The Politics of Planting Natives: How One Village Went Wild
Part 2 of 2
By Darcy Dye, Wild Ones Member
Photos by David Dye
The Story of the Adopt a Garden Program in Spring Lake Continues
To read part 1 click here.
6. Creating a Working Plan
Each summer brings its own share of “complications,” things that affect the broader community and necessitate some special planning for the Adopt a Garden Program. For example, this summer sewers will be replaced along Exchange St. and that road is scheduled for repaving. I do not want volunteers working in right of ways gardens when there is heavy construction and where trucks turn corners that already have a narrow turn radius. So this summer, nine of the Native Gardens that are now installed will lie fallow. And yes, I know that we will have to do some repair of damage done to those gardens by construction workers who haven’t a clue about Native Plants! We still, however, have a basic plan. Here is how it goes:
In January, we figure out which gardens need augmentation, make loose plans for new gardens to be installed, and order plants. In a folder is my plant map, with lists of plants needed for each garden, the number of trays needed to deliver the appropriate plugs to each garden, and a rough schedule for planting days. We have learned that volunteers are all busy people with busy schedules. We have chosen to work with volunteers’ schedules, delivering plants when a volunteer is available and not trying to force volunteers to come on a specific planting day. Yes, this is more cumbersome for the facilitators, but it means that volunteers always show up, and the work gets done efficiently.
In February and March, I walk the plans through the various Village departments, making sure that my four bosses—I report to the Village Manager, the Village Council, the Planning Commission, and the Department of Public Works- have visuals and a clear understanding of what the plans are. We now have a budget through the Parks and Recreation Board so we make sure money is in our account and there is a process for getting checks to vendors in a timely fashion. By the end of March, we coordinate with the Department of Public Works so that we can get some help with the heavy aspects of gardening, things that require muscle power. Many of the Adopt a Garden volunteers are in their 70’s and 80’s. We honor their experience and find some brawn and Bobcats to get the rest of the work done!
Come April, we contact volunteers. The Adopt a Garden Program has had an unusually high return rate on volunteers to our great delight. An annual spring meeting gets scheduled. We talk through the needs of individual volunteers and make arrangements to deliver plants, tools, chairs or whatever is required to make their work enjoyable. We also deadhead seed stalks left in place through the winter, where their seeds feed birds and the stalks add sculptural interest to the snowscape. This year our Village Manager delivered a huge bag of gardening gloves to hand out to volunteers—her contribution to the cause and our gardening community!
In May, we pick up plants from a variety of growers. For now, no one grower can provide us with everything we need. We divvy up plants into labeled trays with garden locations and volunteers’ names. Sometimes plants get delivered to gardens. Other volunteers want to pick their own trays up. Sometimes Girl Scouts help with the planting, and then someone is on site to distribute plants and oversee the work. This all takes time.
For the first year, we cage plugs, using the plastic mesh tubes used for protecting trees. We cut them into thirds and then cage each plug, anchoring cages with a couple of those survey flags on metal wires that Miss Dig uses to mark utilities. The cages keep the huge Village rabbit population at a distance, make it a little harder for dogs to lift their legs, and warn pedestrians that there is something growing. Of course, people passing by want to know if we are growing plastic cages, but the question starts a discussion. We now travel with literature in our cars and see every conversation as an opportunity to educate.
7. The Bare Bone Essentials for Making Things Work
Sylvia has now retired from active management of the Program, though she still calls to give suggestions and waters plants when a volunteer is away. In the summer of 2018, I managed 82 volunteers solo and did all of the work of walking things through the municipal government. It was, however, too much for one person. I did not do a good job. So this summer we will experiment with “garden sous chefs.”
There are some of the volunteers who have gotten really excited about planting Michigan Natives. One just finished her Master Naturalist Certification. Another is signed up to take the Master Naturalist course in Lansing. A third worked with me last summer to replant her residential garden with Michigan Natives. These three people are eager to learn and have skills for walking alongside volunteers. They know how to give volunteers the freedom to make a garden their own while, at the same time, teaching what they know about Native plants.
