Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why Do Garden Designers Resist Native Plant Landscapes?

If you've been reading this blog since early July, you know how I feel about native plants and ecosystems, about what we're doing to the planet and to ourselves.

Gardening with native plants is a moral imperative. Period. A lot of landscape designers and architects who've been in the business much longer than me often decry my plea for all or mostly native plant landscapes. I tend to have a knee jerk reaction that makes me wonder how stuck in the mud they are.
  • "It can't be done where I live"
  • "There just aren't enough choices"
  • "My clients would never go for it"
Aren't landscape designers also educators by nature? Don't clients often simply defer to their judgement and knowledge? And why can't we dream big? What happened to the desire to change the world for the better? Isn't that one of the core tenants of gardening, of wanting to be a gardener, of designing landscapes? If our human vision for a better world fails here in the garden with those who have the greatest environmental imgaination, it fails everywhere. The way we design a garden is the way we live, our beliefs given form. It's time to draw a line in the garden -- just as we'd expect it drawn for healthcare, green energy, poverty, etc, all issues directly related to our environmental footprint.

So, how many of you landscape designers would lose work if you suggested / pushed more native plants? How much work would you lose? Some say compatible and well-behaved exotics are fine and necessary to use along with natives in order to increase the pallet and diversity -- but do we know when an exotic will become invasive? Do we have proof that it is as beneficial to wildlife, especially pollinating insects (for nectar AND as a host plant)? We'd have to have a plant by plant case study, probably county by county too, but there is much research pointing to the fact larvae need native plants as hosts, and that adult insects have as much of an evolutionary tie to the leaves as they do with the nectar and the flower shapes that draw them in. And that's just what's happening above the soil surface.

So without knowing a plant fully (or predicting the future), how can we responsibly suggest these to clients? How can we garden with ALL of the wildlife in mind or the nearby ecology, a holistic gardening that goes beyond just our artistic ideal and vision, and begin to combine how we see a landscape with what it really is and was before colonization and houses and roads and telephone poles, and how it responsibly rebuilds what we've pushed to the brink and insures a healthy future? Designing with natives is a test of our ethics; we are often bankrupt in that regard. We are lucky to live in a country where environmental destruction is relatively recent -- there are still patches, echoes of native wildness we can take a cue from; they call out to us like someone being carried away in a flash flood. Thousands of species go extinct globally each year, most as a direct result of our action, or inaction.

Gardening can no longer be about aesthetics alone, and this move must start with designers and architects. There is a massive and burgeoning desire to garden locally (it ties into the local food movement) -- plants raised within a nearby radius, plants grown from open-pollinated seed collected within that same radius, plants not sprayed with pesticides. When we begin to garden like this, we know our place more, we connect, we thrive, we care about our home. We live better. Maybe our kids will, too. Suddenly, community means something more. All of the above must be at the center of landscape design in the 21st century, and if it isn't, we aren't designing right.

Sure, gardening with natives may not be as easy, as pie-in-the-sky wonderful, as silver bullet as some make it out to be. And this is where the coaching / teaching on the part of the designer comes in. A gardener must always take an active part in any landscape, native or not, and when they do only then does gardening become easier:
  • The right plant in the right spot
  • Learning to identify good bugs vs bad
  • Allowing for insects and plants to decide their own fates in beds and boarders
  • Letting drought tolerant plants go dormant
  • Not freaking out when something does not suit our cosmetic ideal, but learning with nature
These are things landscape designers should be teaching their clients -- homeowners or cities or businesses. Maybe our idea of a garden needs to change; perhaps you can't have a meadow look in New Mexico, just like you can't have lawn, so let's design to local flora and fauna and educate about that locale. If you moved to the southeast you should expect to design for that environment, not New England's. How can we teach to this? If a garden is simply artifice, an outdoor HGTV room, a painting on the wall -- or something to appease local standards and create the illusion of intent (hello 'Karl Foerster' grass and daylilies and barberry in staggered rows) -- then gardens are failures of our imagination and humanity.

Maybe we're afraid to face ourselves in our landscapes because we know the implications of our hand in nature, we know what's going on, and to garden in a different way means accepting that how we usually garden may be problematic (to say the least). But how else do you grow? Is gardening with natives really any different than being kind to each other, taking care of ourselves, paying it forward, or ensuring future human freedoms by protecting the planet that sustains us? Of course not.

Gardening with natives is something any landscape designer needs to get on board with and get clients into -- gently or vigorously. Now. We can't just talk about simple maintenance issues or aesthetics, we must go beyond and talk about the health of our planet and our families, clean water, carbon sequestration, helping specific local wildlife, backup ecological systems (redundancy), about nature deficit disorder causing increased mental health issues in children. I do not see how any of these subjects is separate in a designed landscape. Every time we consult with clients the discussion should be as much about the design as the moral implications of that design. This is a new, brave paradigm we desperately need, and it will expand our creativity as landscape managers and engage our clients in more meaningful ways.

