Grow local, South Loopers

09/26/2012 10:00 PM

By Bonnie McGrath

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My dear suburban friends (yes, I do have a few) Charlotte Adelman and Bernie Schwartz — retired Wilmette lawyers who have become prairie enthusiasts, supporters and experts on plants that are native to the Midwest — have written a popular new book called The Midwest Native Garden. The premise of this book is to encourage readers to never ever, ever, ever, ever plant anything in a Midwest garden that wasn’t here in the Midwest before we were.

Why? Because native plants nurture the native wildlife, such as the insects and birds that are also native to our area. If unfamiliar plants put down their roots in our soil, gain a foothold, invade and crowd out the native plants that nurture the native wildlife, well… I think you get the picture. No more native wildlife. Instead of living in the Chicago-area, ecology-wise, enough non-native foliage in a Midwest backyard may have one living, garden-wise, in Asia somewhere, without Midwest birds and bees and other familiar species around.

In other words, why live in a city that has spectacular Monarch butterflies, and then plant plants that repel, rather than attract them? Why plant plants that could actually make them go extinct? (By the way, plant milkweeds if you want to attract butterflies to your South Loop garden. They’re native and butterflies love them, according to the book. And they smell good, too.)

Finding out exactly what the native plants are in our area is not an easy task. Nor is finding out where to buy them and how to care for them. That isn’t isn’t easy either. Home Depot doesn’t stock many, although Charlotte says they would if people would ask. And if you hire a landscaper or a gardener, they may not even know what’s native, let alone have it available.

In any case, that’s what Charlotte and Bernie’s book is for, should you so desire to go along with their philosophy. They have lists and lists — with pictures — of native alternatives to the non-native plants we have gotten used to, which I find not only interesting and engaging, but healthy and smart. The couple says the native alternatives are not any harder to care for than the non-natives that we have gotten used to, and in some cases may be easier.

I invited Charlotte down to Dearborn Park recently to see how we stacked up along a major South Loop street like Plymouth Court. Are we doing right by our flora and fauna, or do we have an ecological mess on our hands? We definitely have birds and bees in Dearborn Park. But I would certainly hate to lose them by planting the wrong plants.

I wanted Charlotte to do an examination, a diagnosis and a prognosis for the neighborhood. She came armed with knowledge. I found out that we have many disasters in our planters and gardens in the neighborhood, but there are also a few good choices made by our hyper-local gardeners, the big landscapers and the homeowners associations that are footing the bill for this stuff.

First, some surprising good news! While there are a lot of “foreign” Impatiens in the neighborhood, Charlotte says that’s OK. Impatiens, although not native to the Midwest (her book doesn’t even mention them) are innocuous flowers that last only for the summer. Charlotte says if you have to have easy color and refuse to go native, Impatiens are OK — they don’t invade and they don’t replace anything important in the natural world.

And she also says many of our South Loop evergreens are indeed native to the Midwest. You could have blown me away. Who knew?

But she says the English Ivy has to go. “It’s a horrible plant to use,” she told me as she turned up her nose and rolled her eyes in its presence. “It’s a big loser and it requires constant maintenance. It kills trees.” Charlotte recommends “Virginia Creeper” to replace it. Or a “Fragrant Sumac,” which hosts all sorts of native wildlife.

And the hostas have to be given the old heave-ho, too. “They’re from China,” said Charlotte. “No one thinks they’re invasive because they just sit there. Do a ‘Seersucker Sedge’ instead. It hosts grasshoppers.”

The Spyreas have to be tossed, as well. “They’re a crappy plant,” she said. Cheap and accessible. But not good for a native Midwest garden.

Charlotte recommends replacing day lilies, which are a dime a dozen in Dearborn Park, with Orange Butterfly Milkweed. “It won’t be gone in a day. And it will host butterflies,” she said enthusiastically. She also recommended pitching the non-native roses for some native ones. And pitching the geraniums we have for a number of native varieties.

By the end of our tour, my head was spinning like a butterfly’s dance. But, Charlotte, as she has in the past, praised my choice of letting the Milkweeds grow in my yard at Roosevelt and State unchecked (although the drought was hard on them this year and they were smaller and less plentiful). And I was proud once again hearing her sing my praises for being a milkweed lover. I adore them for their fragrance and for being butterfly magnets. And how else do you think I knew my head was spinning like a butterfly’s dance? I see them dancing every year around my milkweeds.

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