Neil Diboll Presents on Savanna Plants for Pollinator Gardens

On Nov. 16, at 7 pm, Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula will bring Neil Diboll to Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay. Neil Diboll…in Door County!

Diboll is known internationally as a consulting ecologist and a pioneer in using native plants in contemporary landscapes. He has nearly 40 years of experience in research and the establishment of native plant communities. His landscape designs emphasize sustainability, aesthetics and ecological compatibility with the land.

But I was puzzled when I heard his lecture title, “Prairie and Savanna Plants for Pollinator Gardens.” Historically, the Door Peninsula did not have savannas or prairies. It was forested from shore to shore. Deep, dark forests. Sun-loving wildflowers grew only along the shorelines, in wetlands or in scattered openings (some of which may have been created by native people).

Wild Ones is a national organization dedicated to “planting natives and helping heal the environment one yard at a time.” So on learning the title, I immediately emailed Dale and Mary Goodner, co-presidents of the local Wild Ones chapter. Savannas? Really?

Dale replied, “Neil’s use of the term savanna doesn’t bother me. From the for-what-it’s-worth department, our hominin ancestry dates back a few million years to a savanna context associated with Europe (according to newly found fossils). It would appear that savanna is ingrained to such a degree that we create it everywhere we go. Just look at typical yards, city parks and golf courses. The point being:  it this is the habitat type in which many home owners will be planting.”

Dale is so right. Door County has become a savanna:  “a mixed woodland/grassland ecosystem characterized by the trees being sufficiently widely spaced so that the canopy does not close.” With the exception of our parks and preserves, wetlands and rocky outcrops, Door County is a grassland with a generous scattering of trees. The shade-loving wildflowers which grew here before European settlement probably could not survive in most yards or gardens.

By clearing the forest, developing agriculture, and slicing the peninsula into home sites, we have altered our ecosystem. Where once there was intense shade, we now have partial to full sun. By clearing the trees, we have increased the wind and decreased the humidity. Without forest leaf litter, the soil chemistry has changed, and the introduction of earthworms has altered the very structure of the soil.

When I was in school, I was taught that native plants were preferred because they had adapted to the climate and conditions. But those conditions have changed over the past 200 years.

A more compelling reason to plant North American plant natives is they provide food for pollinators. Though we lack documentation, it’s likely that many of our pollinators did not live on the peninsula before European settlement. But we absolutely depend on pollinators now.

If we want encourage the pollinators – and we should – we ought to plant a variety of prairie and savanna plants, plants that can thrive in full sun, or at least can tolerate sunlight for several hours each day.

In his lecture, Diboll will describe how gardeners can plant flowers that attract and sustain an amazing diversity of pollinators including bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, beneficial wasps and even pollinating flies. He will highlight the best prairie and savanna plants for attracting these marvelous creatures to a garden to help maintain the balance and productivity of our natural world.

Thanks to sponsors Jason Feldman Landscapes, CTI Hospitality, Inc., and Door Landscape, the Neil Diboll lecture is free and open to the public.


Coggin Heeringa is the director of Crossroads at Big Creek Environmental Learning Preserve and also serves as vice president of Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula.

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