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A Testimonial for Growing Native Prairie Plants in a Garden

by Gail Fennell

Nature Regina volunteer garden leader 

David Suzuki Foundation Butterflyway volunteer 

In 2023, we speak of climate change affecting pollinators and how everyday people can help the pollinators by growing native plants. But this is not new news for Nature Regina members. 

 

Thirty years ago, back in 1993, members of the Regina Natural History Society, better known now by our other name, Nature Regina, led an ambitious project to create a display garden of native Saskatchewan plants and named it The Regina Plains Native Plant Garden. The name has a nice ring and clearly shows the vision the garden founders had for their project. 

 

The City of Regina was promoting xeriscaping to reduce water use and our members saw an advantage to demonstrating how the beautiful plants that have always grown here, would not only look fabulous in our gardens but be easier to care for than many cultivated plants. In 1996 the Leader-Post Weekender ran a feature story interview with one of our project members on growing native plants in city gardens. The garden was flourishing and it seemed that a big shift was imminent in gardening to using fewer resources and to grow our beautiful native plants.  

 

The Royal Saskatchewan Museum Manager and Visitor Services staff loved the garden for year-round school interpretive programming. The garden even became a Monarch waystation. 

 

When I arrived in Regina in 2017, the first thing I looked for was a native plant garden where I could volunteer. The garden at the Museum was just what I had in mind – lots of native plants, it is close to where I live, and friendly volunteers to work with. 

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Nature Regina's Conservation Director and several other board members, the RSM Director of Programming and Exhibits, Wascana Center staff and myself sat down one snowy day in January 2018 to plan a rejuvenation of our garden. 2019 was the garden's 25th anniversary and we wanted her looking her best. 

 

Eleven volunteers, some who were volunteers through many, many years before I arrived, dug, raked and potted up through 248.75 hours that first summer, taming the vegetation, reshaping paths and planning how we wanted the garden to look. When all the hard work was done, we celebrated with a garden party before our September meeting. Tours of the garden, ladies in garden hats, and tea made of Giant Hyssop leaves and flowers from the garden were all part of the fun. 

 

Our core volunteer group has grown to about 45 people each year who are very generous with their time over a much longer season – the first week of May to the last week of October – than when we first began the rejuvenation. Added to the core group are youth and business volunteer groups who enthusiastically dig in to help at the garden for a day and sometimes even several days and nearly double the number of volunteers at the garden. 

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Over the last five years, the plants, the birds, the insects, and arthropods have been our teachers as we human volunteers learn how to be part their community and pay attention to what they are telling us. 

 

The plants tell us who they want for neighbours, where they like to grow, how much water they need, how much sun is best for each. They tell us by growing where they want to grow, even if it's not where we thought they should after reading books and talking to experts. When they thrive, the plants are telling us, "We know how to grow and thrive on a prairie, even in a city garden." 

 

If we watch them and listen to their humming, the bees and butterflies, the ambush bugs, ants and beetles, the myriad fly species, tell us which flower shapes and colour and size they like best by which flowers they visit.  When they are thriving, the insects are telling us we have made the right choices for what to grow and which spaces and vegetation to leave for their nests and eggs and pupae. 

 

When we change the flowers or how many of a flower species, we change the insects and arthropods too. 

 

For thirty years the health and resilience of the garden and its inhabitants has been paramount. We have never used any chemicals for any reason - not fertilizers, and not any sort of weed killer no matter how long and how many quackgrass roots we pulled out in the early years. 

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In 2022, the Society for Organic Urban Landcare awarded our garden their national Greener Greenspaces certification. It is the garden that wins the award, not the volunteers, because it is the garden that is an example of how a healthy greenspace is more than just green plants. It is a resilient community from the soil and water through the plants and wildlife to the air they breathe. The certification has to be applied for each year. Ideally, more is done each year to ensure resilience and health so the space is not left on its own to cope with an ever-changing urban landscape. The garden won certification in 2023. This fall we will apply again because we are increasing plant diversity which will lead to better wildlife diversity. 

 

Visitors to our garden want to know about which plants to grow for bees and butterflies and birds. They can see for themselves how a plant looks or how the bees behave or which butterflies might come to their garden if they grow a plant they see in the garden. 

 

A walk along the garden paths tells us more than books and videos ever can about how we are to live in a city and still have nature close to us; that we can enjoy spending time with wild beings who are completely different than ourselves without taming them. 

 

More and more people are looking for more diversity of plants, insects, and birds in their gardens than was the norm when our native plant garden first began. Now it is more important than ever to have local supply of plants that are truly local to Regina's ecoregion. The commercial supply of native plants, especially ones for Regina, is a drop in a bucket compared to the demand.  

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Our garden suddenly has a new purpose! Seeds from the garden can be grown to fill a huge gap in the availability of local native plants. Thus began the Regina Seed Sitters Club in the fall of 2022. Seed Sitters is a community outreach project of our garden joined by volunteers from the David Suzuki Foundation Butterflyway. Volunteers grow seeds to seedling stage, then Nature Regina and the Butterflyway volunteers find homes for the plants in public spaces and residential gardens. 

 

One thing the volunteers at the garden remember to do, no matter how busy the day, is take time to smell the flowers and enjoy being in our beautiful garden. 

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