This week I tested the waters on Facebook for a bold new view I'm taking with private and public managed landscapes (gardens, right of ways, parks, businesses). This is where I started: daylilies and hostas, along with much of their ilk (visit Home Depot), are pointless, wasted plants in gardens. I don't want to see any more of them ever again. They are bupkis for wildlife and are overplanted. Neighborhoods of hosta are like McDonalds on every street corner -- homogenized, dull, empty calories.
Gardening is a moral act. Gardening is an act of learning about your local ecosystem, getting in tune with it, and gardening / living on a higher level -- a level of connection we work hard to sever in our managed landscapes; native plants can mend the break as local ecology is witnessed. The American lawn is supposed to be a bridge between what is yours and what is mine, creating a democratic, equal playing field among people. But what lawns do -- what standard / overplanted non native plants do -- is dull our senses and provide almost nothing for wildlife when compared to native plants. I have butterfly bushes (I shouldn't, and I might not for much longer), and when the mountain mint, coneflowers, asters, joe pye weed, and goldenrod are blooming the insects bypass butterfly bush; I'd say for every one insect on butterfly bush, there are 30 on native plants.
I have seen two butterflies in my garden so far this year. Two. A red admiral and a sulphur. With the garden coming on now in its summer flush, I still see a massive lack of insects, even compared to last year when it rained about an inch over three months. This is a profound crisis we seem blinded to or dulled by. Without insects we lose one out of three bites of food we take, and up to 70% of what's in the grocery store. You've read about massive die offs of bees. If you care about your children not being stung, you should care about them having something to eat. Personally, I don't want a full time job hand pollinating crops like they do in China due to lack of bees.We should probably stop plowing up the last marginal prairies, destroying bee / wildlife habitat, and planting corn the government subsidizes whether it fails or not.
Gardening is a moral act. Gardens are wildlife refuges. I don't see insects nectaring on hosta or daylily too often, and I most certainly do not see leaf damage -- a sign that bees are making nests or caterpillars are using them as host plants. Do not forget that we aren't just talking about sources of nectar, we are talking about raising insect babies. Plants from China or Russia don't work. Indeed, some cultivars of natives don't even have pollen (check out the front cover of the current Horticulture magazine).
Insects and plants in North American have grown together through evolution -- there are specialist insects for particular native plants, and vice versa. So here it is on the line for you:
I believe any new landscape should use 100% native plants from that locale. We have ripped up everything. We have remade "nature" into something that relies on us to survive. We have no choice but to manage our landscapes lest they fall apart into perceived chaos because we've imposed our will on the planet.
Let me tell you what a non native plant is to me: it's manifest destiny. It's cavalry riding into a Cheyenne village and wiping them out to pave way for settlers who unzip the prairie and plant rows of wheat and corn. It's blind hubris and a lack of will to understand other cultures. America's history of eradication is subversive and thorough, and to talk about it causes alienation (like I imagine is happening right now). We still don't have equal rights for humans, so maybe I shouldn't hold out much hope with equal rights for plants and ecosystems -- even if those ecosystems literally keep us alive. We can't deny our own evolution -- we need this planet as surely as a bumblebee needs a baptisia or penstemon and an environment free of pesticides and gmo crops laden with pesticide pollen.
The argument that I often hear is native plants are limiting. First, there are over 7,600 native plants in North America, so stop sounding like a teenager who is bored by everything. Second, exotics are limiting; they are limiting for wildlife, and they are limiting for low maintenance gardening. The right native plant in the right place doesn't need fertilizing or spraying or supplemental water in a normal year once established (prairie plants go dormant in drought -- pretty darn smart). You can argue this point with me to some degree, but my 1,500' garden out back will fight you for it. Come look at it if you like, especially as I slowly take out the remaining non natives.
Gardening is a moral act. It is no longer just about aesthetics. If we combine morality and aesthetics we have prairie. Or forest. Or desert. Or wetlands. A wildlife refuge. Whatever your pleasure. I refuse to compromise any more -- we need 100% native plants in new landscapes. There is no time to wait. We need cleaner air, water, and fertile soil. We need less crap in our bodies causing learning disabilities, early puberty, disease, etc. We need insects. We need birds and amphibians that feed on insects. We need food. We need nature back. In the 21st century we need to at least try and right the wrongs of our culture's narrow vision of excess and greed, a culture that discounts the world out there and works hard to deny the connection of our flesh and blood with that of a bird's, a bee's, a flower's. This may be one reason we're so depressed and prone to violence.
We are all the same star dust, products of supernovas. This planet is so unique we can't even find another one like it. So if native plants are limiting, if native plants are weeds, if native plants aren't as pretty, than we have no right to call the shots. If you want to have a peony or hosta to remind you of your mother or father, go for it -- but why not start a new tradition where some day your child plants a milkweed in honor of your memory. Why not take the leap and make a difference in whatever small spit of land you have -- especially if no one else will. Planting a native species aster is like calling for an end to genocide or racism. Democracy and freedom is "limiting" yourself to native plants, plants that will connect yourself to the ecology and world around you, in the end wake you up to the miracle of built-in, redundant safe guards in nature, and erasing our nihilistic eradication of that redundancy. I want my country back. I want my prairie.
Final point anticipating a deluge of angry notes: I do not advocate totalitarian law forcing people to use only natives. Talking about using more natives in gardens oddly develops into an argument akin to saying we shouldn't allow immigration or discussing the merits of abortion or lethal injection. I will not stand with a gun pointed to your head and say "Plant milkweed or your family gets it." I'm saying gardening is a moral act, and driving through my neighborhood, our morals our way off base. We keep planting exotics (not knowing when or where they may become invasive), mismanaging landscapes, mowing down butterfly habitat on highway edges, spray spray spray, and just assume the planet will take care of us no matter what we do. Right. We can't think like that any more! And you know it.
Planting mountain mint and New England aster is saying hey, I won't go down like this, I see the planet, insects, wildlife all on equal terms and necessary. I see ecological redundancy that keeps me alive and I want it to stay intact. I'm tired of monoculture that can fail in a heartbeat due to disease or weather. I'm tired of being poisoned. I'm tired of not feeling like I belong. Using native plants is the tip of the iceberg I'm talking about here, the very beginning to healing and understanding. The issues are much larger, much more culturally based, much more spiritually based. I've lived these changes. I want you to see that. And I'm darn tired, no damn tired, of the high maintenance non native landscapes requiring massive carbon and chemical inputs. I'm tired of the fallacy of a perfect lawn. I'm tired of the buying into of commercials with western film music while a guy "shoots" weeds from a RoundUp wand "holster" on his hip. It's time to do a lot better. Now. If I have kids I want them to have a planet somewhat similar to the one I'm screwing up for them. This is our last great chance. Gardens are a moral act. Native plants (and more natural management of them) are one huge way to right our wrongs -- and facing those wrongs is never easy because we have to admit our mistakes, which is why talking about natives creates such backlash and knee jerk reactions, particularly from established landscapers and land managers. Gardening for nature with natives is a moral act, it is not passive, it requires our full awareness and risking who we are and want to be. This is how great, good change begins.
Link here to read Part 2, my response to criticisms and suggestions.
And here I am saying it all as clearly as possible, via butterfly bush.