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  • ljmarkson

Be an Advocate for Nature By Sharing What You Know

I try to go out of my comfort zone and share information in online neighborhood groups where the focus is rarely on creating a wildlife friendly habitat and more often on how to control nature. Yet when I answer a question or create a post that can reach up to twenty thousand people in the neighborhoods around me, it seems like a perfect opportunity for advocacy, and a great place to suggest a different perspective. I make sure that anything I post in this sort of forum is as anodyne and neutral as possible. I believe most folks are sincerely on the side of the environment in principle and are just unaware about how something they do might be harming it. I also never engage with the jerks who enjoy being contrarians. It’s not my goal to argue or be right, just to pass along information that might be helpful.

I often make or repost a graphic when I share seasonal information on local online groups. This is one I made to go along with information and links I posted about how harmful fake spider webbing is.

Landscape culture is still predominantly impacted by the marketing done by the 24 billion dollar a year pesticide industry and the $129 billion a year dollar lawn and garden industry who divide wildlife and plants into categories of good and bad. If you search for any given insect, many of the top sites that pop up are pesticide companies. They often give helpful facts about identification and the lifecycle of the insect, explain how to keep the insect in question from “invading”, then advise calling a pest control company of there is an “infestation” or you even see the insect in your home, garden, or lawn – meaning they are considering the insects as pests for just existing outside in their natural habitat! Beneficial beetles, carpenter bees, and wasps are categorically defined as pests and they often give advice on how to kill them.

Terminex (based in TN), Orkin (based in GA) and the National Pest Management Association. (i.e. Pest World For Kids) all market to kids with sites framing all insects as pests.

If you look for information about native plants that might pop up in a lawn, you’re likely to get advice from your local extension service about how to control them as broadleaf weed. For example, I’m slowly growing rustweed (Polypremum procumbens) in between the pavers on my front walkway and landing. It’s a great groundcover for this area and seems to stand foot traffic. Yet finding information about rustweed when it first appeared in this area was tricky because it’s considered a lawn weed.

Rustweed is a sweet little native groundcover for walkways but I had a hard time learning anything about it except how to get rid of it if it grows in a lawn!

Pointing out the benefits of an insect often considered a pest, or a native plant considered a weed may have a big impact in changing the perspective for folks who don’t yet know we’re living in an increasingly less biodiverse world where human actions such as pesticides and habitat loss are contributing to the spiraling disappearance of plant species and wildlife including birds.

I now have a running list of paragraphs ready to post seasonally on local social networks about carpenter bees, ground nesting bees, chipmunks, squirrels, leaf blowers, fake grass, lawn alternatives, light pollution, fake spider webbing and a host of other topics. I add a graphic or welcoming photos like this close up of a carpenter bee pollinating a spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata).

This week someone posted in a neighborhood group a photo of a small American burnweed (Erichtites hieracifolious) growing in a pot and wrote “Any idea what this plant is? I may have been nurturing a weed” because she had been trying to grow basil and realized there was no basil.

I knew immediately what this plant in question was and that I needed to write a short blurb about its benefit when someone in a neighborhood online forum asked if it was a weed.

Out of a few dozen responses:

  • A handful didn’t identify it but said it was a weed and advised getting rid of it.

  • Over a dozen also didn’t identify it but posted something positive about weeds along the lines of a weed being an out of place plant, a plant man has no use for, or possibly good for pollinators or as a caterpillar host (yay!).

  • Another handful identified it as a dandelion and encouraged leaving it because dandelions are beneficial. (A topic for another post!)

  • A few identified it correctly as burnweed without much elaboration.

  • One shared that it’s peppery and makes a good tea.

This was an amazingly encouraging thread even though the details about the habitat value of native plants is not yet there. The idea that weeds are beneficial or at worst benign and we should let them exist in our yard is a pretty big shift from the scorched earth aesthetic of having a perfect lawn and yard. I bulked up the benefit of burnweed with facts including a climate change angle and took the time to write the following along with a photo of a bumblebee with big pollen pockets on a burnweed flower growing in my yard:

When someone in a local online group asked for identification, this photo of a native bumblebee on American burnweed is the one I posted along with the paragraph I wrote about burnweed being a great habitat and ecologically beneficial plant to grow.

"It looks like American Burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius) which has more of an ecological benefit in our yards than most intentionally grown plants do. It’s an important fall native nectar plant for pollinators including native bees and butterflies. Look at the pollen pockets of the little bumblebee on the burnweed in the attached photo! Just yesterday I saw goldfinches eating the seeds on one of the burnweed plants I’m growing in my rewilded yard Interestingly, burnweed is also particularly efficient in assimilating atmospheric nitrogen dioxide, a greenhouse gas pollutant from the burning of fossil fuels and acting as an ecological “sink” and rendering it to its organic form. For more information about this valuable native habitat plant read this link from Nancy Lawson at the Humane Gardener."

I try to work in a nature book, podcast, or article of some sort when I share information in local online groups

We rarely know if we’re spitting in the wind when we share helpful information online in public spaces, but my own experience make me confident that it matters. I’m all in on restoring habitat, yet my learning curve is still pretty steep, so new information can still help me change my behavior in some way. For example, up until this year I didn’t know what burnweed was. I stay on top of knowing what’s growing in my yard and I’m guessing if I did see it at some point, I assumed it was invasive hawkweed and pulled it up without giving it a thought. I’m thankful to Nancy Lawson who wrote a Humane Gardener post about burnweed last year that I read at some point this year. If she didn't opened my eyes to this valuable plant, I wouldn’t have been able to respond to the question in the neighborhood group.

I'm guilty of not thinking much of burnweed's flowers or dandelion-like seed fluff and assuming without any curiosity that it was non-native and not welcome in my rewilded yard. Reading an article about it opened my eyes and now I'm a fan!

I also wouldn’t have the experience of seeing burnweed grow in my own yard. When I read about burnweed earlier in the growing season, I looked around my yard to see if any had popped up. I found a few plants and kept an eye on one vigorous plant that grew six feet tall next to my back deck. Sure enough, throughout the summer there were countless insects on the leaves and flowers, and as I mentioned in the neighborhood group, more recently there were goldfinches on it. Now that I’ve let my burnweed go to seed, I’m sure this beneficial native annual will pop up even more in my yard next year. I’ll let it battle it out in areas where there are assertive native plants and edit it where it might overwhelm others. I’ll also point it out every time I host a habitat workshop!

When the focus is on the function of a plant over it's form, the nondescript flowers of native burnweed are welcome for the native bees, bristle flies, and wasps they attract.

Hopefully, because of my little paragraph and the comments from other nature lovers, there will be at least a few more yards where burnweed will be welcome next year. I would encourage anyone who is on the path of habitat restoration in their own yards to share what you know even if it might not be obvious that anyone cares or if you think you might be just singing to the choir. You don’t know who might hear you and change in some way to help nature because of information you’ve given them.

The research I've done and hands-on lessons I've learned as I transformed my yard from lawn to a wildlife habitat are the personal experiences that anyone who is on the same path can share with others to encourage more sustainable local yard ecosystems. (This photo shows a few of the native plants growing in my rewilded right-of-way strip and includes Georgia aster/Symphyotrichum georgianum, one of a dozen varieties of goldenrod/solidago I've planted, beautyberry/Calicarpa americana, and one of the many small white aster species I have trouble identifying!)

Note: There are no affiliate links in this blog. Please click the highlighted text throughout the post for links to references, details, explanations, worthy organizations or businesses, or examples that I think might be helpful.

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