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Outing Myself

My cheeks began to feel warm as the fellow gardener asked, “I see there’s a burning bush on the side of your plan. What are your feelings about it? It’s an invasive.”

The knot in my stomach hardened, dissolved, and became a humming resolve in my ears that made me realize I was going to have to own it. I was going to have to out myself in the same way I did when talking to Graham about Detroit’s convention center.

“Isn’t the ca-bo center where the auto show was?” I’d asked naively, thinking I was very much learning the ways of my adopted southeastern Michigan home.

“Dear, I don’t want you to out yourself. It’s the CO-BO. Long o’s.”


That same deflation started the moment the avid native gardener asked me about the established burning bush that is part of a rain garden I’m planning to install at a friend’s house in the spring. The plan was the culmination of the classes The Friends of the Rouge host to educate community members on ways to mitigate rain waters clobbering our storm sewers. The Friends have helped to make the Rouge River a living waterway after years of decline due to neglect and pollution. If planting a rain garden can help relieve an urban river, why not include one into every yard? The Friends of the Rouge are hoping to do just that. The best part of helping the larger community might be the benefit to solving a problem in your own yard. These rain gardens can divert water away from foundations, eliminate standing water on driveways, or prevent soggy spots from developing in the yard.

During the class, we learned why rain gardens are important, how to calculate the size of the garden, determine the soil type in our locations, and how to design a garden suited to our location and tastes. We did this over the course of five weeks and come spring, after our gardens are dug and growing, we can display an educational sign to educate our neighbors on rain gardening. We will be able to wear the turquoise t-shirt that proclaims we are Master Rain Gardeners. The classes cover the stalwarts of the rain garden, the Michigan native plants we can and should incorporate into these living water retention and filtration systems: Joe Pye weed, swamp milkweed, wild geranium, brown fox sedge, nodding onion, red osier dogwood.

There isn’t a burning bush listed. I know that. I am not a burning bush fan, though I admit the fall flush of crimson foliage out my back window has lessened my desire to take out the three bushes that might give me growing room for plants with far more interest. They also provide me a safe place to practice pruning; after all, these burning bushes are weeds and you can seriously thwack at them and they’ll live. They’ll take your imperfect cuts and flush out in the warm, spring thaw. Birds can dart in and out of the branches after eating seed. The chickadees, with plump round bellies and feet you can’t see, wait patiently for the cardinal to leave the feeder on the burning bush’s branches. You can cut shrubs into pleasing shapes with abandon because it’s damn near impossible to kill a burning bush. That survivability, the ability to grow large and hide the neighbor’s driveway, the autumnal display--and the spread of it’s seed through bird droppings--is why burning bush is so prominent in our neighborhoods.

For all of this, burning bush is in many ways a scourge of the landscape, blocking out native plants’ spread and offering little in the way of environmental stewardship. The Midwest Invasive Species Information Network lists those plants and organisms that “ [are] not native and whose introduction causes harm, or [are] likely to cause harm to Michigan’s economy, environment, or human health.” My fellow gardener was absolutely right to bring up the burning bush because it is listed as an invasive. Like many plants on the invasive species list, burning bush comes from eastern Asia and spreads unchecked through our landscape. The very attributes that make it desirable to homeowners who want an easy plant to create a lush landscape make it harmful to natural habitat.

“Well,” I started, “I admit that I am not a fan of burning bush, but this is established and in a client’s yard.”


“...and I work to mix natives and other non-natives in my designs.”

There you have it. I do not garden solely with the plants from my new home state. Instead, I try to find those non-natives who are like me: they will not hurt the environment but will help enhance and revive the diversity in our gardens even if they aren’t originally from our native landscape. I don’t believe that improving our lot means going completely native. Unpopular as it is, especially among this group of amazing gardeners and environmentalists, I recognize that not all gardens will be wild, native, and cultivar-free. I enjoy trying new perennials that are bred for beauty and strength, though I am careful to plant only those that will not invade our sensitive environment. These new plantings in our gardens should be welcomed by native plant friends to help create not only a rich palette for our eyes but for the diverse wildlife the garden can host. Combining established non-natives with beneficial natives and diversity enhancing practices (limiting chemical use and favoring organic gardening techniques) will lead to a healthier environment all around. Yes, the burning bushes should go but not at the expense of doing nothing more to enhance our environment.

I’m learning the proper pronunciations of Cobo Center (now TCF Center) or Gratiot Avenue so I can become one with my native Michigander neighbors. This will never erase my start as a Cheesehead, but will help me weave into the fabric of my new home state. Still, I’m going to own it when I mis-pronounce a common place or have to ask if a town is Down River or not. I cannot shy away from the love of incorporating different types of plants in my gardens. There is a need to be wary of plants that can do harm and to endeavor to remove them from our landscapes, though the need to be in the garden is far greater. I will focus on melding the safe cultivars and the natives to create a welcome home to a whole host of flora and fauna into my garden--even if I have to brave the hard questions from my esteemed garden colleagues.


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