Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gardening With Natives as a Moral Act -- Part 2

Between Facebook, email, and this blog, I've received a wide variety of comments and suggestions about my original post. My thanks for the encouragement of those who enjoyed the rant, but I want to address some of the criticisms.

When I said I wasn't holding a gun to your head to plant natives, I meant it, but enough people felt threatened by me that I was surprised -- so I went out and bought a dozen guns. To essentially be called a bigot or racist a few times really made me upset and sad. I wish we looked at plants on more equal terms to humans -- if we did, we might be more sympathetic to each other and actually end bigotry and racism. But since we hate each other so often, many times based on misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, I don't hold out much hope for knowing plants on better terms. Maybe we need a bill of plant and animal rights, but then many more would feel threatened (is this part of being a human animal, a response for survival?).

Culver's root in action.
What I am advocating for is self education -- that once you begin gardening more and more with native plants, you begin to understand the delicate roll of a healthy, balanced ecosystem. You will see how native plants, in general, bring in more insects and a greater diversity. You will begin wanting to know what that bee is on the joy pye weed, and when you discover the life history of the bee, you might be led to what it needs to thrive in your garden. That might lead you to adding additional native plants, hollow stems for bee houses, learning about soil microorganisms, about the wild ecosystem your plants come from, about beneficial predator bugs, about what goes on out there in that greater wild ecosystem that you might want to try to replicate in your backyard. Is this a bad thing? Apparently so, based on some of the irate comments dubbing me a purist. 

So let's talk about purism. In my native plant garden (which is becoming more so, about 80%, since I bought whatever the nursery had when I started out, not knowing much) I'm trying to recreate a semblance of prairie. Why? Not because I believe prairie can exist in 1,500', or that we'll have much luck recreating it even on 30,000 acres, but because the prairie wildlife is still here. The bees. The butterflies. The birds. They developed over millennium to work in concert with the plants native to this region. I will not deny these native creatures like so many of us do in our culture, and so that makes me an outlaw, a purist. Without these plants, the wildlife begins to vanish -- ask a Harris's sparrow or lesser prairie chicken or regal fritillary. If only we could talk to plants and insects how richer our lives would be! (David Abrams, in The Spell of the Sensuous, says we once did and can again).

Bluebirds in winter waiting their turn for a drink.
A garden full of properly sited -- properly sited -- native plants to you locale will never be truly wild. By definition a garden is human artifice, it is art, it is personal interpretation and expression, so herein perhaps is the anger and backlash to my proposal to plant new spaces with 100% native plants. I'm not saying you can't do your thing (and my god, you'd actually listen to me and not do your thing???), I'm just saying do it with natives and see what happens, stretch yourself, open yourself to the ecology around you in new, profound ways. Only in America, it seems, do we feel so threatened of our personal freedoms that knees jerk up wildly -- if only they jerked enough to stop special interest lobbyists from owning our politicians, from allowing 1% of the population to control 20% of the wealth and erode the middle class, to stop pipelines being built through sensitive prairies and wetlands.

But back to landscapes -- to say a native plant garden cannot be formal or Victorian or Japanese or whatever is just plain nonsense. If you believe native plants are "wild" and "messy" and only fit for one design ideal, then your vision as a gardener has yet to expand and grow, and this is one reason I am pimping native plants -- they help you grow in ways a hosta and daylily and barberry cannot. You know what those plants will do, and you know their ecological benefit is momentary and selective. Humdrum. Zzzzz.

A native New England Aster. Call the Plant Police!
When we are deprived of natural places, we are deprived of ourselves. Ecologists, philosophers, and environmentalists have known this for a long time. To not have prairie plants in my backyard is to deprive myself of my city, my state, and my region. I am diminished as a gardener if I don't focus on natives. I can't hope to understand local ecology, flora, and fauna without experimenting with and embracing native plants. If Aldo Leopold were alive he'd tell you these things more eloquently -- shoot, he does, go read this sad snippet from Sand County Almanac.

So this is how I see gardening with natives as a moral act. You may think this sounds superior, elitist, or purist, but to me it sounds like freedom, knowledge, and power -- something Home Depot, Scott's, and Monsanto don't want you to have. Gardening with natives is as much an act of defiance toward those who destroy our natural world as it is a willingness to listen to our deepest selves and embrace the joy and terror of our connection to this planet. Without that mental, physical, and spiritual connection to place through native plants, we are diminished to the point of insanity and despair -- hence the depredations on Native Americans, hence the dust bowl, hence diabetes.

