Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Nativing We Will Go

If you follow me on this blog's Facebook page you probably don't need to read on, but I know lots of folks are blog-only readers. After a piece on Garden Rant I decided to clarify some points about native plant gardening. Tell me what you think about my ramblings.

1. I do not believe in 100% native plant gardens because I'm trying to re-establish some pre-colonial virginity. That can never happen.
2. I see so few native plants in ANY landscape, commercial or residential, that I know there's a crisis of imagination and connection to local environment.
3. I see so few native plants in local and big box nurseries that I know "...."
4. Without native plants we don't know our home ground, we aren't nearly as connected to place, and we won't see nearly the wildlife and support nearly the same number. It's called co-evolution. A sulphur doesn't lay eggs on hosta. Also, if you live in Arizona you can't have a cottage garden; if you want a cottage garden move to the PNW or the Northeast.
5. We MUST get away from a purely aesthetic value judgement of gardens. Often, we CAN have our cake and eat it too, but we need to accept and understand the benefit of plants going dormant, of a "messy" winter garden, of native grass lawns that don't green up in April, et cetera. Right now bee larvae are resting in the hollow stems of my "unkempt" joe pye weed, which also has birds perched atop it.
6. We need to stop gardening solely for ourselves and see the incredible, beautiful, soul-magnifying existence that happens when we open up our gardens to the rest of the local environment by using native plants. We believe in giving to the needy and poor of our own species, and to other causes near our hearts, why not the birds, insect pollinators, amphibians right out back in the gardens we supposedly cherish so much? Again, if monarchs are on the brink, what ELSE is on the brink? Planting an exotic plant is almost always a space waster.  

Out here in the Plains it's been proven that strips and buffers of prairie around ag fields increases crop pollination and yield (not to mention cleans up most ag chemical runoff). And insects feed how many song bird chicks? 100%? We need to be gardening for insects as much if not more than ourselves. We talk about veg gardening as this holistic, green, wonderful thing to do for the planet -- but why don't we ever talk about ornamental gardening for insects and larvae? We garden for butterflies (too often with butterfly bush), but we don't garden with the plants they evolved with to eat.

But it's constraining to use plants native to your locale? Do you even know which plants are native to where you live? That's constraining -- short-sighted, too. Let's talk about good garden design in general for a moment -- or any art for that matter. It's the "constraint" that makes the art / artifice that much more powerful (I say this as a poet and writer). It's the coloring within the lines, and coloring in a new way, that makes the design pop and sing and move and hit us deep. If you have a garden palette awash in a plethora of plants you have visual chaos -- but even a prairie, so often seen as chaotic, is governed by rules; those rules make the display that much more emotionally impacting and able to teach us something about what's there. Native plants aren't limiting or constraining -- your willingness to embrace any exotic will, in the end, limit and constrain my health as ecosystems that have worked for thousands of years collapse (insects!). This is why we have invasive species lists. We know what we're doing. We do it anyway. Stop making excuses. Learn your world. Stop looking at your navel.

Native plants go to the heart of our moral and ethical alert systems that tell us when something is wrong or right -- but we work even harder to deny those alert systems, ignore them, in favor of personal and immediate gratification at the expense of the future. Our future. A more peaceful future with no wars over clean water and fossil fuels, a future with less cancer and birth defects and learning disorders caused my chemical elixirs in our food, water, and air. Native plants are the top of a much larger iceberg and represent more than aesthetic getaway value. And maybe that's the problem, too -- talking about gardens as not just a sublime refuge from trouble but the heart of trouble, a reflection of larger issues we CAN change, is uncomfortable, and it should be. We don't want our gardens to be statements for anything but personal pleasure. We don't want our gardens to be influenced by the world out there. Our gardens are not insular little worlds, though, especially in suburbia. Gardens and managed landscapes are not just for us, to assume they are is racism toward other species. And even genocide. Case in point -- corn and monarchs.

