Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stewardship and Ethics in the Home Garden

This is a difficult post for me to write, because it's both self-critical and centering around controversial native landscape ethics. Yes, such a topic does exist, and is constantly evolving due to the "science" of restoration and issues of colonialism and sovereignty. There's a lot you can read about it on a large scale but for me the question is - how do stewardship and ethics apply to the home garden?

As you can see in my yard list we have about 100 native species and 50 food species of plants growing. Landscaping with native plants in Illinois gives you a lot of options - literally hundreds of plants. You can try to grow as close to your local genotype of possible - for me that would be growing exclusively Champaign County plants and only once sourced from Champaign County. You can follow the advice of climate scientists and start planting things that come from traditionally warmer places, like Southern Illinois in my case. Depending on the condition of your yard you might need to go with sun, shade, wet, or sand loving plants. And then of course your budget - native plants are not cheap! Some of the rarer plants can be quite expensive and only found in seeds, which can be very hard to establish based on their need for fire or freezing conditions or a combination of those.

So how do you make decisions? I can't say I've done it all correctly, having started very haphazardly from a local plant nursery. Yes they had big bluestem, blazing star, and coreopsis, but they had cultivars of those species. I was overeager to get started on landscaping my first house that I didn't really consider the source. My next big purchase came from Prairie Moon Nursery, which I love and has the greatest variety in the midwest, but still isn't quite local. Recently I've been buying almost exclusively from Grand Prairie Friends (my local land trust) and Possibility Place (an illinois-sourced native plant nursery).

Still, how do you choose plants!? There are two additional sources I've recently turned to -

- The USDA Plant Database - search for any plant in the US to find out it's county distribution and general needs
- The IDNR "Illinois Threatened and Endangered Species List" - self explanatory

Using these I've been able to learn more about what plants should be dominant in my area and what plants need all the help they can get. It's this latter category that concerns me most and leaves me wondering if I'm doing the right thing. Here's the list of the 5 Illinois endangered and threatened species I'm growing in my yard and 1 bonus food plant at the end.

1) Black Cohosh

This was the first state endangered plant I put in the yard. Given to me by a friend this is the plant with the least ethical concerns in my mind. It's a shade plant that seems to enjoy life next to the house and rain barrel.

2) Queen of the Prairie

Another one with little to be concerned about. I got this at the Grand Prairie Friends sale and it produces huge pink flower heads (it's also called the cotton candy plant). It's great for attracting pollinators.

3) Kankakee Mallow

Jumping to the one I'm most concerned about, here's the Kankakee Mallow. This plant is only found on one island in the middle of the Kankekee River making it one of the rarest plants in the lower 28. So why is it in my yard? A good question.

My pride and native plant obsession draws me to things like this, to the questionable idea that I'm doing great work by preserving these species. If it grows in more places there will be little pockets of populations to draw from if it ever became extinct in the wild. That's the theory anyway though I'm less and less sure that it's accurate. Would the mallow in my yard ever be transplantable back to Kankakee if it needed to be or would it have adjusted to life with different sun, soil, and moisture conditions?

Clearly I made a choice because I have it in the yard, sucking up water where the sump pump lets out. I had nearly decided I should not grow the plant in my yard. And then I was at a nursery west of Chicago with my parents and there was a tray of it. For $4 per plant. One of the rarest plants in the country, buried in with trays of purple coneflower and columbine, with no explanation of how unusual or special it was. Of all the people shopping there I couldn't believe many would recognize it for what it was. So we got one for my parents, one for the friend who gave me the cohosh, and I took two home myself. You can be sure I'll be keeping an eye on these and collecting seeds whenever possible.

A final note on the mallow - there's an attempt to make it the state flower of Illinois!

4) American Chestnut Tree

Another tough decision, but for a slightly different reason. American Chestnuts are technically extirpated from Illinois due to a blight. You can get some but they're usually crossed with the asian chestnut species to try to increase resistance. Possibility Place has found a source of what they believe is pure american chestnut that somehow survived on a secluded farmers property.

The trouble with this plant is that it might die at any moment. But for $26 it was absolutely worth it to try and bring this beautiful tree back to Illinois and support a variety of bug species that consider it a host.

5) Royal Catchfly

This little beauty I started from seed last year in my front yard nursery. A lot of those plants haven't sprouted but these are abundant! I have several friends to give some to and then several to keep for myself. The seeds came out of the local yard that I've been helping maintain. An easy way to get a couple dozen of an endangered species!

6) Bonus - Bateekh Samara Melon 

The one food species that I know is endangered. This melon comes from Iraq and I was very excited to be able to grow it. Upon further thought I've been torn because this smacks of colonialism. It's "so cool" that I get to grow an endangered melon from Iraq. But why do I get to do that? How does it help Iraqi farmers who might be trying to save the species? It probably doesn't. The best I can say is that it's introducing me and my family to new foods and giving us more reasons to respect the earth that communities everywhere are trying to protect.

In the end I think I'm asking the right sorts of questions but not always making the best decisions. Part of that's excitement and part is an ever-growing set of knowledge about what I'm doing here. My promise is to keep learning and making better decisions about how to steward the little piece of land I call home.

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