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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: The world is abuzz

Some gardeners believe only native plants can support pollinators; others say non-natives can, too. Is it necessary to choose a side?

This is a funny time of year for gardeners. We watch for signs of spring and, just like snowdrops and minor bulbs pushing forth their first signs of growth, we emerge from our own somnolence and start showing ourselves, seeking nourishment, just like the insects and pollinators that are also seeking sustenance from emerging flowers.

But this week, our sustenance comes in the form of lectures and exhibitions that remind us of what is to come. I will attend a Bad Grass lecture on rewilding in Salisbury on Thursday and then head on Saturday to Pennsylvania for the Galanthus Gala, an annual gathering of collectors and plant enthusiasts. Other gardeners in the area will be heading to the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture. From Thursday’s talk on rewilded landscapes to the snowdrop festival, the Winter Lecture, and an exhibition at the Rockwell Museum, there is a central theme: how flowers and plants sustain the broader ecosystem throughout the season.

Meadows filled with natives, such as this Connecticut landscape, unquestionably foster the life-cycle of native pollinators.

At the Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture, Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter will be sharing his ideas about how all plants support pollinators. Great Dixter was the home of the great British garden writer Christopher Lloyd and is renowned for its exotic plantings as well as its wild meadows that have been stewarded by Garrett over the years. I am sorry to miss this lecture and the camaraderie of the gardeners who attend this annual event (gardeners are like pollinators and come back into the world in February in droves), but fortunately I have heard a version of this talk from Fergus, so I feel a bit freed to head to the Galanthus Gala and the Philadephia Flower Show.

The argument that Fergus posits, that a diverse range of plants, not just natives, support local wildlife is controversial to some, though he backs up his theory with pollinator counts that seem to bear out his opinions. Others, including some of Thursday night’s panelists at Bad Grass, may argue that natives are more likely to provide the appropriate nutrients for their co-inhabitants of the local environment. I wish somehow we could have these events side-by-side to hear everyone defend their position. As someone who relishes local food, there is appeal in the argument for keeping things native and local, though I would be dishonest if I did not share my absolute passion for non-local citrus (which also meets my need for vitamin C) in the dark days of winter. It is my hope, in my garden and through attending these events, to find a balance between these various approaches, and this extends to my attendance at the Galanthus Gala.

Snowdrops, such as ‘Mrs. McNamara’, may not be native but are visited by local bumblebees in search of sustenance early in the season.

While snowdrops are not native, like many plants that bloom early in the season, they do provide some sustenance for bumblebees stepping out for the first time in the season. Additionally, they certainly help me to step out into the garden to collect vitamin D from the later winter sun. ‘Mrs. McNamara’ is a snowdrop that just showed herself this morning and already seems to be attracting some pollinators and admirers. She is an heirloom variety named for Dylan Thomas’s mother-in-law that was given to me by snowdrop collector Ernie Cavallo. To my mind, she is more poetic than the ephemeral writings of her son-in-law. I hope to introduce some of her snowdrop friends to my garden upon my return from Pennsylvania, as well as other native and non-native spring bloomers that will be on sale at the Galanthus Gala. With such combinations available, why take one side or the other in the war of the natives?

No one captures the magic of the relationship between flora and fauna than the artist Leo Lionni in his children’s book illustrations on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

To bring it all home, the magic of all plants, native and nonnative, real and imagined, and their ability to entrance their pollinators became clear to me earlier this week at the Norman Rockwell Museum. On a very cold day, when seeking vitamin D outside did not seem like an option, I toured the Leo Lionni exhibition there, and was entranced by some of his illustrations for children’s books that captured the relationship between plants, birds and insects. The magic of his plants and pollinators, comprised of gouache and collage, convinced me that there is no need to determine whether it is Fergus or the re-wilders who are right. All plants, real or imagined, are magical and alluring and they all contribute to our well-being.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

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