The plant charmed me the first time I saw it. With its lanky stalk and cloud-like clusters of white flowers, it reminded me of a slightly more unruly version of Queen Anne’s Lace. From a distance, the plant seemed to have a few large flower heads; up close, those flower heads resolved themselves into hundreds of tiny white blooms. Looking even closer, each little flower sported a few tendrils of white, snaking up toward the sky. Bees, wasps, butterflies, and all sorts of wingéd friends crowded in for a snack, like thirsty office workers bellying up to the bar at happy hour.
I wanted to identify the plant so I could add it to my yard. After coming up with a few possible options, I posted a photo on Instagram and tagged my go-to plant expert. “Is this boneset?” I asked.
Nancy Lawson, aka the Humane Gardener, responded quickly to my query. “That’s boneset!” she said. “The best plant ever!”
That enthusiasm for what’s commonly considered a weed typifies Nancy’s approach to the world outside our doors. She’s an advocate for all that’s green and good, and for the creatures small and large with whom we share the globe. In her work as the Humane Gardener, Nancy advocates for a return to plants that support our native wildlife and for a gentler, more tolerant approach to living with those animals. She blogs at humanegardener.com and recently published her first book. The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife introduces key concepts for making your backyard a haven for wildlife, and its gentle, welcoming tone makes the subject approachable and inviting. (Read on for a chance to win the book!)
I had the pleasure of working with Nancy for a few years, and today I edit her Humane Backyard column for All Animals magazine. I invited her to answer some questions about her work to share with Go Vegga readers, to introduce everyone to the concepts she espouses, and to give some helpful, actionable tips for making your own green space — whether it’s a big backyard, a tiny apartment balcony, or even a shared communal green space — more hospitable and welcoming to wildlife. I hope you’ll find it as inspiring a concept as I do. (And I hope you’ll enjoy her photos as much as I do!)
First, what does being a humane gardener mean to you? And what are the benefits of gardening this way?
A humane gardener is someone who is compassionate toward all creatures, someone who appreciates the milkweed beetles as much as she appreciates the monarch butterflies who also visit the milkweed — who understands that rabbits and groundhogs and deer all need to eat plants just as much as we do. A humane gardener knows that the outdoor spaces we care for, whether it’s two acres in size or a postage stamp yard or even a balcony, are not really “ours” to cultivate in whatever way we deem pleasing to us. The earth and the sky belong to all species trying to make a life here, and our actions need to reflect that.
We are so heavily marketed to by lawn care, pesticide, and nuisance wildlife control industries that we often think there is a right and a wrong way to garden. We buy into the notion that the plants that help wildlife most are “weeds,” that animal nibbling of plants is “damage,” and that some of the most life-giving habitat elements — dead wood, leftover stalks, fallen leaves — are “messy.”
It’s usually the animals themselves who break through this negativity. It often takes only one discovery — that the holes in the rosebush leaves are the handiwork of a mother leafcutter bee lining her nest with leaf pieces, for example, or that the dead tree slated for removal has become the perfect nesting spot for bluebirds — to change a gardener’s whole perspective. Watching a rabbit chow down on a dandelion becomes a revelatory experience. I actually get chills, and my spirit lifts, when I walk among the plants around our home and see all the creatures large and small who are eating, nesting, and sheltering there. What could be more joyful than knowing how much difference we can make for so many lives even in a small space?
How has your personal journey as a humane gardener evolved? What led you here, and was there a single moment when you started thinking about gardening and land usage differently?
I’ve never been a fan of lawns. I grew up in Bowie, Md., a community built in the 1960s by the Levitts, famous for pioneering cookie-cutter homes in communities known as Levittowns in New York and New Jersey, and for implementing strict lawn requirements that associated masculinity and the paternal-family-man ideal with manicured turfgrass. My father resisted all of that and planted flower gardens in the front and back yard when I was a kid, and those were the places I would gravitate to. I watched ants under the trees and played with my dolls on the pine needles and made little bouquets of spring flowers in Fleischmann margarine tubs for my teachers. Wherever there were plants, there was life and beauty and great joy. It was apparent to me even back then that life did not thrive in a frequently mowed, heavily fertilized space treated with pesticides.
