Create Local Change by Building Community Support for Native Plants
Updated: Nov 12, 2021
The native plant community in Atlanta grew stronger yesterday with the first event of the newly minted Intown Atlanta Chapter of the GNPS (Georgia Native Plant Society). We planned for 30 or so people, ambitiously hoped for 50, and were thrilled to have almost 100 people come together for this event!
It was the kind of 65-degree sunny November fall day that reminds me why I love living in the South. It could not have been more ideal weather for a meeting and to learn the history and take a guided nature walk through this special restored urban nature park that was once a brownfield!
We met at Zonolite Park, a perfect example of the power of native plants to restore nature where we live. Sally Sears gave an inspiring talk about how South Fork Conservancy worked with a coalition of federal, state and local organizations (including GNPS) to turn an industrial wasteland contaminated by asbestos into a 13-acre urban sanctuary.
Sally spoke about the reality of our urban parks and gave an anecdote about meeting a photographer at the park the day before who had a stream of 20 families come to the park as a backdrop for Christmas photos. As someone who connects deeply to nature, I have a hard time with using nature as a prop. I don’t understand the disconnect between creating an ecosystem devoid of nature in your own backyard and travelling far and wide to get a selfie in front of natural wonders such as mountains, waterfalls, or wildlife. Yet Sally’s optimistic viewpoint helped me see the value of incremental change by explaining that only one of these families had ever been to the park. Now 19 new families are aware of Zonolite and are potential supporters. Some will come back with their children who will connect to the woods, creek, and wildlife they explore there. Nature will ultimately win.
Pete Densimore, the leader of Friends of Zonolite Park group spoke about the ongoing volunteer work necessary to remove invasive plants and replace them with native plants. Every month volunteers remove invasive privet to give to Zoo Atlanta. Apparently, giraffes love privet! Pat didn’t speak, but the thousands of native trees, bushes, forbs and grasses that have been planted in the last couple years as well as the little native prairie patches springing up around the park have her fingerprints on them. Acting locally means adopting your favorite local park to help restore and maintain it for wildlife.
Niche Native plant societies have been traditionally geared towards older gardening enthusiasts who have the time and money to focus their energy on specific plants or types of gardens. Over thirty years ago when my husband and I realized the road to starting a family would be a longer journey than we expected, I started gardening to distract myself and process the ongoing situation. I was interested in Rosalind Creasy-style edible landscaping and the best resource I found to learn more about gardening was a local herb society. I was the youngest person by a good 30 years but the benefit for me was having dozens of new role models to learn from!
There are still plant societies for herbs as well as for hydrangeas, daffodils, azaleas, roses, rock gardens, water gardens, even bamboo! I’m going to guess the average age of these groups is still about 60. I don't think learning about and collecting hydrangea or rose hybrids will ever be much of a young person's game.
Times have changed and a growing number the young people are now ripping up their lawns for the kind of edible landscaping that was so unusual back when I wanted to learn how to do this in my yard. New homeowners are also embracing naturescaping (landscaping for nature) with or without edibles. Their interest in using native plants is part of an effort to protect our fragile world. They are joining native plant societies from a socially conscious and environmentally aware place. The mission is the same with a slight tweak to the focus.
I tried to talk to as many people as I could and ended up speaking to one young couple at length after I asked them how they found themselves at this event. Their story exemplifies the encouraging trend happening all over Atlanta and the country.
Nick was inspired to start a vegetable garden in his yard because his grandfather had a farm. He noticed though that not all pollinators were attracted to the flowers he bought at the nursery and started researching the value of using plants native where you live. He’s currently reading a Doug Tallamy book. Like many folks now, he’s working from home and appreciates enjoying his own lawn-free front yard filled with wildlife when he needs a break. Elizabeth loves having a yard alive with critters and explained her appreciation for the habitat value of flowers. They are community-minded and give away seeds from their yard to encourage members in their neighborhood association to use native plants. They’re interested in going to plant rescues to add biodiversity to their yard. Their interactive and community-oriented ideas for events include plant and seed swaps, workshops to learn how to winter sow native seeds, and informal neighborhood open yard garden tours with a map of members who want to share what they’ve done in their yard with other members…kind of like a Christmas light crawl but with native plants. Elizabeth summed up their philosophy perfectly when she said using native plants is an ideal way to act locally and also gives the kind of instant gratification needed to feel like you are making a difference. They are the future of the native plant movement.