The Politics of Planting Natives: How One Village Went Wild -Part 1

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The Politics of Planting Natives: How One Village Went Wild
Part 1 of 2 

by Darcy Dye, Wild Ones Member
Photos by David Dye

The Village of Spring Lake is a Charter Village in Ottawa County. It takes up less than 1.915 square miles on the map, is home to about 2,500 residents, and has the luxury of the Grand River on its southern boundary and Spring Lake on its northern edge.  It is a drive-through town en route to Lake Michigan, maybe a place you stop for gas before heading to the beach.

Spring Lake is a feisty community. Some families trace back to the original founders of the place. Municipal governance is multi-layered, fiscally conservative, and committed to getting things done with the least amount of paid staff as possible. There is a tendency to resist change. So it was no surprise that, when Sylvia Ruscett, a retired  school principal, and I approached Village authorities, proposing to replant the Village’s 81pocket garden spaces with Michigan Natives, we were told, “No!” The next thing we knew, we had been appointed to a Beautification  Committee, the expectation being that we would recruit volunteers and help weed Village “gardens,” gardens meaning, at least to Sylvia and me, straggly spaces planted with monotype species that never should have been planted in sandy soil!

We lasted on that committee for two meetings and then quit. We didn’t, however, quit on the idea of replanting gardens with Michigan Natives. It took more than a year and a half of navigating Boards, Council and staff, but the Village finally approved our plan for the Adopt a Garden Program.

Our first four gardens came into their own last summer after three years of settling in. We now have 23 garden spaces planted with Michigan Natives and three more scheduled to go in this summer. There are about 70 volunteers on board with a couple of Girl Scout troops helping to plant as they earn garden merit awards. This year, the Village will rewrite its landscape ordinance to reflect a preference for Michigan Native Plants, and staff have requested blog entries on planting Michigan Natives to use on the Downtown Development Authority website so that people can know what and how to plant in their residential gardens. Happily, “Michigan Natives” is a buzz phrase where Sylvia and I live!

Here are a few things we learned along the way:

1.  Know Your Local Government

In the Village of Spring Lake, planting flowers is a political act.  Getting permission to plant Michigan Natives requires that the Village Manager, Village Council, the Planning Commission, and the Department of Public Works all sign off on any landscaping plan. After quitting the Beautification Committee, Sylvia and I simply attended municipal meetings. We took notes. We got to know municipal authorities. We learned about the politics of our Village and practiced public speaking during the three-minute public comment time at Council and Planning Commission meetings. Very little of this had anything to do directly with planting Michigan Natives, but it earned Sylvia and me credibility and gave us opportunities to educate our community.

2.  Keep Your Eye Out for Potential

During our time of learning Village politics, Sylvia suggested that we have a booth at the Grand Haven Community Earth Day Celebration. We created bookmarks listing the benefits of planting Michigan Natives on the back. We reprinted Doug Tallamy’s article on the reasons for going Native. We got information from Monarch Watch, laminated the Wild Ones root poster, and got the Ottawa Conservation District and the MSU Extension office to give us any literature they had on gardening with Natives. We packaged the seeds I had collected from my residential garden to give away and stapled the packets to planting instructions. We bought sample Native plants from a local grower, printed a blueprint-sized map of the Village, locating gardens we wanted to plant with Michigan Natives, and ergo! We had our booth.

As fate often works, one of the Village Councilors and his wife happened by the booth. They were surprised by “the quality of information” we had on display and chatted at length about the benefits of planting Michigan Natives. At the next Council work session, that same Councilor told the rest of the Council about seeing the booth. It was our opening.

3. Start Small, Use Visuals, Come Up With Concrete Plans

When we started, the 81 “gardens” in Spring Lake were not a source of joy and delight. Planted in dune soil, the daylilies, catmint, peach-colored yarrow, yellow loosestrife, English Ivy, and some Asian mints grew, but barely. There were too many gardens for the Department of Public Works’ staff to weed. The prisoners the Village occasionally hired for weeding didn’t know about gardens. Everyone knew that things didn’t look good, but cost was an issue, and municipal authorities had a hard time seeing past the dollar signs. What was needed was a vision, something colorful and concrete. Sylvia and I knew intuitively that you have to start small.