But what really opened my eyes to the tragic consequences of conventional landscaping was a conversation with wildlife biologist John Hadidian in the late 1990s. He and I were both working for The Humane Society of the United States at the time, and he was leading an effort to help people resolve conflicts with geese humanely. Unfortunately the standard answer to perceived goose “overpopulation” was to cull them by rounding them up and mass gassing them; that practice continues today in communities that decide they can no longer tolerate their presence.
From John I learned that geese are attracted to mowed-down landscapes directly adjacent to water — a common landscaping aesthetic in the U.S. These environments provide visibility and easy access to the water, where geese can quickly escape from predators, especially during nesting season. Efforts to revegetate such areas with native plantings had already proven successful, creating natural buffers that made geese just uncomfortable enough to avoid nesting there.
Well, this was a revelation to me! I was just becoming interested in native plants at the time, but I hadn’t yet made specific connections between plants and their effects on wildlife. I began to refer to the idea as “humane landscaping,” and I put it into practice in my own yard, but it took 12 years for me to begin really writing about it and exploring it as a career.
What are some common actions or behaviors that are actually harmful to animals and/or the environment? There are so many things we don’t even think to question, like using netting to protect vegetable gardens!
Oh, there are just so many. Yes, using netting is a perfect example because it seems so innocuous, yet it can so easily strangle animals, especially birds and snakes. Another action people mistakenly think is humane is relocation of squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs and other mammals. There are so many detrimental effects of relocation. First, you could be separating a mother from her young without even knowing it. Also, the stress of transport to another territory could be overwhelming for the animal. But just as importantly, even if that animal is not being separated from her young, and even if she survives the journey, what then? What is she supposed to do in a new territory she’s never seen before? She no longer has a cognitive map of where her food sources are, where she can escape for cover, and where the threats and competitors are. Imagine if someone forced us into a car and drove us to a foreign land with no money, no map, no knowledge of the local customs and people. We would be very vulnerable, and that’s often what happens to relocated animals; they are easy prey.
Of course, it goes without saying that pesticides of any kind — insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, can be very damaging, both in ways that we can see and in ways that we can’t. Mowing kills countless animals — from the turtles and toads to the butterfly caterpillars. When we first moved to our home, we accidentally ran over a turtle with a mower. It was awful. And turtles can live for many decades, yet they reproduce very slowly, so the untimely demise of just a few can lead to local population extinction. To help these animals and many others, we have to reduce our lawns. Keeping a play area for kids or dogs or a hammock is fine. But do we really need the 42 million acres and counting that we have in the U.S.? Most of it is not even used by anybody! What a travesty.
What does the ideal humane backyard (or apartment balcony, or communal strip of land, or whatever!) look like to you? What have you done in your own yard to make it welcoming to wildlife?
I’ll start with the second question because I think it leads naturally into the first. The best way to describe our evolution is to say what we haven’t done. We stopped mowing more than half of the backyard. In place of lawn, there are now broomsedge and purpletop grasses, both native plants. (And I almost bought these plants once at a nursery before coming home to realize how many hundreds of them were starting to volunteer on their own!). Goldenrods and boneset and native sunflowers are also coming up in this area; some of these plants were likely seeded by birds in their droppings, while others were likely already dormant in the seedbank. They just needed a chance to sprout without constantly being mowed down.
In the other half of the yard, we’ve added as many native plants as time and money allow. I’ve grown a lot of these plants from seed — it’s very easy to do! — and I’ve also bought many of them at native plant sales and nurseries over the years. What you’ll usually find with natives is that — since they are accustomed the soil and have longstanding relationships with animals who eat and spread them — you might start with one or two plants but eventually have lots of offspring to transplant and share with friends. I’ve heard people call this “planting it forward,” and I just love that!
In the front of the house, we’ve also planted and nurtured as many natives as possible. My neighbors have become very interested in the plants because they are seeing just how insanely attractive they are to an amazing variety of butterflies, bees, wasps, and so many others. Really, animals help sell these plants if we let them. People understand that our pollinators are in crisis.
