Getting Sucked In to the Native Plant Debate


Expert: When we bring in plants from other
cultures, we really upset the natural system. When I’m bringing in
exotics for a client,
like Mediterranean plants, for example, I treat them as exotics. I
might group
them together, put them in containers, or have them as a display
garden. But they’re set apart, as specimens for show, not part of the garden.

Me: (Trying to salvage the conversation, I point to a photo in this person’s book of a very boxy, modernist home with three square terraces, and one native grass planted over and over.)  I really like this. It’s very
sculptural, and it really seems to work with the house. It seems to say, “I meant to do
this,” not “I’ve just stopped mowing my lawn.” In certain kinds of
neighborhoods, I could see how this would be a good approach.

Expert: The reason you’re drawn to that is that it’s
very manipulated, very repetitive, very controlled. When you take a plant and
repeat it over and over, that’s called a monoculture. We’re invited to monoculture
because what we want to do as a species is we want to manipulate and control
our environment. That’s modernism—you take a box, repeat it, and repeat that
grid in the landscape. People say, oh, it has clean lines. You can see the shape and form of
the house. It’s all one color and shape. But that’s not nature.  Nature is diverse.  I’d want to see lots of diversity around that house to make up for that monoculture.

Sigh.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love our California natives, I’m all in favor of restoring and preserving wilderness areas, I plant natives in my own garden, and I’d like to see them used more in all those areas where tough, drought-tolerant plants are called for anyway–freeway medians, shopping center parking lots, those awful contractor-built subdivision gardens, and so on.  But I have to say–this attitude irked me.  I mean, of course we want to manipulate and control our environment.  That’s what a garden is. A house is also a manipulation of our environment, but it sure does keep the rain off. And by this line of reasoning, shall we ban lettuce, fruit trees, and carrots from the garden?  Those didn’t grow here in the redwood forest, either. Or do those go in my ‘Segregated Exotic Display Garden,’ perhaps behind bars?


  1. I hear you. I fully intended to plany natives in my backyard — which is a redwood forest by the way — but now that we’ve manipulated the hell out of it with our landscape plan, I’m finding that I want to plant the plants that I love, that I see thriving here, that I see the native birds thriving on, and that’s what I’m going to do. If I can slip some natives in there, too, then I will.

  2. My garden (which has not been “native” for about 400 years) has established a new homeostasis. To return this area to the homeostasis of the 1600’s would be completely unreasonable for the 200,000 people who inhabit this city. However, my backyard has many natives and non-natives that live together in a healthy, dynamic ecosystem which, yes, I attempt to control.

  3. Aren’t earthworms an import? And, of course, honeybees, but something is already taking care of those. I tend to agree, while avoiding any aggressive non-natives (like those pesky banana trees).

  4. I live in Montana where returning our backyards to Douglas fir or Lodgepole pine or sage and juniper would be the right thing to do. But it seems a small mend for what is a big and growing wound on the land: human habitation and all the infrastructure that goes with it.

    I think we should try to grow native plants as much as possible instead of plants that are invasive and potentially harmful, but more important to me is gardening without pesticides, conserving water, using natural soil amendments, and minimizing lawns in favor of plants that are more sustainable and useful.

    In these times, we do need to plant more trees. If it isn’t feasible to plant native trees in our front yard, there are some places where you can sponsor the planting of native trees on public lands.

    Wouldn’t it be cool to research the trees that used to grow in your backyard (and increase our biological literacy at the same time), and then donate funds to a state park or a national forest or park that would welcome the opportunity to restore areas devastated by logging or fire with the same species of tree?

    Kind of like carbon offsets… I’ll bet it’s already happening somewhere. Check out

  5. Yes, most of us are easily provoked when we can not get others to say what we want them to say. They should agree with us instead of stubbornly sticking to their guns in the face of what must surely be correct,right.

    An author or gardener may grow what they want in their own garden.And they may rant to others willing to listen about what they think is the correct way to garden. It is up to us to decide if we should listen and heed said advise.

    The native plant person is not wrong. If a storm, earthquake or volcano eruption caused the disruption of the land destroying all the mature redwoods what would have moved in until the redwoods recovered the land?

    You are not wrong. You will not be rebuilding the redwood forest in your neighborhood.
    You may agree to a compromise (or not) without agreeing with the other person. Trying to make others recant is a foolish path. Choosing our own path is still an option.

  6. Seriously navel-gazing!!! Wouldn’t it be better FIRST to plow up the ocean of asphalt we’ve made of our landscape? Then maybe we’ll have the luxury of fretting about the pedigree of our plants.

  7. Really interesting. But I can’t take it all too seriously. Most native plants demand less water and need less feeding, spraying, soil amendments, etc and also tend to be of more use to local birds and critters. Those are compelling reasons to use natives.

    Beyond that, all those precious arguments outlined in the post are just pretty abstract and annoying. At the end of the day, are people engaged in connecting with their land or aren’t they?

    If exotic plants are more rewarding and interesting to a gardener, then that’s what they will choose to live and work/play with. No harm, no foul. Done!