And for the one person who said any article that uses the word "bupkis" is worth a read: bupkis. Now go find plants native to you and help save the planet and yourself! Rock the boat!

Monarch caterpillar at the Lincoln Children's Zoo


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the two-part rant, Benjamin. I'm sure we will see further episodes as the level of ignorance and the defensive backlash out there is mind-numbing. To those in that camp I say: you just don't get it! And how could you not get it? Maybe you've been brainwashed by society. Think outside the big box (chain-store retailers, old-school landscapers, regressive governmental directives)and get with the program. Acknowledge that we are not the only species on this planet and stop acting as if we are the be-all and end-all...which will be our collective fate if we don't wake up.

ProfessorRoush said...

Benjamin, the "issue" is likely not the philosophy of what you wrote, but I suspect you hit buttons with the language, perhaps intentially, although you may have underestimated the passion. Stating that the other side in a debate is "immoral" or, as TheLocalScoop says above, "ignorant" is degrading and elitist by definition. And yes, I'm guilty of the same by using the adjective "elitist".

If you'd written your rant in the NY Times, it wouldn't be surprising to me that you got the vicious backlash, people being what they are, but I am surprised that such a backlash came from those who would regularly read your blog (gardeners? environmentalists?). If I am a bigot for thinking that "our" people are more reasonable than the average, than I guess I am.

I hope and assume you were kidding about buying a dozen guns. One nice shotgun might be prudent, twelve might be seen as an overreaction equivalent to the messages that precipitated it.

Benjamin Vogt said...

PR--You're darn right I meant to push buttons with the language I used, and it worked. I never said the other side was immoral -- you and others simply inferred this on your own from the title of the piece, but please note I never directly said that, which is a huge difference. And after I bought the first dozen guns, I went and bought a tank and F-16 fighter jet just in case. :)

doggirl said...

I think we push ourselves up against a wall when we come up with the frustrating conclusion that those who disagree somehow "don't get it" when I think they clearly get what the point is, they simply do not accept it on their own terms. It is not different than someone who buys junk food full of unhealthy chemicals because it is cheaper in the pocketbook, someone who drives a gas-guzzling SUV or Hummer, someone who is disinterested in the plight of wild animals such as in the poaching of elephants, the over fishing of the oceans, hunting of wolves and the backlash in states that are weakening the Endangered Species Act. Or their lack of concern over the annihilation of rain forests so that they can eat a hamburger. Let's face it there are people on this planet who will not bend their will when it involves changing their own behavior because it will require a new paradigm and a new way of brain power and a re-routing of the synapses and neurons in the brain. This is especially true IMHO with people who are complacently comfortable with their chosen lifestyle and sincerely believe that their personal right and liberty trump just about anything else on this planet. That means using as much fossil fuel as they want while denying climate change is real, having as many children as they desire while denying birth control to others, warehousing and slaughtering any animal deemed fit for human consumption while demanding that animal activists and environmentalists are "terrorists". Building wherever they can, consuming and eating whatever they wish and growing as much water-consuming and herbicide-and pesticide-ladden lush green grass as possible. These mindsets all have a similar theme and it is abundant especially in the USA, which screams out that they have a right to do whatever they damn well please. Period. That is their mindset and it is twisted and dangerous and selfish and gluttonous but it is common and it is real and it is prevalent.

ryan said...

I thought it was a fine rant even if it didn't do much for me. Personally I plant about 50% natives in my garden and in the ones I design, and I tend to ignore absolutist positions. Gardening is sort of an anti-absolutist activity in general; the plants and animals and microbes seem to have it in for people who want the 100% answer to garden things. And the extremists -- the vehemently pro-native and anti-native activists -- tend to make a lot of noise that makes it harder for people who just want to see a variety of healthy gardens. And maybe you put yourself into the extremist category. But who cares. Gardening is about doing what you want; everyone should just tend their own gardens. If the plants are happy and they like it, who cares what someone on the internet thinks, right? Rant on with your bad self.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Ryan -- my point is exactly about healthy gardens. And low maintenance ones. I see people with mixed ornamental gardens spraying or fertilizing or amending all the time. In my mostly native garden the bad bugs get eaten by the good -- I've created a balanced, self-maintaining ecosystem, and I never fertilize. And I could have more of a balanced garden if I started over. I'm inviting health into my garden by championing native plants adapted to this region and the wildlife. That doesn't sound absolutist to me, it sounds smart and in tune. Gardening is about doing what you want, but what we want may not be the best thing for the health of this planet -- just like so much of doing what we want is undermining our future health and prosperity; this is my larger point in the rants, and probably at the core of resistance as DG says just before you above.

