Confessions from a Native Gardener

Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around. ~Henry David Thoreau

I have not always been a wildlife gardener.  There was no talk of gardening for wildlife as I was growing up.  Wildlife was found in the woods we explored, the woods where I camped and hiked as a child.  It wasn’t until I came to the job that brought me to my current house that I heard about native plants.  Intrigued, I planted a few but they did not seem to grow or so I thought… Patience Donna….Wish I had some.

I had not heard of native plants in any of my high school science classes.  Perhaps we should have.  They were not mentioned the first Earth Day or in any of the environmental movement literature and films of the 1970s.  And even after I heard about these native plants and studied them a bit (Step 1 in my education), I was still  ignorant of the wildlife that depended on them.  Truthfully it wasn’t until I began reading Beautiful Wildlife Garden  a couple of years ago that I was bitten.  I saw a few birds in the garden.  Occasionally a butterfly flitted into the yard and stopped for some nectar.  Birds didn’t nest here.  There were some frogs and toads.  Of course the deer, rabbits and voles were ever present.

But I wanted to have butterflies and birds in the yard more.  I wanted to see birds nest and fledge, and caterpillars spin a cocoon breaking free as a butterfly like the ones in the posts at BWG.  Why didn’t they visit my gardens?  I had some native plants.  I planted other plants that were supposed to draw in the butterflies like buddleia.  Did they have to be native?  Why?  Butterflies were supposed to love them.

Well it took more and more reading and self education before it finally sunk in (Step 2).  These native plants are important for many butterflies as larval and nectar plants.  Without them butterflies may pass by occasionally, but they will not stop and make themselves at home.  And birds rely on food other than a feeder, like berries.  If you have the food, they will be frequent visitors.  OK I can start to do that.  I can add more natives in my garden while still keeping the other plants that are non-native.

Then about a year ago I discovered wildflowers and invasives.  Step 3.  And who would have guessed that some of these wildflowers I planted years ago popped up.  I had completely forgotten them.  I had no idea that they make take years to emerge, but here they were.  Trilliums, jack-in the-pulpits, twinleaf, blood root, Mayapples to name a few; all growing and flowering.  Then I discovered my first Trout lily in the meadow.  That’s what all these spotted leaves were, and they have such a lovely flower.

OK I admit, it takes a while before I completely understand some things.  I am a big picture person.  I need to see how it all fits if I am to plan.  And while I have been haphazardly trying to garden for wildlife, it took the complete picture to finally help me…but once I get it you better move aside because I then move into action.  That action is happening even more so this year.  While I have planted many native plants and bushes, I am now obsessed with having more.  More berry producing bushes and trees especially for the birds.

So this spring, we have been removing exotic and invasive bushes.  Out came most of the forsythias, the one burning bush in the back I had forgotten was there, the buddleias, some barberry and boxwood.  (I know don’t judge me-who knew)  In their place I am planting Inkberry bushes, Viburnums, White Fringetree, Witch Hazel, Serviceberry, Black Cherry tree and a Crabapple.

The birds will adore the fruit on the inkberry, serviceberry, viburnum, Black Cherry and crabapple.  And the native bees and other pollinators will lust after the flowers they all produce.  And this just the beginning.  As I lose the native white ash that are aging and may succumb to the emerald ash borer that has invaded NY to the west of me, I will be replacing them with native trees (one will definitely be an oak).

My neighbors think I am crazy.  Why are you digging these bushes up?  Can I have them?  No!  Some like the forsythias are not growing well and others are invasive.   I certainly don’t want my invasive or non-natives ending up in another garden nearby. That would make no sense.  Of course what I am doing makes little sense to some.  My garden helper (my wonderful husband) is very tolerant and trying not to think of the money being pulled out of the ground replaced with more money going in.  He gets the higher purpose here.  He loves the wildlife too.  He has dug up all the bushes going out, and he has carefully dug the holes helping me plant our new babies.  And he will tenderly care for them with frequent long drinks of water throughout the spring and summer.

Our garden has become like a family.  The call of ‘snake’ will bring either of us running.  Finding and examining a toad or watching and counting the frogs in the pond could take us hours.  We love looking for eggs in the pond and caterpillars on the milkweed.  Watching dragonflies and butterflies gives us a relaxing respite.  And while we sit and relax we may be buzzed by native bees or a hummer or 2 looking us over.  Our wildlife family has become tolerant of us and we try not to invade their privacy.  We live now in harmony…well except for the voles.  Of course they are food for someone.  But I wish the someone would eat their dinner already…what do they need a neon sign!