We never remove leaves from the property, instead using them to create new garden areas. A nice layer of leaves will kill grass and enrich the soil and the plants as they break down. We also create brush piles out of twigs, fallen branches, sticks, and we line beds with branches and logs. This creates habitats for salamanders, beetles, and wood-nesting bees (30 percent of our 4,000 native bee species nest in cavities) — and then the birds come to forage on all these little creatures.
So really, the ideal humane garden is the thoughtful one — the one that takes into account what’s already there for wildlife, nurtures that, and then modifies in ways that will enhance that space for our fellow creatures. There isn’t really any one recipe for a given space, and I think that’s what people get hung up on — they worry about whether they’re doing the right thing, but if you take a little time to watch the animals and plants, they will help guide you.
When I think about this movement towards humane gardening, it seems to me that it’s above anything else a mindset change — it’s altering how we view and understand different elements of nature, and then further altering our behavior to do what’s best for those elements. (I’m thinking of the “A Harvest for All” chapter of your book in particular, and especially about the poor maligned rabbits!) What mindset changes do you think are crucial?
You are exactly right — it’s all about questioning our long-held, culturally ingrained assumptions and learning to view the world from the perspective of other species, both plant and animal. One of the most unfortunate phrases I hear from people is “I have a brown thumb.” There is this notion out there that plants need constant coddling and inputs to survive, when the truth is that plants were far better off on this planet without our help! They managed just fine without us for about 700 million years. We are a blip in evolutionary history, yet we’ve managed in a very short time to obliterate many species across the planet.
We need plants to survive, but often what they need most of all from us at this point is for us to just leave them alone. One mistake made by many people trying to care for a plot of land is to assume that the things they didn’t plant are “weeds” — that whatever wasn’t purchased or designed by humans is somehow of less value. In reality, the opposite is often true. Whereas our big-box centers and mainstream nurseries are experts in selling invasive plants that crowd out wildlife habitat and sometimes even directly harm animals through toxic berries and leaves they can’t digest, nature excels at providing everything our local flora and fauna need — if only we would let her.
The dominant societal attitude toward plants has a direct impact on animals. That is one thing I really want my animal-loving friends to know. If you care about rabbits, leave clover and dandelions and other forbs in your yard for them to eat; grow hedgerows where they can take shelter. If you care about groundhogs, leave your fleabane and sassafras volunteers and other herbaceous and woody plants that will get them through hot summers and long winters. If you care about bees, nurture native plants that feed the specialists — the native bees who’ve evolved to gather pollen only from violets or spring beauties or asters or goldenrods or common evening primroses.
Don’t buy into the idea that there are “too many” deer or too many of any type of animal; who are we — the species that has taken over the Earth and holds her fate in our hands—to declare that? Deer were nearly shot out of existence, as were geese, and then bred and released back into the wild in many regions in an attempt to restock them for hunters. Humans have subjected many different kinds of animals — turkeys, mountain lions, wolves — to cycles of decimation and reclamation. Then we get angry with them when they do happen to start to thrive again, instead of looking inwardly and challenging ourselves to ask: What mistakes have we made in the past, and what can we do now to avoid further harm? In the case of deer, for example, our mowed-down landscapes create inviting habitat for them because they like open land near woods’ edges. There are so many things we can do to change this, starting with planting more plants and nurturing the ones we already have.
For folks who are reading about this concept for the first time, it might seem overwhelming. What are some simple yet effective first steps people can take to start turning their outdoor space into a more humane area?
Start by looking at what you already have, and don’t assume that everything good and helpful to wildlife has to have our imprimatur on it. Many people first learn the connection between native plants and wildlife through this essential statistic quantified by entomologist and ecologist Doug Tallamy: 96 percent of North America’s terrestrial bird species feed their young spiders and insects — mostly caterpillars, and often thousands of them just to raise one brood of chicks to the fledgling stage. Those caterpillars rely heavily on native plants; 90 percent of plant-eating insects can eat only plants of certain lineages that they co-evolved with. So if we don’t have native plants, we’ve broken the food supply chain for baby birds.
