Backyard Gardens At the Ecological Front Lines


Rambuntious garden Here is last week's Kirkus piece on the Kirkus Book BlogsElizabeth posts today about The Curious Gardener

Please say hello to science writer Emma Marris.  Her first book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, covers a revolution in the field of ecology: an increasing awareness that the traditional goals of conservation are not only unachievable on a large scale, but also too narrow. 

Those goals largely focus on preserving pristine wildernesses, by turning back the clock in them to an arbitrary “baseline” date before modern civilization, trailing exotic species, arrived at the door.  However, given realities such as climate change, this frozen-in-time paradigm means that we are inevitably fighting a Sisyphean battle over tiny, tightly controlled preserves.

Marris’s viewpoint is both more adult and more hopeful.  She argues that the whole notion of “pristine wilderness” deserves to be questioned, since humans have always altered the ecosystems around them; that nature is everywhere, constantly in flux; and that the field of ecology needs to address the long-ignored questions of inhabited landscapes as well.

Q: When did you first become aware that there was something wrong with the absolutism of the conservation movement?

A:  It came out of casual conversations at the bar with scientists after a day spent reporting on a field trip or a convention.  When they were up at the podium with their PowerPoints, they were talking about reverting to baselines.  But I noticed that when we were talking informally, they would take a much more nuanced view. 

Q: I’m glad that you decided to take on Bill McKibben.  As a gardener, I’m highly offended by the assumption that all human influence on the planet is bad!

A: I really admire the way Bill McKibben has become an environmental activist and gotten people involved. But in his first book that really got attention, The End of Nature, it’s all or nothing, a perfectly pristine world, or it’s no good.  That kind of thinking sets us up for a lifetime of mourning. 

Q: I actually consider myself a net plus in any ecosystem lucky enough to have me.

A:  It’s a no-brainer.  As a gardener, you are increasing the diversity of plant species on your property.  If you’re really clever, the soil ends up more nutritious and rich than when you began.  You can also garden for many different conservation goals: to support wildlife, for carbon sequestration, or to preserve endangered species.

Q: I was very interested to read your chapter on “novel ecosystems,” new human-influenced combinations of species that can work as well or better than native ecosystems.  There is a lot of priggishness about exotics in the gardening world, and hysteria about “invasives,” some of which happen to be lovely country naturalizers where I live.

A: Gardeners are at the front lines of this battle.  There are people who want exotics, and people who don’t.  That’s not to say that some plants aren’t real headaches—but in many cases, the label “invasive” is just prejudice.  People want the landscape to be the way they remember it.  But that is not tenable, and we have to ditch the idea.  Otherwise, we’ll just be mad and frustrated all the time.

If you look at the novel forests in Hawaii, they are self-assembled.  After an initial inoculation by introduced species, the plants are sorting themselves out.  Nature will sort itself out, though in some places we’ll have to tweak a bit.  But to put it back? Largely a futile quest.

It shouldn’t surprise us that there can be this happy co-existence between plants from all over the world.  It happens in gardens everywhere.  When it comes to land management, gardeners are the real experimenters, the world’s avant garde.


  1. Wow. I don’t normally read book reviews, and if this is representative of them then I suppose I’m not missing much. I was hoping to find out something about the book in question, to no avail.

    I DID learn that the reviewer doesn’t like Bill McKibben (whoever that is) and that the reviewer thinks that this science writer knows more about science than – you know – actual scientists.

    In the end, I suppose I also learned that I should not turn to Garden Rant for well-informed writing about ecology, and that I’ll also need to find another source for tips on new books. So that’s something.

  2. Conservation gardening is nothing about going back to pristine wildness or mourning its loss. And it’s certainly not childish or hopeless, as you imply by calling this author’s approach more “adult and hopeful.” Some restorationists may have believed, at some time in the past, that the goal was to model a historic baseline, but the majority of people currently gardening in support of habitat and wildlife are doing it to create healthy, functioning ecosystems, as best we can understand them. Yes, the definition of health may vary somewhat from person to person, and yes, there are multiple overlapping definitions of “native,” but this doesn’t mean that we should throw the whole effort under the bus, as the proponents of this new point of view conclude. Gardeners who strive to help nature are incredibly optimistic and mature, working every day against the public’s sentimentalism, fear, anger and stubborn resistance to new ideas, especially new ideas that ask them to think about their actions and their values, and perhaps to alter their lifestyle a bit or exert a bit more effort. To me, the hopeless notion is this new attitude that says we should adopt “novel ecosystems” and just throw up our hands in surrender against the amazing harm that we humans have done, and continue to do everywhere we go. In the past, our actions might have been the result of ignorance. Now they’re just hubris.

