Native Plants are Good for the Environment

Offer native plants a place in your yard.

Native plants give you beauty, a sense of place, and an environmentally friendly yard that does not need fertilizers, pesticides, or intensive watering.

Unfortunately, it took me many years to gain an appreciation for native plants (which includes trees and grasses). Now, it just makes sense to me that native plants should be our go-to plants, not the thirsty turfgrass lawns brought to the United States by wealthy European landowners or the exotic plants that colonists and immigrants brought with them from their far-flung homelands.

Trying to force plants to live in areas that they are unsuited for is not good for the plants or the environment. Why not reimagine your yard and try native plants? If you give them a chance, native plants will find their way into your heart.

Reimagine Your Yard

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my family and I lived in a new subdivision of ranch-style homes near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Landscaping varied from house to house but every front yard and most backyards had a swath of lawn, a few trees, and whatever ornamental plants the homeowners fancied (which might have included native plants).

A few streets away, rebels must have been living in the white house with black trim because their yard did not comply with the neighborhood norms. It looked weird, out of place. Small speckled rocks covered the front yard interspersed with groupings of hardy-looking yet attractive plants. Years later, I realized that these rebels had chosen an easy-care drought-resistant yard well suited for the low rainfall and warm climate of Southern California.

Later as an adult still living in Southern California, my spouse and I maintained landscaping that fit in with our neighborhood including two turfgrass lawns, two dozen rosebushes, several hydrangeas, a handful of azaleas, and an array of pots that we rotated with seasonal flowers. Possibly the only native plant on the property was a lovely old oak tree that had taken up residence in a corner of the backyard long before we arrived.

Sprinklers Water Turfgrass Lawn and Sidewalk
Sprinklers Watering a Turfgrass Lawn and the Sidewalk – Photo Credit iStock/marcutti

Moving to the Central California Coast, eleven years ago, during a drought, caused me to reimagine what makes a yard beautiful and stirred my interest in learning about native plants. Instead of green lawns and flowering ornamental shrubs, our yard here is mostly wild and is frequented by mule deer, wild turkeys, and a variety of birds searching for water, food (plants and bugs) and a place to hang out.

I began observing the plants and trees noticing that some seemed to do well even during our dry summers and others died without irrigation. Some plants coexisted with a variety of different plants and some like ice plant and Italian thistle seemed intent on taking over the yard meaning they are invasive. I got an idea into my head that we could restore our land to a happier and more environmentally sound state appropriate for our location.

Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard
Three Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard among Native Monterey Pine Trees in June 2013 (see the patch of invasive ice plant in the background).

Armed with a pair of clippers and a shovel, beginning with ice plant and thistle removal, I embarked on an amateur yard restoration project that is still in progress. I knew that to be a good steward of our yard I would need to learn about both native and invasive plants. If you want to, you can read about some of my experiences as a native plant novice in various posts including Wood Chip Mulch Mountain, Weed Whacking – Do it Yourself, Adopt a Native Plant, Arbor Day 2018 – Join Millions of Tree Enthusiasts, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

Pause and take a moment to reimagine your own yard as a place where native plants, bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife can thrive and so can you.  If your yard is already full of flourishing native plants, please share your story.

What is a Native Plant?

While I was working on this post, I found myself returning to a question I have often pondered, “What constitutes a native plant?” I wanted to find out and I thought you might want to know, too.

The answers I found on the Internet varied quite a bit and left me wondering, “How am I supposed to plant native plants if no one seems to know what defines a native plant?” I discussed it with my family over dinner. They did not seem to understand why I was having a dilemma or why I felt the need to ask the question. Undaunted, I plucked up my courage and posted my question on the Facebook group page for the California Native Plant Society.

California Native Plant Garden with Bench
California Native Plant Garden with a Bench – Photo Credit Jeff Silva (click the photo to open it on Flickr).

Apparently, I was not the first person to have asked for a native plant definition and it created a small flurry of responses including “Not this again!” and “We are sworn to not be crabby towards newbies, remember?”

