Jay’s Native Garden 

My name is Jay Dynes, and this is the story of my native-plant garden adventure.

I was awakened in the early summer of 2021 to the plight of insects, specifically, their decline in numbers and the role humans have played in their demise. One of the main reasons identified for this “insect apocalypse” was the loss of habitat, specifically the loss of native plants. Native insects do not utilize non-native plants very efficiently or in many cases not at all. Thus, to reverse the insect apocalypse, in August of that summer I began to convert my front yard from lawn to native plants.  I particularly wanted to attract monarch butterflies and bumblebees, as I have a special place for them in my heart.

I started my native plant garden on the north part of my front yard, manually removing the sod using a shovel and wheelbarrow, one foot at a time. I also removed lower branches of two large coniferous trees to make room for my new plants. To facilitate movement and to show that the front yard is in fact a garden, I laid down a stone pathway.

In early November, I spread the seeds of more than twenty species of native plants on the soil surface and then walked over the area to get good seed-soil contact. Because my ability to identify native-plant seedlings was non-existent, I marked the fours corners of each native plant patch with used wine corks, hoping that when I saw many plants that looked the same in the marked area, it would be a sign that my efforts had been successful.

Gallery of Garden Progress Beginning in 2021

Manual Removal of Sod

After Branches Removed & Stone Pathway Laid

Garden in 2022

Garden in 2023

By early June 2022, my north yard had started to turn green. (You can catch a glimpse of it here.) But apart from wild blue flax, I could not identify any of the native plants I had seeded among the weeds. All the same, I continued by removing sod from my south front yard. I also planted some purchased native-plant plugs (bedding plants) that summer–including dwarf milkweed, perennial common tall and stiff sunflowers, prairie smoke and ascending milkvetch–and grabbed some small-leaved pussytoes and prairie sage plants from neighbourhood back alleys.

By mid-summer of 2022, after pulling a lot of weeds, I could start to identify some native species that I had seeded, including showy, common and whorled milkweed, which are host plants for monarch butterfly caterpillars. The milkweeds were about six inches tall by the end of the growing season. Wild blue flax and perennial sunflowers flowered in 2022 and were visited by many insects, including at least three bumblebee species. Life was just ablaze in my native-plant garden.

That fall, rather than sowing directly into the ground as I had done before, I decided to start native plants by seeding into trays in the fall, hoping this strategy would cut down on weeding and give me more control. I left the trays outside over the winter to break seed dormancy

This strategy turned out to be a partial success, with about 25% to 50% of the seeds germinating in the spring. Not bad, I thought. However, I made a few mistakes. My penmanship was poor and the permanent marker on the popsicle sticks smeared over the winter, so identification of the seedlings was difficult or impossible in most instances. Another problem arose because, over the winter, I kept shovelling snow onto the trays, unaware that the snow contained lots of weed seeds. Nevertheless, if I suspected the plant was native, I put it in my garden in 2023, so I am sure I will have some surprizes in the 2024 growing season. I also planted a number of purchased plugs, including wild mint, purple coneflower, prairie crocus, helenium, Canada wild rye, and nodding brome. 

Gallery of Native Plants

June Grass & Prairie Coneflower

Gaillardia & Showy Milkweed

Small-leaved pussytoes

Fleabane, Prairie Coneflower, & Smooth Aster

The garden continued to fill in over the summer 2023, and the number and species of insects was noticeably increased, including the number of bumblebee visits to the garden.  I was quite surprized by the number of native plant species, seeded in the fall of 2021, that flowered profusely for the first time almost two years later, i.e., in summer 2023. These “late bloomers” included stiff goldenrod, Lindley’s aster, smooth aster, hairy golden aster, common yarrow, many-flowered yarrow, yellow coneflower, bergamot, giant hyssop, and gaillardia.

By the end of the summer, my milkweed species were a foot to a foot-and-a-half tall, and except for the whorled milkweed, each plant had now sent up more plants. No Monarch butterflies were observed in my 2023 garden, perhaps because the milkweed plants were still too small to support their caterpillars.  