  3. After checking out a number of other, more well-written reviews, I decided that this book is probably one worth ordering and I’ve done so.

    Despite the aggressive marketing copy from the publisher and the off-kilter angle played up by Michelle Owens here, Emma Marris herself seems relatively intelligent and informed about the topic of ecological policy.

    There are, indeed, some widely held misconceptions about “nature” and “wilderness” among the general public that deserve some scrutiny and critical thought. Debates about the nature of “wild” are absolutely legitimate, and if this book is as well-researched as it seems to be then it will definitely contribute to a more thoughtful dialog.

    Not at Garden Rant, of course, but other places. . . .

  4. And what about the great USA front yard? Especially in the Piedmont. Typically LAWN.

    Nature would have canopy & understory trees & etc….. Shaded in summer with sun in winter. Increased pollinator habitat, increasing crop yields. (It’s all connected.)

    A true help to the planet reducing HVAC use & the temps of entire cities.

    Too often it’s plants only without landscape design considerations.

    At least it’s a conversation. Thanks for posting this.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  5. *cough* Actually, Tara, the Piedmont specifically used to be a fire-controlled oak savannah, prior to European arrival, so it would have been a bit different than that. We even had bison back in the day!

    The forests we currently see are what grew up when said oak savannah was used up as cropland and fire was no longer controlling trees like pine and maple.

    That’s not to say that I don’t think it would have been better than lawn. Like any prairie-type landscape, it would have had an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals, many of which are outright gone or hovering on the brink of extinction, like Schweinitz’s sunflower.

    Sorry. I, uh, am kind of obsessed with Piedmont prairie restoration, particularly in the home garden.

    More generally, the review has made me very much not want to read the book, although I am assured by other people that the author is not insane and it is actually quite a good book. Seriously, though…Hawaii’s forests as an argument for letting a system “self-assemble”? I suppose all those endemic birds that we’re continuing to lose at a truly obscene rate over there aren’t important to anybody?

  6. There are many, many things that we are still learning about ecosystems and how plant associations interact in them. It reminds me of the oil companies up in the taiga forests in Athabasca who insist that they can restore the area. Really? You can restore the forest association of hundreds of species and replace the endemics that certain plant and animal communities relied upon? You can restore all the essential mycorrhizal associations, even those we haven’t discovered? You can restore the humus layers built up over hundreds of years that you obliterated with mining operations? Even in places further south in the Rockies here, restoration science is still very nascent and we are learning more every day. Not all soils are the same. Not all plant associations are understood. There are many, many ecologies that, once destroyed, take hundreds of years to be restored if they ever can be again. This is especially true in sandy desert regions and there’s nothing humans can do with introduced species to repair damage done. To think that nature is as simple as our gardens and that as gardeners, we can “fix” it is not only arrogant but incredibly naive.

  7. I am an adult taking and educated stand and I disagree with you and the book you have reviewed. Have you ever spent one day working with a restoration project? Maybe you should so that you can learn in a way that seems to fit you,a hands on approach. Unless you personally experience what happens as a restoration moves into a healthy ecosystem I don’t think you will ever understand.

  8. It seems as though the rancorous debate between native, “natural” landscapes vs. invasive, introduced species has carried over into what books (and blogs) to read about the subject! Since there’s obviously a lot more to learn on the subject, it’s good to hear and read informed voices from all sides, even those we might not agree with at first glance. I commend gardenrant for letting everyone have a say.

  9. This is new? These principles were clearly laid out by Doug Tallamy in his Bringing Nature Home several years ago… except that he makes is very clear why native plants are better ecologically than (most) exotic ones (and it’s not just about invasiveness). Are those “country naturalizers” supporting the other plants and animals as well as the natives that could be growing there?

  10. Having, at the urging of other commenters, checked out OTHER reviews, it seems clear that this one is…well…not representative.

    Seriously, guys? I realize that at some point a native plant enthusiast must have taken a dump in your cornflakes, because this is the second review you’ve done that I can point to where you’ve cherry-picked to try and support the invasives-are-overblown thing, even when that’s a mis-representation of the book in question. It’s getting to the point where I’d actually like to know what the deal is–I love Garden Rant for a lot of things, but this weird hang-up keeps coming out in the articles, and I’m genuinely curious as to what the deal is. Is your next-door neighbor coming over at night and cutting down your lilacs? Did Doug Tallamy kick your dog? What gives?

  11. “Seriously, guys? I realize that at some point a native plant enthusiast must have taken a dump in your cornflakes, because this is the second review you’ve done that I can point to where you’ve cherry-picked to try and support the invasives-are-overblown thing, even when that’s a mis-representation of the book in question.”

    “There is a lot of priggishness about exotics in the gardening world, and hysteria about “invasives,” some of which happen to be lovely country naturalizers where I live.”

    Ms. Owens likes to grow certain plants that are considered “invasive”. She has taken offense in other posts to criticism about her iris.

    Personally, I agree that “pristine” is probably unattainable. Too much damage has been done. A realistic goal of damage control must be sought.

    Change and flux are the nature of Nature, and the chances of dandelions disappearing in the New World are slim to none.

  12. I don’t think I have ever been depressed before but the interview Vince links to and the review and responses here have me feeling so sad.
    Great wilderness places exist and more should be protected.
    The romance of open spaces and wild creatures experienced if not alone then with few people is worth preserving.
    The species both plant and animal that we have marginalized and endangered deserve space to create and live.
    What is wrong with curtailing human activity that continues to destroy these places and their inhabitants?

    Urban ecology and restoration work along with more gardeneners providing habitat for wildlife and growing plants that might not be as abundant without the space gardens provide is all admirable. We need all of this and more.
    But to hear the disdainful way the woman interviewing the author speaks of the leaders and forerunners of the conservation movement and their goals is heartbreaking.
    I don’t know any of you but is there not one to champion something beyond recycled sewer water and small urban parks for our future?

  13. There is a big difference between gardening and land management. It is quite feasible and admirable to have a completely native landscape in a suburban sized garden. That is completely impossible in the wild. The problem is gardening and land management often overlap. That seems to regularly cause problems when this kind of topic comes up.

    Reading some of these cantankerous responses to Michele’s unorthodox book review, how dare you Michele interview the author instead of doing a standard book review – whatever standard is – I have to wonder were these folks ticked off by Michele or the author’s answers to the questions?

    Emma Marris:

    1. “That’s not to say that some plants aren’t real headaches—but in many cases, the label “invasive” is just prejudice.”
    2. If you look at the novel forests in Hawaii, they are self-assembled. After an initial inoculation by introduced species, the plants are sorting themselves out. Nature will sort itself out, though in some places we’ll have to tweak a bit.

    Michele did not say these things. She might suck as a stenographer though, so that could be examined.

    I lived on Maui for 20 years. I watched in awe as nature sorted out and stabilized the non-stop introduction of new species. This included animals, insects, plants and who knows how many bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms. Nearly all the land birds at sea level are introduced. There are wild pigs, goats, cattle and yes deer on Maui. The native forests were cut down and shipped to China before all our grandparents were born. The islands were converted to plantations for sugarcane and cattle. The native ecosystem was long gone except for small remnant pockets in completely inaccessible areas when I lived there.

    Can anyone of you out there suggest a feasible restoration plan for the Hawaiian islands to bring them back to a functioning native ecosystem? Generalities will do for now.

    I live in NC now and have plenty of occasion to wander into the forest and have a look around in my job as a peasant gardener. My clients don’t live in suburbia. They live up high on acreage.

    The forests where they live may well have been fields, orchards or pasture in the recent past. At a minimum they have been logged several times. When they bought or built their houses the Honeysuckle and Oriental Bittersweet was already well established. Queen Anne’s Lace and Chicory sprouted and grew in the newly disturbed soil throughout the subdivision. They planted a nice garden around the house. There are standards to maintain even up high on acreage.

    The surrounding forest on their individual acreage may or may not be managed in some fashion. Weed whacking for a lawn like appearance on a portion of it closest to the house may suffice. These are the kind of people who asked me what was eating their hosta and what should they spray on them after there had been two pretty severe hail storms at the beginning of the summer. Oriental Bittersweet and Honeysuckle are not on their radar.

    The posh estate of a new client where I work is thirty three acres. This is one small part of a much larger ridge in one side valley of a much bigger mountain, one of many mountains in a single county in WNC that is about the same size as the island of Maui. One county in NC equals one island in Hawaii. There is much more land here to deal with.

    The under story of a predominately Silverbell, Halesia carolina, forest at the posh estate is completely infested with wild rose, blackberries and Oriental Bittersweet.

    Please one of you come up with a plan to permanently remove this one invasive plant species from this single 33 acre parcel that is within the time and budget constraints of the owners of the posh estate. Let’s not be too toxic in our endeavor. Animals, children and peasant gardeners roam the land constantly. The water shed feeds countless wells.

    I don’t think anyone out there can come up with such a plan.

    Hell I’d be happy if one of you could come up with a non-toxic budget friendly plan to permanently remove the NATIVE invasive plants on my smaller 11.2 acre parcel of land like the poisoned ivy, stinging nettle, the virgin’s bower, the Virginia creeper or the jewel weed. You can’t. And if somehow a miracle happens and I manage to weed it all out over the course of many, many years, nature will put it right back because they are all naturalized into the ecosystem that is vastly larger than my miniscule piece of it.

  14. Gloria, I’m glad you listened to the interview!

    There were a few things that Marris said that I would challenge: I’m with you on the need to preserve our large, wild spaces and protect them as much as possible from being over-run by disturbing human activity like snowmobiles, strip-mining, etc. There are millions of miles of roads and racetracks where boys-who-never-grew-up can race around on motor vehicles: we don’t need to give them Yosemite also.

    But I think Marris’ bigger message is this: humans have affected EVERYTHING. Even places that we perceive to be “wild” may still require management (i.e. invasive species removal, prescribed burns, wildlife relocation, etc. if we want them to remain in a state that we prefer them to. The corollary point that Marris makes is that this is essentially a decision about values and, ultimately, policy and not a purely scientific decision. And I think that’s fine. We can make the case for preserving (as we define that word) native ecosystems (as we define that phrase) on moral grounds even if ecology (strictly defined) doesn’t tell us whether we should or shouldn’t.

    Finally, I think that Marris’ ULTIMATE message is this: we can preserve and protect “nature” even in places we have not historically considered to be natural: our yards, our empty lots, our hell strips, and so forth. If every home owner in American found 250 square feet in their yard or neighborhood and converted it from asphalt or lawn to a (garden) planting filled with native shrubs, flowers, and grasses that would create more than 500,000 acres of new “nature”: the equivalent of a mid-sized National Park. And we can do this everywhere, including states like Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania which have no National Parks now.

    When Marris speaks of “metapopulations” she is echoing Doug Tallamy in slightly more technical language: if we put native plants back in our yards, we can bring nature home to us. Nature doesn’t have to be only out there! It can be here, too. I think that is an optimistic message, not a depressing one.

    But that’s just me.

  15. Vincent I have always felt that nature is all around us and that we are a part of that. I call humans top predators and giant plant dispersers. Never once did the fact that I love the Rockie mountain western desert land make me think that the little wooded park was not nature or that the garden outside the door had no use. You should see how wild our garden is and has been for many years. That is not what saddens, The tone Michelle and the interviewer took towards conservationist is what saddens me. Good people have done a lot of good work over the years bringing us the knowledge and experience these people seem to think came up recently as common sense. They use the words of people like the author to be snarky and convince others that, “see we were right all along we don’t need national parks keeping peole from living where they want or companies from damaging the land.” Too many still dislike any mention of conservation or preservation and I thought that was changing.

  16. Gloria, I only listened to the interview twice but I didn’t pick up any sense that the author was dismissive of conservationists or ecologists. I’ll try to find time to listen again.

  17. Vince,do you know much about the change from wooded forest preserves to tall grass prairie and then later savanna type restoration work going on for many years now around Chicago?
    Include wetlands in the mix and it is no simple change in policy.
    Nuance in education efforts to garner support for projects works both ways and I may be over sensitive. When someone says is pristine passe and do you feel you must travel to experience nature and that they spent years not visiting local small nature areas because they were considered not real nature and then use words like elitist. You tell me. I don’t want to be at odds with new efforts I just don’t want a backlash to set in.

  18. Gloria, I think you might be perceiving a conflict where none really exists. I hope you will read the book, and give us a full report on your thoughts on your blog. I think we both will have much more informed opinions after we read Marris’ words.

    I’m not sure what you were driving at by asking about Chicago, but two things come to mind. One is that the restored prairies strike me as perfect example of the kind of natural spaces that Marris talks about which are not at all “pristine” but are hugely ecologically (and spiritually) beneficial. The second is that Chicago, with its legacy of prairie-style landscaping and the imprimatur of Jens Jensen in its park system, is also a perfect example of how important it is to pay attention to the natural potential of EVERY space and not just the big, wild, “pristine” ones.

  19. CJ, totally serious. I’m a vegetable gardener–and so what once was a patch of lawn tends to become dozens of different crops on my watch. And those crops, being delicious, attract an entire food chain. Put me anywhere, and bugs and birds not heretofore seen on the property suddenly appear.

  20. Michelle, I doubt that any American, given our over consumption of the world’s resources would qualify as a “net plus” in any ecosystem. If you are basing such an arrogant and silly statement on the fact that you have a backyard vegetable garden…are you serious?

  21. CJ, you can’t blame any individual gardener for the hideousness of an entire culture. But any piece of property that gets a gardener is better off than one that doesn’t.

  22. It is our culture’s often inflated sense of self coupled with arrogance and entitlement that your statement perfectly embodies. You are the problem not the solution.

  23. Michelle’s food gardening is an asset. At least it sounds as if she is cognizant of soil and pesticide issues. Also she has made it clear that there is enough food coming from her garden to make a bit of a difference in shopping excursions.
    We humans are part of the ecosystem,with all our traits no better or worse than any other species. I do not dislike invasive species nor the human race, it is the overpopulation that is the problem in both cases. Too much is always at the expense of something else.
    There are many ways to go that will extend our species run, but is survival at the expense of all else what we want? Would you feel the same way if you looked at this situation from the point of view of the disenfranchised?
    It is good to know what others think about current policy or even lack of policy, but it is hard for information to emerge when disdain for an opposing view is what stands out like an exclamation point. I can personally attest to the fact that reacting with a defensive stance as being non-productive…lol

  24. Abandon all hope ye who *garden* here.
    *Unless your garden passes the native purity test.
    No other garden interests will do.
    Nature shall be corralled and subdued within our human borders.

  25. I’m still reeling at the demand for a management plan within the “time and budget constraints of the owners of the posh estate”.

    And the “abandon all hope” comment.

    But then, I garden with natives, for wildlife, so I guess I am supposed to be reeling from the blows.

  26. I don’t really understand what I need to do to be a politically correct gardener. Am I not allowed to plant tulips because they’re not native? And, by the way, how do I know what’s “native”? Do I have to do research on every plant I buy at the local garden center? If I plant a Japanese plant am I really harming the environment?
    It’s hard for me to believe that planting a non-native plant in my 1/4 acre suburban lot will affect anything at all beyond my garden, but if it will, I would like to know how and why.

  27. Debbie, I’m not sure why anyone would aspire to be a “politically correct gardener” given that this is typically considered a pejorative term. And there are very few places in the U.S. where a home gardener is “not allowed” to plant whatever they want. So far as I know, tulips are not banned or quarantined anywhere. As far as non-natives go, tulips and daffodils are about as benign as it gets.

    Beyond that, I would say two things:

    The first is that landscapes composed primarily of site-appropriate plants which are native to the region in which they are planted tend to consumer fewer resources (water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.) and support healthier ecosystems (biodiversity, healthy food webs, cleaner water, etc.).

    The second is that there are, indeed, a small number of non-native plants that can cause serious problems far beyond the place they are planted. There are many good resources on the internet that list these invasive plants, and you should have no trouble finding a local resource (state agency , native plant society, extension service) that can tell you which species plants should be avoided in your area.

    Emma Marris’ book covers both of these points to some degree, though there are books and papers that do so in more depth.

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