The Wrong Way to Teach Eco-Friendly Gardening


I recently attended a “Green Yards and Gardens” talk in my town. The intern giving the talk was more knowledgeable than I expected, but the topics covered were no surprise: natives, invasives, pesticides, composting, and rain barrels, the usual bullet points. Afterward I asked some attendees I knew how they liked the talk and wasn’t surprised by their disappointment: “We thought we’d learn to garden.”

Lecturing people about what NOT to do resonates with some – the already eco-minded – but fails to excite people about gardening or show them how to succeed at it.

I’ve come to believe that turning people into gardeners should be the number one goal of all communications about eco-friendly or sustainable gardening. Sure, mention at the end of the talk or article the practices they should avoid, but focusing on the negatives is just counterproductive. I’ve noticed this misguided approach over the years and a quick survey reveals that it’s as prominent as ever.

For example, a county in California recommends natives, IPM, drip irrigation, mulch and of all things, double-digging.

Perhaps the worst advice I found in my survey was Mother Earth News’ Eco-Friendly Gardening Tips, which directs readers to use natural sealants, fire pits, insect hotels, upcycling wood pallets into furniture and choosing hardwood over softwood furniture. Hey, where’s the gardening?

What a ridiculous tagline.

In recommending native plants, exaggerated claims about them are so common it’s hard to find any that that would stand up to scrutiny. For example, Treehugger says, “Already adapted to local conditions, native plants are easy to grow and maintain, generally requiring less fertilizer and water, as well as less effort to rein in pests.” This common argument sounds about right, until it’s pointed out that “local conditions” are so often nothing like the conditions native plants are actually adapted to. The “generally less water” is probably true of desert natives, but often this overgeneralization leads to native-plant abuse. And it’s misleading if not downright dishonest to say natives are more resistant to pests, when that’s true for native pests only, not the nonnative ones destroying elms and hemlocks.

So it’s exasperating to read this from Better Homes and Gardens: “Plant Natives. Plants that are indigenous to your region are called natives. These plants take less work, usually require less water, and thrive better than other perennials because they are already suited to your climate, rainfall, and soil types.”

At least Penn State’s push for native plants, above, employs the more honest “may include.”

But no matter how nuanced the promotion of natives may be, telling newbie gardeners to select only from the limited selection of natives on the market is a recipe for failure and disappointment. Most people just want a pretty garden, so why not help them achieve that – in a way that helps the environment?

And really, why not appeal to our innate attraction to beauty? On the contrary, beauty is increasingly under attack in eco-conscious writing.

For a change of perspective, let’s go to the U.K., where there’s a strong culture of gardening. The Telegraph’s  five “Tips for an Eco-Friendly Garden” include growing your own food and composting but the number 1 tip is: “Make the garden fabulous so that you don’t go out and spend money and energy elsewhere. Measure days you spend in the garden and incentivise yourself to do more there.” And number 5 is: “Keep yourself fit and happy. Get a step counter and check that you do 10,000 steps a day… Watch your steps soar as you spend more time in the garden.”

How different must attitudes be for being fit and having a “fabulous” garden to be considered eco-friendly steps!

Which leads right into the tips I’d give if I were a tip-giving sort. Like that English writer, my number one goal would be to turn readers into people who love growing plants:

  • Make your garden gorgeous to YOU, using plants you love and that grow well in your area. I’d show examples of inspirational gardens and describe how to get started creating one of your own – by making borders, including paths, etc.
  • Plant more plants, especially large, deep-rooted ones.
  • For wildlife, include a diversity of plants in your garden, and a water source, too.
  • And a tip I saw nowhere in my research may be THE most impactful change the public could make in their yard – switching to low-maintenance, low-input lawn care (see Cornell).

Yet if lawn is mentioned at all, it’s to say get rid of it! Better Homes and Gardens’ advice is typical lawn-shaming: 

Lose Your Lawn (or part of it). A gorgeous, green, and weed-free lawn uses a lot of resources. Water and fertilizer are needed to keep most lawns looking in top shape. You can have a more sustainable lawn by reducing the area planted in grass and replacing it with easy-care perennial ornamental grasses, low-growing shrubs, or groundcovers.

