Small vegetable patches

Jun 11, 2012 by

Submitted by Sara Nichols, Advisory Board, Global Possibilities- June 11, 2012

As someone who obsesses about all things environmental, I thought I knew a lot about native plants. But for my small vegetable patch, I have mostly drought tolerant plants. If a plant shrivels up and dies with the limited amount of water I am willing to give it, it wasn’t meant to be in my yard. Hauling water and treating it accounts for twenty percent of California’s energy consumption. I thought with drought tolerant plants, I was doing my part. It turns out that I’m not because native plants use 1/7th the amount of water that most non-natives use and need no fertilizers–thus saving the ocean from a horrific amounts of pollution. Yet, native species of both flora and fauna are disappearing because not only am I not doing enough but the rest of us aren’t either!

The last speaker we had at LA Bioneers, Lisa Novick from the Theodore Payne Foundation, made me realize I am just a pathetic native plant dilettante. Though one of my granddaughter’s favorite things to do is to look for little critters, I have to say it took the talk to make me match her love for them. We need insects. Their ecosystem services are extraordinary. They decompose all sorts of things we wouldn’t want to live with and create all kinds of conditions conducive to abundant growth; they pollinate our plants; after converting leaf matter to protein, they serve as food for all kinds of other species.

Did you know that 90% of all insect species can eat only native plants? Did you ever wonder why it seems as though there are ever fewer bird species? I now have mostly finches at my bird feeder. As a kid, I remember seeing gobs of different species at our bird feeders. It turns out that the caterpillars of most moths and butterflies are very fussy eaters. They are biologically wired to feed on a limited variety of native plants; in fact some can only feed on one type of native plant. As the native plants give way to development, the caterpillars that are the main source of food for baby birds, no longer proliferate and the birds die off.

I don’t know when the tidy garden fetish took over but the typical gardener in Southern CA is often referred to as a “blow and go” gardener. Notwithstanding the fact that leaf blowers are illegal in LA, they are ubiquitous. Every week, our green bins are stuffed full of that delicious “green waste”, having been blown into convenient piles for pick-up, that should stay put under the trees and bushes so that it can help retain moisture, decompose and enrich the soil and serve as a habitat for insects that do such wonderful things for us.

Native plants have evolved over eons to tolerate the typical drought conditions we see in Southern California. The specter of bringing huge amounts of water from the far-away Colorado river or the watersheds of northern California to keep our lawns green and our non-native water-guzzling plants alive but environmentally sterile, is simply insane. If you want to start to turn things around, start in your own backyard with a little help from the Theodore Payne Foundation,, a gem of an organization right in our own backyard!

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