In Defense of Gardening


Sorry, but when GardenRant was moved to WordPress and to a different server, the beginning of this post was somehow lost.  I believe I’m referring to hearing an NWF spokesman interviewed on the Earthbeat Radio.

Also, if we plant natives, we’ll help wildlife and conserve water because “natives don’t need extra water. (Though some plants apparently didn’t get that memo, starting with Cornus florida, especially compared to its Asian counterpart.)

All of which led me to finally consult the NWF’s Gardener’s Guide to Global Warming for further instruction.

One of the ways people are harming ecosystems is by introducing nonnative (“exotic”) species into places that are outside of their natural habitat range.  In fact, many of the most popular garden plants are exotic species, brought in from another part of the country or from places around the world. Although not all exotic species cause problems for native ecosystems, a number of nonnative plants have become highly invasive in their new surroundings, outcompeting native species and turning diverse ecosystems into virtual monocultures.

Anybody feeling defensive yet?  But native plants are threatened directly by climate change, too:

Shifts in average temperatures, precipitation patterns and other changes due to global warming will mean that many native and iconic plants may no longer find suitable climate conditions in major portions of their historic range.

She’s referring to their prediction that 28 state trees and flowers will no longer exist in large parts of their native range by the end of the century.  And just when I’m wondering about the seeming contradiction of advising us to grow plants that aren’t doing so well these days, here’s the explanation:

Incorporate a diversity of native plants into your landscape.  That way, if some plants succomb to extreme events, such as heat waves, there is a likelihood that some important plants will still be available to support wildlife.

Soooo, the only way we can stop doing harm is to convert our gardens into preserves for indigenous plants, using a large assortment of them so that after the weak ones succomb, there will still be some survivors. That way we can “feel good knowing that you’re not adding even more on top of this problem.”

I know I can be a pain complaining about generalizations – from any source – but have I mentioned that sometimes they confuse the public, whose gardening attempts so often result in plant death, disappointment over the resulting appearance, and the eventual abandonment of gardening altogether?

Here’s another example:

Practice xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is an approach to landscaping that minimizes outdoor water use while maintaining soil integrity through the use of native, drought-tolerant plants.

Is that really the common definition of xeriscaping?  Wikipedia’s entry only mentions native plants once and it’s to make a very different point: “Appropriate choice and arrangement of a plant (or plants) – where possible, plants that are native to the area or to similar climates, as well as other plants that tolerate or avoid water stress.”

I just see how easily the earnest people in my earnest little town are discouraged in their attempts to garden.  They need some seriously practical advice, not what Michele and others have aptly described as rhetoric.

On a happier note, Earthbeat host Mike Tidwell had the good sense to include Todd Forrest of the New York Botanical Garden on the show.  Here’s what Todd had to say to gardeners:

Our position in the environment as gardeners should make us feel we’re important and have more enthusiasm about our contribution because by
making healthy green places, we mitigate climate globally.  Plants are part of the solution.  What you’re doing contributes to a more beautiful and healthier planet.

Whiteknight1Thanks, Todd.  That’s the impression I get when I look around my garden at the hundreds of plants teaming with insects and birds and way too many
squirrels.  It’s a happy mishmash of tough, no-care plants from all over the world, most of them seriously drought-tolerant.  I could be
wrong but it sure seems to make a positive contribution to the local air, water and wildlife.  I know it has a positive effect on the
spirit of most everyone who sees it, smells it, breaths it, and hears it.  And that’s my defense of gardening.


  1. Go Susan! Since no one really knows what is going to happen, perhaps it will be the native plants that run amok! Diversity will be the key and nature will decide, not us! Man plans, nature laughs!

  2. First rule: choose appropriate plants for the location. Too many people don’t. So I’m not clear why the antagonism toward National Wildlife Fund? Natives, as a general rule, are adapted to the local environment so would be near the top of the list of “appropriate” plants to survive with less maintenance.

    But of course, people want more. And you can argue, When did that become a native plant? A million years ago? A thousand years ago? Plants have always managed to find a way to move around the planet. And since humans are a product of nature as well, humans moving plants from one location to another follows the natural course. I know, not a new argument.

    It’s not generalities we trip over so much as iron-fisted fanaticism in one direction or another. People should just try to garden more naturally, stop using chemicals, use less water. The rest of it is just side dressing.

    But Susan, whatever happened to the argument over the USDA hardiness zones that was the first segment on the Earthbeat show, and the admission from the USDA spokeswoman that the feds have fallen behind re-drawing their hardiness zones because their mappers have been stuck in Iraq?

  3. I’m with Ed….fanaticism either way is a major turn-off to anyone who is even considering getting into this whole gardening thing. Natives are great, and I have many in my garden, but my yard would be nothing without the dwarf korean lilacs, morning glories, and siberian irises, none of which are native, and all of which thrive here in Detroit. And, like Susan, the constant activity of birds, squirrels, butterflies, bees, and millions of insects in my garden tells me that they’re perfectly happy.

  4. Well, Ed’s scooped me on the Iraq War-USDA Zone Map connection – he appeared on that same radio show and tipped me off to the story – and I had a much more amusing article about it that I was going to publish later today. But believe me when I tell you it included a damn clever use of this link:

  5. I knew the promotion of natives had legs when our local newspaper actually published a survey of WNY natives in their gardening column.

    It makes absolutely no sense for me to plant these to the exclusion of the annuals and exotics I need to make my urban courtyard garden work, however. So, like Susan, I’m just trying to keep things as green, fragrant, and chemical-free as possible.

    Had I a larger property and more yard, I would be all over the meadow idea, though.

