SHOREWOOD – Dr. Sheldon Nicol of Shorewood glanced out his window and there it was: the first hummingbird of the season.
Hummingbirds, songbirds, monarchs and other butterflies – these are just some of the perks to planting a 5,000-square-foot garden full of native plants, said Nicol, vice president of the newly established Wild Ones of Will County.
“To me, there’s something exciting about the fact that these are the Midwestern plants that have done so well here,” Nicol said. “It’s getting back to what was here before.”
Wild Ones, which, according to its website at www.wildones.org, is a nonprofit, environmental education and advocacy organization, whose members advocate the use of native plants and natural landscaping. It was established in 1979, the website also said, and now has more than 50 chapters in the United States.
The Will County chapter began in January, Nicol said, after 20 members from the DuPage chapter decided to form one close to home. This would give, Nicol added, other native gardeners the same opportunity to share information with new and experienced gardeners, listen to guest speakers and enjoy the camaraderie of others sharing their interests.
Nicol knew Will County residents would be interested. Two years ago, when Nicol’s garden was featured in Timmy’s Garden Walk, an annual fundraiser for Joliet Area Community Hospice’s pediatric program, quite a few people expressed an interest in native plants, he said.
“Driving around, I’ve seen a couple of subdivisions in Shorewood with native plants around the retention ponds," Nicol said. “Frankfort has a lot of native plants in their parks and, of course, there’s Midewin.”
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is where Nicol, an avid gardener for most of his life, started learning about native plants almost a decade ago. Its visitor’s center, Nicol said, is full of helpful information.
“So, I went down to Midewin and bought a couple of books,” Nicol said.
Nicol learned native plants had many advantages. They are drought and pest resistant, having adapted to the area in which they live. With careful planning of a dozen varieties, native gardens will have something blooming from April through October, Nicol said.
“For example, Prairie Smoke and Shootingstar are now blooming,” Nicol said. “Earlier in the spring, it was Virginia bluebells.”
During the first year, native plants do need a bit of babying – water, weeding and such – but only until they develop healthy root systems, Nicol said. No further watering is necessary, except, perhaps, in a drought, Nicol said.
“Once they get established, they pretty much take care of themselves,” Nicol said.
This last reason was especially attractive to Nicol, a retired Joliet-area internal medicine doctor, who wanted to continue enjoying the beauty of a large garden with less of the extensive maintenance it required. So, Nicol started with a small plot and began phasing out the regular garden.
“Right now, I’ve got 25 types of blooming plants and about five types of native grasses. I don’t even plant new plants but every year, I get more,” Nicol said. “I still have some traditional shrubs and perennials, and sometimes I’ll stick a few annuals here and there, some petunias and marigolds.”
Ann Ayer of New Lenox, Wild Ones of Will County president, came into native plants by inheritance: they accompanied the New Lenox home she bought in 2011, when Ayer moved from North Carolina, where she had worked as a county planner. Ayer said members asked her to serve the first chapter president.
"I'm retired from the [U.S.] Navy, six years active and 15 in the reserve," Ayer said. "I think they thought I could keep the ball rolling."
Ayer wants people to know that Wild Ones of Will County is not a club for native planting experts, but an organization for anyone interested in native plants, even those with no experience.
From other members, people will learn how to create a beautiful home landscape that doesn't resemble a "weed lawn," as well as the advantages of living life lawn-mower free, which is more than not having to cut the grass on Saturday morning, Ayer said.
"When you mow your lawn, you put as much emissions in the air as 11 new cars running for one hour," Ayer said.
Ayer said her native shade garden is rich in trillium, Jack-in-the-Pulpit and at least a dozen other varieties of native plants. Such plants, because of their evolution to an area, tend to thrive even during city watering restrictions, she added.
"And when we have 17 below zero weather for seven days straight," Ayer said, "they won't die."