Gaia Gardener: said...

"Gardening with natives is as much an act of defiance toward those who destroy our natural world as it is a willingness to listen to our deepest selves and embrace the joy and terror of our connection to this planet." In that one sentence you've encapsulated the entire debate, to me. "Nature" seems to cause a real terror in many people (sadly encouraged by "the only good bug is a dead bug" type ads on TV). Sadly, controlling nature becomes, in their mind, absolutely necessary to their ability to live their lives. They don't want to hear that nature isn't so scary. They don't want to have to learn about nature. Learning is work. It's so much easier to just spray chemicals and "control."

Unknown said...

I started ripping my lawn out ten years ago...I was never one to plant in rows,etc., so I now have a yard that realliy looks wild but it is neat enough where its not ugly (iwould nver find it ugly but I do have some folks that do not get it) I put up my Pollinator Partnership and Monarch Watch signs and I am blessed with lots and lots of butterflies, bees all kinds of bugs, birds, snakes. Just found three baby glass snakes this a.m.
It makes me so happy.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Since I'm part of your choir, I'll just say: too bad more people don't get and act on the whole "understand your ecosystem and plant what will enhance that ecosystem" message.

Benjamin Vogt said...

GG--We are so afraid of the planet, I think it is a primal survival instinct. But our smarts mean we can poison and nuke it in minutes. Of course, the reverse is also true. It must start with raising kids differently -- every school should have a decent native plant garden, k-12, where all classes can use it (writing, art, biology, hisory...).
JS--Yesterday was the first day things seemed happening in the garden in that 4th dimension. I just felt my heart leap out of my chest when I saw bees and a butterfly fly back and forth across my path. It was a moment of pure joy. Pure joy.
AAF--We need to fine tune our choir, than pump up the jam. :)

Unknown said...

I loved the rant....can't believe anyone would disagree! I have no lawn's all native flower's and shrubs and ferns, and i have every certification you can possibly get. I'm a Monarch Conservation Specialist so you can imagine that I'm all about the milkweed! Thanks for taking up the sword!!

Lee said...

I'm just finding your blog and subscribing. I too am a native plant gardener and this spring I renovated the neighborhood native plant demonstration garden. You wouldn't believe the amount of resistance and bureaucracy I encountered, even though I volunteered my time and personally bought $200 worth of mulch and supplies. I was shocked at the emotional outbursts from my neighbors and the housing assoication management! I look forward to reading your blog. Lee

Benjamin Vogt said...

TN--I made the mistake of calling out hosta and daylily fans. I think this means I need to make up a whole list over overused, non beneficial, non native plants. :)
LR--A neighborhood plant demonstration garden? How cool and progressive! There's an island bed in a cul de sac here I'd love to plant, but yeah, the red tape, the fighting, I don't think I could do that.

lilcatfeet56 said...

Please continue to rant. Let us all rant for a healthier earth.

I began my conversion to natives fully last April. I continue to add and learn as go along. I have never done anything more satisfying in my life.

I am appalled this year at the lack of bees in my garden. Last year I had all types of bees, each plant was teeming with bee life. This year I am lucky to see two or three big carpenter bees. The honey bees somehow are still around but not as plentiful. But where are my bumble bees?

I suspect my ignorant neighbors sprayed some "horrifying" bugs and along with them killed the bees. Rant, rant, rant. Idiots, please stop killing the bees

I educate every chance I get. My neighbors thought I was insane at first, now they tell me nice my garden looks. Then they go home and mow, blow and stink up the air.

baby steps....

