Championing natives—worldwide



You may remember that I posted on British gardening celeb Monty Don’s Around the World in 80 Gardens show, complaining that it was not available in the U.S. It’s still not, and we still don’t have anything close to this show, in terms of its thoughtful survey of indigenous gardens throughout the world.

Turns out, Don had an epiphany of sorts after doing the series—not a terribly surprising one. This is what he says in a recent interview with the Daily Mail: “Gardening with indigenous plants and working with nature by tweaking it is so much more interesting than imposing on to the natural world,” and then: “The interesting gardens are related to geographical/historical/ personal context.”

Not so surprising or shocking, right? Yet, many in Don’s audience are not quite ready to fall in line with his newfound (perhaps not so newfound—I don’t know his regular show) love of natives.

I love this headline : Yew must be joking! Growers’ fury at Monty Don’s call to use only British plants. Ha. I can feel the pain of those who were outraged, like Dr Mark Johnstone, a lecturer at Myerscough College, Preston, in Britain, who says: “I’m amazed someone as high profile as Monty Don should recommend sticking to native British plants. He is confusing biodiversity and native plants. Plants and trees are used for social, economic and environmental reasons.” And this is my favorite quote in the article (from a garden center owner, natch): “The vast array of non-native plants available in Britain is something that we are recognized for and that has given us our identity.” As paradoxical as it sounds, it’s absolutely true. The English border is known as a desirable gardening style throughout the world; yet, many of the plants that compose it are by no means native to Britain.

So? So nothing. I look at natives as a challenge and as an opportunity, though I’ll never be 100% native or even close. But I love the passion that someone like Monty Don brings to this cause. If only we had a gardening personality on this side of the pond who could proselytize as well. Or at least, could we please air this show here?!

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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 regular 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. Interesting post, and I’ve also noticed a lack of interest in native plants in the U.K. Which raises the question – how would you define the term there? Here it’s easy – anything growing in an area pre-1492 – but their ancient history of trading with the whole Old World means there’s no clear cut-off point.

  2. I just read the article and found this:
    “In fact it’s essential for wildlife to have a healthy mix of native and non-native plants.”
    SO, it’s even more interesting than I thought.
    And can it be that Monty Don’s argument for growing only natives, which is cited 3 times in this article, is that they’re more INTERESTING? I doubt that argument will win over gardeners – why would they care what HE finds interesting?

  3. I’m not suggesting anything, MSS. I find Don an interesting gardening personality, so I like to post on him. And I do wish his show aired here. Our shows are too boring to cause controversies.

    Hell, I don’t grow all natives myself here in the US, so I’d hardly be prescribing it for people across the Atlantic.

  4. Susan raises an interesting point about how natives would be defined in Britain. And she’s right that here “native” is defined as anything that was here before the white man planted his almighty foot on these shores–regardless of the fact that plants have always had a way of traveling without the white man’s help (by indigenous people, wind, and animals). I think the last thing we need is another “natives-only” preacher. Isn’t Lou Dobbs bad enough?

  5. Hi Elizabeth,
    When I went to Britain to visit family, I made a point of watching an episode of Monty Don’s ‘Around the World in 80 gardens’. I was disappointed, it seemed that Monty was more important than the vegetation. It is one thing to rant on about the wonders of particular gardens, it is another to detail it to your audience so that they are convinced. I also found that there is a book of the series – and left it in the bookshop. Given my inability to resist buying garden books, that says a lot.
    I agree with his assertion that geographical/historical/personal qualities make a garden interesting but gardening only with natives would restrict most gardener’s palettes, and ignore the ‘historical’ aspects of gardens which is the movement of plants along with peoples and ideas.

  6. Oh that’s too bad, Sandra–from the little preview I saw the show looked kind of cool. Of course I’m an anglophile from way back.

  7. Elizabeth, I like the fact that you “get” the interest in natives without feeling combative towards those experimenting with growing all natives. There are still very few gardeners growing all natives and I would love to see more.
    For now it is mostly a few botanic gardens and nature centers that are giving us the information about growing natives or how design and natives can be combined.
    Many natives are beautiful and interesting and do well in our gardens. Some adapt amazingly well. Others we must help along. But this is true of all garden plants.
    I love the look of a wild garden so that is how I garden. Though still watering until plants are settled in, weeding out what is not desired and eliminating plants that I perceive as being a problem.
    What is needed now is information on how pollen and nectar amounts or chemical makeup might be changed by our gardens conditions.This information is coming though slowly.
    Here are a few examples…

    Growing food is different but helped by these ideas that encourage including wildlife.

  8. “In fact it’s essential for wildlife to have a healthy mix of native and non-native plants.”

    The term “wildlife” is ambiguous here, isn’t it? If one’s advocating for native plants, they’d probably advocate for native wildlife too. I think it’s safe to say that native wildlife does just fine and even better with only the native plants. Unless England’s environment has evolved since “native” times more than I thought.

    And as to Monty “confusing biodiversity and native plants:”

    Biodiversity can be measured on different scales. On a global scale, I think Monty CAN assume that advocating native english plants in England would be contributing to (or rather maintaining) biodiversity. We’ve got to look out for our piece of the puzzle.

    I’m not pushing for 100% natives, but there are some good reasons for growing them and some really, really cool gardens that are all native. I’m with Monty, mostly.

  9. I garden with about 70 – 80% native plants.

    I always like to challenge those that have the notion that a native (or mostly native) garden can’t be aesthetically pleasing as that of one consisting of traditional plants. It’s more about adjusting certain gardening techniqes such as aggressive pruning and thinning to achieve a neater more controlled appearence.

    Looks aside, I like the fact that once well established it requires little or no supplemental water.

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