My Garden Path and Why I Love Natives

Native Plants

Julie Siegel is a collaborator and contributor to City Grange. We have several Native plant based initiatives in the works and she's our go-to for them. Enjoy her story! - LaManda


Gardening wasn’t in my stars. As an urbanite raised in and schooled in Chicago, our yard was mostly concrete, punctuated by a few forlorn plants in eternal shade. The nearby park, far more engaged my body and soul. So did art, as it was the family business. I spent several decades as a writer and teacher. It was during writing retreats in Illinois and Virginia, when I first began to notice the positive effect nature had on me. In the late 1990s, I had my first practice space. I still garden in a shared and conscribed condo garden. There, I was lucky enough to benefit from the 40 years of experience provided by my neighbor. Raised in the Utah wilderness, she taught me to experiment fearlessly. I can still hear her voice cultivated in those western expanses, booming, “If you don’t like it, just move it.” So, it was with that mentorship, a lifelong immersion in the arts and one design class at a community college, that I began a landscape design firm. From the start, I was dedicated to sustainable landscape practices, including the incorporation of native plants and organic practices. My goals were to support myself while waking up excited about what I would learn and provide and going to bed knowing I had done my part environmentally and ethically.

Within a few years, I was designing, teaching and writing both locally and nationally. I quickly learned my basic environmental practices were a minority within the Chicago “Green” industry. I soon found my tribe and for many years was on board of an industry group dedicated to educating ourselves and peers to use more environmentally sound materials and methods and most importantly: mindsets. That organization educated me by keeping me updated on the latest green experiments and practices. My tribe expanded. For over the past dozen years, I have partnered with an international nonprofit working with marginalized people gardening in extremely bereft environments. I have learned elements of climate resilience, permaculture and self-care that I can apply in Chicago. These collaborations have been not just essential to running my sustainable landscaping business, but as well, immeasurably nurtured my spirit. In a period when the climate is changing faster than we anticipated, I believe that drives how we can garden with hope.

My sustainable focus led to four cardinal garden principles. These are: designing, planting and maintaining garden communities that include Natives; always learning something new; connecting with local and global environments and to neighbors; and maintaining a friend and colleague group with shared values. Taking an unknown path in what I hope will have been my mid-life, made me more open, comfortable with change and less shy about not knowing answers.

If you haven’t incorporated native plants into your garden, you might have some questions. What is a native plant? Why should I care about using Natives? How can working with Natives and using organic practices help achieve healthier benefits? How can I start using native plants in my garden or my community? Can I combine Natives with Ornamentals? What financial and time commitments do using Natives involve? Will my growing Natives make any difference to my local and global communities?

Working with Native plants and organic planting practices enhances my mindfulness and community bonds. It deepens my enjoyment of beauty and science that further connects me to cyclical rhythms. It keeps me grounded in reality, since “pretend” is not ultimately sustainable in anything, least of all, nature. This adds up to increased energy, flexibility, perspective and resilience as we move forward into a constantly changing future.

“Why Natives?” drives many of these questions. In short, incorporating Natives adds to the health, resilience and beauty of our internal and external ecosystems. While personally compelling, our gardens are all part of larger plant ecosystems. Whether that green space is our porch, backyard or block, part of the Great Lakes Region or the Mississippi Flyway, how we garden adds up on several scales. Using native plants and organic practices supports our environment. This approach requires less water, fewer chemicals, lower maintenance, greater recycling. Its goal of greater plant, human and planetary health serves our individual and planetary ecosystem.

Once established and past their toddler stage, most Natives need little attention. Planting more Natives also leads to more time freed up to enjoy our green spaces. We become better attuned to natural rhythms. This awareness fine tunes authenticity. Using more native plants increases the tools with which to participate more positively in broader communities for long-term, resilience.