My Turn: Gardening heroes

  • Monarch caterpillars muhc on milkweed leaves. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/CHELI MENNELLA

Published: 6/29/2021 4:36:10 PM

There was a house on a street close to ours that I thought looked awful and I didn’t understand why anyone would let their lawn go like that. There was actually no lawn — it was just a teeming mass of perennials. As a “gardener,” it appalled me.

I myself was doing everything I could to make my lawn and garden look beautiful. In fact, I enrolled in the course offered by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners to help me on that quest.

As a prelude to the course, I was given Doug Tallamy’s book, “Bringing Nature Home.”

Whoops! It turns out that those people with no lawns are gardening heroes. In most cases, they have replaced their lawns with native trees, shrubs and pollinator plants (the ones that were here before Europeans settlers arrived). Even the people who just let their lawns go “to seed” because they don’t feel like mowing are doing more for society than the rest of us.

I went from feeling pretty good about myself to feeling ashamed. My well-manicured lawn is useless at best. It and my beautiful plants (originally from Europe and Asia) contribute virtually nothing to support the insects, birds and other creatures that evolved here. In fact, if we took all the lawns in the world and turned them into native pollinator gardens, we could help to restore our ecosystem. We might even be able to significantly delay global warming.

You may be thinking — the bees are all over my garden — I’m supporting the pollinators now. But, the truth is that if our plants are not native to this area, those pollinators are basically eating junk food (sugar water) and many may not have the host plants they need to successfully reproduce.

Most insects are “specialists” who need to lay their eggs on the specific type of plants that they co-evolved with in order for the eggs and caterpillars to grow into adults. The Monarch caterpillars, for example, are specialists that eat milkweed. When they can’t find it, they die.

That’s one of the many reasons why we have already lost over half of our insect population. Most insect species have evolved to require a specific plant to reproduce and haven’t over recorded history been able to adapt to use all those gorgeous plants from Europe and Asia.

I have a lawn. I justify it by telling myself I will only have it for a few more years until I get my garden to cover it completely. I am slowly expanding my garden every year with native plants and trying to make it all look good while I’m doing it.

I could go ahead and plant my whole yard with natives right now. That would be the heroic thing to do. The truth is — I’m not one of the brave ones. I don’t want people to think about me the way I used to think about them and it’s my shame.

Jeri Case lives in Greenfield.


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