Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The New Garden Landscape

This is my vision for the 21st century garden -- a space that embraces both the aesthetic /artistic expression of the creator / owner, and that pays attention to the local ecology by creating as much of a native wildlife habitat as possible. 

I do not see ecology and garden design as mutually exclusive or in any way opposed to one another. Yes, this means gardening may tax our brains a bit more, and nurseries and architects and landscapers will have to educate more. But you know what? I'm seeing a true hunger for that education in every talk I give, in every consult I do.

Sure, using native plants is not a silver bullet, so please don't you dare tag me with a "purist" label; gardens can never be true representations of local, native ecology because they are artifice and are too small-scale to do much on their own. But our landscapes do link up and create park corridors -- it's the whole idea behind lawns in suburbia. What if those lawns were forests, shurblands, or prairies? Yes, they might never be able to function indepentently like "wild" ecosystems, but they'd still provide for a far greater diversity of wildlife and mitigate our pollution, runnoff, help on electric bills, etc. I see a wildlife corridor just in the thin tree line that goes along my back property.

When I hear someone say we should just let gardeners be, let folks do whatever they want, I feel pretty aggravated. The status quo is what's gotten us into the whole mess of climate change and ecosystem fragmentation, dirty air, dirty water, asthma, and perhaps ADHD and a host of other environmentally-induced illnesses. 

Let's hook gardeners on native plants that amend the life in the soil and in the air. It's easy. Everyone wants to see more butterflies and birds. So let's go with viburnum, serviceberry, milkweed, liatris, ironweed, etc. Plant a few of those in a landscape and suddenly the human residents notice something special, start thinking, start connecting the dots, start reading and learning, and then do more. They become wildlife refuge managers without even knowing it. Bam. Citizen scientists. Cool people. Stewards. Important activists.

You can't plant whatever you want anymore. I'm not saying we need a plant police, but you also can't just dump used paint or fluorescent lights out back either, can you? Let people be? Foster the ignorance is bliss theory? Nah. Not for me. We can use native plants in any landscape design, but it does require more upfront thinking and planning; you can't just call 1-800-landscaper and have them plop in the standard fare of spiraea, barberry, miscanthus, and some doomed annuals. Waste of money. No benefit to wildlife or local ecology.

The fact that we are killing off 6,000 species a year and spilling oil all over the place is a sad, depressing fact. But the bigger fact is we don't have to -- we know the better alternatives, and not pursuing them is a clear moral / ethical imperative we are failing with gusto. If you are depressed by the reality of what we do to the planet, then sticking your head in the sand and hoping for the best -- or pleading to just let gardeners do whatever makes them happy -- won't fix a thing. What will fix a thing and bring you true joy is planting native plants, getting to know your local ecosystems and species, and setting an example in your neighborhood by ripping out lawn maintained by gasoline, fertilizer, and clean water. Every gardener has immense power -- and the joy produced by the larger amount of wildlife your native plants attract will far outstrip the pretend, plastic joy of just doing whatever you want (like planting nonnative crap from big box stores).

Two great pieces this week that speak more specifically about the above aspects can be found via Chris Helzer (The Conservation Value of Backyard Prairies) and Thomas Rainer (Mingle or Clump).


Anonymous said...

Mr. Vogt, I removed my front and side lawns at my house this last spring. Jocelyn Chilvers in Colorado did a perennial low water design for me and the garden looks great! My summer water bill is a fraction of what it was with overly watered highly fertilized lawn. The best part though, was meeting my neighbors and engaging with those walking through the neighborhood. With my home on a street many use to get to work, co-workers also talked to me about my progress. The new garden facilitated the discussion of implementing low water gardening.
When it matures, I hope to have it on the garden tour.
Your posts are inspirational. Thanks for blogging!

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

The park corridor phenomenon is quite powerful because it has kept wildlife alive in the back yards of my neighborhood for over 60 years since local farmland was converted to urban residential neighborhoods.

Who cannot plant what they want? I am under the impression that, unless there are local or state restrictions, most gardeners plant as they please unless they truly care about the environment.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Allan -- that's problem, planting what you please. Related to eating what you please, hating who you please, ignoring what you please.
Anon -- thank you! Glad you've worked with Jocelyn and are seeing such good things.

Anonymous said...

Well-said again, and I share your vision, since it never happened where I lived / live since the early 1990's, not even remotely. So far, that's the domain of places like Tucson and a few other pockets...

I think the dissemination of such inspiration (to fuel visions such as ours') has a much better chance now...the Internet is triumphing over media gatekeepers in so many ways.

Unknown said...

“You can't plant whatever you want anymore.”— Exactly. A lot of homeowners tend to focus more on what will make their garden/house more beautiful without thinking twice. Although I think it's because that the effects of "leaving gardeners alone" isn't readily seen. It's not exactly reported in the news, is it? But it does put things in perspective for us. Some food for thought, guys.

Melva @MPDT.com.au

Unknown said...

This is very well said. And it is also an eye-opener to all homeowners, in my opinion. Having a garden is not only a way to make their homes more beautiful, but it also serves as an opportunity to create a native wildlife habitat. Thanks for sharing your vision! It’s good to know that someone cares strongly about our environment. I hope more people will follow your lead, and add a wonderful space in their home that could benefit all creatures.

Bethel Woodard @ Sollecito Landscaping Nursery