    I liked the reader suggestion about contributing to Park reforestation efforts to reforest areas where it will really matter, and on a grand scale that our remaining “megafauna” will benefit from.

  8. I think it is wrong to advise someone to plant redwood trees in a small urban or suburban garden. I think arborists (and your neighbors who would also be at risk if the tree fell) would probably agree. And that’s the problem I have with the hardliner native plant enthusiasts (that’s the nicest term I have for them). They only recognize a very limited side of the issue.

  9. As a research ecologist myself, when I started reading your article I thought I would agree with this so called expert. I love gardening with natives! What could be bad about that. In the end though I couldn’t really square what he was saying with what I know about ecology. The nature that I study is not always diverse. There are big patches of cattails that are pretty much monocultures for example. A lot of the science of ecology is about trying to figure out why some areas are more diverse than others.
    Also the entire northern coast of California was never completely covered with redwoods. There would have been fires or other natural disturbances that created open spaces. Why isn’t it ok to restore that in your yard. And I am with you Amy what is the point of a tiny patch of redwood in your back yard that makes your house dank and cold. Any native plant that you put in your garden is better than no native plants. This kind of absolutism baffles me.


  10. I love all the comments above, and this entry, Amy. I think we DO need absolutism, in healthy doses . Let’s face it, we won’t ever be abolutist in much since we’re mostly democratic (unless you’re a passionate freak of nature and get millions to follow you, which doesn’t happen often). Most of us will naturally, and rightly, fall somewhere in the middle of this debate. But, I’m inclined to believe that too many of us fall left of center, or, use too many non natives that become invasive and /or don’t support regional wildlife–the extinction rates of common songbirds, for example, prove what’s going on in our landscapes (though there are many causes). If it takes a nut job to pull us more to the center, then I’m pro nut, at least for a while.

  11. As someone who gardens on a 50′ by 150′ urban lot, the native plant debate has always been fairly academic for me. Given my small space, a plant has to have a lot going on to make it worthwhile for me. There are some Upper Midwest natives that can get the job done but I’m not going to limit my tiny garden to those plants. Now, of course, if I lived in a suburban McMansion on a 2-1/2 acre lot, imagine the native prairie and hardwood forest I could plant there — assuming that an eco-terrorist didn’t burn it down. But then I’d have to worry about my expanded carbon footprint. No, I’ll stick on the “exotic” side of this debate, although I’m committed to keeping myself educated about both sides.

  12. That’s funny, I read the article you’re talking about (didn’t realize that you were the author).

    Putting a grove of redwoods in a small yard (especially one in the city) is nuts.I thnk plants of the coastal prairie/scrub would be much more advisable. Or smaller trees of the redwood forest like wax myrtle, cascara, or alder to create a canopy for woodland wildflowers.

    It’s too harsh to condemn our attractions to managed landscapes as deeply rooted evils. Biodiversity, safety, food gardens, and creativity are all beautiful things. In heavily populated areas, especially, thoughtful, mix-used management is the way to go.

  13. Frankly, I’d take someone planting ANY plants in their yard over putting in paving, a waterfall and an outdoor kitchen they’ll never use!
    Having said that, I think these “experts” fail to take into account that evolution is all about adaptation. The earth will, on a geologic time scale, adapt to what we have done to it – the question is, will that adaptation involve our own extinction by creating an environment in which we can’t survive. Fortunately, I won’t live to find out the answer.

  14. Regardless of what “native purists” think, “gardening” is not restoration ecology. It simply cannot be done in a postage stamp urban setting. An urban or suburban garden can never be restored to native wildness. That does not mean we shouldn’t garden with the local habitat in mind, but gardening is picking the right plant for the right place, climate, water, light and good use of space that also makes us pause, smile and relax. Redwoods are just not appropriate for the average yard, let alone a grove of them! Unless you are luck enough to have acreage.

    If I bought in to your “author’s” concept I would be digging out century old fill and turning my Berkeley yard back in to a San Francisco Bay tidal marsh. Instead I am mixing natives with other low water plants to make a little bit of stylized nature surrounded by lofts, warehouses and animation studios…. But in my garden there are food plants for birds and butterflies, salamanders have even somehow found my backyard turtle pond! But then so have the feral parrots, that are certainly not native but do add color and excitement to my garden. And the hummingbirds seem quite happy nesting deep in the spines of my non-native tree cholla (Opuntia sublata) safe from rats and cats, just as they are happy for all the Aloes and Bulbines that bloom throughout the year for nectar.

  15. Gardening is all about controling nature, otherwise why prune, mow, fertilize, etc. And if you don’t prune, mow, shape, fertilize, manipulate, why garden at all? Native plates, schmative plants. Let ’em grow where they will. Use what you’ve got, and try not to kill too many plants yourself. Natives take more abuse. Now, go out and prune those roses.

  16. Rhododendrons ARE native to the Pacific coast.

    Sure, there are a lot of Asian cultivars in our yards, but our wild rhodies (Rhododendron macrophyllum) are very much like them and serve the same functions. The pink natives are lovely, too.

