Conservation Gardening: A Gardening Imperative for the Anthropocene. By Leslie Pilgrim

I’ve loved gardening since I was a kid. I’ve engaged in this passion-bordering-on addiction since I could ride a bike and count change. Each spring my neighbor Susie and I would hop on our bikes and pedal miles to a greenhouse in an annual ritual to purchase as many exotic looking plants as we could afford and tote home in our bicycle baskets.

The foundation of conservation gardening is regionally indigenous (aka, native), insecticide-free vegetation.

To get to this greenhouse—located in a neighboring city—we had to bike along an insanely busy state highway. Besides the traffic, the greenhouse was rather far away. I scratch my head wondering how we pulled this off. Not just the getting there, but being allowed to do so. Our parents must not have been paying much attention.

The halcyon era of my childhood, at least in my memory, was one in which kids were kicked out of the house in the morning on non-school days and did not need to resurface until dinner. It’s impressive how much “important work” could get done within that timeframe. My younger brother (then age six) and two neighborhood friends once found this timeframe quite accommodating to embark on a pathless trek down to the Mississippi River to imagineer building a sailboat in which to sail to the Gulf of Mexico. Another story for another day.

Gardens in the suburban neighborhood where I grew up were typically set against the house and surrounded by an expanse of turf grass that extended to the road. Most gardens were planted with the traditional trinity of geranium, marigold, and petunia. But, at the magical greenhouse of my youth, my friend and I experienced a universe of lantana, fuchsia, sweet William, and so much more. It was bedazzling.

My obsession with flowers followed me into young adulthood. As an apartment dweller I filled half-whiskey kegs on the back deck with begonias and impatiens. After the purchase of my first home (located in the neighborhood where I grew up and where I still live), I immediately planted the garden of my dreams.

By blending the ecosystem function of native plants with practices that strive to create biodiverse habitat, a conservation gardener authentically welcomes wildlife (from microbial life, to beneficial insects, to birds, and more) while creating something stunning for the human eye.

But in the years between then and now I slowly came to understand that the plants I planted in my childhood and much of my adulthood were for me. I planted whatever I considered enchanting and I unquestioningly assumed that everything I  planted was “helpful” to nature in some generic sense. And, I never gave a passing thought to the environmental impact of my “cultural landscaping practices” such as mowing a lawn short, or “cleaning up” in the spring and fall. Looking back, I realize my gardens-planted-for-me and my landscape practices didn’t do much to sustain ecosystem food-webs; provide habitat for wildlife to begin and complete lifecycles, rear their young, or find shelter; promote microbial life and healthy soil, and more. Those kinds of garden objectives were unheard of.

Today’s ecosystem is a fragile house of cards. Statistics illuminate the fact of our rapidly vanishing natural world. Since the 1970s, the population of North America’s birds has dropped some 30 percent. That’s three billion birds gone. The charismatic monarch butterflies’ U.S. population has plummeted 85 percent in the past 20 years while, overall, 40 percent of the world’s entire insect population is in decline. The extinction rate has accelerated well past any natural expected rate; one estimate cited by the World Wildlife Fund indicates thousands, if not tens of thousands, of species are going extinct each year. One million plant and animal species, according to a U.N. report, are on the verge of extinction.

I don’t really need the statistics to know how much things have changed. I’ve lived on the same block for over five decades. Mental notes of what I used to see as I ran around exploring this inner-ring suburban neighborhood as a kid remind me of what’s been lost: yellow-headed blackbirds in the marsh behind city hall, killdeer near the ballfield, salamanders in the window wells (I wish I would have known to rescue them), innumerable bats, chorus frogs in the now quiet pond down the road, purple martens populating every “bird hotel,” and “ditch milkweed” dripping with monarch caterpillars. We are experiencing the “great leaving.” It is sad. And alarming. But in my roles over the past decade as environmental writer, volunteer, event and festival “tabler,” field crew worker, and founder of the non-profit that publishes this online magazine, I hear this over and over from the people of all ages I meet with and talk to: “I need to be a part of the solution. I want to get started. I have no idea what to do or how to begin. I’m just one person.”

Conservation gardening embraces “messy.” Here, leaves and plant stems remain in order to insulate, protect, and nurture wildlife. The leaf duff pictured here provides habitat for overwintering butterflies, moths and other insects. Stem cavities provide nesting spaces for the larvae of insects such as native bees.

And here is how I respond. Anyone who “claims dirt”—whether it be in a home landscape, school yard, apartment patio, place of worship, space in a park, the strip of land between the road and sidewalk, a roadside ditch, somebody else’s land or yard, city hall, public land, you name it—is an integral part of turning the great leaving into the great returning. I refer to the cumulative impact of these individual actions and choices as the “butterfly effect.” Collective actions have pushed our ecosystem to the brink. Likewise, they can bring it back.  Claiming dirt must come with a commitment of time and attention, and to continuous learning. And it must come with a resolve of robustly committing to Conservation Gardening—the foundation of which is gardening with regionally native, insecticide-free vegetation—as well as engaging in conservation practices.1

Conservation practices encourage the systems that help form natural food-webs such as limiting the use of external resources, eliminating problematic inputs, and minimizing disturbance. Most of all, the conservation gardener tends to the Earth in collaboration with Mother Nature. By blending the ecosystem function of native plants with practices that strive to create biodiverse habitat, a conservation gardener authentically welcomes wildlife (from microbial life, to beneficial insects, to birds, and more) while creating something stunning for the human eye. Since becoming a conservation gardener, I am more bedazzled than ever by flowers. But I am no longer enchanted solely by their beauty. I am also smitten by their ecosystem superpowers—and the outsized importance of regionally native trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses in our landscapes.

Collective actions have pushed our ecosystem to the brink. Likewise, they can bring it back

Through conservation gardening, I have come to understand the immense potential impact of the butterfly effect. By some estimates we’ve got well over 40 million acres of lawn in the U.S. that could be partially removed and conserved—or, more poetically, “remeadowed”—with native vegetation. Add in open areas such as rights of way, golf courses, powerline easements, and roadsides—an estimated 599 million acres—and it’s possible to imagine the very real positive environmental impact that conservation gardening could have.

Learn more about conservation gardening by visiting this landing page.

Leslie Pilgrim is the founder of Neighborhood Greening, editor of this online magazine, The Butterfly Effect, and is a conservation gardener for At Home With Nature. She volunteers with organizations such as Wild Ones and is the editor of Wild Ones Reflections, published by Wild Ones’ Twin Cities chapter.

1Systemic insecticides are often used to grow vegetation such as trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses. Some
of these insecticides can persist in woody vegetation for years and can be long lasting in herbaceous
vegetation. Unfortunately, systemic insecticides do not differentiate between the small minority of
harmful insects and the vast majority of helpful or beneficial insects such as pollinators. Systemic
insecticides are expressed in all parts of a tree such as: pollen, nectar, leaves, wood, fruit, roots, and sap.
Any insect that consumes such parts of a treated plant (e.g., tree, shrub, or perennial) can be negatively
impacted. Always ask if the vegetation you plan to purchase has been grown with systemic insecticides.
If you can’t get assurances that neither the grower nor the seller has used systemic insecticides, consider
the consequences of planting this vegetation in a conservation garden.


Want more stories? Sign up for The Butterfly Effect ezine here.