Monday, August 10, 2015

Clearing the Air -- Ethics, Native Plants, Climate Change

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.


Vincent Vizachero said...

I agree with most of what you’ve written, so pardon me if I focus on the section I think is not quite fully formed.

You say this: “I am disturbed by the mainstream plant industry.”

I don’t know how “mainstream” I am, but I’m definitely part of the plant industry. But, then again, so are you.

An industry is organized, at its most basic level, to produce the goods and services that customers demand. Complaining about the way that any industry operates is about as productive as complaining about the fact that the sun sets every evening.

Your beef is, or should be, really about our societal concept of what “gardening” means and who it benefits. When you influence demand, as you have done through many venues (writing, speaking, design, et al.), you can shape the industry.

It is true that the supply side of industry can be shaped, too, but probably only from inside. If you create a demand for something, perhaps seed-grown local ecotype native plants, then someone will supply that thing. Maybe that someone is you.

But railing against “industry” is possibly deliberately vague and misses the real opportunity for creating change.

I think I understand your fury, but I also think in this one case it might be misdirected. At least in part.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Vince -- Thanks for that. You are right, it's not fully formed. But I am greatly, oh, conflicted about the industrialization of plant material and the altering of it on a genetic level (I'm not thrilled with treating honey bees, or nay bees, like cattle, either). I'll be totally honest and say when I see a new hybrid flash across my FB feed someone is excited about, I feel conflicted -- do we simply celebrate the joy someone is having over a plant no matter what, or do we dare think more about that plant and what role it plays in its built environment? Can we do both at once? How?

Diana Studer said...

mm I've just bought a hybrid protea, and have thought long and hard. This one is my 'lilac'. But I'm aiming at true species for the nectar sources for the sunbirds.

As a gardener I feel less as if nurseries provide what I demand, than as if I must wade past the Horticultural Horrors to find what I demand.

Brian T said...

Benjamin, I'm totally on board with what you've written; including about the nursery industry. To claim that they're only supplying a consumer demand is no more of a justification than it is for the fossil fuel industry, or the tobacco industry. I have no respect for organizations without a conscience. This might sound like an exaggeration to those who think it's not important what people plant. But in the face of dwindling natural habitat, what we plant is often all that's left. Activism is not just buying a coneflower instead of a peony, it's demanding that the nursery industry make efforts to provide habitat-enhancing selections.

Gardeners have often been just collectors of plant materials - another knickknack for the mantel. It's time for them to become participants in the ecosystem and pay attention to the menagery of other species, or lack thereof, that forms around every plant that's put in the ground.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Diana -- I feel the same way! :(
Brian -- Our myth is that gardening is easy, right? Every article and talk is about how to make gardening easier. It's a fight against the impossible. No matter what, gardening should be pleasurable, even if it's not easy (what in life that's worthwhile is easy?). The more we struggle with the profound issues of landscape management, the more I think we'll enjoy gardening -- especially if it becomes more selfless:

Anonymous said...

Most industries have some type of regulation that evolve and get updated as science comes in. Sure the horticultural and landscaping industry have some regulations, mostly along the lines of pests, diseases, etc. As I watch landscapers blow everything into streets around here, and spray so much pesticide on the lawn that you can smell it a block away, as Ash trees are receiving soil drenches of neonicotinoids and homeowners are being assured that they are safe and won't harm anything except the Emerald Ash Borer, as invasives continue to be sold, bought, and planted (by "professionals"), as many continue to plant and maintain a pointless expanse of lawn, I think that there should be some regulations about what can be planted, at least a percentage. With new developments, such and such percentage should be native trees, bushes, grasses, etc. They should be maintained in an ecologically responsible way. Yes, this would anger, inflame many people, but business as usual can't continue. At minimum some serious tax breaks, for being responsible or extra taxes to pay for the destruction of the environment. How many hours of volunteer work have been done by people cleaning out degraded woods that are consumed by barberry, honeysuckle, and multiflora rosa? Who is paying? Taxpayers, volunteers, the animals, and ultimately people too.

