We have been stuck in our houses for months on end — with a few breaks for shoveling snow — but it is the perfect time to think about getting outside.
The West Cook chapter of Wild Ones, whose mission is to educate residents of Cook County and beyond about the value and beauty of native ecosystems and native gardening, is bringing a three-part online lecture series right into your home to help you start planning for the spring and summer planting season.
Adrian Ayres Fisher, co-chair of programming for West Cook Wild Ones, says the beginning of the pandemic led the organization to scramble a bit as in-person meeting was not permitted. Now, they have mastered the art of the online meeting, and Fisher says that the virtual talks have the added bonus of having a wider reach.
“We’ve always had a very dedicated audience coming to the library for our events, but we are now reaching new people, and even people from out of state for our talks,” Fisher said.
Last spring, the organization first got a hint that the pandemic was changing the way people thought about their yards and gardens. At the annual native plant sale, orders were way up, and over 50 percent of customers were first-timers. Fisher calls these numbers surprising and impressive.
“This upcoming, three-part series is really aimed at these new gardeners, although experienced gardeners will find a lot to enjoy, too,” Fisher said.
The series features four noted gardeners who will share their knowledge and answer questions about native plants. The speakers will cover soil, sun and water needs, drought tolerance and sustainability and the many benefits of gardening with native plants.
First up on Feb. 21 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., Chicago-based horticulturalist Ken Williams will share “Top 10 Things Native Gardeners Need to Know.”
Williams, who says his interest in botany began when he was a college student studying engineering in Colorado, first started working with native plants in the Chicago area as a vegetable gardener.
He later landed a job as a horticulturalist and has been working with native plants ever since. Inspired by the books of Doug Tallamy, Williams says he has learned about how much of the natural world depends upon native plants.
He says that native plants provide food for specific caterpillars, which are food for specific songbirds.
“By our landscape choices, we’re choosing to starve baby birds,” Williams said. “Bird populations are declining fast.”
While there is a lot to be worried about, he cites Tallamy’s latest book “Nature’s Best Hope,” and says that his work is to help get the point of the book across.
“You don’t need a government program to fix this,” Williams said. “You just need people taking responsibility for their own piece of earth. The hope is you, the individual homeowner.”
Williams says he replaced his own lawn with a garden that is beautiful and tough. He hasn’t had to water it in three years
“What you can do is limitless,” Williams said. “Get a native plant and put it in the ground.”
On March 21 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., Denise Sandoval of Good Natured Landscapes in Naperville will speak about “Native Plants through the Season.”
Sandoval says her aim is to cover plants that will do well in most people’s gardens in a variety of soil and light conditions. Sandoval has been landscaping with native plants for over 16 years, and says more and more people are becoming aware of the benefits of native plants.
She hopes to make the use of native plants more accessible to home gardeners. One way to do this is to share readily accessible native plants that can be found here in local garden centers and big plant sales.
Sandoval will also share information on the wildlife that each plant supports, so gardeners can foster an appreciation and connection to the insects and birds that benefit from native plantings.
“Everyone knows about monarch butterflies and milkweed, but we’re discovering more and more that other insects have that same relationship with certain plants,” Sandoval said.
She plans to include design tips for local gardeners too, noting that many native plants are good spreaders. She will tell people how to use them in large and small spaces, and plans to include a handout so people will have an easy point of reference to plan their gardens.
The third talk of the series takes place April 18 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. The “Native Plant Q&A” will feature experts Monica Buckley of Red Stem Native Landscapes in Chicago and Sarah Michehl with The Land Conservancy of McHenry County.
Michehl says it’s part of her job to support all kinds of landowners from private homeowners to municipalities and park districts on how to preserve land. She notes that one key way to do that is to plant native species, and she gives advice on plant choice, design and plant care.
She notes that interest in native gardening “blew up” during the pandemic.
“Everybody’s home, and people feel like they’re doing something good by planting native plants,” Michehl said. “It’s good to feel that you are helping.”