Category Archives: Native Plants

Worldwide Permaculture Network

The Permaculture Institute defines permaculture as: “…an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities and much more.”

Permaculture is a way of life that can be adopted by virtually anyone, anywhere. In developed cultures we certainly have access to the knowledge and the means to implement these strategies, however big or small, from the smallest apartment patio or backyard garden up to the largest corporation rooftop or agricultural production. In developing nations, permaculture design can mean new or improved sustainable ways of living that are mutually beneficial with their environment.

There are many challenges and threats to our relationship with our environment, but I believe permaculturists are optimists. And despite the dismal headline news, there is a lot of good in the world. The goal of the Worldwide Permaculture Network to map the growing network of permaculture projects so we can all visualize just how much change is occurring. And of course to teach us all how we can adopt permaculture into our own lives. This new Network was just officially launched and anybody can sign up for free – make your place on the map.

Happy Earth Day! …a celebration, a 40 year tradition and, of course, capitalism

It’s a rainy Earth Day in Chicago so our celebrations may have to get creative. What are you planning? The EarthDay.org website can give you ideas and you can sign up for their “A Billion Acts of Green” campaign.

Lots of companies are capitalizing on the Day, of course. People will be burning a little extra gas today to get to Starbucks or Caribou for free coffee. One of the more beneficial giveaways, perhaps, is the million trees that Lowe’s is giving away tomorrow 4/23. What’s even better? Buying a native tree from a local nursery, perhaps. Or, walking to a neighborhood coffee shop that serves locally roasted, fair-trade, organic coffees and teas.

Speaking of Fair Trade, May 14th is World Fair Trade day. In Chicago, World Fair Trade week will be kicked off on May 4th with a celebration in Daley Plaza.

Here are a few other small ideas you can do right away to celebrate Spring and Earth Day:

  • Spread some natural fibers in your yard for bird’s to build nests: try rafia, shreds of cotton, straw, small sticks, shredded paper, etc.
  • Set up your kitchen/home to be more recycling friendly and learn some convenient recycling locations. Most grocery stores now have plastic bag, light bulb and battery recycling bins. Consider composting to reduce garbage bag usage and landfill space.
  • Plant native annuals & perennials this year. They will attract native birds, bees, and butterflies. Contact your local extension office to get a list of native plants and where to get them. Don’t have a yard or garden? That’s ok, recycle a container and fill it with flowers: a coffee can, an old boot, a plastic bag, a colander, get creative- if it holds soil, it’s a planter!
  • When planting this year, choose coconut coir, now widely available in garden stores, over sphaghum/peat. Peat bogs are dwindling precious resources whereas shredded coconut is bountiful. Just add perlite to help the coir drain well and keep plant roots happy.
  • Make “seed bombs” with native plant seeds and go do some “planting” guerrilla syle! Recipes for seed bombs are plentiful online.
  • Make a small donation to an environmental cause of your choice. Use the fantastic Charity Navigator tool to locate a top rated charity so your money makes the biggest impact.
  • Do a walk-through of your house with a bag in hand- fill it up with stuff you just don’t need and donate it to a local charity store. Keeping used items in circulation will help keep newly manufactured items out.
  • Pick up trash outside. I guarantee you’ll see some, so keep a bag and gloves handy. It’s a dirty job that feels great.
  • Start using cloths/rags for cleaning rather than paper towels. Paper towels are a HUGE and expensive waste. Buy a dozen or two unbleached cloths and use them for months. Wash them in oxy-cleaner rather than bleach.
  • Teach something to kids: take them to a natural history museum, let them pick out an environmental activity book, visit a greenhouse conservatory, rent a documentary and eat organic snacks, let them pick out a reusable stainless steel water bottle, pick out a never-before-tried unusual fruit or veggie from the grocery store and then research it online- pique their curiosity about nature and growing.
  • Make a commitment to not forget Earth Day tomorrow and next month and the middle of the winter.

These are small gestures of involvement but by no means enough. We all have a responsibility to stay educated, stay active, and be personally responsible for how our choices affect the Earth.

The tropical desert Midwest?

Opuntia "Prickly Pear"

I’m a plant geek- continuously amazed by the plant world. Like when I first found out that cactus grow native to Michigan and Illinois. A few years ago I was walking past a house in Michigan that had mounds of prickly pear growing and flowering in the yard. Double-take! I expressed my amazement to the woman living there, “I had no idea cactus can live outside here!” She called hers “Michigan Prickly Pear” and broke off a few pads for me to grow. And grow they did (above pic). It would be a much larger patch, actually, were it not for a hungry critter two years ago.

More than likely this is Opuntia humifusa, or Eastern Prickly Pear, which grows native in the Midwest. Opuntia monocantha and Opuntia fragilis can apparently also found in Illinois and Michigan. Mine appears lanky in the pic because it started to grow in low-light conditions while over-wintering. I have since moved it onto the rooftop where I expect it will thrive and hopefully bloom. I can confidently say that this species can handle its fair share of neglect and abuse! It looks quite disheveled (ok, it looks dead) after a harsh winter but perks right up in the spring.

Hiking in northern Michigan a couple years ago I came across another “desert” surprise- lizards! Maybe not as much a surprise in Illinois, but for an Upper Peninsula of Michigan native, seeing a lizard seemed about as likely as seeing a zebra. Yet there it was on Marquette’s Sugarloaf Mountain, what I’ve since learned to most likely be a Five-lined Skink, a native of Michigan. Illinois has a native legless lizard, which I’ve yet to see, called the Slender Glass Lizard.

From desert to the tropics…

If you’ve spent time on Chicago’s beaches you may have seen live palm trees. I’m not going to surprise anybody by saying those are not native to the Great Lakes region. But, surprisingly, some folks are successful in growing them outdoors in Chicago (with special care). And orchids, which are normally thought of as tropical plants, are native and even abundant in the region. Even some non-native tropical orchids can thrive in Illinois home gardens. Especially if you happen to live in a micro-climate, where your growing area may be a zone ahead of your neighbors, you can try your hand at outdoor tropicals.

I try to be conscious about bringing non-native and hybridized species into a habitat, but I think it can be safely said that these particular tropicals won’t be overpopulating anytime soon. Even the cold-hardy palms require a lot of attention to over-wintering or they will die. That said, keep them at home and preferably grow them in containers. Here are some websites with tips for picking species and growing conditions of hardy outdoor tropical plants: