June 22nd, 2017

Gardening with Nature

By Kelly Cartwright

I stay still as I watch the female ruby-throated humming birds (Archilocus colubris) sparring with each other over flowers and feeders. They perch on the branches and leaves of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), barely weighing down the structures. The American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) peep and chatter as they pick the cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) clean of its new seeds. As I walk through the grass, a plethora of grasshoppers emerge. Multiple species of dragonflies swoop and soar through the air, catching winged-insects, while the smaller damselflies skulk about in the tall prairie grasses. The honey bees, bumble bees, and related hymenoptera are so plentiful that the asters on which they feed vibrate with their activity. I eat a few tomatoes and bits of basil and cilantro as I sit down with my dog, who has been rolling in the grass and sunning his belly. All of this takes place in my backyard, a piece of land less than one fourth of an acre in a residential neighborhood in northeastern Illinois.

Even though I am surrounded on all sides by neighbors and human activity, my backyard provides a sense of solitude and sanctuary. When I need to decompress after a long day, I head to my backyard. My favorite place to be is my yard, whether it is in the spring when the plants are just starting to emerge, or it is late-fall when the plants and insects are winding down in preparation for the upcoming winter. My peace and happiness are to a large extent related to the time I spend in my yard with my dog and all the organisms with whom we share our yard. I can watch the interactions between the insects and plants; I get the chance to observe animal behavior on an intimate basis every day. Because I have a strong connection with nature, both in large-scale wilderness areas and in my small-scale yard, I choose to live in a way that allows nature and ecological processes to flourish. I do not use synthetic fertilizers or herbicides on my yard; I do not want those chemicals in my body, in my dog’s body, nor in the ecosystem. I incorporate native plant species in my landscaping to provide habitat for the insects, birds, and mammals, who live in or visit my yard. I work with the water patterns in my yard to capture what I need to use on my newly planted native plants or vegetables, and decrease the amount that runs off into the storm sewers. A number of studies have demonstrated that gardening in this way has a beneficial impact on the environment (Brown, 2009; Burghardt, Tallamy, Gregory Shriver, 2008; Burghardt, Tallamy, Phillips, & Shropshire, 2010; Cameron et al., 2012; Kermath, 2007; Kiesling and Manning, 2010; Lindeman-Matthies & Marty, 2013, Politi Bertoncini, Machon, Pavoine, & Muratet, 2012; Tallamy, 2007; Tallamy & Shropshire, 2009). Although I work to modify the species that exist in my yard by increasing the native diversity, I feel I work in harmony “with” nature and the processes that exist and do not try to dominate nature.

My interest in gardening originated from my love of nature and the desire to have a direct benefit on wildlife. I have long been a birder and nature lover but did not consider myself a gardener until working with my own landscape. When I bought my house in 2008, it had a landscape typical of the suburbs in northeastern Illinois: plush green lawn with few weeds, a couple of flower beds, a few evergreens, and a Norway maple tree in the front yard. I had been an advocate for conservation or environmentally friendly gardening for years before buying my house, and so I was eager to start making a difference. Eight summers later I think I have made a difference, but the process of working in my yard changed more than the habitat: It changed me.

Prior to becoming a gardener, I regularly went hiking in the forest preserves in my county; now more often than not, I enjoy the nature right outside my back door. Prior to creating a landscape in my yard, I had a palpable sense of wanderlust; now I am content to spend time with my dog in our yard. Through the experience of gardening, I have gained a greater appreciation of how species behave, and this comes from someone who has an extensive background in biology, botany, and ornithology. I now know the time of the season by what stage the plants are in. I know when certain insects will visit to gather their favorite nectar and pollen. I know in the spring that right after the dandelions start producing seeds, the white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys), indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea), and American goldfinches will descend upon the yard to rip the seed heads to shreds with their dexterous bills and gobble up the seeds. And just this last year, I learned that a pumpkin left in the snow over winter decomposes to a papery husk surrounding the seeds, and that, based upon the frequency of visitation, the remaining seeds were a favorite food of a pair of Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). I have had successes and failures, and each of them has taught me more about the intricacies of how plants grow, and with whom and where they prefer to live. I better understand the characteristics of the plants. I can predict how something termed aggressive or invasive will behave in my yard, and I acknowledge that if I plant something that is a known spreader I should not be surprised when it leaps around the yard willy nilly. Through trial and error, I have refined my planting technique leading to improved survival rates. Weather events still remind me who is in charge—I am plagued by flooded spots in the spring, and a drought a few years ago devastated that year’s plantings. I could fill pages with the things I have learned by gardening with nature. I now have intimate knowledge of so many of the behaviors and relationships that occur in the yard that I did not know existed.

Beyond the knowledge I have gained, I feel I have changed in other ways. I am content. I feel at peace. Even in the face of an intense Ph.D. program, a full-time teaching position, and assorted personal and community responsibilities, I am content. My yard became my sanctuary, my little part of the world where I could relax. Some of these benefits have come from interacting with the nature in my yard, and some have come from the practice of gardening—of designing beds and planting plants, sowing seeds in the fall, removing the past season’s growth in the spring, hauling soil and mulch until my body ached. All of this has provided me with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, a sense of pride in what has been created, and activities through which I became immersed.

My personal findings are supported by the literature. Several authors have conducted large scale reviews of the benefits of gardening and in all cases have found that gardening, both individual and community based gardening, can improve physical health, emotional and cognitive wellness, provide stress relief, and improve aspects of self-worth (Brown & Jameton, 2000; Hoffman, Cruz, & Thompson, 2004; Messer Diehl, 2009; Nishii, 2011; Wang & MacMillan, 2013). In addition, by gardening with nature I have gained the well-documented benefits of interacting with nature, such as improved problem-solving abilities, reduced stress, improved psychological, cognitive, and emotional well-being, and a greater sense of meaningfulness, empathy, and altruism (Cervinka, Röderer, & Hefler, 2011; Ewert, Mitten, & Overholt, 2014; Guégen & Stefan, 2016; Kuo, 2010; Mayer, Frantz, Bruehlman-Senecal, & Dolliver, 2008; Zhang, Piff, Iyer, Koleva, & Keltner; 2014).

As to the ecological impact, it is measurable. The once monoculture of grass is now scattered with clover and other species through which the honey, bumble, and other assorted bees slowly buzz. The first summer I had three bird species in the yard, all there for bird feeders. Now I have 29 species who regularly visit, and, with the exception of the hummingbird feeder, I only put out bird feeders in the winter. Multiple bird species have successfully nested and fledged their young in the yard. I have counted over 18 species of dragonflies and damselflies. My yard does not provide the aquatic habitat they need to reproduce, but it does provide plenty of hunting and hiding spots. The number of other insect species is beyond my expertise, but I stumble across new ones frequently. Supporting these species are the plants that I have brought in and the ones that came in of their own making. Fifteen Easter redbud trees volunteered from wind-dispersed seeds while two pagoda dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia) and three red twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea) came in from seeds most likely dispersed by birds. They may have not grown in the locations I would have picked, but they grew where they wanted to, and I am comfortable with that. The other 85 plus species have been brought in on purpose including a few shrubs, an American plum tree (Prunus americana), an indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa), and an impressive array of prairie plants. Each year I try and add a shrub and/or tree, and about ten new perennial herbaceous species. My winter nights are spent thumbing through my already-memorized native plant catalogs in anticipation of spring plant sales.

The reason I am sharing this story is because although it may sound simplistic, I think that this experience and opportunity is needed in every yard. Originally my interest in gardening with nature was for biodiversity, helping support native species; now my interest has expanded to include the benefit that this experience can provide the people who garden. I think the world would be a better place if everyone had a spot to go in the morning or evening to watch a bumble bee wiggle its way into a bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) flower, or watch swarms of birds gather on the dried pods of kale to gorge on their plentiful seeds or just work in the dirt, get their hands dirty, help something grow, and take pleasure in the act of being a gardener.

Photo: Bumble bee pollinating bottle gentian

Photo: Bumble bee pollinating bottle gentian

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