When Ellen Holmes, botanist with Central Coast Wilds, came on a consultation visit a few weeks ago, she asked me what kind of restoration I wanted to do. She gave me a few choices:
1. Weed and wait - See what nature brings, in the form of seeds brought by wind and animals.
2. Weed and wait and plant things propagated from indigenous local plants growing right here.
3. Weed and wait and plant things propagated from indigenous plants in the same general locality.
Of those choices I have to say I am very attracted to 1 but really it's a bit late. I've already been doing 2 and 3, and now I'm focusing on 2 as much as I can. I'm propagating our indigenous toyon, hairy honeysuckle, and also sea foam (Holodiscus discolor) which grows within half a mile of here, but just not on my parcel - I count that as right here. Nature doesn't know from parcels. As I believe they might say in New York.
I'm also doing a bit of 3 because it's so interesting and gets me studying what grows in my water sheds (I'm on the boundary of two). For example, we don't have a buckeye in sight. But two miles away - lots. I'm watching them bloom right now, and await the seeds to follow.
But what about you who may live in a developed area and have a small plot of land - what kind of restoration gardener can you be? A wonderful, creative one! You can choose option 4:
4. Recreate the ecology of a habitat that once existed where you live.
I once visited the ancient town of Saint Malo, in Brittany - a Celtic region of France - with a Breton acquaintance. Ancient? Well, it was flattened during one of our less than pleasant 20th century human interactions, and what you see is a massive reconstruction job. It looks great and really conveys what that town might have looked like when it was pretty new. Some people say it is "Disneyfied" but really the locals are very proud of the work and its authenticity.
You can create your own Saint Malo garden, right where you live. But how to get started?
If you are lucky, and also have a certain amount of disposable income, you can contact landscaping companies that provide restoration services, such as Central Coast Wilds does in my area. Or you may just have a good book for your area, such as Designing with Natives, which provides good recreation habitat gardening information for California native plants. Alrie Middlebrook is a passionate advocate of this approach, and her nursery groups plants by habitat to make plant selection easier. You should also use a good local flora - contact your local native plant society to get one, or find one on the web, also via your local native plant society. There are other resources on the web. Californians can use the Las Pilitas nursery Zipcodes of California page to see what grows natively in their zip code. And similarly there is the Calflora.org What Grows Here resource.
With a recreation you have a bit more latitude. Where I live there are three or four native habitats: chamise chaparral, mixed evergreen forest, redwood, and maybe a bit of grassland. Around your home, within the limits of sun and slope, you can also recreate different types of habitat from your locale, just like Town Mouse has done in her garden - a shady redwood habitat, riparian habitats recreated in water features, and so on.
You can bring aesthetics into play with plant groupings, pathways and garden features too - it doesn't have to be a jungle out there. And you can still have some exotics for exterior decor and personal comfort - it's not against the law. Just not invasive ones, of course. We all have favorite garden flowers.
But here's what the recreation landscape will give you that exterior decor plants won't: Real life. The butterflies, lizards, hummingbirds, chickadees, and sundry other native creatures that will come and live and sun themselves and (most importantly!) breed in your garden are not recreations. They are the real deal. Children will love visiting your garden - it will be an adventure! Send them on a critter safari with those little collecting kits - get on the web to learn more about their captives - then of course let the critters go.
Of course where you live, the critters will be your native critters, not mine. That's what will make it so interesting for me to visit your Midwest prairie garden, your Florida wet flatlands garden - Variety! Local color!
Go visit your state native plant society web site. Wherever you go you'll read the same philosophy we Mice promote in our blog. For example, read this page from the Montana Native Plant Society website. The principle is universal: the application is very local indeed.
Readers from regions settled by agricultural and urban societies for many hundreds or even thousands of years are less fortunate in this regard than those of us who live where non-agricultural societies were more recently ousted from their homes. That's a complicated situation to contemplate. But we can do worse than make the best of it, right? It may be more difficult to know what your native habitat was once like, but I bet it's not impossible to introduce some natives. Wildflowers bloom in hedgerows - they can bloom in your garden too.
And once your native plants take hold and live and die and reproduce in your garden, they'll become the real deal too, part of the habitat, and you'll have such an expanded pleasure in your garden, such a deep joy and satisfaction and endless fascination with nature's processes unfolding right there, you'll be so glad you rebuilt Saint Malo - right in your own back yard.