If you think I'm politicizing native plants then that's because the apparent debate over using them reflects issues of race, class, and even gender. Those who are poorest suffer the worst health and food options -- even in our own country. And one could say the poorest of the poor might be other species who have no defenders other than idealistic humans. We get sad when black rhinos vanish and polar bears drown looking for any ice drift to hunt from, but it's hard to look at the same things going on out the back door. But we need to look. It's all connected.


Anonymous said...

I think your paragraph 5 on the aesthetics of gardening needs to be expanded to include training people to understand the pleasure of seeing how gardens have 4 distinct seasons of beauty. By teaching the new gardeners to think across the 4 seasons with the same plant may give them new perspective to how we interact with our environment. For example, I live in suburbia and don't deadhead anything and my gardens have gotten tons of positive comments from neighbors who never realized how pretty hoar frost or heavy snowfall can be on dormant plants. Besides, I get a new look every year with each season. Finally, as a suggestion, you could write about the economic benefit of not dead-heading. Each Spring, I have an abundance of new plants due to seeds falling and naturally spreading. I spend less and get a lot of volunteers in new beds. And the most exciting thing is that my refusal to dead-head has gained me a substantial milkweed bed over the last few years...and a plethora of monarch caterpillars this year. I consider myself fortunate that I took the time to develop an obsession with milkweeds when I started planting my beds and bought them and planted them. It gave me great pleasure this year to take a pause and watch them eating heartily.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anon -- You're absolutely right about 4 seasons. My post is certainly more of an outline than as complete as will be in a book manuscript. I now grow my own plants 100% -- is there any other way? The winter garden is as beneficial and stunning as the mid summer one! :)

Patricia Hill said...

I agree with everything you said, Benjamin, except for your 1st statement. I moved into my newly restored 1927 Sears bungalow in August, 1997. All the old overgrown plants had been ripped out and the entire 50 x 125' property was newly sodded. Starting with a clean slate was, indeed, a great advantage. I installed one native plant garden each spring and fall on the grounds including the parkway.
The lawn is long gone, although I do have Kentucky bluegass paths,so I guess, in that respect, you are right.
I am fortunate to have original deep,black, mesic prairie soil--in 1927 builders didn't haul away topsoil as they do now. Nor was the soil ever chemically poisoned.
I turned my Landscape Design practice into midwestern native plants only, as well, and never had a problem getting clients. I don't do much designing anymore, spending most of my time writing.

Anonymous said...

You work at a university, don't you? What are the chances of being able to talk to someone about snagging a piece of turf for a teaching garden? You could even try to make a native plant/ecology club at your school. Outreach can bring in a lot of interest.

Scott Lawson, QAD said...

Well-written! I agree with you from here in Southern California . . . I see very little interest in the homes around me for native gardening. Although we do have a great resource in Claremont, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic garden ( which is 100% CA natives. I really like your comment "It's the "constraint" that makes the art / artifice that much more powerful (I say this as a poet and writer)." because when I write poetry, it is the form that defines the beauty and that which makes the words sing. Please check out our native plant community over on Google+ -

Benjamin Vogt said...

Patricia -- Yeah, you know, people seems to gravitate toward my "narrow" vision of native plant design when clients come calling. I think people DO want we're talking about more theoretically here, they just don't know how it could manifest itself.
Anon -- I'm an adjunct with much less sway than a rock. Every day I do walk by this one turf area, about 1,500 square feet, marooned by sidewalks. It's wasted space. Could be prairie.
Scott -- Good to meet you! I'm linking over!

Wild About Sydney said...

Excellent article Benjamin. I think the same disregard for endemic species happens around the world. Even most ardent conservationists don't "get it" and yes people even play the "plant nazi" and "plant racist" cards. In Sydney we have an incredible diversity of endemic flora but it gets quickly scraped away to be replaced by ubiquitous things such as Agapanthus and Cliveas..very sad. I think you have communicated the need to retain natives brilliantly

Diana Studer said...

Malcolm, I apologise for the Agapanthus and Clivia. We have an Australian bottlebrush waiting in our next garden. But apparently the sunbirds like it.

Wild About Sydney said...

I wrote an article on my blog Di about those evil Agapanthus, Jacaranda etc

Benjamin Vogt said...

Thanks, Malcolm!