Part of a series of occasional articles about what climate change means for Evanston and what we are doing locally to make a difference.

Where can you find a wild and beautiful natural garden? Visit the Morton Civic Center Habitat Garden at Ridge Avenue and Leonard Place, tended by steward Doug Macdonald since 2018. The garden has about 60 species of wildflowers and shrubs plus a few trees. Tags or signs on rocks offer details on many of the species and sometimes on the insects they support. 

Doug Macdonald is a volunteer steward at the Morton Civic Center Habitat Garden. Credit: Peter Laundy

“We really want it to be a demonstration garden of things you can try at home,” Macdonald said. Visitors “might be able to try plants they have never seen before,” like the passionflower vine that winds up a trellis and will produce an exotic purple bloom in late summer. The trellis is fashioned from dead buckthorn from Ladd Arboretum.

Native gardens like this are more sustainable than the alternatives, such as turfgrass, meaning they need less added water, chemicals, mowers and blowers. They help us meet our climate action and resilience goals.

The benefits of native plants

Native plants, adapted to our area, tend to have deeper roots and, once established, absorb more stormwater, meaning they survive dry periods and help reduce flooding. They are native to our soils, so synthetic fertilizer is not needed, or even helpful. Weeding is necessary, but lawn equipment is not.

Natural green spaces help sequester carbon, contribute to healthier ecosystems, improve air and water quality, and make our entire community more resilient to the changing climate.

Macdonald is one of about a dozen volunteer stewards who tend to and oversee natural areas in Evanston. Some of our natural areas are forested and have to fight tough infestations of invasive plants, like buckthorn. Morton Civic Center Habitat Garden is closer to what we find in our own yards: The invasives tend to be recognizable, like chickweed. Macdonald says he and the six volunteers who help have gotten the weeds under control; he scouts the area regularly for non-native invaders, eradicating garlic mustard and creeping Charlie.

Plants are ‘teaching us’

Why focus so much on native plants? Native insects need them, and the more native insects, the more birds and other wildlife. Native insects and native plants evolved together, so insects often rely on particular families of plants, and some plants need certain insects. Many people know that the monarch butterfly cannot exist without milkweed, and the same is true for other plant-eating insects, including ants, beetles, bees, moths, wasps and leafhoppers.

“Gardening isn’t just caring for plants,” says Macdonald. “It’s learning about the complex interrelationships. The plants are teaching us.”

Macdonald brings expertise to the garden that he gladly shares. With degrees from Yale (in literature) and the DuPage College of Horticulture, his love of plants began in 1984. After working at commercial greenhouses, he joined the Chicago Botanic Garden for six years as assistant curator to the perennial gardens and later as curator to the research gardens. To avoid using fossil fuels by driving, he would bicycle from Evanston to a Glencoe café for breakfast before daybreak, on to the Botanic Garden for work, and then back home after work. 

A knee injury brought a transition from curator to designer: For 10 years he taught garden design at Chicago Botanic Garden and created his own landscape company, Circle of Design, serving North Shore clients. He helped found the Talking Farm in Skokie, was chairman of the Evanston Garden Walk and is a board member of the Jens Jensen Gardens. Macdonald ran the Chicago Poetry Festival and is also an artist and a poet, with poems due to be published this year.

Macdonald’s emails to his volunteer crew are simply joyful with all small discoveries, such as black swallowtail butterflies visiting their larval host plants, a yellow garden spider decorating its web and an American hornbeam aglow with fall foliage. This from last fall, is typical: “Right now our blue asters are filling the garden with a final gorgeous bloomfest – providing important nectar for the bees, wasps and other pollinators preparing for the winter. The honeybees will form a tight ball inside the hive, with the inner bees vibrating their wings and the outer forming insulation. Butterfly eggs will be protected in the hollow stems of perennials. All non-migrators have their means of subsistence.”

He notes the recent resurgence of native plantings is fitting as “we are the Prairie State.”

Leslie Shad is the lead at Natural Habitat Evanston.

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  1. A hidden gem..from me I will be certain to visit soon rather than later… and later too!

    Words escape me when it comes to Mr. Macdonald!