I’d posit that a “sustainable lawn” isn’t the same-old, high-input lawn but a bit less of it.


  1. Though some of the “don’ts” are freeing. I was intimidated by the rose spraying schedule I was told to follow years ago. It feel great not to do anything. I also think a simple prescription of “First, do no harm” goes a long way.

    • Yes I forgot to mention that uncomplicating the whole topic for beginners would be good, too. Make it easier by telling them to skip the products and just buy as many good plants as they can. Susan

  2. Beauty for whom is what I ask. It’s not an attack, it’s asking us to think more critically — especially in a time of mass extinction and climate change. If we garden solely or primarily for our sense of beauty, for the pleasure of one species, does it exclude what other species find beautiful? And I agree that the “use native plants” mantra is too general and vague — it’s about using the right plant for the right place, and hopefully it’s a plant all sorts of local wildlife can use at various life stages.

  3. The best, simple gardening advice I’ve heard in years: “Make the garden fabulous so that you don’t go out and spend money and energy elsewhere.” Thanks for a great rant, Susan.

  4. My yard is mostly “native”. The few “exotics” that I do have are the ones that have survived in spite of minimal attention. Almost all of my native plants have been much more tolerant of my laid back gardening style. Plus, the wildlife that they draw in is remarkable (delightful and delovely).

    • Exactly! The native plants are the foundation of the native environment. While we love seeing what is growing out each spring, as much fun is seeing all the various beautiful critters that live with us because of the native plants.

  5. My most wildlife friendly shrub is not native: Cherry laurel (prunus laurocerasus) ‘Otto Luyken.’ It draws bees when it blooms at least once a year; catbirds when it fruits; even Eastern tent caterpillars that fed a nest of robins. The catbirds nest deep within it every year. I have rather a lot of Ottos, and the wildlife they attract are a source of endless amusement.

    • I do not know where you live. I am in coastal SoCal. I have planted Catalina Island Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia subsp. lyonii). It is native just 35 miles from my home, and is very popular with birds and other locals. It grows a bit taller, and a bit faster than subsp. ilicifolia.

  6. While I appreciate the sentiment behind the article, I take exception to your taking exception with the descriptions of native plants. I couldn’t find a single point that didn’t ring true. Given a native and a non native plant suited to similar ecotypes, you will be hard pressed to find the non native that beat the native in any one category, let alone all.

    Lawn grasses are a fine example. The native hard and fine fescues are disease resistant, drought tolerant, and need about two pounds of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. The attractive non native bluegrass (it is NOT from Kentucky) is disease prone, needs 2″ of water a week (that’s four times what fescues need) and 8lb.s of nitrogen, four times what the fescues need. Yet this is the preferred turf grass; “I just like how it looks.”

    • That’s just not accurate. Studies have shown that native plants in garden conditions require as much care, water and nutrients as any garden plants. This native plant thing is largely mythology.

      • Link to said studies?

        I’m guilty of following all of the advice the author rants against. I got rid of almost all of my lawn and am growing 90% natives. Mine require NO maintenence but I do have to weed several times a year.

  7. Thanks for a great post/rant! So many articles merely are repeating ‘old’ news that we have found to be incorrect. Your citation of the benefits of native plants is case in point. Ditto the comment directly above mine about eco-friendly lawn grasses. We need not to paint with such a broad brush and tell people DO NATIVES. We need to educate what natives DO and why they are good, and exactly when and where in a particular landscape they are well-suited. Some native plants will become weedy messes and a maintenance nightmare in a small residential situation… particularly if they are happy.

  8. If the only goal of gardening is to create a collection of botanical knick knacks, I would agree with you, Susan. But why not nudge gardeners towards a much more rewarding connection with the environment? The birds, bees, and butterflies that are much more successfully attracted by native plants should obviously be considered part of the garden and appreciated for the jewels that they are. To create gardens that are not only attractive but that are refugia for species driven out by cities, suburbs, and farms, seems like one of the loftiest goals a gardener could aspire to.

    • Hear! Hear! And while you are trying to save the birdies and butterflies, don’t forget that habitat destruction doesn’t just mean paving over paradise. It means planting things from Japan, New Zealand and South Africa that they or their preferred meals (in the case of birds; insects – preferably caterpillars) don’t exactly know what to do with. Doug Tallamy should weigh in on the ‘plants as tchotchkes’ debate.