That resonates with people, and when they start to understand the connections, they want to replace all their plants right away. This is not a reaction I want to discourage, necessarily, because a garden filled with native plants is the ideal. However, it’s not exactly doable for most people in the short term, both for time and financial reasons. But I also worry about this from the animals’ perspectives. For example, we have a forsythia bush that’s been here since we moved in. It was once the only bush in our expansive backyard. Animals need shrubs for cover and nesting, not just for food. Cardinals, catbirds, rabbits, finches, and many others use that large bush. Of course, since it’s not a native plant, the forsythia likely doesn’t provide the same level of floral and foliage resources to bees and caterpillars that native plants would. But instead of ripping it out and leaving one less space for birds to nest in, we started adding native bayberry and spicebush near it — so that eventually we will have a native hedge that can expand. At some point I will then be more comfortable with reducing the forsythia presence.
I’ve begun to think of this concept as the Three Rs, something I borrowed from the animal protection field — which of course uses the Three Rs as a way to advocate for reduced consumption of animal products and reduced use of animals in research. My husband and I apply it to the outdoors in this way:
- Reduce invasives and lawn areas through gradual removal.
- Refine plant choices by buying only native plants, which have been proven to be more helpful to wildlife they co-evolved with.
- Replace nonnative plants with native plants whenever possible.
So it’s not hard to start. I like the advice of Ken Parker, a horticulturist I interviewed in my book: Start with a dozen native wildflower species — four for each season of bloom. Add a few native grasses, a couple shrub species, and a couple of nut-bearing trees. But if that’s too much, start with three native wildflowers and one shrub. You don’t have to go crazy. Just do what you can, and it will be more than the animals had before.
Do you have any favorite animals or insects, ones always put a smile on your face when you see them hanging out in “your” space? Any plants that you particularly love?
It seems almost impossible to choose! I can’t help but love the little guys I affectionately refer to as the bachelor bees or the sleeping bees. Every evening and morning in the summer through early fall, male bumblebees find a flower to sleep under. Usually they hang upside down, and often they choose flowers with umbrella shapes that will protect them from rain. Male bumblebees aren’t really allowed back in the nest once they leave; they pollinate flowers and, if they’re lucky, get to procreate, but they otherwise aren’t helping the colony the way the females are. Sometimes they hang out in clusters to sleep. I think of them as little ancient Romans; they sleep all night under a beautiful flower, wake up when it’s warm enough, and climb onto a nearby flower to start drinking all over again!
We have had some rare sightings, including a scarlet tanager who showed up in the staghorn sumacs just beyond our patio for about half an hour one night this summer. That was a real treat, and I didn’t realize just how difficult it is even for experienced birders to see the species. To me it validated how inviting our place has become.
Seeing a groundhog or a fox, hearing a coyote in the middle of the night, coming upon a fresh molehill in my walks around the land—all of these things are magical experiences for me, too. I tend to gravitate toward the misunderstood animals and plants. The plants that give me real joy are the ones that grow in the cracks of the driveway or pioneer a disturbed spot in the meadow. Often they are the ones most helpful to wildlife, too; boneset (Eupatorium serotinum) sprouted here on its own and has spread to many spots, drawing more and more bees, wasps, butterflies, bee flies, and others with each passing year. Other plants that warm my heart are blue mistflower, ironweed, Joe Pye weed, milkweed, jewelweed — all the species that aren’t really “weeds” at all to our wildlife. They are self-seeders, self-starters, lifesavers, and survivors.
I’m so grateful to Nancy for answering my questions with such thoughtfulness and candor. Trust me when I say that this open-minded, gentle tone is exactly the same approach she takes in her book — which is partially why I’m giving away a copy!
To enter, follow the instructions in the Rafflecopter giveaway below. And why not purchase an extra copy, for yourself or for someone else? The Humane Gardener would make a perfect holiday gift for someone who might want to invite more wildlife into their yard!
While Nancy’s book does focus on plants and wildlife common to the U.S., her principles are universally applicable. If you live in the U.K. or Europe, Nancy recommends A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm, A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees, and Moles (The British Natural History Collection).
This giveaway is open from Wednesday, November 29th through Sunday, December 10th, to entrants from any country.
Please read the Rafflecopter instructions carefully. You must leave a comment on this blog post to enter, and then you can earn extra entries in a few other ways.
The giveaway is closed! Stacey W. of the USA is the winner. Stacey, I’ll be emailing you shortly! Thanks to everyone who entered.
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