Michelle Biodrowski had a booth at the Seed Exchange and Gardener Social event in Council Bluffs this spring and gave a presentation on Native Plants for a Backyard Habitat at the West Pott. Master Gardeners Spring Garden Conference. Since we keep running into each other now and her presentation was so great, I asked Michelle if she would be willing to do an interview here on the blog about her passion for native plantings and pollinators, along with her role at the Iowa Prarie Network (IPN) and Pottawattamie County Conservation. Let’s jump right in.
Tell us a little about your story and your love for the outdoors.
I started my life outdoors just playing in my backyard not really getting out to any nature parks or wildlife areas for a very long time. Throughout my childhood, I loved animals and wanted to work with them as an adult and help to protect them. Then I went to college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and majored in biology. I had plans to become a zoologist, but the more and more I learned about what animals need to survive the more I realized that plant communities are often the limiting factor on how many animals can survive in a certain area… their habitats, their food, their shelter… all start with plants. So I ended up shifting my studies there. I focused on prairie plants, went on all kinds of field trips and even had an internship out at Glacier Creek Prairie. During the internship, I really started to connect with the outdoors and my drive to learn more about all the aspects of nature really kicked in.
Have you always lived in Iowa?
I was born and raised in Omaha and but now live in Council Bluffs, and realized there is just a river in between Council Bluffs and Omaha, and there are even bridges to help you cross it! I really love Iowa and through the Iowa Prairie Network and my various internships and jobs I have really gotten to see quite a lot of it and it is wonderful.
What inspired you to become a naturalist?
My constant desire to learn about nature, my knack at teaching and love to share interesting facts about the wilderness inspired me to become a naturalist. For example, did you know bees I have four wings, five eyes and can carry up to 75% of their own body weight while flying, while flying! I also really enjoy working with young people and helping them to see that nature is really cool. I love that moment when I’m working with adults where they have that “aha” moment, or the “oh! that’s how that works.”
How do you plan out your native planting beds, do you create a plan or wing it?
When I first started incorporating native plants into my backyard I went crazy. I started killing as much grass as my husband would let me and then I just sowed a ton of different native seeds. So half of my yard is really quite a jungle or a meadow-style prairie planting. As I learned more and more about native plants and gardening, I started to experiment with different ways to plant them. There are a lot of areas in my yard that are quite traditional looking, kind of like an English garden, except they are made with native plants instead of ornamental plants
I’ve heard you speak about your hatred for perfectly manicured lawns, what are some good alternatives?
There are quite a few alternatives to a traditional, cool-season, non-native, sod-forming grass which is what most of our lawns are. Just a few examples include sedges which only get a few inches tall, plantings of native bunch grasses, masses of native flowers, the meadow style of prairie planting. You can actually landscape the heck out of your garden WHILE using native plant species. I’ve seen very stylized landscaped gardens that are productive and useful for all types of wildlife.
Why are native plantings important?
I think that native plantings are important because native plants have co-evolved with our native insects for thousands of years. Many of the non-native ornamental plants we bring in from other parts of the world have different chemical compositions in their leaves and make it impossible for many of our native insects to be able to eat them.
Plants and insects are the main food sources for most of our birds and begin the food chain for all the rest of our wildlife. Not to mention a lot of our native butterflies have caterpillars with host plant requirements where they must eat a specific type of plant or they will not survive. Also, a lot of times the cultivars of plants that have been bred to have big beautiful flowers that bloom all year can stop producing nectar so they are no longer providing a food resource to our pollinators. Long story short, when you plant using our native or regionally native plants you are providing the foundational food supply for many species.
What is your favorite plant to divide and share with friends?
Coneflowers, goldenrods, cup plant, tons of different kinds of asters and bergamot. Those plants are easy to share because they tend to form colonies, so you always have extra to give away!
If you could have everyone have at least ONE native species in their yard, what would it be?
This is a very hard question because there are so many wonderful beautiful and very important native plants for all different types of species out there. A really important aspect of having a healthy garden in your backyard is variety or diversity of species this way if any insects come by or diseases strike your garden there are many other species of plants that are still blooming and producing and can take over any loss of any specific plant species.
Instead, let me answer your question this way, try to have at least one native flower species that blooms each part of the year, one in spring, one in summer and one in fall. This way there are always resources available for all the different insects and birds that visit your garden. Some quick suggestions for spring would be violets, golden Alexander, or a redbud tree. For summer, wild bergamot also known as bee balm, coneflowers or spiderwort. For fall, New England aster, obedient plant or wingstem.
Do you keep a garden journal?
I used to try to keep track of all of the different species I have in my backyard but over the years I have added so many different native plants and I am not sure exactly what’s back there and it is hard to keep up with it. However, I really enjoy seeing the changes through the years and all of the new different species that pop up. If I was more organized I would love to keep a garden journal as I think that is a great idea.
How can someone sign up for the Plant. Grow. Fly. registry and why should they?
You can register your garden by going to this website. I think this is a fun and helpful way for everyone to find out that even small gardens can make a difference for our Wild Life. It helps you to visualize with their mapping system that there are many people all over Iowa who care and who are doing their part to help.
How can someone get in touch with you?
Myself and a local group of native plant nerds have just started a coalition to help provide guidance and support to people working to add natives to the landscape, whether it is on an acreage, business campus or in your backyard (my favorite!). We set up an email address for people to send questions here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Big thank you to Michelle for agreeing to do this interview and for sharing her story with us. Do you have a favorite native plant for our pollinators? List it in the comments below!