    • A garden is a man made thing in a man created environment. Gardens are not nature. They are primarily a creative human pursuit. And the wildlife comes weather your plants are from Oklahoma or Japan. I’ve never heard of a sterile garden.

      • Well, just because the wildlife comes, doesn’t mean the “fruits” of which they are partaking are nutritious. Sure, birds love Japanese barberries, but did you see which birds are the ones hitting the shrubs? I’ve only observed house sparrows eating from barberries and house sparrows are an introduced (problem) bird. Sometimes the introduced plants we think wildlife love are actually nutritious disasters: it’s like planting a donut tree versus an apple tree. You can bet more people would be stealing your donuts, but the donuts would not be good for them. Butterfly bushes are hit hard by winged insects, but they are not a good choice for caterpillars. For every butterfly you’ve seen, how many caterpillars died in the fight for survival? By favoring butterflies over caterpillars, we may be reducing the number of butterflies over time as the few caterpillars left are all picked off by voracious birds and other insects. Without the caterpillars, there will be fewer individuals of some birds. We need to think outside of the box that because we see some thing feeding at a plant, that means it’s a good plant. What if there is nothing else around for the critter to eat, so we think they prefer to eat there, but as a last resort, that plant did no good?

      • There is no sharp line between a meadow planted by humans and one that developed without human assistance. A species planted by a human will be just as likely to attract, or not attract, birds and bees, as that species grown from a seed carried on the wind. My point is that all plant species are not equally sought after by wildlife and your best chance of supporting other species is to provide plants from your own region; not ones that have been uprooted from ecosystems on the other side of the planet. For those gardeners that are interested in gardens accented with wildlife, gardens that make a difference to other species, gardens that are lively participants in ecological processes, selecting plant species from the palette of native regional species is the most direct route. See Doug Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home” for a popular discussion of the comparative value of native vs. exotic species. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it has the same ecological value.

  9. Couldn’t agree more with this rant. I have a VERY small garden. Every plant has to perform. I have found that non-natives perform every bit as well as natives, if not better….less disease, less insect damage. Yes, they were properly sited, planted, etc. There are gardeners out there who will buy plants and shrubs and will be thrilled to see them devoured by local insects for all the right reasons. Most, I dare say, will find themselves grabbing the insecticide and fungicide to save their investment. No amount preaching, teaching, brow-beating or nudging will change this. I have pulled out many, but not all, of my natives, because I DIDN’T want to spray.

    • yes! After 40 years of gardening, I learned the hard way that while many natives do well and are appropriate in the large landscapes (prairies, savannas, woodlands) where they’re indigenous, my backyard is a poor synonym. Some are not as robust as their cultivated varieties, and others become down right bullies in a cultivated environment. I have been moving toward a more balanced collection of native cultivars and exotics. The birds and bees are happy and so am I

    • Insect damage?

      Insect damage is butterflies. Insect damage is forage.

      My suggestion is that you buy plastic flowers. Then they will not need water, nor will you be bothered by nature at all.

      • Dr. GS Hurd, no thank you, I’d rather keep the plants that I can fit into my very small garden alive and healthy. Remember, I can only fit in a relatively small number, so each one counts. Unless you are offering to replace them whenever the insects chew the plants to shreds, which has happened before with natives, not so much with non-natives. If so, I’m all ears. How would you like to work this arrangement? And by the way…I’ll want live plants, not plastic.

        Do we have a deal?

  10. Right on. Gardening is hard work and I think we need some kind of aesthetic payoff to make it worth it. Now, what qualifies as “beautiful” may certainly vary from gardener to gardener — nobody should try to force any definition of beauty on anybody else. If a beginning gardener adores roses and hostas, they should plant them if it makes them happy. Chances are what he/she finds beautiful will change over time.

    I’m not a huge fan of the counting steps thing, but I do think that we could recruit some folks by stressing how good gardening can be for the body and mind. The physical exercise, the fresh air, the stress relief…and you’re actually creating something for all your effort instead of just watching numbers on a treadmill. I think for many of us “garden” the verb is even more important than “garden” the noun.

    Good rant!

