And here’s what Allan Armitage has to say about natives


While browsing the Timber Press website, I came across this excerpt from Allan Armitage’s 2006 book, Native Plants for North American Gardens. It seems like a great companion for the Tallamy book, which is not meant to be a comprehensive list. But what interested me is Armitage’s view on natives:

Like many gardeners, I enjoy mixing natives with exotics; I am simply not capable of limiting myself to one or the other exclusively. Most gardeners are country blind, and that is a good thing. Our gardens and landscapes are richer for the diversity and assimilation. Some people prefer to celebrate only those plants which “belong” here, and they will talk you to death about why this is right. I like to celebrate plants that work in my garden, and I let the plants do the talking.
When I see a perfect miscanthus or a gorgeous scaevola, I will not feel guilty that I didn’t plant buffalo grass or copper canyon daisy in its place. Does a chocoholic spurn Ghirardelli or Godiva because they aren’t made in Hershey, Pennsylvania? There is sufficient diversity in native material to have all sorts of different plants, but why eliminate the rest of the world in a zeal for America? Good grief, we are gardeners, not Minutemen!

And then Armitage goes on to explain his distaste for absolutist preaching that natives are the only way to garden. I think many gardeners feel the same way. But I also agree with Tallamy that some proselytizing is necessary to get more natives introduced into landscapes dominated by lawns and meatball shrubs.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I agree.

    Having just moved from an ecosystem that was probably 95% non-native, the indigenous Hawaiian ecosystem having vanished long ago, I witnessed the building and creation of a new ecosystem as new plants and animals were introduced on purpose or accidentally. Outside of truly aggressive invasive species, a balance was generally achieved by the bulk of the introduced species in a relatively short time.

    My Hawaiian garden was filled with all the small reptiles, insects, birds and mammals that had established themselves in my part of Maui from the far flung corners of the world. They made use of the diverse palette of plants, the leaf litter added and left where it fell and a non-toxic organic approach to gardening. A healthy vibrant totally foreign ecosystem flourished.

    If I had planted more native Hawaiian plants, I do not think it would have encouraged native Hawaiian birds, insects or other life forms. At my close to sea level elevation they were long gone. Any that may have remained would have had to compete with all the introduced species. Granted Hawaii is a unique situation. It is different on the mainland

    Many insect species and small animals can be quite host specific to certain plants, some to the point of a single plant species they need to survive. With the loss of habitat and resulting loss of the plant hosts, species can go extinct. That is one good reason to plant natives if we are able to actually grow them successfully in our gardens.

    Habitat loss and degradation in the form of suburban chemical monocultures is probably far more responsible for volume of species loss than a lack of native plants. Many non-native garden plants are quite useful to native insects and animals. Species diverse gardens designed to attract wildlife and that are not doused in chemicals will be host to abundant forms of life.

    Now this is not meant to say don’t plant native plants. We should. I just think it can only be viewed as one part of a multi pronged approach to making our gardens part of the biopreserve. We will get a lot more species preservation by having safe diverse gardens designed to attract wildlife in general.

  2. I like Armitage’s approach; it fits well with the philosophy of “In all things, moderation.” A garden is not a wilderness, although it is good to plant with wildlife in mind. My garden is mostly native plants, but, as it is my garden, I include those non-invasive exotics that appeal to me & make the garden more attractive, as well as fit in with the style & maintenance regime. I checked this book out of the library when it was 1st published &, as I recall, it was 1 I would consider for my home library.

  3. I too like Armitage’s approach, because any sort of absolutism makes me cranky. Our property has long hosted plenty of native as well as naturalized and exotic species, and I’ve long recommended adding native plants to other gardeners mixes.

    Thirty years ago, there weren’t all that many people gardening organically. Some were strident and ardent and put others off by their zeal Others simply did what they did, and encouraged–but didn’t browbeat–other gardeners to try a kinder, gentler way of gardening. That’s the approach I still choose to take when it comes to gardening.

    NOT that there aren’t things that will cause me to throw a tantrum–there sure are, and there’s a post coming–but we are being browbeaten constantly with laws and covenants and regulations and over-regulations and proselytising… and strident native-only gardeners only put most people off, rather than winning more fans of native plants. I’ll plant my native viburnums and ericaceous plants and spring ephemerals and hardwoods and softwoods; but also whatever other attractive plants work in our climate, benefit birds and beneficial insects, and bring joy to my heart. Isn’t that what gardening is about?

  4. I’m with Armitage, but then I usually agree with anything he says. My gardening palette would be severely limited if I restricted myself to the native plants of my region and ecosystem. Sagebrush and rabbitbrush, anyone? I don’t have any qualms about choosing Cornus kousa over C. florida, because NEITHER are native to my region. C. kousa survives better, and provides a little fun for the birds. I try to avoid invasive or potentially invasive plants for my region, but what may be invasive a scant 120 miles away on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains may barely survive here with plenty of care. If it’s been seen to be invasive in my area, I don’t plant it. If it’s a new (to me) plant known to be extremely vigorous in Central Asia, Mongolia or the Russian Steppes and has fleshy fruit or a large number of seeds, I won’t try it.

    I do plant native plants as I find sources for seed or plants; I’ve got a nice little colony of Penstemon palmeri and a clump of Allium platycaule going. I’m still looking for a seed source for an Eriogonum unique to an area East of here and the only source of nectar for a rare local butterfly (Don’t bother to send suggestions–I’ve been through even the obscurest of sources). If it’s not sagebrush, rabbit brush or a large woody plant,it’s native to this area and commercially available (seed or plant), chances are I’m either growing it or trying to grow it.

    But I’m not trying to grow anything in isolation: it all goes into the mad mix in my garden. That’s half the fun.

  5. Armitage has a clearly sensible approach to gardening with natives and non-natives. The ‘abolitionists’ forget one big factor and that is the presence of human beings in the landscape. Of course ‘thinking’ beings are going to affect the environment for both good and bad but plant diversity makes life that much more interesting and, for the most part, better.

  6. Agreed on both points – I’m in the camp that likes to mix and match, and I have no trouble bringing my veggies and exotics in among my respected native plants. With that, I’m equally as excited to help others learn more about the plants which grow wild in their locality… it’s so easy to gloss over the landscape and miss out on the importance of plants (big and small) which shape the ecosystems in our areas.

  7. I agree that there should be moderation in all things, and think that native plant purists who despise the rest of us don’t do their cause any favors. Which is too bad because it is vital to understand WHY natives are important and the dangers of invasives. Now that the leaves are off the trees, as I drive down Rt 2 in Western Massachusetts I can see the thick tall vines of bittersweet that are strangling the trees along a long section of the road. It is alarming to see their vigor and to try and imagine how so many plants with such vital seeds can be eradicated.

  8. His “argument” is so thin (shallow) and ignorant I hardly know where to start. The previous rant covers a few of the relevant points, thankfully.

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