We can help each other live and garden better, or we can keep making excuses and shooting holes in the idea of gardening with natives, but the core issues still remain -- our planet is sick, so are we, we have caused it, and we can do something about it. It's simply irresponsible and short-sighted in this day and age, given what we know, to design with an extensive use of non native plants (or lawns and impermeable hardscapes). If designing with native plants is restrictive then our landscape professionals have had a failure of education or imagination, and maybe even hope in the medium they use.


Anne Larson said...

The suggestions you posit:
The right plant in the right spot
Learning to identify good bugs vs bad
Allowing for insects and plants to decide their own fates in beds and boarders
Letting drought tolerant plants go dormant
Not freaking out when something does not suit our cosmetic ideal, but learning with nature

are already part of any decent landscape designer's ethic. These aren't only good guidelines for native gardens but for successful gardens period. As I look at the central U.S. landscape, I see more and more forward looking and well regarded designers like Douglas Hoerr of Chicago are using principles of ecology already in currency in Europe with geniuses like Piet Oudoulf. The other important thing we can do is to support educational institutions who view landscape architecture not merely as a design discipline but as one that requires a deep understanding of how earth, water, air and plants and animals intertwine.

Drew said...

Ben, I'm right with you on what you write and do this every day. Your prescription is right on mark. However, you did not answer the question in your title. Why do people resist? When we understand that better we can design interventions that target these specific sources of resistance.

Unknown said...

The bug-first, bug-only argument (with a bit of moral berating for good measure) will only convince a small percentage of the American public to give up their lawns. People (including designers) cannot always afford to hold their middle finger up to the deeper pressures of real estate value and public perception. That's why more than half of your yard is still in lawn, right?

You want to save nature, your gonna have to create an aesthetic with native plants that does not sink real estate value. We have to blend an authentically native look with conventional garden design. We must seduce the American public with the undeniable beauty of native plants, not berate them for not wanting to sink their home value for the sake of larval hosts.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Thomas -- I'm not suggesting a bug first, bug only (with some berating) argument with homeowners. I agree we have to create an aesthetic that doesn't sink real estate value, but isn't the much larger problem that we believe that aesthetic MUST be lawn, and it MUST be come minimal foundation plantings? Isn't the problem that are aesthetic is so skewed to a European / English ideal?

I think we need municipalities to start thinking about resources and conservation, and providing incentives to developers and homeowners to create regionally appropriate landscapes. You see LA beginning to do that, and other SW cities.

I'm talking about landscape designers as needing to have a far larger educational and activist role with homeowners and cities. I want landscape designers to be more involved in the larger ramifications of their art on local ecology. This is exactly the conversation I hoped to start here -- so thanks!

Drew -- I did not answer because I don't have an answer, hoping you all would!

Anne -- how many are decent? What defines decent for you? Yes, there are some great designers out there, but not anywhere near enough, and we need more trickling down -- even to local nurseries who do so much smaller work at the everyday level, but still use junk plants and practices and outdated theories.

Benjamin Vogt said...

This spring we were days away from ripping out our front lawn, but we couldn't find the money to do it. Now we're stuck with 1,000' we never use.

Anonymous said...

What money is involved? Hoard some newspaper and leaves and cover it over. You know this.

Regarding the post, people resist because they don't know any better. They haven't seen anything better/different or believe they can achieve it themselves. Until their collective mindset changes, they'll stick with what they have.

Diana Studer said...

property value requires a lawn? That's 'value'. If our visitors settle happily on the verandah to watch the birds, or disappear into a hidden corner of the garden while I make tea - is that not, value?

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

To hold that garden designers are also educators is pushing the envelope a bit too far; every idealist's plan is foiled by a reality check also known as human nature. Consequently, those who pays the bills calls the shots - always! Clients, who do not accept to have native plants in their garden, will forever have the last word.

Gaia Gardener: said...

I strongly suspect that different areas of the country have different responses to designers using native plants in their landscapes. Here in the prairie states, I'd say the focus is still on pretending that we live somewhere else - hence the desire for exotic plants in landscapes, both in homeowner and designer installations.

Visiting the Chicago area, I would say that they are perhaps one prairie area that is moving beyond this ethic of valuing elsewhere over here.

Benjamin Vogt said...

I'm an idealist, Allan! I'm damned I suppose. Well, I'm a glass half empty idealist. Garden designers, in a new environmental paradigm, MUST be educators. Isn't everything they say already an education? Yes.