From the inception of the Adopt a Garden Program, we have let volunteers “make mistakes,” take the heat with municipal officials, and come up with plans for “making things right.” I think we keep volunteers from summer to summer because we let them make a garden their own. We see their work as meaningful, productive, and community building. Even Village officials no longer see these volunteers just as free labor!
8. Make the Effort to Communicate
Planning and good communication with municipal authorities is key to the Program’s success. We have learned what the various municipal arms need to be confident of the work volunteers are doing. We speak the language of each municipal group and are careful to keep everyone in the loop. Again, this takes time, but it’s worth it. Trust has grown with Village staff. We now have a seat on the Parks and Recreation Board, so there is accountability and a group of people to whom we can go for advice, ideas, and funding. As the Program has grown, the facilitator role is one of the go-to-person. We field questions from Village staff and handle complaints from Village residents—the politics of living in a community are always there. We do education at a variety of public meetings and consult privately with residents interested in creating Butterfly Gardens in their own yards. I spend less time in the dirt and more time promoting. Michigan Natives are catching on!
9. Keep a Sense of Humor
You have to hold the long view when getting a community on board with Michigan Native Gardens. Our Village ordinance still calls goldenrod “a noxious weed.” Though we now have plenty of Solidago species in 23 Village gardens, milkweed is still a hard sell. Last summer a woman came into the Village offices with a black plastic bag full of at least three different species of milkweed, crawling with Monarch caterpillars. “Can’t you get your grounds crew to take care of the gardens?” she asked angrily. “These plants are crawling with worms!” So this year we have Monarch literature in the Village brochure cubby. There will be an article on the Downtown Development Authority’s website and on the Village Facebook page, helping the community to understand the life cycle of Monarch Butterflies. A Village graphic artist designed signs for individual gardens, indicating that the plants in the space are intentional.
We have our share of critics. Some traditional gardeners think that Native Gardens look “weedy.” There was someone who came into the Village offices repeatedly, complaining about the height of Native Plants at a certain corner. The staff couldn’t tell me who it was by law. No amount of trimming seemed to make a difference, and then, one day, sitting in a yoga studio, waiting for a class to begin, I overheard two women talking. They were complaining about the awful Village staff. One of the women went on to tell how she had gone in almost every day to get those awful plants on the corner removed, and staff just blew her away. Bingo! After class, I introduced myself, discovered that she drove a very expensive, low-slung sports car, and she probably would have difficulty turning the corner with daylilies. She left class with my business card and the assurance that she could call me any time. We have heard nothing since!
10. Educate, Educate, Educate
The Adopt a Garden Program now keeps a supply of brochures, articles, bookmarks, reading lists, plant lists, nursery contact information, plant sale dates, etc. We regularly send out packets of information to anyone wanting to know more about planting with Michigan Native Plants. We get regular requests to work with Scout Troops, asking for projects that help the Scouts complete merit awards. We always do a pre-meeting with the Troop, bringing reading material and some homework for the Troop members to complete before helping with the planting.
When an opportunity presents itself, we seize it. This past year, the Village rewrote the Master Plan. This year the Planning Commission and Council are rewriting the zoning ordinances to make them compliant with the MP. I asked the Planning Commission if it would be of help to take a first pass at the landscape zoning section and bring it into compliance with the work that the Adopt a Garden Program is doing in Village gardens. Existing landscape zoning is based on the American Nurserymen standards which call for lots of mulch and “look-good plants,” most of which don’t grow in sandy soil, all of which require huge amounts of water, and many of which are now considered to be invasives! Happily, the Planning Commission said, “Yes!”
We’ve come a long way from, “You’ll be lucky if you get three people to weed.” We have also learned that, while Michigan Native Plants are fundamental to the wellbeing of Mother Earth, they are also terrific community-building tools. “Michigan Natives” is a buzz-word phrase in the Village of Spring Lake. For that, I am grateful.
Editor's note: Wild Ones River City Chapter applauds Darcy Dye and her crew of the Adoption a Garden Program for their dedication and hard work creating native plant gardens in public spaces in Spring Lake.