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).