Paradoxical Gardener

Photo by Olbrich Botanical Gardens

I have a confession. I’m a paradoxical gardener, full of contradictions. I don’t like the feeling of dirt under my fingernails, but I love to put my hands in the soil. I’ll also (sheepishly) admit that I get squeamish when I happen upon the creepy crawly bugs, grubs, and wiggly worms that live underground, but I’m fascinated with their habitat and ecosystem. I’m a gardener, but I’m a lazy one and don’t aspire to spend all my free time caring for plants.

Perhaps the largest and most egregious contradiction, at least for a gardener, is that I logically and wholeheartedly understand the positive reasons to have a yard full of plants—they turn our carbon dioxide into oxygen, support insects and wildlife, and contribute to making our planet a better place for all of us. But, and this is a big one, I don’t intend to turn every square inch of my yard into garden beds.

We have garden areas, both perennial/floral/ornamental and vegetable, and some are quite large. However, we also have a typical suburban lawn that, generally speaking, has very few positive impacts on the environment. However, the yard is where my daughter plays soccer with the neighbors. It’s where my dog stretches out on warm summer days to soak up the sunrays. It’s where we have campfires and make memories.

Photograph provided by Olbrich Botanical Gardens

So how do I mentally reconcile the desire to have a large garden that has many benefits for us and the planet with the reality that it’s very unlikely to happen in my current stage of life, and possibly never?

Here’s the secret: it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can make an impact no matter the amount of garden space you have (or lack). You don’t have to turn your entire lawn into a native garden—just start with one garden bed. Look at one area in that bed or just one square foot of space and think about what you can do in that area to make an impact.

In his book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, author James Clear writes that when humans desire to create or break a habit, we often go all in. We try to change too much too quickly, and usually don’t succeed. Instead, he suggests focusing on small improvements that, when applied for weeks, months, and years, have an accumulated benefit. In fact, he asserts that just a 1 percent improvement will have the biggest impact over time. So ask yourself, “How can my garden be 1 percent better today?” Here are some ideas to get you started.

Add a Native Plant
According to the National Wildlife Federation, a plant is considered native if it “has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction. They will thrive in the soils, moisture, and weather of your region.” To know if a plant is native to your area, use the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder site, When you’re ready to make a purchase, you’ll most likely find the largest selection of native plants at a local greenhouse or garden center (as opposed to a big-box store).

Photograph provided by Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Designate Your Garden as a Homegrown National Park™
Homegrown National Park is a term coined by author and entomologist Doug Tallamy. His goal is to create 20 million acres of native plantings across the United States—the equivalent of about half of the lawns on privately owned properties. While it seems like a lofty goal, remember that small improvements have accumulated benefits. If you add 1 percent more native plants to your yard, and so does your neighbor, and then everyone on your street, and so on, think of the amount of new plantings out there! Once you have your nifty new native plants in the ground, head over to to designate your garden a Homegrown National Park.

Leave Plant Material Standing in the Winter
This idea is one of my favorites because it gives you permission to relax. Come fall, all you have to do is nothing. Seriously, don’t cut your perennial plants down at the end of the growing season. Leaving plant material standing during the winter provides habitat for insects, like native bees who overwinter in the hollow stems of some plants, and food for wildlife, like birds who eat the seeds from coneflowers.

Photograph provided by Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Think Twice About Using Herbicides
Reaching for a bottle of weed or pest spray may be the easiest option, but is it the best? If insects are bugging your perennials and shrubs, consider using less drastic measures. For example, knocking pests, such as Japanese beetles, into a container of soapy water might be a better option all around. The same principle applies to lawn areas. When you look at your lawn, how much is actually weeds? Probably no more than 10 percent, so why spray every square inch of your turf with an herbicide? Consider not using herbicides at all and tolerating a few dandelions or patches of clover in your yard. If you do use chemicals, spot spray the areas that actually have weeds instead of treating the whole lawn.

Take One Hour to Educate Yourself
This is the most important thing anyone can do to be 1 percent better. Maybe you don’t have a garden space and aren’t able to do any of the previous ideas. That’s okay! Take some time to educate yourself about native plants, insects, and wildlife. I recommend starting out by watching a presentation by Doug Tallamy on YouTube. Just search his name or the title of his book, Nature’s Best Hope.

If you’re a paradoxical gardener like me and find yourself trying to balance your desire for a large, sustainable, eco-friendly garden space with the reality of life and limited time, rest assured there is a middle ground. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Start small. It might seem like one native plant won’t make a difference, but it does—small improvements have accumulated benefits. Look at that one area or one square foot of your garden and ask yourself, “What’s the best thing I can do to make the most impact with the time I have?” and grow from there.

Katy Nodolf is the public relations & marketing manager at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

To know if a plant is native to your area, use the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder site .

Photograph provided by Olbrich Botanical Gardens