In 2006, I took early retirement from a position in outdoor education to start a native plant nursery in Frankford, Ontario. For those who recognize the importance of biodiversity and wanted to turn their yards into havens for wildlife, it was hard to find plants native to this general area. So, I did my research, found suppliers, did some seed collection and embarked on my lifelong love of working in the soil.
Every day has been a learning experience. I learned quickly that with native plant species you need to consider the seasonal cycles and habitats to which they’re adapted. Many take a couple of years to germinate. Some require ants. It was important to “think” like the plant and understand the many interactions it goes through within its natural environment.
I also learned that there was very limited interest in naturalization of yards. I did give talks at garden clubs and conferences to spread the word, but it was clear to me that people weren’t ready. So, my small fruit and vegetable garden expanded into a market gardening venture. The cold frame greenhouse we put up in October 2009 to start native plants the following spring became an attractive site to try growing our own greens and other cold hardy vegetables through the winter without heating the greenhouse. That became a success and we were able to supply salad greens, kale, chard, green onions and oriental greens between the beginning of March and the end of December as well as bring the usual vegetables harvested from our gardens to the local Farmers’ market.
For the next twelve years, much of my focus was on growing food for market. The native plant nursery did survive, but it was not to receive much attention again until 2020 when there was growing interest in naturalization. People were becoming aware that our yards are small but important sites to help the planet start to heal.
My upbringing on a farm with many natural areas and my background in science has made me aware of the phenomenal interactions that take place within a biodiverse community. It has also helped me recognize the damage we have done to the fragile ecological balance that took millions of years to develop. Though we have wreaked havoc on the environment, I believe there is a bright future ahead if we become truly aware of our place within the natural world.
As we wake up to the climate crisis of today, we need to remind ourselves that we have the power to make a difference, not only by getting out there and demanding government action but by stepping outside our door, reconnecting with Nature and discovering who we really are. Nature is our best teacher, always there, quietly guiding those who are willing to be guided.
With each breath, the air we inhale is made up of particles as old as the universe. Our bodies are made up of atoms forged inside stars that exploded billions of years ago. Everything in and around us, from our complex bodies to the rocks, the soil, the atmosphere, to the water that falls from clouds, trickles down through rivers and through our veins is part of a much bigger picture. We are ONE with all that is. We begin to understand this when we make real contact with the Earth, a place where we are no greater or lesser than any other creature. We each have our place, our purpose within the whole. Until we understand this deeply, there is no solution to our environmental crisis.
Everything is made up of atoms that are constantly being rearranged into different molecules and ultimately different forms. Plants use sunlight energy to rearrange carbon dioxide and water molecules into sugar and oxygen. We breathe in oxygen and eat fruits and vegetables for the energy captured by the plants and then release carbon dioxide and water back into our environment. There is no waste in the natural environment. Over millions of years, a natural balance developed that has supported a phenomenal diversity of life. The human species is part of that diversity. What sets humans apart is our ability to systematically rearrange these atoms to suit our own purposes. We have used our superior intelligence at the expense of other life and have brought us and all of Nature to a place of crisis. With humility and deep understanding, we can take the conscious approach in which we work with Nature to return to a state of balance.
Planting native species is an easy way to start. Trees are the most efficient way of removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into biomass and oxygen. Imagine the impact if every person on Earth planted at least one tree without living in a way that involves removing another living tree. This could be done in yards, parks, school grounds and landfills. Imagine large mowed lawns becoming pollinator gardens with mowed pathways and park benches. Imagine corners of yards with a small thicket for nesting birds and native vines covering fences. Water run-off from roofs and driveways could be directed into small wetland communities of plants and animals.
Every time we plant a native tree, shrub, vine, wildflower or grass, we make that important connection with the Earth, one that needs to be nurtured in the very young and throughout our lives. These plants will attract countless species of animals. Our yards, towns and cities would become dynamic areas of biodiversity and we would soon begin to recognize that what is good for the environment is good for our own well-being.