I first heard Benjamin Vogt speak at a Council Bluffs Noon Rotary lunch last year. A friend had invited me because she thought I would be interested in the topic. Vogt’s passion for what he does quickly became apparent. He urged the audience to re-think their grass lawns and instead plant low-maintenance native plants. I remember leaving inspired and ready to start making some change in my own yard.
Flash forward to this spring, I got an email from him in my inbox, letting me know he discovered my blog after the interview with Nathan Duffy from Midwest Natives Nursery in Lincoln. I realized just how much content he as available online and asked him to do an interview here on The Blooming Farmhouse so let’s just jump right in.
Tell me about yourself and your background.
I grew up with a mother who was constantly outside in the landscape. I remember hot weekend afternoons cleaning up shrub and plant trimmings, and cool summer morning sprints to a string of local nurseries for something new.
But while being in the home landscape with my mother planted a seed in me, it was the overall urban / suburban wildness of my Minnesota youth that made a deep, lasting impression. Small woodlands filled with vocal wildlife, ponds and lakes dotting every bend in the road — and the distinct, evocative seasons rich in their personalities.
As I’ve grown older my earliest years living in Oklahoma have come to the surface, especially with research trips for a book project. The vast openness, the wind, the mixed-grass prairie, all have just as deeply colored my emotional and physical aesthetics as the woods of Minnesota. I’m honored to live in a diverse state like Nebraska, where prairies meet forest and mountain, and where millions of migrating birds and insects give new resonance to the definition of flyover country.
Read his (very impressive) full professional bio on his website.
How did you end up starting Monarch Gardens and what do you do?
I design native plant pollinator gardens, specializing in lawn conversions. Prairie-inspired design is what I like to say. We do smaller gardens of one thousand feet up to five and ten thousand feet. The business starting as a consultancy when my home garden was on a tour and folks kept asking if I did that kind of work. Once I lost my academic teaching job I went into design (and speaking events) full time.
Why should people re-think their grass lawns?
Lawns are the #1 irrigated crop in the U.S. but no one eats it. A conventional lawn requires many inputs from fresh water to fertilizer and gas, all that pollute in manufacture and transport. The monoculture lawn is also terrible for wildlife, sequesters no carbon, struggles to cool ambient air in the urban heat island, and is not good and absorbing flash flood rainfalls.
Why do most people contact you?
They’ve been thinking about a new kind of sustainable, low management garden that supports pollinators and the environment. They are ready for a change. Most are well read and highly motivated but need a guiding hand to get started.
What is the average size of pollinator-friendly garden you install?
2,500 square feet.
Do you do most of your garden installations in Nebraska?
Any thoughts on this year’s flooding in Iowa and Nebraska and the increased frequency?
It’s related to climate change. As the poles warm and ice melts the jet stream wobbles. Combined with more saturated air storms have more to work with. Frequent droughts, as well as intense rainfall, are indicators of climate change. Luckily, we can plan and adapt for such events in our home landscapes and beyond through plant selection, placement, and management for a resilient future.
Why should people plant native species?
Native plants support 4x the caterpillar biomass vs exotics; this means insects and bugs are using the plants to feed their young (caterpillars), and in turn, these caterpillars feed baby songbirds. Native plants evolved with native wildlife and the local climate — they are critical to our environment.
What types of plants do you incorporate into your gardens?
Forbs (flowers) both perennial and annual but mostly perennial, grasses, and sedges. I design with 100% native plants.
What are your 10 favorite native plants?
Hahaha. Today? Right this second? Forbs — Eryngium yuccifolium, Echinacea pallida, Liatris ligulistylis, Heuchera richardsonii, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, Pycnanthemum virginianum, Geranium maculatum. Woodies — bur oak, buttonbush, American elm.
How could someone DIY their own pollinator-friendly garden?
There are tons of resources from websites to books. You could begin with my online class: Starting Your Native Plant Garden
Have you seen a lot of issues with city ordinances regarding native prairie-inspired gardens in front yards?
Not with clients, but over the years I’ve twice been sited and twice passed muster, read the full story about what happened on my blog.
Do you have any advice on how to talk to your neighbors about native gardens and their benefits?
Design an attractive space, don’t just toss plants in without knowing how they spread or compete or grow. Clump in groups in odd numbers. Keep the edges neat. Put a simple sign out front that says what you’re doing and why.
If someone had a small yard or budget but wanted to do something… what are some ways they could help?
Every plant matters. One aster. One milkweed. One mountain mint. One oak.
Tell me about your book, A New Garden Ethic, and what inspired you to write it.
Anger and depression — two stages of grief that can lead to empowerment. I had many heated debates with folks on my blog and social media over several years about the ethical imperative for native plants in a time of mass extinction, and the topic is far more nuanced and complex then native plant good, exotic plant bad; there is a lot of culture and psychology and human emotional bias built in. I had to write this book — gardens are more than pretty spaces for one species.
In your book, you mention that you raise various caterpillars. Do you have any advice?
I stopped raising them years ago for several reasons, but primarily because I knew I could not keep diseases issues under control. A recent study that just came out also suggests raising larvae indoors may negate their ability to successfully migrate (talking monarchs here). I think if you raise one or two to learn about it and share with kids, great, but I don’t advocate raising dozens or hundreds which won’t help insects but may harm them in various ways.
What have you found is the best host plant for Swallowtails?
Most folks just use dill, I prefer the native Zizia aurea because it is also a boon to early season small bees seeking pollen, including a specialist bee species that times its life cycle around when Zizia blooms.
How can someone contact you, Monarch Gardens or buy your book?
My website, monarchgard.com has so much to offer, with over 200 free articles, blogs, online classes, a newsletter and books!
I went through his website extensively and here are are a few of my favorite resources: