Designing the Politically Correct Garden


Rhododendrons austrinum, catawbiense
and periclymenoides
Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium)
Possum haw (V.nudum),
cranberrybush (V. trilobum)
Carolina allspice (Calycanthus
picebush (Lindera benzoin
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) 
berry (Sambucus canadensis)
Blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium)
Oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).


  1. I see a lot of people commenting about the pressure to use natives, but frankly, I’m a little perplexed. Go to the local nursery and it’s almost all non-native exotics. Many times clients say they want natives, but they immediately lose interest when they start looking at plant choices. They like to stick with the non-native ornamentals they’re familiar with. Many times, homeowner associations have have height and spacing requirements that almost require the use of non-native foundations shrubs. It seems to me that the pressure is to use non-natives.

  2. I moved to New Orleans about 10 years ago, and I can’t figure out what are natives. Additionally, what grows here on this side is completely different from the North shore, as we’re alkaline and usually 5-10 degrees warmer. At the LSU library in Baton Rouge, there are some amazing botanical drawings of state plants, but they are not all natives. I’m making decisions next week about plants, as I’m not sure what of my garden of semi-tropicals will make it after temperatures below freezing for over 10 hours, perhaps as low as 18. AAAAHHHHH! Of course, nothing will kill the monster bougainvillea.

  3. I know the space you’re talking about–I worked in Soho for many years. In it’s tumbled-down state, it reminded me of a forgotten garden–congratulations on rescuing it before someone turned the space into a parking lot.

  4. I understand the dilemma. As a landscape designer, I adore all kinds of plants and do not want to be limited with my palette. Yet I also want to be eco-friendly and use natives as much as possible (which luckily I do adore). In an attempt to be practical combined with my notion that being a purist is way too limiting, my solution is to try and use 1/3 natives in all my plantings. This has been a pretty good guiding principle for me plus it is really more natives than you find in the typical yard anyways.

  5. Marie, Your question, “How do you feel about the exotics when you plan gardens? Guilty? Defiant?”, is surely becoming one of the hottest topics in horticulture. It rivals some of the most difficult political issues of the day in some circles. We design with natives and non-invasive exotics, sometimes with defiance, sometimes with guilt, but always with the clients wishes foremost in our minds. I’m afraid there is no simple resolution to the issue of natives vs. exotics, but maybe that is a good thing. We’re all better off when we have to think a little. Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. I only garden for myself, but I grow native and non-native plants. I do refrain from growing plants that are invasive or even aggressive. Not all “invasive plants” are invasive in every climate, so I try to use my best judgement. I have gotten rid of plants – even ones I like – if they tend to get out of hand too bad. Some people don’t realize that plants they consider native, actually aren’t – like many roses and azaleas.

  7. Marie, what a fantastic post! Thank you! And what an amazing space in which to make a garden.

    I’m a complete libertarian on the natives versus exotics question: If the exotic in my yard is not threatening your yard, nobody should have anything to say about it.

    I had a young gardening friend who was discouraged from using lilacs, for God’s sake, in her Hudson Valley yard by a “natives only” person. Lilacs–an essential part of the culture and landscape of the Northeast for eons! “Natives only” people are a bit like PETA–so extreme, they undermine their own cause.

    I’m also pretty sure that on the environmental front, we have bigger problems to worry about. Way bigger. I promise to banish all my exotic plants once we’ve addressed climate change and rid the world of asphalt.

  8. I personally am totally over the natives thing — Plant things that are well adapted to your climate, wherever they are from. And given New York city is a radically different environment than what it was before it was a city, it only makes sense that some of the best adapted plants are NOT native.
    Also: My favorite thinking on this topic I’ve seen in a long time is this post by Bert Cregg of The Garden Professors:

  9. “How do you feel about the exotics when you plan gardens?” It depends. Because my yard backs up onto a largely undisturbed piece of wetland, I feel that I have the responsibility to keep it undisturbed. To that end, I am very cautious about what goes into my yard. As far as possible, I stick with natives. However, if I were on a lot deep in a city, I wouldn’t feel the need to be so stringent with my plant choices.

    Please don’t let the few obnoxious natives-nuts at the end of the spectrum give you the impression that we’re all jerks.

  10. No question the natives vs. non-natives debate has a tendency to suck all the joy of gardening. But I believe the evolution of our relationship to the natural world is entering a new phase and the passion so many native plant enthusiasts display is a part of it. If you study the history of the built environment, you’ll find that the human race has gone from millenniums of fearing nature to centuries of barely subduing it, to almost wiping it out in the last 150 years. I think it’s exciting that we are finally realizing there is another option – to live in harmony with the world around us. And to interpret that in part as meaning relying less on exotics that must be coddled and more on native plants that actively benefit the soil, create habitat, etc., well, that doesn’t seem so crazy to me.

    So to answer your question, what is a garden designer to do in this age of it’s local of it’s your life, I suggest we remind ourselves that we’re not the outdoor version of interior decorators – our job is more than creating attractive outdoor rooms. Even the most modest gardens that we help create impact the environment. The designers I admire most are the ones who use their education, experience, plant knowledge and eye for beauty to create spaces as lovely as your vision of Arcadia, but manage to do it in a way that respects that natural resources of whatever area they practice in.

