Gardening’s Culture of Invasion – and the Solution Is?


Next let’s add good ‘ole capitalism to the mix.  Thompson
asserts that most landscaping, such as it is, is installed to increase
the value of our homes, so no wonder it consists mainly of lining up
green things along the foundation and spreading a toxic greensward
across the front. Then gardeners are encouraged by the industry to lust
after newness – the latest exotic discovery, the latest horticultural
product.  And Thompson described that lust as "me, me, me, and my, my,
my."  So by the time that some famously bad actors in the plant world
were exhibited on the screen, even the ones brought to this country for
purposes other than gardening, (erosion control in the case of kudzu),
we nature-lover/gardeners in the audience were starting to feel pretty
bad about ourselves.  The term "self-hating gardener" might even apply.

Which certainly leads me to wonder what gives with this
nurseryman who’s making me feel guilty about being his customer.
Seriously, I know that Behnke’s almost went bankrupt two years ago and
now I’m wondering if this anti-gardening campaign by its owner is a
factor in its struggles. And even more interesting is his involvement
on the Maryland Invasive Species Council representing the nursery
industry and his membership on a similar federal body representing only
himself.  I’m curious as hell about his relations with the rest of his
industry, most of whom presumably want to stay in business, but I

Thompson next turned to the commonly suggested alternative
to destructive plants – natives – and once again I’m listening closely
because he’s no wild-eyed environmental theorist; he’s a knowledgeable
gardener.  And the disappointing reality is that very few natives do
very well as garden plants. Why? For starters, very few of them
tolerate being moved, much less the harsh treatment that plants receive
in the nursery business. Soils in this area are no longer right for
native plants, since the pH was altered for farming. Native plants are
vulnerable nowadays to imported diseases. And big surprise here, he
said that earthworms contribute to the problem, calling them invasive
destroyers of native plants.  (Amy, weigh in here!)Japanstone2_1

Conversely, imported plants, especially those from Asia,
like the amended soil and are immune to many pests and diseases. We use
nonnatives because they’re cheap, drought-tolerant, tough, grow
anywhere, and are easy to care for.  Apparently the term "they do well
here" is often used to describe nonnatives, and Thompson invited his
audience to share his disapproval of this attitude.  He described the
"inherent conflict for gardeners" as the fact that plants that "do
well" are more likely to do too well if they find their way into
natural areas, out-competing native plants and changing ecosystems for
the worse.  A photo very similar to this one was exhibited as the
"ultimate noninvasive garden" and left on the screen throughout the
Q&A session.  Was this meant as another slap on the wrist – bad
gardener – or a bleak prediction of the future of gardening? I’m
genuinely clueless.

So at the completion of this horrifying recitation of damage
caused my gardening, Susie Sunshine here asked, "So, John Peter, your
talk was so compelling; now what kind of plants do you suggest we
grow?"  You know, very solution-oriented, seeking answers from the
great environmentalist-gardener. There were two mumbled answers.  One,
to cite a native plant installation in the Annapolis area which "the
public doesn’t like."  Bad public!  And upon seeing my disappointment,
he suggested that the garden writer Colston Burrell had some
interesting thoughts on the subject, but offered no hints about what
they are. 

Readers, help me out here because I’m genuinely bewildered
by this man’s message.  I even scrutinized the hand-outs in search of
answers and I thought I found some promising ideas in one called "Using
Beneficial Plants" produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s
Chesapeake Bay Office. Beneficial plants are those that "require
minimal maintenance because they’re well adapted to local climate and
soil types."  They include native plants and the "many horticultural
varieties and imported plants that are also deemed beneficial if they
have few maintenance requirements and are not invasive.  Invasives are
a small percentage of those introduced species that have become
extremely aggressive.  Even some native plants can become undesireable
because of their invasiveness."   So reasonable, so refreshingly
nondoctrinaire.  However, the only beneficial plants actually named in
the brochure were the usual very short list of native plants in this
area.  So, still in my problem-solving mode, I asked Thompson in a
follow-up conversation where I could find a list of nonnative
beneficial plants and his reply was that nonnatives could be neutral
but they were never beneficial, "although I shouldn’t say that because
that’s what I sell."  I really admire the guy, but it sounds like he
has trouble sleeping at night.

I remain confused as hell but unshaken in my belief that
gardening can be not only unharmful but actually beneficial to the
environment.  After all, most gardens are created on suburban and urban
lots that were completely nature-less except for a swath of grass and a
shrub or two.  Hardly a "natural" situation, which is in my opinion the
primary reason that native plants don’t "do well" in our gardens.
(Especially in my area, most native plants are woodland plants, so why
we expect them to flourish around our homes is a mystery.)  Looking at
the hundreds of varieties of plants in my garden and the abundant
wildlife attracted to them, I feel certain that my garden is more
helpful than harmful.

