Horticulturist talks native plants in C-U


Photo courtesy of The Well-Fed Caterpillar

Kayla Myers and Amy Thoren, co-founders of The Well Fed Caterpillar, are at their plants sale that took place in the Common Ground Co-Op in Urbana on Saturday. Thoren discusses the importance of native plants for when it comes to water purification, biodiversity and other beneficial environmental factors.

By Kylie Corral, Summer Managing Editor for Reporting

On Saturday, The Well Fed Caterpillar — a plant nursery and landscape design that opened in March — had its independent native plants sale at the Common Ground Co-Op in Urbana.

Amy Thoren, co-founder of The Well Fed Caterpillar, originally wanted to be an anthropologist but went to St. Olaf College and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago instead, studying theology and becoming a Lutheran pastor. 

Thoren’s co-founder Kayla Myers studied animal sciences at the University as an undergraduate and earned a master’s in landscape architecture. They specialize in native plants.

Thoren said she’s always had a passion for insects and ended her career in the ministry in December to do what’s right for the earth.

“So, in other words, we have kind of three main missions,” Thoren said. “We want to grow the plants, and we want to sell the plants — we want to get the plants out there so that people can access them.”

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Along with these three missions, Thoren said she also wants to provide landscape design for people who are converting to native plants because native gardening is different from conventional gardening. She looks forward to teaching as well, especially educating people on how to work with native plants, which are ecologically better for the environment. 

“So the reception to the business has been, I would say, really good and very strong right now,” Thoren said. “People are very interested.”

Thoren said native plants help purify water, manage stormwater, build healthy soil, prevent species loss, contribute to biodiversity, mitigate climate change and benefit pollinators. Native plants also require less synthetic fertilizers.

“It’s really important that people know that the flowering plants and the ones that are really beautiful and colorful are not are not the only really important plants,” Thoren said. “So we also sell a lot of grasses and sedges.”

According to Thoren, native plants require patience, but as their roots grow, they help the ground ecologically too.

“We’re really interested in collaboration and cooperation with anybody else who’s really concerned about ecology,” she said. “And so the most rewarding thing for me is knowing that plants that are native to this region are going into the ground. It’s super cliche, but if you plant it, they will come. That’s really the truth.”

Nancy Kreith, a horticulturist who works at the University of Illinois Extension — an outreach that is connected to the College of ACES — is an expert in native plants and invasive species. 

She said some of the invasive plants in Northern and Southern Illinois include garlic mustard, buckthorn, multiflora rose and the Japanese honeysuckle.

“Beyond that, there’s a lot of natives like the lady beetles and swallowtails,” Kreith said. “Our native insects will overwinter here and acquire these native plants that are host plants, so that’s a good thing. So they’re really doing a lot for the wildlife. They’re not invasive.”

Kreith said you can cultivate native plants in almost any condition, and the beauty in that is knowing they aren’t going to invade native lands.

Planning is also significant to native plants that will transform the lands.

“Well first, have a plan, you know,” Kreith said. “It’s always good to prepare just like you would any garden, so you have to look into your soil type. Look into your sun exposure. Is it well-drained soil? Is it clay? Is it sand?”

After evaluating these contributing factors, planters can begin looking at lists of native plants to begin, she said.

Kreith suggested planters start with a new slate and then remove turf and the invasive plants to make room for native plants to begin settling into the soil. 

She said there’s a lot of science out there that is teaching the significance of native plants to the environment. Many master gardener programs encourage native plants, like their master naturalist program that educates people on native environments.

Kreith also said there are some non-native plants that have proven themselves to be non-invasive, so not every plant in someone’s garden has to go right away to make room for native plants.

“I would say that you don’t have to have your garden converted to 100% native right away,” Kreith said. You could slowly work at this, and natives will do fine. So slowly take baby steps. All gardening is work.”


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