    Now if you can get your hands on our Pacific coast native, dainty little Rhododendron albiflorum, that’s something special:

  17. Ah, pity, that you fell into the clutches of a native-plant cultist! It happens in the Mid-Atlantic too. I spare you war stories but wish to share my real-life experience. I’ve planted several scores of native trees & shrubs over the last 5 years and I’ve learned an expensive lesson. Native animals — deer — denude them of every leaf — unless I spend megabucks caging each of them from ground-level to about 5-feet. Three years ago I planted several native arrowwood viburnums. The deer have eaten them so many times that the shrubs will die this year unless I cage them. The only solutions in our area — (1) cage every native plant, in effect creating a plant zoo; (2) plant non-native varieties which the deer mostly ignore; (3) or hope & pray that wolves invade and eat all the deer back to the numbers they were when nature was in balance, which it clearly isn’t in 2008. Each year our woodlands are getting “thinner and thinner” — and erosion becomes more of a problem — as the deer plague eats everything “native” from ground level to the “browse line.” Bottom line: we have to plant some non-natives if we want to see a “free” — uncaged — leaf gently swaying in the morning breeze.

  18. You can plant one redwood if you have room for it. You don’t need a grove. I have a mix of natives and exotics, vegie garden, and a strictly natives only area on my 1/2 acre. I love our natives in the west, but even my choice of natives for the region don’t necessarily grow in my neighborhood.

    I think encouraging people to plant natives is a good thing; however you can be to stringent and turn people off to gardening with natives only. The good side of native gardening is you can usually let them be on their own. So putting your exotics in an area for coddling or extra watering during the west’s annual drought makes sense, but it shouldn’t define everyone’s way of gardening.

  19. I think native for native’s sake is disingenuous. After all, what was native 600 years ago might not be what was native 2000 or 20000 years ago – nor is it to say those plants will survive well next to a pollution-soaked urban highway. So one has to ask: why are you intent on growing native? What does that mean? What will it accomplish?
    If we’re looking at climate appropriateness, I can testify that even native species can need a lot of babying to get to the drought-tolerant stage, whereas some plants can be surprisingly hardy. Few gardeners are willing to do the “natural” thing with plants during a drought, which is let many of them die, and let the ones that survive propogate themselves.
    If we’re saving species, that’s excellent, but leaves out other species which might be appropriate for the space (and also endangered). Ditto with wildlife climate.
    So then we’re back to what looks good and a matter of choice in the garden.
    I don’t want to scorn natives; I think they’re important and a nice way to connect with local history (the part that didn’t involve chopping down all the forests so we felt safe, I guess.)
    One last thing – I am concerned that this emphasis on nativism is coming at a time when we’re “securing our borders”. It seems too much coincidence to be trying to remove invasive weeds and illegal immigrants at once, and the coincidences of language are striking. So the extremes make me very nervous.

  20. Why does it have to be all or nothing? Invasive plants are certainly a problem that we should all pay attention to, and try to eradicate, for the benefit of our own landscapes, and for the environment. We should try and include ENOUGH natives to support the local food web, but after that surely we can grow the ‘exotics’ that we love and enjoy.

  21. Liza,
    That is exactly the argument against (invasive) exotic species. The birds do eat the fruits and thus transport the seed hither and yon. The list of invasives and potentially new invasives that are pooped in my yard grows by the year. I myself hope the birds poop what I feed them, and maybe some of our ecosystem will be reclaimed.
    Let’s not go there, I mean genetic pollution with the London Plane and our Native Sycamore! These are plants and ecosystems, they know no border other than climate and terrain, but that is what makes them unique to a place. This is actually a fine argument against that idiotic wall that is being constructed along our border. Yes as per the argument we have greatly altered our environment beyond recognition, apparently that’s what civilization does.
    Common, I agree, with one stipulation, and Tallamy also says this, we should think about every hole we dig, and every plant that we put in that hole. But isn’t that what all good gardeners do?

  22. The book “Bringing Nature Home – How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens” really opened my eyes and settled the great debate for me. The author is doing amazing research which finally explains how and why birds, butterflies, land reptiles/amphibians, mammals etc all ultimately rely on native insect-herbiroves which, turns out, ONLY eat plants that they share an evolutionary history with – aka native plants. Planting non-natives may look nice but they do NOTHING for the ecological web. Strongly recommend this book!

  23. Yes, a garden is a human manipulation of a piece of nature: however, as mb infers, perhaps it’s time to be a little more inclusive of what we define as a garden; that is, think of a garden as a complex part of a bio-system, not just an artfully arranged collection of plants that we encourage to grow. Then we may be led to a new appreciation of native American plants and include them, so our gardens become local and truly of a place. Exotics have a place as well–nepeta goes well with coreopsis and echinacea–but I believe a gardener should be mindful of where he or she actually lives and with which parts of the earth community the garden is shared. Then plant and manage accordingly.

    Redwoods are too big for a backyard. There are other alternatives. Deer herds should be managed, for the deers’ sake as well as our own. Absent bobcats, lynxes or wolves, we must do the job ourselves.

  24. I also agree with Midwestgardener about “Bringing Nature Home,” which would cause almost anyone to reconsider how they garden and why.

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