or the countless programs out there encouraging people to grow and plant for pollinators. We are inundated with tips on how to make our yards more bird-friendly, save the bees campaigns and garden hacks, making on our own organic compost tea. I think it’s safe to say that for the most part we as gardeners have agreed to step up, help out and give back to the earth we have for so long enjoyed digging in and growing with. But this still begs the question, why should our gardens be taking on the responsibility of providing habitat to wildlife? Aren’t gardens at their purest a form of art? A visual display of colour and texture provided through the medium of plants.The Merriam-Webster dictionary simply defines a garden as a plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated.
There is no mention of creating habitat for wildlife or providing food sources for pollinators. Gardens are by definition, made by humans for the enjoyment of humans. They exist for the most part to be pretty. But should our gardens be more than just pretty?
I would argue yes. Yes, because in reality, gardens are not only used by humans. Gardens are part of larger natural landscapes that we share with millions of other species. Millions of species that to be honest are having a pretty hard go of it. We have the pollinator crisis, songbird population collapse, insect apocalypse, all caused by a variety of threats that arguably we humans have created. So perhaps we should pull up our socks and help out. Plant more trees, protect the wetlands, clean up our air, water and soils. Yes to all of that, right? But the reality is, is that we aren’t.
We are still draining wetlands, clearing forests and polluting our natural systems. To the point that the natural spaces, our parks, reserves, and conservation areas that we once relied to support our flora and fauna are no longer enough. These spaces have become far too fragmented and degraded to adequately support biodiversity.
- From the 2016 World Wildlife Fund’s report on Canada, it is reported that half of all monitored species have declined in abundance from 1970 to 2014.
- Mammal populations, for example, fell on average by 43 per cent; grassland birds suffered 69 per cent loss; reptile and amphibian populations dropped almost 34 per cent.
In Ontario, habitat loss, in combination with fragmentation, road mortality and pollution are some of the major threats to wildlife. There just isn’t enough natural space for them … which I know can be startling when looking at a map of Ontario that is overwhelming top heavy with boreal forests. Or even looking out your Muskoka room window to a large expanse of lakeshore and forest. But we have to remember that the majority of Ontario’s species exist in the bottom drop that hangs off that massive expanse of green. Southern and central Ontario is where the majority of our wild species prefer to inhabit.
We need to not only improve the quantity and quality of our natural spaces here, we need to connect them. This is particular important for migratory species but should also be thought of for fauna that may just need to travel further to find food, or find a new mating territory. Creating habitat in silos has detrimental effects. We need pathways and habitat hotspots so that travel between those larger protected natural spaces is safer and easier. And what better way to connect and increase the area of natural spaces than with plots of natural areas that already exist – our gardens.
The potential significance of gardens and private greenspaces as a resource for wildlife is considerable and here’s the best part – it can be easy. Don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, allow your garden the opportunity to function as an ecosystem and not a sterile space for rearing plants and above all plant native plants. Yes. We need more native plants in our gardens. And in our next segment we will explore what makes a plant a native and why they are better at supporting wildlife, right after these short messages.
Hello and welcome back to In the Dirt with Laura Thomas, a gardening show that takes a more natural approach on why and how we garden in the 21 st century. Today we are talking about why our gardens should support wildlife and how we can do that. Before the break I mentioned that in addition to ensuring your garden is free from pesticides and herbicides, the best way to provide for wildlife in your garden is to plant native plants. So now you might be asking why. Why are native plants the solution and what exactly makes a plant native?
This is a question I get asked a lot, and surprisingly it isn’t an simple answer. There is inherent ambiguity in the answer because what makes a plant native, depends on what geographical space we are referring to and when human intervention occurred. The geographical boundary of what makes a plant native is relevant because it addresses the notion of native to where? For example, a plant can be native to Canada, but not native to Ontario because it is only found in the rainforests of British Columbia. Additionally, there are dozens of species that are native to only the southern tip of Ontario, but are found in most native plant lists for all Ontario gardeners.
So, when you hear someone referring to a plant as being native or indigenous it’s best to ask native to where. The other aspect of what makes a plant native is the principle that it existed in the landscape with out the intervention of humans. Meaning humans didn’t bring it either by accident or on purpose to an area it did not exist before. For the most part, the accepted time in history where humans started moving plants around was during European colonialization. So, any plant that existed in a region prior to that time period, we deem to be native. This is because, when Europeans came to North America, they brought with them many of their plants which have since naturalized. Since then we have seen an influx of introduced species from all over the world. Many of which have naturalized themselves rather easily into our gardens, whether welcomed or not. They’ve existed in our landscapes naturally for so long they’ve blurred the lines for most of us on what is a native plant or merely just a weed or wildflower.
