Prove your humanity

This story was originally published on October 8, 2021.

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of the other stories in the series here

Ed Wrenn, a physician who lives in Pittsburgh’s East End, wanted to put in a native plant garden at his home, but he couldn’t really find the plants he was looking for.

LISTEN to the interview

Wrenn said that is one of the reasons he co-founded the Western Pennsylvania chapter of Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes. It’s a membership organization with chapters in the Eastern U.S. and Midwest that advocates for landscaping and gardening practices that promote biodiversity.

“We’re working to create demand for native plants and natural landscaping services so that they will become more widely available,” Wrenn said. They want to shift the public’s perspective about why they choose certain types of plants, and what the alternatives are. 

Wrenn said natural landscaping can be interpreted in many ways. It can be more manicured, or more wild and free-flowing. But he said, for him, there is an underlying philosophy. “We should garden in such a way that helps the Earth rather than harms it,“ he said.

Lawns, said Wrenn, are the most destructive element of traditional landscaping, a concept promoted by author and entomologist Doug Tallamy. 

“For one thing, they are ironically biologically sterile, even though they may look very alive,” he said. “In a lawn that’s made from one or two species of grass, you will really never see any sorts of insect life.”

Your Lawn Is an ‘Ecological Deadzone.’ The Case For Replacing It with Native Plants

Wrenn hopes the group can persuade people to eschew lawnmowers, too. The Environmental Protection Agency found that gas-powered lawnmowers and other lawn care equipment contribute to air pollution, including unhealthy particulate matter.

Leave the leaves

Tamara O’Brien, the co-founder of the new chapter, who lives in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, has been replacing her lawn with native garden and vegetable beds for the last 15 years. O’Brien’s home is in a suburb where many neighbors have chemically enhanced, green lawns and neat rows of shrubs. 

Her beds of vegetables and the colorful hodgepodge of plants in the front of her house are a contrast. 

native garden bed

Tamara O’Brien’s yard is full of native garden beds. Photo: Kara Holsopple

“All that mass in the middle there is purple anise,” she said, pointing to one of her flower beds. “It’s beautiful and it’s covered in pollinators all summer, but then all through September and October, the goldfinches eat the seeds.” 

She doesn’t cut the plants down in the fall because pollinators nest in the plant stems in the winter. Fall leaves are also important for the ecosystem.

“A lot of our vital pollinators overwinter by making themselves a cocoon inside a dried-up leaf,” she said. “That leaf falls from the tree onto the ground.”

If people don’t want to leave the leaves where they fall, O’Brien suggests raking leaves and putting them in a designated spot that’s out of sight, preserving the insect life. 

Wrenn added that bagged leaves that end up at a landfill contribute to climate change. The carbon-rich yard waste breaks down, releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Changing public policy

Wild One is also interested in public policy. Wrenn said they would like to see better regulation or a ban of some common pesticides. The sale of popular, but invasive plants at nurseries and greenhouses, like Japanese barberry and Callery pear, is also a concern.

“We’ve had some issues for some of our members, for people all over the country and in our closer-to-home communities where they are getting cited with codes for having weeds in their yard,” said O’Brien. “So policy does need to shift.” 

Please Don’t Buy Japanese Barberry. Forests Will Thank You.

Demonstrating wild landscaping

The regional chapter has grown to 55 members in just a few months. According to Wrenn, their most popular group activity has been just inviting the other members to one of their home gardens to see how this type of landscaping is done.

“I think people think it’s too difficult, and that you might have to weed all the time,” Wrenn said. “That’s really not true because a lot of our native plants can take care of themselves and outcompete weeds.”

O’Brien said her neighbors also seem to appreciate the beds of native herbs and flowers in her yard. “People stop and ask and I show them. I talk to them,” she said.” “I share plants with them.” 

She even convinced her neighbor to stop spraying pesticides. “I explained it’s going to kill those butterflies you have all over and the dragonflies in your pond. It doesn’t discriminate.”

Wrenn said they are gardening by example, and their gardens are their best marketing tool.

“We’re trying to change the social and community perception of what good gardening is,” Wrenn said, “Without trying to be too much in people’s faces.” 

Wrenn said for him, gardening more naturally also means gardening joyously. He is thrilled by watching the constantly changing cast of pollinators that visit his native flower beds, and especially the ruby-throated hummingbird that showed up this year.

Native Plant Resources

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy “Invasive Plants of Pittsburgh” guide

Penn State Extension Landscaping for Wildlife

Creating Native Habitat, Yard by Yard