  11. Good rant! I have to say, though, that ‘lawn-shaming’ has a whole different ring to it down here in Southern California that it does up there in the northeast. After living all over north America, from Toronto to Long Island to Vancouver, San Francisco and now Southern California, I know from experience that gardening conditions are not created equal, even within California.

    Of course, as seasoned gardeners we take this knowledge for granted. But new gardeners don’t – especially when they absorb so much advice delivered so confidently from other places…where people garden in acid soil, with more volume and more frequent rain, less relentless sun, less salty soil, etc.

    In the gardening classes I give, one of the most popular points I make (gathered from feedback forms) on how to garden successfully with the conditions we have here. Many a sad, seemingly brown thumbed gardener has been born by using east coast gardening advice in a southwest garden.

  12. Ah, to get more folks gardening not only landscape-maintaining! That is the biggest eco-good. I like the UK approach. Make it inviting to garden, fun to observe, okay to try and fail. Let’s face it, plants are intimidating for many people.

  13. Gardening is about getting outside, and watching things grow…heck, I believe plants are the reason we have fingers and good brains! We even have soil bacteria co-evolved that enhances our mood. Working with plants is about re-connecting with nature, producing something of joy and some food. But it is also about asking ourselves what our connection to the world is beyond our insular, climate controlled houses, and what our role is other than to look at a “wall of green” knowing little about it.

    Do we choose to be a good force, or a destructive one to the place we live? Presumably there was something we liked about our land when we chose it to be “home”; but it seems we immediately get busy to make it “better” and destroy any connection to its surrounding natural landscape at all! This is so very apparent in virtually every waterfront community I have seen, and every lawn-filled town.

    But you know what? We don’t have a clue how to create a “better” ecosystem, because we have only been studying the existing ones with any deeper understanding the “web” of life for less than 50 years. This is why everyone here needs to read Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home before spouting off, because, well, we probably should be ashamed of the damage we have done, in most cases purely for our own visual stimulation. There are invasive plants where putting in concrete instead would be less harmful, because concrete does not grow unchecked in the wild.

    For self-pleasure, we bring down complex ecological problems and even create ideal conditions for human diseases…and many are self-righteous about it, and are as much in denial as anyone who thinks they may be inconvenienced by climate change. Growth is painful, folks, and there is a lot at stake other than your choice at the nursery being minimally hampered. There is no shortage of choices of beneficial or non-destructive plants to plant…and nurseries will cater to customer demand.
    There is nothing wrong with beauty as the main driving aesthetic, because natives are no less beautiful than other plants. It is the competitive market force for bigger, louder colours, and maintenance-free that is the problem. It is also our drive for perfection, order, and control. A dead log in your garden has more life in it than the tree ever did alive! Butterflies are beautiful, but need to eat leaves before being butterflies! Nesting birds absolutely need the moth caterpillars whose adults we kill by the score by our obsessive need for a 24 hour porch light. Birds don’t just die striking your windows…multiply that by every house. Learning about these things makes us better, rather than worse gardeners, and no, gardening is not just about plants.
    But for some, sadly, our gardens and houses seem to be our last bastion of control over our lives. To suggest taking any of that away is “fightin’ words” for many. The problem is that what your plant can turn out to be a form of green pollution that grows, and have you reaching for that herbicide before you know it. That invasive plant will have you at war with your garden rather than enjoying it, and it can create problems for your neighbors, and both the human and ecological community where you live. It absolutely cannot be ignored as an issue.

    That invasive plant has that new gardener throwing up their hands in disgust, leaving the offending plant free range to spread at will. We teach kids to wash their hands to avoid spreading disease, is teaching a new gardener to know what they are planting, any harder? Here is a plan, if we teach new gardeners to start with natives, they will “get” that there are native food sources worth tending. They will get that native birds (like indigo buntings, and wild turkeys) are good things to have around.
    It also needs to be taught that if you like birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, you can plant native bird/butterfly larvae feeders (and teach your kids about the miracle of metamorphosis), or you can plant living statuary, which might only feed a few generalist pollinators, and contribute one more unusable piece of real-estate to the extinction crisis.

    Your choice…this is not about trying to make anyone feel bad about gardening…far from it! It is taking gardening to whole new level based on facts. Bear in mind that facts can threaten the bottom line of nursery corporations, yet another powerful business lobby. If you don’t think so, consider the patenting of plants and the market control issues there, where it is illegal to divide and share a plant, but I digress.
    Most people garden with the best of intentions, but in a very “me-only” way. This is especially true in the current surge in popularity of permaculture, which is a philosophical anthropocentric approach based on a silly notion that you can have a garden of food without work, lol. I attended an online class recently where 7,000 new gardeners around the world were encouraged to plant “bamboo” for a variety of self-serving reasons. There are over 1,000 species of bamboo, many of them invasive in many parts of the world where they are not native. Having spent days digging my poorly chosen bamboo out of a neighbor’s yard, I can feel the pain a statement like that can cause. It does amaze me how we refuse to avoid the same errors of others, gotta put our own hand on the hot stove!

    The basic tenet that was never given in that class was consideration of the right plant for the right place, and a concept I call “know thy plant” put into application before succumbing to “plant lust” (a rapturous disease with which I have a long history). It took an intense discussion with the dean and instructor to win the right to even present the possible problems with invasive species.
    Would you teach nutrition without teaching someone to make a list before going to the store? Is it so hard to teach a new gardener to engage in some wonderful wintertime study of plants? To ask Google if they are invasive locally or in other areas where the climate is similar? To make a list, and be aware of the disease/weed issues in bringing in unknown compost or potted plants with greenhouse pests?
    Noted ecologist EO Wilson, suggests that if we want a diverse world we need to leave 50% of it alone. For years, I promoted 25% natives in my design work, because the native plants everywhere I go are simply fascinating and beautiful, and so are the creatures that use them. But the elegant science of Doug Tallamy (an entomologist) was a game-changer, creating a full-blown, professional gardener mid-life crisis for me, and I have moved my baseline to 50%. His argument is, simply, “there is no ‘over-there’ over there.” Any perusal of global satellite photography (by night or day) shows this to be increasingly true.
    Why my passion? I like chickadees. These garden companions are in sharp decline, and it appears that we should be experiencing some shame in terms of overlooking the needs of an animal that is such a delightful and undemanding close neighbor. I want to help, not hurt their chances for survival. A native plant is a bird feeder, especially a native tree, such as oak, birch, willow, and native cherry.
    Most people I know spend less than 5% of their time outside on their lawns, so maybe some consideration of that percentage vs the area of your property that is lawn should be at play. A great group called the Habitat Network gives away free landscaping tools and exchanges knowledge on how to balance our needs with nature with information that helps researchers collect actual data on the ecological impact we have on our properties.
    I personally find the natives argument is a GREAT way to make new gardeners, because many people feel powerless to do anything more than complain and fight with each other with each new depressing news story of doom. There is SO much power in a garden. Coupled with the wonderful mental health/mindful/exercise benefits listed above, there is no reason not to have environmentalists doing environmentally positive things in their own backyards, and gardeners learning more about the intricacies of the greater world around them…and maybe finding a little more time to enjoy their garden rather than fight the invasive plant they planted because they chose not to know any better. Many of us spend huge amounts of energy to go find wild places, but there is a total disconnect at home. And THAT was a little rant of my own…thanks for having the conversation.

  14. Good article. My personal gardening manifesto? You can never be too eccentric in your garden. And with a little education, you can be full blown nutso in an environmentally sensitive way.

  15. All plants are native somewhere. A thoughtful person will find regionally native plants to be the basis for their garden. I will happily allow for edibles, or sentimental floral plants to be added. But only an idiot would supplant a SoCal regional native with a Mediterranean invasive. The esthetic goes beyond the plant. The butterfly, the pollinators, the birds are all dependent on locally appropriate plants.

    I have read this editorial 3 times now, and I must conclude that the author, Susan Harris, is paid by either the fertilizer companies, or the large commercial plant nurseries.

    • Dr. GS Hurd, “A thoughtful person will find regionally native plants to be the basis for their garden.” In my opinion, a thoughtful person wouldn’t dream of dictating their viewpoint to someone else who wishes to add life and beauty to their property, sometimes at a considerable financial investment, unless said plants are on an invasive list (we can all agree that’s not prudent). But otherwise, it is their money, after all, not yours.