I did receive some useful responses but not a definitive answer. Some people suggested that a native plant (at least in the U.S.) is one that was growing here before European colonists brought plants from home and other distant lands. Others said that a native plant is a plant that evolved in a particular area or region over thousands of years. Several people said that a native plant is able to survive on its own without human intervention.

Okay, I accept that science is not black and white. I came away with the general understanding that a native plant is one that has evolved over a long, but indeterminate amount of time, adapting to the climate, terrain, soil, wildlife, and other plants in a particular place and requires little or no care from humans.

Botanists and other plant scientists use historical records, field observations, and scientific testing to determine whether a plant is native to a certain location.

The next section will cover why native plants are good for the environment.

Native Plants and the Environment

Native plants are good at their jobs. With no need for micro-managing bosses, native plants routinely perform their job responsibilities including using water wisely, running on renewable energy, recycling materials, storing carbon, providing food and habitat for others, keeping toxins and diseases out of their workplaces, and reproducing new generations. Each year, they take a vacation, well, actually a staycation going dormant in preparation for the next growing season.

California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Tree
California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Trees – Photo Credit Steve Hartman (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Moving away during environmental downturns is not an option for native plants. It is in their best interest to adapt to the conditions where they find themselves not relying on humans to apply fertilizers, pesticides, or extra water. This also makes native plants good for the environment.

Synthetic fertilizers are made from fossil fuels that are dangerous to extract, disastrous when spilled or leaked, and emit greenhouse gases when burned. Fertilizers running off from yards and agricultural fields cause dead zones in water bodies where nothing can live so not using them in your own yard reduces this problem.

Pesticides are poisons created from fossil fuels to kill specific living things that humans consider pests, but their use results in collateral damage to humans and nonhumans. By not using pesticides in your yard, you are eliminating a hazard to bees, butterflies, birds, pets, and you and your family.

Using water sparingly protects groundwater basins that provide drinking water for tens of millions of people and irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Overdrawing your account at the bank is not a good idea and neither is overdrawing a groundwater basin. A groundwater basin is overdrawn when it cannot be refilled on an annual basis by rainfall, snowmelt, or a combination of both.

California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping
California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping in Bloom – Photo Credit Pete Veilleux (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Maintaining biodiversity is another beneficial trait of native plants. In the wild, nature encourages a wide variety of plants and animals to live together keeping the overall ecosystem in balance. Of course, sometimes things get out of balance but native plants are better equipped to handle it than non-native plants. Evolving over a long time, native plants have experienced adversity many times and adapted to it so they have a long history of making comebacks, sort of a plant version of “Been there, done that.”

The environmental benefits of native plants motivate me to grow them in my yard. Having fun is why I grow some of my native plants from seeds. We will continue this conversation in the next post.

Featured Image at Top: California State Flower California Poppy– Citation Smith, C. 2010. Plant guide for California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center. Lockeford, CA 95237. I found this photo on the California Native Grasslands Association website.

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Rise for Climate Wherever You Are on September 8, 2018

Pick up a sign and voilà you are an activist.

On September 8, 2018, join people around the world who are taking part in the Rise for Climate day of action to demand jobs, justice, and 100% renewable energy.

Rise for Climate is a worldwide event with hundreds of actions planned for the Saturday before the Global Climate Action Summit that California Governor Jerry Brown is hosting in San Francisco September 12-14, 2018.

If you can make it to San Francisco, you have an opportunity to participate in what is shaping up to be the largest climate march ever to occur on the West Coast. You could be one of the thousands of people taking to the streets carrying signs and loudly informing government officials and corporate CEOs that you want green jobs, environmental justice, and a society powered by renewable energy, now.

This may sound silly, but I can attest to the magic of picking up a sign and carrying it in a march with people of every hue, ethnicity, age, gender, and religion who have come together for a common purpose.

Although I am still a fledgling activist, my transformation began on February 7, 2015, at the March For Real Climate Leadership in Oakland, California.

My spouse and I were part of a contingent from San Luis Obispo who had boarded a bus in the pouring rain at 6:30 that morning. It was our first time participating in a protest march with thousands of other people.