The term wildflower, which to be honest I don’t like – is often used interchangeably with native plant and this is a big gripe with me. Mostly because it leads to misleading the public into thinking they are purchasing native plants or seeds when they are in fact not. Wildflower really just refers to a plant that grows naturally in the wild. It is not by definition a native plant. However, because we do use the term culturally to include native plants, this has led to some confusion and marketing misrepresentation from seed and plant growers. I often like to surprise wildflower enthusiasts and gardeners with the reality that many of our much beloved wildflowers and maligned weeds are not native plants. For example:
- Ox-eye daisy
- Queen Anne’s lace
- Forget me nots
- Snow drops
- garlic mustard
Are all imports from Europe or Asia. The reality is that many of the plants that freely naturalize in our gardens are not native species. Which is ironic since the biggest obstacle to embracing native plants in the garden was the idea that they are weedy and common. So, what makes a plant native can be a little arbitrary and may not include the plants you thought it did. But does that matter? Why is it, that if you want to support wildlife you should be planting native milkweed, not Butterfly bush from Asia? Well it comes down to time. Over time, a lot of time, plants and animals evolve together and develop relationships. They figure out how to take advantage of each other, while still being able to co-exist. And when it comes to the natural world, those relationship start with plants, because if we remember the food chain, it all starts with plants. A caterpillar eats a leaf, a snake eats the caterpillar, a bird eats the snake, a fox eats the bird. And so it goes.
Plants and insects are the starting blocks of that food chain. To have insects we need plants that those insects will eat. Which sounds easy, right. Well no, because over those thousands of years, plants have been actively finding ways to stop being eaten by insects. They do this in a variety of ways.
- By developing strong tanins that make them taste bad
- Creating toxins that make their predators sick or worse
- Growing thick exteriors to make them harder to eat
- Creating oozy saps that act like glue
- And dozens of other ways plants try to make themselves less delicious.
But while all this happening those insects are narrowing down on the plants they live with and are finding ways to break through those tough leaf exteriors and digest those unpalatable toxins. So what happens is that over the course of time you have specialized relationships forming. Insects being able to graze on a few species of plants they recognize and are able to digest. This relationship is best seen in the monarch and the milkweed.
Milkweed is a group of native plants that varies in appearance but all produce a sticky, white milky substance that is toxic to most living things but is the ONLY group of plants that the iconic Monarch caterpillar will feast on. This is because the caterpillar was able to find a way to cut into the stem of the leaves, stopping the flow of the sticky sap and allowing an unhindered feast of milk free milkweed leaves. Because milkweeds were so common and plentiful and there was little competition from other insects the monarch caterpillar didn’t bother to learn to eat other species of plants. So, when we nearly eradicated all of those milkweeds because they were considered weeds – we also nearly eradicated the monarch. Now I realize the plight of the monarch is more complicated but you get my point. When we lose our native plants, we end up losing a lot more.
This story also highlights another point. That the needs and requirements of animals change throughout its life history. The monarch butterfly will happily graze on any nectar-producing plant, native or not. But if we can’t support the monarch as a caterpillar, we needn’t worry about supporting it as a butterfly. Another example that I like to use when demonstrating the importance of considering the full picture is how we can best support songbirds. Now for most of us, we put up feeders and plant a few berry-producing shrubs that the birds love. Well, that’s wonderful, but it’s not really helping them thrive. It’s making their lives a little easier perhaps but seeds and berries are not what song birds need to survive. They need insects. Better yet. Caterpillars. Because they are soft and squishy making it easier for young chicks to eat, they are large, and they are very high in protein and fats needed for growth. Caterpillars also contain double the amount of carotenoids as other insects, which is an essential nutrient for healthy birds and animals.
This reliance on caterpillars is best illustrated when we look at birds that are raising a nest of chicks. This is because a young chick’s diet primarily consists of caterpillars. A mother chickadee can bring up to 600 caterpillars to her nest in one day. Let me repeat that. 600 caterpillars in one day! Now think about all the birds raising young and how many caterpillars we need to support the whole population. It’s really an unimaginable amount of caterpillars. So, where are all these caterpillars living? Well, for the most part in trees. Oak trees as a family are the food of choice for over 500 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars. The Prunus family of tree, like wild cherry and plum can yield up to 456 species; and maples support up to 297 species. And just for comparison a ginko tree, native Asia has been found to support one to three species of caterpillars.
So, to truly support songbirds we need caterpillars and to support caterpillars we need native trees. This spring, perhaps consider planting milkweed and opting for that ornamental tree to be an oak. As gardeners, we CAN HAVE beauty with function. In reality, the choices we make in our gardens can be simple and the actions easy – but the impact together as gardeners can be big.
So, on that hopefully inspiring note I will have to end the show. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you’ve enjoyed this inaugural episode of In the Dirt. I’m Laura Thomas and l will be back next month on Hunters Bay Radio with more gardening ideas and tips to help you and your garden grow better.
About the Show
A gardening show made for the Muskoka gardener. Once a month, Laura will get into the weeds about gardening in Muskoka, sharing stories and tips from her experience as well as other landscape professionals.
In the Dirt aims to blend Laura’s passion for gardening and conservation, showing listeners that they can have a beautiful garden that also provides habitat for local wildlife. With a focus on natural gardening methods, Laura may occasionally slide into ecology and wildlife conservation.
Saturday mornings, 7:30 am
April 4, 2020
May 2, 2020
May 30, 2020
June 27, 2020
July 25, 2020
August 22, 2020
September 19, 2020
October 17, 2020
November 14, 2020
December 12, 2020
Learn more about the show and tune in here: muskokaradio.com/show/inthedirt