  6. What these native advocates are ignoring is that climate change will also affect insects, which will have a direct impact on whether or not natives continue to thrive. If the native pollinators are unable to adapt to a temperature increase, it won’t matter how many native plants there are in the landscape–they’re not likely to survive (unless non-native pollinators take over the job). Native plants (god, how I hate using that term) are great, but I wish the native plant militants would take a pill.

    As for the definition of xeriscaping, it really does seem too narrow. Here in the Bay Area where we have a Mediterranean climate, xeriscaping includes drought-tolerant plants from other Med climates–South African plants are particularly common here in xeriscapes. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  7. fanaticism aside, earthbeat is hands down a hippy show. it’s on the radio and the entire point is to make you feel like there’s tons of work to do on your lifestyle as you drive to or from work. it’s guaranteed to make you defensive, but at least it makes you think. the point you guys drive home here is that people who garden, garden for joy. and joy doesn’t come from robotically putting things in the ground off a master list.

  8. I have three words for you: Yellow bush lupine. A California native that is perfectly fine in Sonoma County, but drive north for a few hours to Humboldt County and it’s invasive.

    I’m all in favor of choosing native plants if that’s what you’re into. I grow some natives, too. And I’m absolutely in favor of preserving wilderness areas and habitats.

    But our strategy for environmentally-friendly gardening needs to be organic, water-wise, disease/pest resistant, and non-invasive.

    I grow salvias that come from Mexico and points south. They’re not native, but they need no water, they get no diseases or pests, they bloom like crazy, and the bugs and the bees love them.

  9. To clarify what I said earlier, I don’t think this is an either/or proposition. I’m not even an ornamental gardener, more a vegetable gardener (although I am finishing the “Organic Landscaping” course, offered this year in the USDA Master’s program for the first time), but I do get the concepts.

    Some gardeners may be equating “non-native” species with “invasive” species. Some people may be assuming that all plants “native” to your area will work in your particular garden.

    Gardeners should use what works for them–provided the plants don’t pose a threat to the surrounding environment. This could include “natives,” if by that you mean native plants that are suited to the conditions in your garden. It could include “non-natives,” if by that you mean plants that originated elsewhere but also happen to thrive in the conditions of your particular garden.

    The bad choices (other than invasives, whether native or non-native) are plants that just won’t thrive in the area where you want to use them, or require so much care–chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, constant preening and pruning–that you are posing a threat to the environment, or you just quit gardening altogether out of sheer frustration.

  10. I’m still trying to digest the fact that earthworms aren’t native.


    I have tried to include native plants in my garden, but one of the things that puzzles me about the “native” plant thing is the definition of the word. What factors define the geographical area that includes “native plants”? State boundaries? Maine is at least 8 hours by car from stem to stern, or the distance between Portland and New Jersey. New England? North America? Zone 5? Coastal climate? Sandy loam? Within the monarch butterfly’s migration zone?

    What exactly constitutes “native”?

  11. Firefly;

    I have had exactly the same thoughts as you. The best definition of native I have heard was from a Dr. Tellamy (I think it’s Jerome or Jeremy?) from the U. of Delaware. A point he made in a lecture i heard was that birds, reptiles, insects, etc. have all co-evolved over many generations, if not thousands of years, with certain plants. There is a symbiotic relationship between them without which neither can survive. So this would be a “native” plant – one which supports other forms of life, sometimes in a quite specific manner. The Monarchs may take nectar from many plants, but need milkweeds reproduce, for instance.

    The other point he made that resonated with me is that, since such a large part of America has been converted to suburbs, the suburbs are the new ecosystem – and it is our responsibility as gardeners to maintain the ecosystem. He did say, however, that his statement did NOT preclude the use of non-natives – just to include natives, replant tree cover, and do all the other things mentioned above re grass, fertilizer, power tools, etc.
    It made great practical sense to me.

  12. For the record, I love natives. Invasives suck.

    But if the selling point of natives is that they are well adapted to the site, well so are invasives. Kudzu is supremely well adapted to the disrupted ecosystems of the south.

    Does kudzu also encroach on healthy mixed hardwood forests too? Educate me. I don’t have personal experience so I’m using kudzu as a kind of hypothetical example here.

    Continuing, I’d bet that that mixed hardwood forest is what we really want to sequester carbon (or similar climax vegetation depending on the particular site). But is kudzu better at sequestering carbon and healing soil than the vegetation it replaces on disturbed sites? (I’m thinking road cuts, worn out, abandoned farmland, etc.) I’m working on the assumption that kudzu thrives mostly where soils have been messed up and other plants can’t compete.

    Please don’t think that I’m advocating kudzu again. But there are some serious plant ecology and soil quality questions here that I simply don’t know the answers to.

  13. Having lived in an obliterated ecosystem and watched the progression of new arrivals adapting and finding balance and symbiotic relationships on their own, I echo Layanee. Nature will laugh at the plans of man.

    We can’t predict who will thrive and who will die. Diversity in a chemical free system is our best bet.

    At this point I am only willing to consider not using plants that are prolific seeders, that can form huge monocrops, spread far past a single garden space and smother out other plants as they go. If I want to spend the time coaxing along an inapproprite plant to the site without massive chemical input than that is my choice. I am not likely to do that though, that’s not my style.

  14. Still trying to figure out why the author of this blog has such a huge chip on her shoulder about native plants.

    You like native plants, plant ’em. You don’t like native plants…don’t plant ’em. Very simple.

    I work at a nursery, and you better believe that when customers ask me questions about what they should plant where, I tell them all their options, then encourage them to use natives if possible.

  15. I think the point of using native species is that you are supporting an ecosystem of insects and birds that have evolved to eat them in that locality. I attended a talk with D. Tallamy and, in response to my question about how choosy indigenous insects are, he said many are Genera specific, not species. So, there is hope for ornamentals originating outside of our regions. I think the native plant movement has lost sight of the forest for the trees.

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