      “I have read this editorial 3 times now, and I must conclude that the author, Susan Harris, is paid by either the fertilizer companies, or the large commercial plant nurseries. ” That’s a pretty tough charge. I don’t know that a thoughtful person would level an accusation like that, unless they know such a thing is true. And from everything I have read about Susan Harris over the years, it isn’t.

    • I guess I’m curious to know more about your garden. Because my yard is a small urban lot that has to fulfill a range of needs: a place for my 1st grader to play, a bit of aesthetic pleasure for me, a creative outlet, a place to enjoy the fresh air, a place to entertain friends (1st graders and adults), a place to build snowmen in the winter, a place to grow some vegetables.

      I’ve seen the native plants. They are fascinating and lovely in their own right. I try to include them when I can. I try to support pollinators, etc. But mostly these natives are not compatible with what I need from my outdoor space.

    • Dr. GS Hurd, A thoughtful person understands that intelligent people of good will can hold differing view points, and is able to communicate those differences without attacking those with whom they differ. And accusing people you don’t agree with of being in the pay of big business is really such a pitifully tired way of leveling an ad hominem attack.

  16. This is a good rant! I believe the garden is an artistic creation and we’d be well served to encourage new gardeners by suggesting they plant easy to grow, beautiful plants that can be successful out of the gate. Ragweed and failed projects are not the gateway to gardening. Plant marigolds and zinnias and get some experience under your belt and you’ll eventually start making better choices and become more discerning as a gardener. The native plant shaming and lawn shaming and food garden obsessions are all just turning new people away from a wonderful art form. Grow gardeners first.

  17. While in full agreement that the way to spread eco-friendly gardening is to emphasize the gardening part rather than what not to do, I’m at a loss to see what is wrong with the California county’s advice other than double-digging (hard work AND harmful to soil structure). Plant natives, mulch, and use drip irrigation: what’s negative about that?

    Even the “don’t”s can be presented as freeing: you don’t have to spray, you don’t have to throw away fallen leaves, you don’t have to mow as much lawn as you do now…

  18. The California county’s advice would be better put as “Plant local natives and regionally adapted plants.” It’s a climate with zero rainfall from April through October, so eastern US natives will just curl up their toes. On the other hand, there are similar climates rich in beautiful plants: parts of Australia, the South African Cape, swaths of Mexico, and the Mediterranean.

    Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (now the SF Botanic Garden) shows visitors what is possible with California natives and exotics suited to the climate. One piece of advice I’d give to any new gardener is to visit public gardens that bring out the beauty in plants that thrive in their areas. Mt. Cuba shows just how gorgeous the mid-Atlantic flora can be.

  19. I’m seriously confused by this post. It’s click-bait, frankly.

    Everything complained out is about as not ‘gardening’ *is* gardening. Installing a garden? Might want to know what type of soil to use, how to plumb in water, figure out what kind of compost to to add, how to build something aesthetically pleasing, how to keep deer out of a vegetable garden (or flower garden for that matter), knowing about pesticides or fertilizers, etc, etc…all of these things that these workshops you researched probably talk about. So, that puzzles me about the response from people wanting to garden….you learn to garden by trial and error—killing a few plants and going from there. And reading and learning about everything that that goes into gardening.

    Gardening isn’t just about plants.

    And the native/non-native debate….really? Come on, y’all.

  20. In a nutshell, it seems we need to teach gardening first, and (hopefully) the “eco-friendly” part will follow. So how do we get people interesting in gardening, in growing something, in growing ANYTHING (other than lawn grass) in the first place? How do we get people to love plants?

    • I’m with you! People need to start “gardening” and not doing “yard work”. Yard work entails putting chemicals on everything, sweating, and being miserable. If you’re gardening, you’re putting love into it, and you no longer want to kill your beautiful lawn violets with weed killer, so who cares about the dandelions? And suddenly you find you can’t stand up straight because you’ve been crouched down next to the garden bed for an hour, but you just made something beautiful instead of something ‘meh’.

  21. This is similar to my gripe about most gardening books. I don’t need a primer on seed starting or most of the other rudimentary things. After 50 years of gardening, I’ve learned a lot. I need inspiration.

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