Weeds and Seeds: Building Wild Resilience through Ungardening

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

If you’re reading this newsletter, you’re probably well aware of the benefits that native plants have for our pollinators. You likely know that pesticides and herbicides have negative impacts to the fauna of our yards as well as unintended side effects to our broader environments. These issues begin to push against the conventional yard and garden industry, but in order to best support our pollinators and other beneficial wildlife, we must do much more, and can accomplish this by turning to nature for our inspiration and ungardening.

Swapping ornamental and invasive plants for natives and going organic with your land care are great first steps, but even managing our yards organically in conventional ways will still create imbalances in our yard. Bagging leaves for removal and laying mulch are two examples that work hand in hand.Bagging leaves removes not only nutrients, but overwintering pupae and other beneficial insects and fungi. Mulching is necessary to hold in moisture, but doing so prevents our native solitary bees from successfully nesting in the soil. By instead leaving the leaves where you can and ditching the mulch, you keep those protective benefits to the soil, while making nutrient amendments unnecessary. The dead leaves are much less dense, allowing many insects to overwinter, and by spreading them unevenly, as nature does, you can allow soil access for ground nesting insects. It is important, however, to not just look to what activities to stop, but also seek inspiration on how to proceed. Two ways that our yards and pollinator gardens often differ from wild areas are the density and diversity of plants. Monarchs are not unique in their specialized relationship with milkweeds; many of our insects are specialists, meaning that they rely on one plant or a small group of plants for some or all of their life cycle. These specialist relationships exist not just for the larvae of pollinators, but insects that spend their entire lives eating foliage, bark, or other plant parts, fungi, parasitic plants, and many other classes of life. These relationships create an ecosystem that is strengthened by many repetitions; many fungi-plant-caterpillar- relationships that allow the ecosystem as a whole to be more resilient. One year may be good for some plants and insects and bad for others, but when there is enough redundancy in the environment, these fluctuations will not cause the ecosystem as a whole to collapse.

Copying nature in this way, and the overhaul it can entail, might seem a bit daunting, but if we lean into nature and agree to let it lead the way, it will. As humans, we like to have an end goal in mind and a time frame for getting there, but this is not how nature works. You can, of course, still make decisions and choose direction for your yard, but to ungarden your yard you have to accept that plants will move and the landscape will change over time, and agree to work with the seasons and the pace that nature sets. Perhaps the most striking contrast between the controlling desires of conventional land care and the ever-changing nature of nature are weeds.

What is a weed? It sounds trite, but a weed truly is just a plant growing where we don’t want it. The plants widely considered weeds are a mix of invasive, naturalized, and native species that share some or all of a set of characteristics. They are often annuals, or are able to reproduce in their first year, usually produce large quantities of seed that is easily spread or can spread easily through other means, can tolerate very poor conditions, and thrive in disturbance and marginalized land. All invasive species are weeds, but not all weeds are invasive. In their native ecosystems, these weedy species function as the immune response of the ecosystem. When a disturbance, such as a fire, wind storm, land slide, or flood happens, killing the existing vegetation and exposing or eroding the soil, these seeds germinate quickly, hold the soil in place, and allow the area to recover. This ensures a continuous supply of food for the pollinators and other beneficial wildlife in the area, while creating a sheltered environment for slower growing, more long lived plants to germinate from the seedbank, arrive on the wind or b