Several times over the last few months I've had someone, most gently and kindly, message me about my ideas and beliefs related to native plants and gardening. I am thankful for this. I have known for some time that landscape designers, specifically, have felt unsettled by me and seen me in a most negative light. I'm hoping that through this post -- and opening up to some perspectives I've tried to keep hidden for fear of reprisal -- I might generate a discussion that helps us think more deeply about our role on a quickly-changing planet.
I suppose the primary response to my advocating for near 100% native landscapes, especially when I talk ethically about it and in light of climate change and mass extinctions, is one of anger from a diverse set of folks, particularly when I let my passion and urgency deliver the content of my thoughts (we all do this -- go visit any social media site). When I ask for us to design 100% native landscapes because wildlife depends on it, I'm not being frivolous in my hopes or dreams because we must strive for the best to get to the good. Countless studies show the connections -- the literal lifelines -- between insect species and native plants, birds too. When we alter a landscape so drastically for whatever reason then life disappears; this seems like an ethical dilemma to me. When we deny life cycles and ecological function, this seems unethical to me -- it's like telling a person they can't reproduce, it's like sexism or racism.
Native plants aren't limiting, but limitless for so many organisms.
When we totally privilege our own aesthetic desires and practical needs over those of other species, I don't believe it's a good thing -- I think it's a very myopic thing, a very narrow vision, perhaps natural for humans (in fact, lots of studies show it IS natural on a genetic level, as we are hardwired for survival at any cost). Such thinking spills over into how we treat each other, often poorly. Luckily, we're making strides with marriage equality and wildlife conservation, just as we are with landscape management and discussing social inequality.
It is easy to feel attacked when someone presents an opposing and vocal (even confident) viewpoint, which is in a way what I hope I'm doing -- I am trying to start a conversation, shake the walls and rock the boat, while also taking ownership of what I'm saying; I'm asking us to look deeper at the ramifications of how we garden every single minute. If you want to plant a lilac among bluestem and aster, do it, but be aware that the liliac may not have as much wildlife value. I don't believe asking us to think like this is an attack or a condementation, or should be interpreted as proselytizing -- often, name calling or labeling (extremist, radical, purist) can be a defense mechanism, an act of
denial which is also one of the necessary steps to dealing with grief. I do believe asking us to think in this more out-of-the-box way, to make a conscious decision about our plant choices, is a good thing. I'm not saying you should feel guilty for planting a lilac, even if you might over time (I have), I'm saying you should be well aware of what it means to plant a lilac where you are.
Besides, guilt does not have to be a bad emotion -- just like anger doesn't have to be. These are natural and primal steps in overcoming grief, and surely as we realize more and more the effects our species has on the planet, then grief, anger, and guilt will play integral rolls in reshaping how we interact with life and what rolls we will play as stewards through gardening, through what we purchase, to how far we drive, to what we eat, to how we love, etc.
So when I say designing landscapes with native plants is an ethical issue, I am not trying to talk down to anyone; I am trying to get us to think more critically, deeply, and honestly about how our plant choices impact other lives, and in turn, our own lives down the road since a biologically rich, diverse, and redundant planet means an easier life for us. The more we understand how the world works biologically, the more we will be a part of it -- and I believe, the happier and more peaceful we'll be. But it's not an easy road.
So to that end, let me say something I've tried not saying for many years -- at least not directly -- because I've been totally afraid to say it.
I am disturbed by the mainstream plant industry. I am disturbed with how we alter and grow plants for our own aesthetic desires, changing plants on levels we maybe don't fully understand. What happens when we change the leaf or bloom color, or when bloom sizes are altered? What nectar, pollen, or leaf chemistry changes? How does this effect wildlife? Which wildlife? Where? How does this effect hybridizing with communitites of nearby wild plants? How does it effect soil life? And so much more.
These questions are not a blanket attack or condemnation of the horticultural industry -- they are, I think, very important questions to ask about our species and how we manage the planet, addressing if something needs to be changed about the way we grow and produce plants. We have these same conversations about industrial agriculture, precious metals sourced for disposable cell phones in 3rd world countries, island nations flooded by rising oceans.
I know, gardening is simply supposed to be fun and therapeutic, light and carefree, and these thoughts disturb that romantic ideal. And I know, my "critical" thinking sometimes comes off not as "what if we looked at it differently, I wonder about this, I wonder about that" but instead as "you suck more than a tricked-out Dyson." I think by pondering the above and struggling with these thoughts, we can gain a deeper joy while gardening -- the more we know, the more we think, the more we question and seek to understand, the better gardeners and landscape designers we'll be. Confronting our worst selves in the garden also means confronting our best selves, as it is any aspect of life -- we're complicated like that. Which path will we choose? And how?
It behooves us, in a time of mass extinctions that we have caused, not to turn away from our impact on the planet but to turn forcefully into that strong wind and create a better world. It will be hard to turn into that wind, harder than anything we've ever done. I believe every single plant in our landscape matters -- both from a practical / aesthetic viewpoint as well as metaphorical or metaphysical viewpoints; an aster might save a bee's life, a lilac might not. A milkweed might open the door to seeing how our plants interact with a great variety of interdependent wildlife, a hosta may not. You may certainly plant a hosta or lilac, but it might be closing a door to our world that we won't ever realize (this door closed over just a few decades with the 99% eradication of tallgrass prairie). Questioning and perturbing and thinking is not bad or negative, it's how progress is made -- it's how we learn, you and me both.
These are my ideas. These are my opinions. These are my feelings here on this blog. Yours may be different. You may wish I had said it all in another way or had not said anything at all. But this is one of the most important conversations we should be having right now and ARE having -- as landscape designers, as gardeners, and as humans. Everything is connected, beautifully and wondrously so. Here's to a brighter future even as we struggle so mightily for it.