By Michael Bennett
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Ridgetown Independent
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 Street 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-per-cent 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 Street 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 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.”
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.