Rick Gray, also known as the ‘Native Plant Gardener,’ hopes to release a book next year on how to grow and care for native plants. Photo by The Ridgetown Independent News

With his 2023 summer garden tour season over, a Ridgetown man is already turning his attention to 2024.

Unless, of course, he squeezes in an early fall tour.

Rick Gray, aka The Native Plant Gardener, recently hosted the Leamington Horticultural Society in his beautiful Lisgar St. backyard garden that features all native and near-native plants.

“I’m building a mini wetland at the back to return it to a bog garden and need to dig a trench to the house,” Gray said.

“The lawn is going to be torn up, so I won’t be able to do any tours,” said Gray. “If I get this done by the end of the month, maybe I can do some in the fall if the lawn is back in shape.”

The former University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus teacher has hosted several tours this year, including the Ridgetown Horticultural Society and ReLeaf Chatham-Kent, as his backyard transformation to 100 percent native and near-native plants has attracted attention not only locally but across Canada and North America, thanks to his following on his website and Facebook page.

“It became a passion, then an obsession, and now it’s a full-blown addiction,” he said, with a laugh, about his devotion to his native gardening.

The retired teacher purchased his Lisgar St. home in 2004 when he came to town as a GIS tech instructor for the Ridgetown Campus’ new environmental program. He was looking for a home and took one look at the expansive backyard behind the Lisgar St. bungalow, and he was sold. Looking at his stunning garden today, you would never know that his half-acre backyard was just grass with three maple trees when he moved in. He built flower beds and filled them with familiar plants, such as hostas, roses, petunias and other nice-looking staples.

“I’ve been gardening since I was a kid. I lived on a farm and always helped with the vegetable garden,” stated Gray. “Until I was 30, I thought if it wasn’t edible, it wasn’t worth growing.”

Gray said he knew little about native plants until he moved here.

“It wasn’t until I bought a packet of wildflower seeds and things that came up, like California poppies, and I thought, ‘these aren’t from around here,’ “Gray said.

“That’s when I started doing my homework and found out which plants are actually native here. The rule of thumb, if it was here before the Europeans arrived, we consider it native.”

Gray said many wildflowers found in ditches and fields are actually “garden escapes” brought to North America as a food or medical source by settlers from their gardens in Europe.

“Some are fairly benign, they really don’t cause a lot of problems, but others become invasive species, aggressive plants that don’t let our native plants take hold,” he said.

Gray said he also has near-native plants, which are technically not found in Chatham-Kent but may have been found in other parts of southern Ontario, Michigan and Ohio.

“At last count, I have about 330 species, all either native or near-native,” he said. “I’ve removed all the non-native species from back here.”

Gray also built a rock wall and waterfall from 40 tons of limestone he had shipped in from Manitoulin Island limestone.

In 2016, Gray moved to Brandon, Man. to become Academic Chair for the School of Horticulture, Environment and Agriculture at Assiniboine Community College, where he spent two-and-a-half years. Family circumstances brought him back to Ontario as he became Academic Chair for the School of Natural Resources at Fleming College in Peterborough.

Gray retired in 2018 and decided to move back to his Lisgar St. home, which he rented during his four-plus years away. He came home to find his prized backyard in shambles.

“It was completely overgrown, so I essentially ripped everything out and started over again,” he said. “A lot of what you see has been done since 2018.”

He has specific gardens for plants based on their soil preference, moisture needs and whether they require sunlight or shade.

“The heat doesn’t seem to matter with native plants. They’ve evolved through all kinds of conditions, unlike vegetables that are a lot fussier about how much heat they get,” explained Gray.

With the number of gardens and the vast amount of plants, you would think there would be hoses and sprinklers all over Gray’s backyard. But that’s not the case.

“I water the plants across the back, which need more water, but the only time I water the rest is if I see them starting to wilt and it’s a drought,” he said. “They are tough; being natives, I match them to their soil conditions.”

Gray said the drought in May and June had a major impact.

“We barely had an inch of rain in May and less than an inch in June, so the plants suffered,” he said. “A lot that should be chest high now are barely waist high because they didn’t get the moisture they needed at the beginning.”

One of his plants that thrived this year was a Canada Lily, a near-native species with 102 flowers on eight stems. The same plant had 27 flowers on two stems last year.

“That’s unusual,” Gray said of the major change. “I found a source that said they can get up to eight feet tall. This one hit seven feet, 11 inches – so it likes it here.”

Gray said native plants are essential to the environment, namely to the bird, butterfly and moth populations – and a quick glance to see the many varieties of species attest they are thriving in his backyard.

“Native plants are what our birds ultimately rely on, and they are essential for all of our bugs, caterpillars in particular, so our butterflies and moths feed on them.”

Bees and other pollinators also rely on native plants.

“We’re losing bird species, we’re losing butterflies, we’re losing our pollinators,” Gray said. “And that’s because a lot of non-native plants don’t provide the same nutrients. They’ve evolved with our native species.”

“One of the bugaboos is we still have nurseries selling plants that are known to be invasive. There is actually a movement afoot to try to eliminate,” Gray commented.

Gray’s expertise has led him to create a website and Facebook page titled ‘The Native Plant Gardener,’ where he posts a ‘Plant of the Month’ feature as well as other native plant-related articles and features from other sources, photos, book reviews and even a monthly crossword puzzle.

Gray is bringing his expertise to a new medium with a book planned to be released early next year.He said the book would be a manual on how to grow and care for native plants, featuring colour codes across the top of the page with the light requirements and along the bottom with soil moisture needs.

“What makes this book different from any other on the market right now, because of my GIS background, it is going to have a range map, so you’ll know if every plant is actually native to where you live,” he said. “I’m very active on Facebook. People are always asking, ‘Is this native or not?’

“This book will answer those questions,” ended Gray.

By Michael Bennett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 04, 2023 at 10:35

This item reprinted with permission from   The Independent News   Ridgetown, Ontario
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