Diana said...

another choir member.
When I planted the rose garden, with lots of indigenous, my niece said but, where are the roses. I renamed it, Paradise and Roses. The rosebushes are sorting themselves out into a few tough survivors - and Paradise is flourishing. 4 beds, each colour themed, and more fun for being indigenous choices, instead of the same old same old seen in temperate gardens across the world.

Gardens-In-The-Sand said...

I always figger that those peeps who complain the loudest feel the most guilt.

The rest of us can read your rant, comfortable in the knowledge that we are doing what we can to encourage the local wildlife with the natives that we have... and the few exotics in our gardens... aren't worth defending...

After reading that nandina is killing birds... I've begun a campaign of dig and destroy...

the food I grow... doesn't need defending... I have to eat too... and the organic produce I grow is safe... can't say the same for that junk at the supermarket...

The electricity I use... Isn't much...
And as the peeps made a big dealio out of it on the previous article... I had a solar array on my previous house... Unfortunately it isn't feasible now... And if the govt supported solar... like they do big oil and monsanto... wouldn't be a prob... I voted for Obama... he didn't get the progressive policies going that I hoped for...

Typical provocations by RWNJs on your previous post...try to distract from the subject... rather than acknowledge truth... and discuss the actual post...

Michael Hoag said...

Mmmm. Daylily flowers and roots are DELICIOUS!

I appreciate and celebrate your perspective, and I'd like to offer you a different one.

Gardening IS a moral act.

One of the first things I did when establishing our large ecological garden was to divide the small, overcrowded patch of daylilies and spread them around our yard.

I intended doing so to be a profoundly moral act.


I love native plants.

I especially love to eat them.

Over the last 10 years, I have worked hard to be able to say that I get a large portion of my vegetarian diet from natives.

In this regard, I'm probably in the top .00001 Americans.

And yet, I still get a large majority of my diet from evil invaders.

So, without a radical long-term project to change the world diet and culinary technology, we will grow non-natives.

The question becomes: where to grow natives and where to grow non-natives? Here is where we differ.


Every new inhabited landscape should be an edible one. We have a strong moral imperative to do so.

In fact, in the suburbs and especially in urban areas, we have a moral imperative to replace the often poorly installed native gardens of the past with edible landscapes.

Each time we do so it is a powerful victory for ecology, for health, for social justice, for the climate, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, for native ecosystems!

Edible landscapes can be designed to be irrigation free, chemical free, low maintenance and incredibly beautiful.

And they can include a large number of native species.

But we Americans MUST change the way we get our food.

The average US carrot is shipped 2,000 miles before someone eats it! Which explains part of why our food system is our number 1 contributor to oil use and carbon pollution.

Using our urban and suburban landscapes to grow our food WHERE PEOPLE ACTUALLY LIVE has an immense direct impact on fossil fuel use, climate, and resource depletion.


Non-native edible landscapes save more native species than native gardens.

1 acre of suburban land (which would be poor for wildlife) dedicated to ecological food gardening can produce a complete diet for a family.

This highly moral act will free up more than 20 acres (the "normal" American diet requires 7+ acres/person) of uninhabited land to return to wildlife habitat from farm monoculture, in a location where it will have immense REAL value to native wildlife. Workspace and public land SHOULD be used to amplify this effect.

Meanwhile, planting a "native" garden in the suburbs requires you to use more chemicals, energy, resources and land to produce your food. Often, this destroys areas that are rich in wildlife.

Gardening is a moral act.

In addition to the obvious ecological impact of planting edible landscapes including non-natives, there is a massive social justice effect.

As we all hear over and over again, we grow and waste more food than we could use as a nation, and as a planet. And yet people starve. Even here in the USA.

Clearly, the problem is not one of production, but of our system of distribution.

Using urban and suburban space to create a forage-scape of healthy, chemical free food could help radically change our food distribution system. Using public space to feed the public is profoundly moral.


I applaud your efforts. I do not assume that I have all the answers. I could be wrong.

But if you encourage people to plant more natives, and I encourage people to grow more food, I think we'll both be doing good work for the planet.

I just hope you'll reconsider the strength of your argument, which could be seen as discouraging mine.

After all, even hostas (which are fugly) are edible, and could be important food sources with some breading work.

I hope one day my edible garden is as beautiful as your native garden.

It is amazing and quite inspirational.