Backyard Ecosystems

Author: Janelle Cardiff and Brandon Fakelman, AALP Class 20

Feb 7, 2024

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In 2017, I found myself staring at a couple of cute little beady eyes and holding an entire tiny hand in my big, clumsy finger. I was a brand new (and incredibly naïve) mom. I was responsible for keeping a tiny human alive, healthy, and hopefully thriving for its entire life. I felt so confident in my superhuman abilities, and yet so incredibly incompetent at the same time. Now, I am sure I’m not the only new parent that experiences this panic shortly after leaving the hospital, newborn strapped in a bucket car seat! But I may be one of the few who takes their anxiety (and top-notch ability to overthink) to the next level. As I sat, day after day at home alone with my newborn, cycling through the feeding, burping, napping changing, rinse and repeat…my mind began to take me down the rabbit hole of exactly how I can ensure that when I leave this world, this planet is left in the same or better condition than when I started into it.

So I set to it! We cloth diapered our baby and eliminated about 90% of our single-use household items. When I learned this wasn’t enough and I needed to do more, we participated in a number of beach cleanups and tree-planting events. I then learned this still would not be enough so we did a no-spend year in 2018. After all, they say “the best eco-friendly product is the one you didn’t buy”. Wow! What a transformative year! But guess what? I learned this still wouldn’t be enough to help the planet because industrial pollution far outweighs any single person’s reduction in their carbon footprint. “Well that’s just great, now what?” I asked myself. “I don’t have the power, money or expertise to take on giant corporations so what else is there but to resign to the fact that my children may or may not have a planet to live on throughout their hopefully long, healthy lives?”.

Whenever I don’t know the answer to something, I have discovered one of the most efficient ways to find the answer is to crowdsource. So I consulted my Facebook group for like-minded non-consumers and this is what I learned: Our native pollinators are dying off at an alarming rate because their natural habitats and food sources are becoming so fragmented. This is affecting the entire food web and ecosystem in devastating and catastrophic ways. The best and most immediate way that any single person can make a difference in their own region is by replacing invasive/ornamental gardens as well as grass lawns (aka – desolate, empty areas devoid of meaningful life-sustaining resources) with native plants.

This triggered some deep thoughts and reflection. After all, how could I build a native pollinator garden and shrink my lawn? Where would I even start? I can’t even keep houseplants alive!

My earliest memory of my own childhood was spent out in the large backyard at my country home outside of Hensall, Ontario. I was probably around 4 years old, which I’m afraid to say was circa 1994. I distinctly remember the sun glowing on my skin, and the gentle breeze swaying the meadow grass that made up our lawn, brushing my little legs from my bare feet up to around my knee in height. These were the perfect conditions for tip-toeing up to monarch butterflies that would frequently be roosting on the native meadow flowers that grew plentifully and unapologetically in the backyard. When monarchs are sunning themselves on flowers or nectaring on flowers, they rest with their wings pointing upward and paired together behind their back, making it easy for a clumsy child to gently pick them up between thumb and index finger, and closely observe the magic and beauty of this amazing pollinator.

When I visit my childhood home now, I see a barren desert of grass. My dad, well-meaning and with a sense of pride, looks out onto his lawn now and sees nary a dandelion, nor a milkweed plant. He looks out back and sees a sea of green blades of grass, akin to a golf course (Dad’s favourite pastime). Perhaps the culture and expectations were different back in the 90’s compared to now. Perhaps we didn’t worry so much about “weeds” back then when I was too young to understand that it would only be 3 decades and it would be gone all too soon. Seeing a monarch butterfly on that property from my childhood is a rare occurrence now. My children, who visit their ‘Grampy’ often, do not have the same opportunity to immerse themselves into the wonders and beauty. This insect apocalypse is not the result of changes in just one lawn. It is the widespread evolution of land caretaking to ensure there are pristine fields, free of ‘weeds’ and free of ‘pests’ that feed on them. My dad’s lawncare pactices on their own is not the sole reason that the Monarch, among many other inspect species, is now considered endangered, but it is a microcosm of what is taking place globally. We simply need to go back to our old practices of just allowing nature be, stop trying to control for ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’, which is only making so many problems worse and promoting the spread of aggressive and invasive ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’. 