The horticultural industry and the landscapers made their buck, and they're not paying what is fair and right to fix their mistakes. That is wrong. They should have to pay for clean-up, just as if it was a super-fund site.

Anonymous said...

I am not in the least bit disturbed or offended by your passions. In fact, I thank you for reminding me of why I built my garden. Since I have become a professional gardener, I think I've grown a bit lax - bending too many of my native plant rules. I need this kick. I weed every day at a beautiful summer community and often am chided that there is this thing called "Round Up." Aside from being Vegan and answering where do you get your protein? This is the second question I often have to address. There is nothing wrong with weeding by hand. I began planting natives at my job but have been swayed by the popular favoritism of annuals. Thank you for getting me back on track - it is a gift to plant natives. The gift is the life that they attract. I am now back on my mission. Thank you. I love your garden.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for expanding on this topic - as a landscape architect for 26 years, 20 of those in my own practice, I agree with the comment about the supply end (nursery) needing to change from within but how some of us need to go into that end.

Yet I maintain that most nurseries are not convicted / educated / inspired enough on natives to make them sellable (and hip): those are part of the problem, when they don't have to give the public options on inappropriate plants, via a simple shift. But excuses and even snips back at folks like us is easier than thinking deeply towards the 100% (or even 75%) native plants ideal you or I shoot for. Many of my designs, I am limited by some client insistance and a great deal of supplier stranglehold, but my work often belongs in its ecoregion.

Back to my 20 years self-employed - it's because of conviction, and that past employers were not very savvy with a native ethic. So, I went out on my own. I've paid rent and mortgages in all that time, even though many times it was tight - so much for the excuse the old-guard suppliers parrot, how they need to make money and give the public what they want.

What happens to physicians who do that? M-a-l-p-r-a-c-t-i-c-e, loss of license and practice, etc.

My guess is also that many people who have native ethics *where they are* do it because it's popular, but that they would revert to conventional, non-native ways the moment they moved and needed to make money, fit in, etc. That's applause for you where you live.

And I will keep going on my own, at least until I get a great offer from an employer who gets it...

Donna@Gardens Eye View said...

Keep saying it Benjamin....I often look at what I buy and plant and rarely do I buy anything not native although finding true species is so hard these days. I often find any cultivars or hybrids do not do well in my garden and I end up ripping them out....I have been slowly switching over even though I am surrounded by a sea of lawn and chemicals. Your thoughts keep me focused and we do NEED to have these conversations.

Diana Studer said...

a quote about the living landscape for you

Catherine said...

Thanks to Diana Studer for bringing me here, I fully concur!! Here in Ireland invasive species, spraying, over grazing and lawns for horses has created, and I'm sorry to say this a wilderness for nature in some places. We need more voices on how to maximise the natural landscape. Re-educating the eye is part of it. Aesthetics and connecting to real beauty is denied to so many people that we have lost our good eye for nature......keep up the good work.....

Matt said...

Great article!

I'm amazed at the exception some have taken with your comments on the "mainstream plant industry".

As a native plant enthusiast, I take offense with the "mainstream plant industry" for these reasons:

1. Their refusal to discontinue use of neonics. Most disturbing is their recent using of voluntary neonic labeling as a SELLING POINT to increase sales of plants directly responsible for killing pollinators. CLEVER.

2. Their lack of usage of native plants. Someone here griped that it's a matter of "consumer demand" pushing exclusive sales of neonic soaked hybrids over native plants. But none of these nurseries offer native plants to consumers, so how can mainstream nursery only shoppers make a choice when natives aren't offered?

Benjamin Vogt said...

David -- I've long held the belief that nurseries are not educational places, and certainly do not know how to market creatively. The majority feel the same to me, and I think are also hard to navigate for casual shoppers. Your other point is taken well, the one about excuses and thinking deeply. When I teach it's 95% about peeling back the layers, digging and digging and when you think you can't go deeper you're only halfway there. It's a hard look, not easy, but it bursts everything open.