And my message to nurserymen who do want to stay in business
is to get really good at producing beneficial plants for today’s
environmentally conscious gardeners.  If they’re natives, well and
good, but more likely they’ll be tough cultivars of natives and tough
imports from climates and conditions similar to our gardens.  They
may be sterile cousins of aggressive spreaders.  I sure don’t know all
the answers but guys, it’s your business to lose so get to work.


  1. (Originally posted on Takoma Gardener,under “Rants,” where these comments were made. Links to commenters are available there.)

    Wow. What a strange agenda for this guy to have. I suppose he’s the very definition of a hippie… his social/environmental/political agenda takes precedence to his capitalistic agenda. I guess he should be commended for believing in his views so strongly that he’s willing to put himself out of business. Or maybe he needs some meds.

    I don’t really know what to say in terms of his argument (not really sure what it is… cover everything in gravel?) but I feel confident that regardless of what I plant (short of known, serious invasives), the work I’m doing to improve my truely dead and horrible soil is absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, more beneficial than the swimming pool and concrete my neighbor filled her backyard with.

    Posted by: Heather | January 27, 2006 at 11:47 AM

    Have we been so manipulated by marketing that we assume every natural thing to be good? Gardening is unnatural–but so is fighting pneumonia with antibiotics. Poison ivy is natural, but not beneficial to human beings.

    I, too, would have been frustrated by the lack of suggested alternatives. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I need an alternative…gardening is unnatural and I accept it as such. (Installed landscapes aren’t even gardens–maybe, that’s another point he was trying to get across.)

    My city environment has already been altered and will never return to nature. But I can improve the habitat and soil through gardening and improve my mental and physical health in the process. And I can make something pretty. Art, by definition, is not natural. But it’s good.

    Posted by: M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) | January 27, 2006 at 12:16 PM

    As a gardener I feel my intentions are good, however, I do feel gardening is zoo-like in that I am taming and enclosing the plants & environment around me. A person’s garden changes the original scene. I work within that scene learning all I can about it in hopes it will benefit what I am changing. Our environment has been so altered over time in ignorance, greed and neglect that its only salvation is the human being that takes time to make a garden. And the more educated that gardener becomes, the better the end result.

    Posted by: Judith’s Garden | January 27, 2006 at 01:18 PM

    Very unusual tatics. I mean he has the means to shape the kind of plants he sells. If he was truly into changing the culture of gardening he could market natives, or push growers to develop natives that are more friendly to the garden, which in turn would make them more friendly to the environment they find themselves in in the wild.

    High Country Gardens has certainly done this for western xeriscape (drought tolerant) gardens.

    Posted by: millionbells | January 27, 2006 at 03:04 PM

    Thanks so much for putting the time into writing this post. Very interesting reading, especially the summary of the historical development of gardens in the West. Very strange though that he didn’t have ready-made antidotes to what he was ranting against. It’s as if he prepared only half the lecture.

    I liked the previous commenters’ contributions, and must remember that phrase “installed landscape”. I always found it hard to refer to that sort of planting as a “garden”.

    Posted by: Val | January 27, 2006 at 04:21 PM

    Sounds like this lecture was a downer, although you made an interesting post out of it. I’ve been warned that the native plant people can get a bit extreme, and now I see why!

    I’ve only recently taken an interest in the SC native plant society, and I’ve heard mostly positive messages so far. They suggest avoiding growing certain nasty invasives (ie Honeysuckle and Wisteria around here) and grow some native plants to attract the local birds and butterflies.

    Seems to make a lot more sense than covering your yard in gravel!

    Posted by: Nelumbo | January 28, 2006 at 06:57 PM

    Thank you for writing so well about invasive species and natives and the problems we gardeners face.

    Would you mind if I pointed people to this post? It’s an idea that needs as much sunlight as it can get.

    Posted by: debra roby | January 28, 2006 at 07:57 PM

    Perhaps he gave the lecture in the hope that the audience would provide the answers he obviously doesn’t have. I would certainly agree with some of his points, but the truth is that we live in an unnatural world, eg, cities, roads, factories, etc. We have to make the best choices we can for living within this world, because those things are not going to change, rather than pining to return to the ‘old days’ (whatever and whenever they were?)just because we’re too lazy to find an acceptable solution.

    Good on you, Susan, for taking the time and effort to share this conundrum with us. I’ll be interested to see how things progress, and will undoubtedly put in ‘my five cents worth’ from time to time.

    Posted by: Alice | January 30, 2006 at 03:10 PM

    I received the following response from John Peter Thompson via email. Notice by his credentials at the end what an influential guy he is, and I’d say we have a dialogue going on here. Susan

    Thank you for giving me an opportunity to enter into what should prove to be a lively exchange of thoughts and ideas. I propose to respond to each thought in order presented in the review focusing on the issue of invasives and gardening.