When we finally went to talk to the Village Manager, we came with a proposal folder. Original art was on the cover. Inside were tabs, dividing the proposal into manageable sections. We had a Village plat map on which the head of DPW had marked every garden space in the Village. We flagged the street corners where we hoped to plant the first Native Gardens with bright, flower images. Another tab section included carefully chosen literature on the benefits of planting  Natives. We had a detail of the growing cycles of Native plants and photographs with descriptions of the plants we proposed to use. There was an action plan for recruiting and training volunteers. We had landscape layouts done in full color so that staff could see exactly what we proposed. Last but not least, we had raised money from our circle of environmental friends so that the initial cost would not be an issue. (With plugs costing about $1.80 apiece, $300 goes a long way!) We got the Village Manager’s attention.

With Village staffs blessing, our folder was duplicated for the Council work session packet and we were given ten minutes at the next Council work session to sell our plans. It wasn’t much time, and mostly the concern was how we would fund things. We had a foot in the door, however, and when Council suggested that we run our idea by the Planning Commission, we did what was necessary to get on the agenda.

What we learned along the way is patience. Government moves slowly. Agendas for meetings are set long in advance. Any materials you plan to use need to be duplicated for packets that the various boards and commissions receive prior to the meeting. Citizens are mostly limited to three minutes of comment at a public meeting. So you have to be concise, clear, and focused. No one arm of municipal government will sign off on a project until it has gone through a labyrinth of people. With persistence, you eventually get everyone’s blessing.

4.  Figure Out Your Resources and Make Use of Them

The Adopt a Garden Program throve that first year, in large part, thanks to Sylvia’s network of friends and contacts. She had no qualms about getting people to sign up to help plant. By the time summer rolled around, we had 20 volunteers.

Sylvia also knew the lead columnist at the Grand Haven Tribune, who graciously wrote a lovely article about the Adopt a Garden Program, giving contact information for anyone wanting to become a volunteer. Another 14 people signed up!

With that many volunteers, Sylvia and I had to learn how to be flexible. We reworked what we were doing and how we would do it. With some more navigation of the political labyrinth, we got the Department of Public Works to let us plant the planters along Savidge St.—43 in total. The petunias, ornamental grasses, Cana lilies, sweet potato vine, and begonias were not Michigan Natives, but the planters put Adopt a Garden volunteers on view. When you drove through the Village you could tell that the planters had been filled with love. Municipal authorities, community residents, and folk from neighboring communities noticed. The president of a Grand Haven gardening group came to us, saying, “If you ever decide to [plant Native Gardens] in Grand Haven, we would love to help!”

5. Train Volunteers and Then Walk Along Side

From the onset of the Adopt a Garden Program, Sylvia and I knew that our end goal was getting Village residents informed and fired up about Natives so that they would ultimately start planting them in their own residential gardens. So we embarked on a quiet path of providing people with information, teaching the life cycle of various Native Plants, doing planting demonstrations, and gathering volunteers at the beginning of the season for food, community, and appreciation as we laid out the plans for new and existing gardens. We wanted each volunteer to know how important she was to the team. So after the initial meeting, we wrote notes, sent emails, went out to coffee, and showed up around the Village when volunteers were working in a garden. We would pitch in and help, but we gave people autonomy to make the garden space their own. By the end of that first summer, volunteers were talking about “my garden,” and almost everyone signed on to take care of “my garden” for a second year.

Not every Native garden space looked as good as Sylvia and I might have hoped, but we had planted over 500 Michigan Native plugs in those four original pocket gardens on the corner of Jackson and Exchange. Of those 500 plugs, we lost 3 to Village dogs who couldn’t refrain from lifting their leg each time their owner walked them past. We knew who the culprits were and privately threatened to photograph them with our cell phones and put them on FaceBook. In the end, one of the Village staff made artful signs indicating that our gardens were Native Gardens and “NO DOGS PLEASE!” By the second summer, those four initial gardens had filled in and looked beautiful. The Village gave the Adopt a Garden Program a “You Make a Difference Award” with a certificate honoring each and every volunteer.

Part 2 coming in June:

  • Create a Working Plan
  • The Bare Bone Essentials for Making Things Work
  • Make the Effort to Communicate
  • Keep a Sense of Humor
  • Educate, Educate, Educate

Read Part 2