If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. ~Henry David Thoreau


Photo1:  Crabapple newly planted in the meadow

Photo2:  native Phlox subulata

Photo 3:  Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

Photo 4:  Non-native bushes out/native trees waiting to be planted

Photo 5:  Two of five Inkberry bushes that were planted

Photo 6:  Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) blooming 3 weeks early in the meadow

© 2012 – 2013, Donna Donabella. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    If you find that the inkberry gets a little finicky—mine are doing okay, but not great—let me suggest the fantastic Carolina allspice as another full-shade marvel. They’re native as far north as your neck of the woods, and they’re one of the all-time great, underused native shrubs, as far as I’m concerned!
    Ursula Vernon recently posted..Stop Me Before I Plant Again

    • says

      Thx Kathy….I marvel at the resilience of the Trout Lily. After the area had been scraped clean to develop it, I elected to keep that area wild and grow a meadow…battling weeds still but it was a true testament and joy to see Trout Lily spring back and now spread to many areas of the meadow in yucky clay soil.
      Donna Donabella recently posted..Bloom Day Garden View-April 2012

  2. says

    I travelled a similar road to you. Growing up on the slopes of Table Mountain in the heart of fynbos, raised by immigrant parents. It wasn’t until I was a botany student that I learnt of fynbos, and that is it one of the world’s 6 floral kingdoms. Since then, the garden and learning have been my journey.
    Elephant’s Eye recently posted..April showers bring us flowers

  3. K. D. says

    Many of us native gardening enthusiasts have “evolved” over the last decade as public awareness of vanishing wild lands and plant and animal species has heightened. Twenty years ago, if someone had said native plant, I would have said, “native what?” My first native plant actually wasn’t. After reading an article on Monarch butterflies and their need for milkweed species, I decided to plant a native. I carried a piece of paper with the common name of Asclepias tuberosa, Butterfly Weed, written on it to my local nursery. “Do you have this plant?” I asked. “Sure,” I was told. Then I was sold a pretty shrub that I took home and planted. I turned out to be a Butterfy Bush, Buddleja, which I yanked out three years later. Good thing my interest in and education about (I learned to use scientific names) native species didn’t stop there.

    Thanks for your article Donna, and thanks for this website. It is a wonderful resource for anyone who really cares about wildlife.

  4. says

    Beautiful! What a wonderful journey. I am on it as well. Love the pic of your wheelbarrow stuffed with the forsythia. I am at a house with forsythia as well and it is in the plan to get it out someday. I see it spreading all over yards with a bit of woods attached and wonder if it too should be added to an invasive list of some sort. It does not travel by seed but from its arching stems rooting and making more shrubs. The native trout lily, bloodroot and jack-in-the-pulpits are thriving in my backyard. The garlic mustard is trying to sneak in–but I keep it out! Happy gardening to you!
    Diane St John recently posted..No One Ever Fertilized An Old Growth Forest

    • says

      Diane what a wonderful journey it is…it is amazing how these things grow and how naive we sometimes are to think we can control plants on our property from spreading…I had the buddleia take over before I wised up…garlic mustard is one I keep an eye out for and a few others. Love those native wildflowers…Happy Gardening!
      Donna Donabella recently posted..Bloom Day Garden View-April 2012

  5. Kelvin Boyle says

    Hi Donna, thanks for an excellent article. Your ‘confessions’ represent the same path I took and am still taking. Something tells me you read a book by Doug Tallamy titled ” Bringing Nature Home”. If not, read it and pat yourself on the back. By the way, check out Sambucus canadensis(elderberry). I think it is native in your area. I’m in the Midwest(zone 5).

  6. says

    Donna, thanks for sharing your journey which is very similar to my own…growing up, wildlife was “out there” or perhaps something you might attract using bird feeders, but not considered as part of the garden plan – now a plant’s function as a wildlife resource is one of my main criteria for including it or not including it in my landscaping! It’s a fun process…the more you plant, the more you attract and the more you learn about how everything works together when natural processes are able to do their thing..
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  7. says

    Wonderful plants! Lucky for the local wildlife that you are redesigning your garden with them in mind. I, too, began gardening naively with an eye for what appealed to moi. Now, I research the origins of all the plants I buy as well as consider their attributes to wildlife.
    thevioletfern recently posted..What’s Blooming: Spring Bulbs

  8. says

    Donna, always love hearing about your antics in the garden and I admire your zeal in converting over to an all native existance. I’m also thrilled to hear you give a big NO to passing on the problem if a neighbor inquires about replanting your castoffs. One of my native plant society cohorts was recently removing some invasives from property and the party said why don’t we sell these at a plant sale. my cohorts response was the same as yours….welll…..NO, why do you think we are removing them in a first place? and she gathered them up to be burned so no one else could get the silly idea to replant what doesn’t belong.

    You are doing a remarkable job in the garden and in sharing your knowledge. Keep it up!
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..Do Birds Mourn?

  9. says

    I cut my forsythia back to the ground last fall and am rubbing off any green shoot that pops out. I took the same approach with a very stubborn rosa rugosa, just getting rid of any fresh shoot – and it was dead within a season and easy to get out of the ground.
    Be sure to include spicebush (lindera benzoin) among your new plantings. Good luck!

  10. Savannagal says

    I’ve never seen Twinleaf with serrated edges. Ours in Illinois has a smooth edge, but otherwise is the same shape as yours. Interesting.


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