    I participated in a Garden Designer’s BlogLink yesterday on the topic of celebrating regional diversity, and one of the participants, The Germinatrix wrote a delightful post on how she came to grips with this in her own garden.

  11. I would never give up all my poppies, lilies, hybrid columbine, dianthus, etc, etc. Also, exotics aren’t necessarily less hardy. These, for example, just happened to have evolved in a different, equally harsh climate!

    I agree with the commenter who noted we wouldn’t want to give up all those vegetables. I would add herbs to that list. Summer without basil? No way!

    I think it matters more _how_ one gardens rather than _what_. If I grew all natives, but didn’t compost, used artifical fertilizers, pesticides, etc, that would be much more harmful than gardening with exotics in an organic manner.

  12. Wow – what a beautiful post, with even more beautiful photos. Lovely design – all the way around!

    I participated in yesterday’s Garden Designer’s Blog Link (that Susan M. referred to, above)…and one of the main concepts that so many of us from around the country spoke of was the importance of creating a garden that reflects not only one’s personal style (or the client’s style, for that matter), but doing so in a sensitive manner.

    Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong if a person wants to include an exotic plant or two – if it gives them great joy, reminds them of their ‘home’, whatever the reason. But planting masses of them – in a water restricted area? – may not be the best thing…

    It’s a delicate balancing act between Culture and Climate, and one that a Designer who’s sensitive to their environment can accomplish.

    p.s. I love the scent of Camellias – they smell so earthy…like beets! I say go ahead and plant a few!

  13. ANY plant is welcome in my garden if it is:

    1.Non invasive
    2. Adapted to the garden in questions’ climate
    3. Is not a “water hog” (as compared to my Mediterranean plants, succulents, natives, etc.
    4. Legal
    5. Low maintenance. Does not require lot’s of fertilizing
    6. Provides a multi purpose besides beauty- feed me, envelope me in fragrance, feed or shelter wildlife

    Plants are like people, if they can live and thrive within the “law of the land” (see above), they are welcome and free to move about my gardens.

    All other’s require a special Visa and are granted on a very limited basis. Very limited.

    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report

  14. Oh please! Haven’t we been down this rabbit hole before? Multiple times? Noone I know believes you must exclude exotics unless there might be troublesome environmental impact.

    I plant and encourage CA natives not because I want to be politically correct (hate that term) but because they are beautiful and have great wildlife value. And I do have quite a few non-invasive exotics in my garden, and a few invasives that come over from the neighbors.

  15. Insightful and helpful and opinionated comments as always on Garden Rant!

    @ How It Grows: the pressure is certainly not from most nurseries and middle-of the road home owners associations, who need more, rather than less education… – it is more in the new-thinking, unwritten ‘Constitution’ of how we ought to design and garden in principle. Thou Shalt Not, etc etc etc.

    And, like everyone else, I hate being told what to do!

    A response for Donna and the question of, If it’s in a city, who cares?

    One of my goals is to garden for the birds. Literally. And New York is on their migratory flight path. Basically, I’d like to help them out with a snack bar. If they are snacking on barberries or ‘invasive’ viburnums, they’re also depositing those seeds on their way south. So the damage, such as it is, travels beyond Manhattan.

    To Town Mouse – how I loathe the PC concept and term, too.

  16. I’m seriously allergic to anything smacking of political correctness, and that includes in the garden. Ours is a mixture of natives and new-to-this-region, heritage and funky hybrids. As others have said, I too avoid those that are invasive, but what’s invasive in one garden/region is barely hardy in another, in my experience. So when writing about plants, I offer up my experience with them, and if anyone in my region (Atlantic Canada) has had different experiences, I like to hear from them.
    Excellent post and equally excellent answers.

  17. I live in a rural area filled with native plants, and while I have planted many natives, I have planted exotics as well. I am surrounded by enough natives to maintain the food web that supports local wildlife, and I am careful not to plant non-natives that will be invasive. I think that it the biggest problem with exotics and whether or not people are interested in natives, they should be wary of invasives. Not easy sometimes when I still see plants like invasive bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria)and burning bush being recommended and sold by nurseries.

  18. What’s a native? How far back does a plant have to go to prove its pedigree? It’s likely that the first humans to trudge across the Bering Strait brought some plant materials that were new to this continent with them, not to mention those that floated over or were brought by flying or swimming animals from from other parts of the world. zone 9’s brother-in-law may think he’s only using natives, but I’d bet some of his garden plants were once invasives that came from somewhere else. Who’s to say that any ‘native’ plant we look at today wasn’t once invasive? I’m certainly not advocating a free-for-all & ‘may the toughest invasive win’ approach, just a bit of common sense & moderation, which I am happy to see most of the prior posters also seem to be advocating. Kumbaya!

