We last wrote about Peter Del Tredici's radically practical view of weeds wild urban plants here in Elizabeth's post and you get a hint of the controversy he's stirring up in Slate's report and his own piece in the Boston Globe.
And guess what – I got to hear Del Tredici in person (at ASLA – here's his hand-out.) So I might have a response to Elizabeth's objection to his suggestion that we leave abandoned properties alone with their urban weeds. Quoting her: "But it will take a lot of mindset changing to make vacant lots filled with the plants he’s talking about seem anything but blighted."
First, there are some super-practical reasons for following his advice – most cities don't have the money to remove all the invasive plants and keep them removed. This "spontaneous vegetation" covering vacant lots requires absolutely no maintenance, and they're serving all sorts of ecological services (especially erosion control). And these plants are there; they don't need to be bought and installed (after nuking the undesirable plants).
And sure, these urban meadows aren't gardens, but with the vines and woodies removed and an adjustment in our aesthetic judgments considering their location (NOT in our front yards) they're not so bad. As an example of how our concept of good and bad plants is always in flux Del Tredici notes that the Central Park Guidebook of 1869 referred to “blessed dandelions”, and sure enough, dandelions are now starting to make a comeback.
And finally, we're talking about a whole lotta acreage here, with 40% of Detroit's land now abandoned – an area the size of Boston – and it can't ALL be turned into farms.
Del Tredici believes that this is the ecology of the future and the challenge is not how to eliminate these plants but how to manage them to better serve our needs.
Now readers, what do you think of this prime example of his philosophy of urban ecology? They're photos of Landschaftspark in Germany, which Del Tredici cites as the country taking the lead in this approach. Apparently in Germany they view plants that grow spontaneously with no human intervention as natural, regardless of where the plants came from originally. "Germans aren't romantic about this, like we are." (Click here for lots more images of this abandoned industrial park.) In the U.S., Connecticut College is doing research along these lines, and an inspiring book on the subject is William Robinson's Wild Garden.
I've gotta say this approach, right or wrong, is what I've used to replace my own back lawn. Instead of buying plants to cover 1,000 square feet on a hillside (quickly, before the soil washes away) I used a vigorous Sedum that grows in my neighborhood as a weed – S. sarmentosum – and it filled in completely in just a couple of months. It needs no mowing or watering, and it actually gets thick enough to block out weeds. It's beautiful (as you can see in the photo below, with clover) and when it blooms it's swarming with pollinators. What's not to love? (Here's my report on creeping sedums as an alternative to lawn.)
I managed to get my hands on a copy of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, which is an actual field guide for weeds, and I can't wait to identify all my favorite and not-so-favorite ones. As Del Tredici says, "You can't have a relatonship with a plant unless you know its name" and that sounds right to me.