How would this new mom with a purple thumb learn how to get started with native gardening? Back to the crowdsourcing I went! I joined all the relevant Ontario Native gardening groups I could find. I lurked on the pages, reading about all kinds of plants and native insects I knew nothing about! I even found myself being surprised to learn that some things that I would have thought were so wonderful for nature and preservation are actually not so great. For example, the honey bee is a non-native pollinator (ok but is that really so bad?). It turns out yes, it’s not great because it’s also outcompeting our native pollinators which is having severe consequences on the food web. I learned TONS of new information on these group pages with the wealth of shared knowledge and photos that were shared. Still, it took me two more years before I pulled the trigger and got started.

I placed an online order for Native plants from a trusted source, (OnPlants.ca), and collected some industrial corrugated fibreboard from a local appliance store who gave me permission to dumpster dive. That was a first for me! I then shaped out the garden I wanted to build. It was at that point that I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew! I placed the corrugated fibreboard over the grass lawn that I wished to replace, then wet the fibreboard with a hose. Next, I cut holes in the fibreboard where the plants were planted and covered the fibreboard with garden soil and natural mulch. This eliminated the grass lawn in the fastest and most effective way.

I knew that my native plants would require very little maintenance once their roots took, but until then, I watered them regularly. The hardest part was waiting. The worst part was that the year I installed this garden, we had a terrible dry season and growth rate was painfully slow. All that physical work and nothing yet to show for it but for the dainty seedlings and a lot of bare dirt. It took a couple months but wow! It was so worth it! See video below to get an idea of the incredible response from insects far and wide.

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In just a 30 second video, one can count dozens of pollinators in just that one small section of the garden. The video also does not do a great job of capturing the view of the many smaller native pollinators coming and going from these Spotted Bee Balm flowers in the front. How many pollinators came and went, every minute of every hour of every day in just one season!?

(Plants Pictured: Spotted Bee Balm, Great Blue Lobelia, Pale Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, New England Aster, Scarlet Bee Balm, Annual Zinnias are scatter throughout the garden as a nectar source)

The best part about this garden: after the initial watering to get the seedlings to take root, minimal maintenance is required. How delightful for me and my purple thumb! At this point my biggest challenge is keeping the invasives out (including my arch nemesis: Field Bindweed!), and learning how to properly thin the garden to keep it looking tidy. I’ve also had the privilege of getting official Monarch Waystation designation and am in the process of becoming certified in the Pollinator Steward Program through Pollinator Partnership Canada.

I’m also very proud to say that my dad has been very open to the idea of bringing nature back to his lawn and we have started a journey of adding native species to the garden beds, as well as planting a variety of native shrubs along the property line. He also unfortunately has an infestation of the worst invasive plant known to humankind (in my opinion), Japanese knotweed. Luckily his infestation is small and we are working hard to eradicate it. It just goes to show that we can turn back the clock and change our perspective. We don’t have to have vast areas of pristine ‘golf course’ lawns that serve no purpose. I’m very proud of my dad for his open-minded approach to change and for his unwavering support of his daughter, even when her ideas go against the grain.

Since starting my pollinator garden, I have learned their are some amazing experts with an incredible wealth of knowledge to share. My three most influential leaders in this area are:

Cathy Kavassalis, one of the founders of the Canadian Coalition for Invasive Plant Regulation,

Douglas Tallamy, founder of the Homegorwn National Park backyard ecosystem movement

Lorraine Johnson, Canadian co-author of A Garden for the Rusty Patched Bumblebee

They have inspired me to raise awareness and encourage my fellow community members, who I have come to learn absolutely love their natural areas and gardens, as well as the wildlife that co-exists in our community, to leanr more about how their gardens can actually contribute to the survival and health of the food web by interconnecting all of those pockets of natural area that they love to enjoy.

I hope to partner up with the groups in Huron County who are already doing great work for the environment, including Green Goderich and the Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health, as well as online communities of like-minded people such as Huron County Native Gardening and Huron County Green Thumbs Facebook Groups. I am also hoping to gain the support and exterpise of the Municipality of Central Huron, as well as the Huron County Public Library in connecting the community and unifying us for this very important purpose.

If you would like more information on my project or wish to become involved in your very own designated green space, please reach out! The interested reader may also check out the links below for more information and resources.

Krystal Brideau

I'm a nurse/mom/wife from Clinton, ON with a passion for conservation and preservation. I'm currently practicing native plant gardening and working on a project that encourages other like-minded individuals to start transforming their gardens into backyard ecosystems, by replacing ornamental plants with plants that are interconnected with the natural world around them.

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