  19. Who said a plant has to be exotic to be invasive? Where I live, the native horsetail is horribly invasive. Once you have it in your garden, you will never be rid of it. It thrives in the artificial environment of a garden. A garden is, by definition, artificial.

    I have some native plants, and I am careful to have only noninvasive exotic plants. A chunk of my garden time is spent weeding out holly, hawthorn, ivy, and himalayan blackberry that the birds bring me. I certainly don’t want to add to the problem.

  20. Ahh, always a fun topic guaranteed to generate lots of responses! As an ex-pat Aussie, I have seen the Oz version of plant nationalism reach the point of blows between neighbours (I’m serious!). The issues have been well covered by the previous posts, my only addition would be that a garden is inherently a hybrid invention between art and science. Both of these disciplines struggle with social and/or environmental responsibility on occasions, so I guess gardening will never escape these issues. My aim is to fill my garden with plants that bring me (and hopefully my neighbours) joy. Seeing invasive plants overrun nature reserves does not bring me joy and I suspect that my neighbours (at least the sane ones) have similar feelings, so I avoid invasive plants irrespective of their nationality. I think having a native garden is like having a white garden, fun and potentially beautiful, but not something I would pursue from some misguided sense of nationalism.

  21. Non natives hit my garden every summer when I lovingly plop my houseplants out there for the season.

    I plant what makes me happy. Period. Granted, ripping invasives does not make me happy so they have no place in my garden.

    And I never understood how people thought they had the right to judge the plants other people put in their own gardens if it didn’t infringe on anyone else in any way. Hmmm…does it all circle back to the garden snob topic?

  22. Perhaps one of the reasons we got to the point where native species are touted as the Only Ones That One Should Consider is that many truly were in danger of being lost. The whole idea of embracing plants native to your region, for me, is making sure they don’t go away forever! So by giving them preferred status in American gardens (by deeming them the “politically correct” choice) for a few years, hopefully we’ve guaranteed them a place at the table, so to speak, from here on out.

    We know now who the troublemakers are (and yes, I agree that some of those troublemakers are natives, such as that damn Virginia creeper I used to think was so neat because it’s native.) And frankly I got off my natives-only snottiness when I realized that the species making the executive decisions about what is worthy and what isn’t are non-native themselves (depending on how we define native).

    I don’t care how long humans have been on this continent, they didn’t start out here but kinda drifted over like seeds on the wind from somewhere else, except they did so on foot or by boat.

  23. I really wish I wanted to read all the comments now that I got here so late in the game.

    To me, this is not the cursed choice made out to be. There is only one kind of plant that I try to avoid, and that is one that we know to be locally invasive. And really, that list is not so long. We should focus on that and enjoy all the other plants, like we have for generations and will continue for generations.

    If we couldn’t plant non-natives, we couldn’t even eat.

  24. Just that this topic seems to generate so much commentary.

    Personally, I can’t wait for the garden/park and hope it has some scented plants.

    One other thought, its good to think of the scientists who study parks, preserves, and other native landscapes as gardeners of a sort. They are choosing native plants for those places by describing to us the threat, despite the nature-given competitiveness of invasive species. We want those places to remain as they are, much like a gardener would, because they appear so beautiful as they stand.
    We choose to garden them, we choose to pull invasives out of those gardens by not letting them escape our gardens. We garden the world.

  25. In the outstanding book Bringing Nature Home, entomologist Douglas Tallamy makes a great case for native plants: they support the insects that form the basis of the food chain. The book is well-written, fascinating, and not at all crazy.

  26. At this point, where I live in northern Westchester, NY, the real danger to the environment, and to its diversity, is the deer. We have a wooded facade–lots of trees–but anywhere that is not fenced the underbrush is eaten–all the wildflowers, the native shrubs, the understory. All that is left is what they don’t like–barberry, burning bush, periwinkle, garlic allium, other invasive aliens jumping from cultivation. The aliens don’t sustain the deer, but they look green, which is what most people want to see. This is the heart of the natives vs. alien controversy, to me: in a well-designed landscape, the use of a healthy mixture of both is fine and desirable. We need to look at the bigger issue, which is loss of habitat, loss of large areas of feeding and nesting ground; those don’t depend on the planting, or not planting, of a few roses. Here, where I live, deer are the problem, and there is no projected solution. Try to plant a garden that is deer-resistant, native, wildlife-supporting and beautiful! (Oh, and shaded–most things that deer don’t like are sunloving). You’ll have a mighty limited palette.

  27. Politically correct is a term mostly used to take a slap at anyone living or thinking differently from the person using the term. Like most derogatory language it is some times used in a self depreciating way or with a touch of appreciative affection.

    Those of us that enjoy growing native plants for the beauty and wildlife value will still be growing them when the fad has passed.
    If a miracle happens and the sale of native plants becomes a pathway to financial success and many naysayers jump on the bandwagon, we will still grow native plants. Even though personally I enjoy being off center from the mainstream.

  28. About that guilt,not necessary.
    Gardens have many functions and not every garden has to fill them all.
    I’m just hoping that good designers using native plants will help others find the value of such plantings and include them because they work. It is so hard see beyond our expectations.

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