Daily Herald opinion: Big projects help, but even a small garden can make a difference for the planet

This editorial represents the consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board

Environmentalists are praising the passage last week of a massive federal law encouraging a host of major projects as a game-changing step forward for America in the fight against climate change.

That may be. But massive government and corporate projects aren't the only ways to produce meaningful environmental benefits for our struggling planet.

You can make a difference yourself with just a few well-chosen plants native to our region.

Indeed, in a story by our climate reporter Jenny Whidden published Saturday, landscape architect Amanda Arnold points out that a garden that's both beautiful and beneficial can be easily maintained on a plot just 5 or 10 feet square.

"People think, 'Oh, well, I have to have a prairie.' But most people don't have a prairie in their front yard and still have turf grass. That's OK," said Arnold, owner of the business PlanIt LandScape Perspectives and a horticulture adjunct faculty member at the College of DuPage.

For climate benefits, experts emphasize the importance of native plants, which thrive better where they've naturally evolved and are familiar to local birds, butterflies and other wildlife important in making the suburban landscape a robust ecosystem. But that doesn't mean those of us with large, varied gardens full of non-native plants and trees have to rush out and replace them. We just have to find ways to incorporate more native vegetation into our landscaping.

The Naperville-based Conservation Foundation can help. The group offers programs throughout the Northwest suburbs and collar counties, and representatives even visit gardeners' homes to provide advice and insights on how to enhance the look and environmental value of their arrangements. Its Conservation @ Home effort specifically encourages home-based projects and recognizes gardens that contribute to broad climate goals and provide habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife.

That latter point deserves special note. For, native gardening isn't just about plants; it's also about establishing conditions that encourage the caterpillars, birds, bees and insects that are in steep decline in our world but fundamental to maintaining the circle of life on which we all depend.

"Every native plant introduced is better for the environment, for the birds or for other creatures," naturalist Stephanie Temple told Whidden. "For instance, we can't have baby birds without insects. There's this big food web, and everybody has to eat something."

So, sure, we need solar arrays and wind farms and the kinds of vast projects envisioned in the new climate bill. But the rich visual tapestry that is a hallmark of our suburbs is formed by thousands of small, individual contributions from residents who simply love sharing the beauty of nature. Isn't it nice to know that we can also enlist that appreciation for the good of the planet?

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