That fall, I harvested seeds from the black-eyed Susan, small-leaved pussytoes, stiff goldenrod, Lindley’s, smooth and hairy golden asters, common and many-flowered yarrows, yellow coneflower, bergamot, giant hyssop, ascending milkvetch and gaillardia. Harvesting occurred over several weeks, even for the same species, as the seeds matured at different times. The seeds were air-dried and cleaned. When fall rolled around, I was able to sow many of those seeds into vacant spots in my south garden.

In addition, to better fill in any weedy/bare areas, I seeded about 20 native plant species in milk jugs in the fall/winter of 2023, hoping to avoid some of the mistakes made with the trays, including labelling the popsicle sticks using a label machine to identify the plant species. I am anxiously waiting for spring!

Native plants that have been sown in milk jugs. Follow our how-to video here.

As a citizen scientist, I have submitted photographs of some of the life found on my yard to the free iNaturalist app, to record my observations and for species identification by experts. This information is providing valuable data to many groups and organizations, including scientists, government, land managers and the public. By the way, iNaturalist played a significant role in identifying the two spotted bumblebee in Western Canada,  a species that, before 2013, was only known to occur in Eastern Canada.

iNaturalist has also developed a free app for your cellphone and/or computer called Seek which can identify plants, insects, animals and fungi, usually to the genus and, quite often, to the species level. Note that some of the species IDs in my report may be incorrect as not all were submitted to iNaturalist for verification by experts.

I am hoping to spend even more time in my native plant garden in 2024, observing, photographing and recording the life returning to my yard. I am still amazed by the amount of life that has returned just by replacing sod with some native plants. I anticipate that the biodiversity and quantity of life that returns to my gardens will continue to increase with each growing season.  I can hardly wait to raise my first monarch butterfly.

I hope my story inspires you to start your own native plant garden and begin your adventure.

– Jay Dynes

Gallery of Native Insects

Skimmer Dragonfly

Ant

Elm Spanworm Moth

Spotted Tussock Moth

Bee Fly

Fly

The Unexpected Butterfly Garden

By Ingrid Thiessen of Regina SK.

Read about Ingrid’s experiences of growing native plants and the butterflies that they attracted.

White Admiral Butterfly. Photo by Jay Dynes

Bee Homes Gallery

Bumblebee Nesting Box

Inside the Bumblebee Nesting Box Showing the Upholstery Material

Comb After the Upholstery Was Opened

Stem Nesting Structure Used by Mason and Leafcutter Bees

Two-spotted Bumblebee

Home for Bees

Native plants provide bees with food, but bees also need a home. To this end, I built two bumblebee nests from some old 2×6 spruce in the fall of 2021. The nests were put out in April of 2022 and 2023. In 2022 one nest was occupied by Hunt’s bumble bee, and in 2023 both nests were occupied by the two-spotted bumblebee. Also, for stem-nesting bees such as mason and leaf cutter bees, holes 15 cm (6 inches) deep and 3 to 5 mm (1/4 to 3/8th in) in diameter were drilled into some old 2×6 spruce wood and the resulting structure was hung on the south side of my garage. Some holes were used by bees in both 2022 and 2023, as evident by clay-sealed holes. I never did see the bees themselves but then again, I did not spend much time watching for them. 

Gallery of Mushrooms

Trainwrecker

Agaricineae

Hare’s Foot Inkcap

Pezizales

Field

Start a Native Plant Garden

Start your own native plant garden by following our simple guide!

Perennial stiff sunflowers on the narrow soil strip on the driveway. Photo by Jay Dynes.

For Further Reading:

Goulson, D. Silent earth, Averting the insect apocalypse. New York, NY, USA, HarperCollins Pub., 2021, pp. 328.

Sheffield, C., Palmier, K.M. Range expansion of Bombus (Pyrobombus) bimaculatus Cresson in Canada (Hymenoptera, Apidae). Biodiversity Data Journal 11, e104657.

Tallamy, D.W. Nature’s best hope: A new approach to conservation that starts in your yard. Portland, OR, USA, Timber Press, 2019. pp. 254.

Lee-Mäder, E. et al. 100 plants to feed the monarch: create a healthy habitat to sustain North America’s most beloved butterfly. The Xerces Society. North Adams, MA, USA, Storey Pub., 2021. pp. 288.