Sign for March for Real Climate Leadership in Oakland, CA on February 7, 2015Being a newbie, it did not occur to me that I needed a sign until after I got off the bus in Oakland.

Fortunately, a volunteer walked by and pointed out a collection of signs made by a group of artistic volunteers. The sign I selected must have had magical powers because as soon as I hefted it and waved it about I felt like an activist.

For those of you who cannot go to San Francisco (like me) look for an action closer to home or create your action (suggestions at the end of this post).

“When you do nothing, you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved, you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from knowing you are working to make things better.” —Pauline R. Kezer

Global Climate Action Summit

On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced that he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement an international climate agreement adopted at the 2015 United Nations Framework on Climate Change. A month later, Governor Jerry Brown announced that the State of California would convene the world’s climate leaders in San Francisco in September 2018 for the Global Climate Action Summit.

“President Trump is trying to get out of the Paris Agreement, but he doesn’t speak for the rest of America. We in California and in states all across America believe it’s time to act, it’s time to join together and that’s why at this Climate Action Summit we’re going to get it done.” —Governor Jerry Brown (07/06/17 press release)

You can read about the Summit on the Global Climate Action Summit website.

Rise for Climate Global Day of Action

Long before email notices began appearing in my inbox a month or so ago, the Rise for Climate steering committee was already hard at work putting this global day of action together. 350.org is spearheading the event using their formidable Internet only organizing platform, but hundreds of local people and groups on five continents are doing the actual planning and organizing.

Climate change is not some amorphous future problem. It is already contributing to extreme heat, flooding, wildfires, pollution, and drought devastating the lives of people all over the world. Bureaucratic negotiations have been dragging on for decades and are not getting the job done.

People are mobilizing on September 8 to bring attention to the Global Climate Action Summit and to tell our state and local leaders that we need them to step up, now.

“We need every local government and institution to commit to building 100% renewable energy and stopping new dirty energy projects in their community. Anything less than that is out of line with what science and justice demand.”

You can find out about the San Francisco march and other actions around the world on the Rise for Climate website.

If You Cannot Be There, You Can Still Take Action

On September 8, I will be aboard the California Zephyr Amtrak train on my way to a visit Nebraska with two long-time friends so I cannot make it to San Francisco. However, I can still do something for the Rise for Climate global day of action and so can you even if you have to work that day, have already made other plans, or just cannot make it to San Francisco or a local event.

Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

  • Spread the word about the Rise for Climate global day of action.
  • Talk to your family, friends, and/or coworkers about climate change and renewable energy.
  • Write a letter or call one or more of your state or local elected officials asking them to stop new fossil fuel projects and support renewable energy projects.
  • Walk, bike, or take public transportation to a place you would normally drive.
  • Call a local solar installer to make an appointment to evaluate your roof for solar panels.
  • Display a Rise for Climate poster in a visible location.
  • Follow the action on September 8 and share it on social media.
  • Wear a t-shirt promoting renewable energy.
  • Have some friends over to watch a film about oil and natural gas fracking or mountaintop removal coal mining.
  • Write a letter to the editor about Rise for Climate and/or the Global Climate Action Summit.
My Rise for Climate Actions

This blog post is a means of spreading the word and I will be promoting it on social media.

If this letter to the editor of the San Luis Obispo Tribune makes it into the paper, I will update this post.

2018-08-30 Rise for Climate San Luis Obispo Tribune Letter to the Editor

I printed the above posters to display on the windows of my train compartment and I made the flyer with a template. I have extras in case I meet any like-minded people on the train. I am grateful to the Rise for Climate artists that create flyers, posters, signs, banners, and other pieces of art for us to use (you can find them on the Rise for Climate website here).

What are you doing to Rise for Climate?

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” —Barack Obama

Update: The San Luis Obispo Tribune chose not to publish my letter. On the train, many people walking by my compartment at least looked at the posters including the Amtrak staff. I am a fan of train travel so using paper and markers provided by my friend, I made an “I heart trains” poster and taped it to my window.

Featured Image at Top: Rise for Climate signs ready for the San Francisco March on September 8, 2018 – Photo Credit 350.org on Flickr

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