    The idea that gardeners were ‘wound tightly’ does not address the basis for gardening in the first place. I maintain that the principle basic reason of securing the home with a garden border is personal safety no matter which culture. I did not choose to give this presentation from an Asian or African example because we live in a Western European base-line culture and, so, only touch on the philosophies of other cultures. I had hoped to demonstrate that other cultures most surely influence our personal choices, but in the end, Western European traditions prevail here in the United States. I take no position as to whether that is good or bad. I simply state that it is.

    We are as a society interested in personal space, and the safety or feeling of safety that comes with this space. In the final analysis, our urban/suburban homesteads are our castles, which were built upon historic hardwood forests here in the East Coast of the United States. We cleared the land because we needed open sunlit fields to produce the crops necessary for survival and the growth of the economy. We filled the spaces between our walls and our agricultural clearings with faint reflections of gardens planted and maintained by the wealthy. We planted these ornamental gardens to bring order, tranquility, peace, serenity, and a feeling of personal satisfaction. The control of diversity in the garden was accomplished by plant choices that worked well in many locations, were easy to find, and grew with little effort, helped us keep the irrational, chaotic, unpredictable, unsafe world outside of our view.

    The unsettling idea that gardens of merit from a historic basis are statements of wealth is perhaps more a reaction of hippies in general and not a statement of morality. It does not follow that because the great gardens were necessarily planted by the wealthy using their wealth that these creations of love were bad per se. In any real estate magazine one is shown homes with well manicured gardens and yards. Real estate shows continue to state that should you want to sell a house, a well kept yard will increase the value over the same property with no garden.

    As far as the industry creating “market-lust”, I think that the traditional view of capitalism requires us to have both a buyer and a seller. In other words, the industry and the gardener played a role together in creating a taste for the new. And I must point out that this is not true of the plant trade alone, but is pervasive through out our society: New Sells.

    I have struggled to bring information to the public, fully believing that an informed and educated public is my best customer. I refuse to make decisions for the public, because I think the customer will always be smarter than I am. I do however think that I am in a position to supply information that the consumer may not have readily at hand which includes careful consideration of certain “bad actors”.

    Now we get to the heart of the controversy. I have spent almost a decade attempting to separate the invasive issue from the Native-only movement. Unfortunately, the federal government’s executive order definition has made my efforts moot. Here is the federal executive order’s definition: ‘ “invasive species” is defined as a species that is 1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and 2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health’. Given that few gardeners were present at the creation of this definition and that many natural area managers were, it is not extraordinary to find the gardeners’ perspective absent. The very “cluelessness” expressed in the review has allowed the process to get as far as it has, which is to say, a process which sets out to protect natural areas from invaders including some of our most used garden plants. Some states, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, have already begun the process of banning garden plants. I have worked to keep that from happening here in our state.

    I find that the industry is not unhappy with my work, because I do not presume to dictate solutions. I simply offer one possible path to understanding how we as a society have arrived at this point. The fact is that there are some cutting edge garden designers and landscape architects who are attempting to use native plants solely in their creations, while others are working with a combination of native and non-aggressive non-natives. What I ask is exactly what is happening with this exchange: a dialogue through which a consensus will develop about the new directions in gardening which may take in account the greater ecology and the ideas of self sustaining eco-systems.

    I believe that before one can make critical judgments one must have access to as much information as possible. I believe that the consumer should choose and not have government choose for him. I think that the issue of invasive species is more complex than a one hour presentation can cover. I choose to provide my customers with choice and information based on research and experience. I agree that it would be more palatable if I were in a position to supply ready made answers to a problem that has been brewing for generations. I know that the challenge is greater than our gardens. What we did not mention are the microorganisms that bring diseases – invasive species; insects that bring destruction and disease from far away places – invasive species; plants that clog our waterways costing hundreds of millions of dollars to remove to keep commerce flowing – invasive species, and animals that destroy the ecology of natural areas, the very areas we need to filter our air and clean our water so that we can go on thinking about our lives today and avoiding tomorrow.

    John Peter Thompson
    Chairman, Behnke Nurseries Company
    Secretary, National Invasive Species Council Advisory Committee
    Past President Maryland Nursery and Landscape Association
    Past President Mid-Atlantic Exotic Pest Plant Council
    Chair-elect, Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce
    Member, Maryland Invasive Species Council
    Member, Environmental Affairs Committee, Perennial Plant Association
    Member, Steering Committee, Chesapeake Conservation Landscape Council

    Posted by: Takoma Gardener | March 05, 2006 at 05:05 PM

    Don’t judge the whole native plant movement on just one person. I’ve been active in the native plant society of texas for quite some time and most of us have quite a different attitude.

    To begin with there are many very attractive native plants that will do very well in the suburban garden or landscape and be easy to take care of.

    You can never make your little patch of land back to what it was before civilization arrived, but using just a few native plants might make your garden more attractive to butterflies for instance, or maybe just give it some more sense of being in a “place.”

    I think some nurserymen get a little bitter because they have to make a living and that usually means stocking and growing the type of plant that they don’t like or approve of.

    Posted by: bill | March 23, 2006 at 07:14 PM

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