Reasonable discourse: can gardeners lead the way?

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Fall color along the Niagara Gorge

Polarized is a word I’d never thought I’d hear as much as I’ve heard it over the past two years. “Fake news” is a term I’d never heard before 2017. (I prefer the terms “disinformation” and “propaganda.”) That was then; this is now. Seeing issues in black and white extremes is the norm. But I think we can do better. While gardeners are seldom known for their harsh rhetoric, I have noticed a certain strain of us vs. them thinking—even some fanaticism—in gardening-related topics. Like:

Native plants: I was an early interviewer of Doug Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home. Even then, I noted that I would not give up many of my tropicals and other nonnatives, and needed to find a compromise; Tallamy and other scientists who promote natives have always said compromise is possible. There are even some studies that show nonnatives can be beneficial. But the debate has hardened and some viral posts promoting natives leave little room for subtleties.

Lawns: The debate over lawns has to do with natives, in part, but there is also a debate about whether lawns just suck, period. The fact remains that many homeowners enjoy a grassy space of some type on their property. If so, then it’s really a question of lawn care. Lawns aren’t evil in of themselves; it’s what we do to keep them up that can be harmful. For gardeners, this should really be about lawn care, not lawns. But that discussion too, is getting to an us vs. them polemic—though it’s not as bad as others.

Leaf management: This discussion has been even further degraded by some ultra-silly pronouncements from the White House. Leaving that aside (please), my post last week caused a lot of back-and-forth here and on our Facebook page. My rant against sweepingly general advice about leaf management led to a lot of sweepingly general condemnation. I saw myself painted as a selfish plant-lover who doesn’t care about helping wildlife. (I quote:Your article is just a long way of saying “my pretty plants are more important than the wildlife that uses the leaf litter.”) And I learned a new term: “virtue signaling,” that would fit that kind of rhetoric. Kind of like “holier than thou,” I guess. I agree completely with Carol Reese’s advice to skip a lot of the fall cleanup/cutting back, but, for me (and many others), leaving unshredded leaves in place is not an option. That still leaves plenty of room for helping wildlife. There’s always room for compromise. I hope we can remember that as gardeners.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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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 regularly 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 yahoo.com

18 COMMENTS

  1. I think there can be reasonable discourse among reasonable people. For example, there are adamant non-organic gardeners in my Master Gardener group. Herbicides and pesticides rule and are used copiously by these folks. Dandelions are the anti-Christ. Some in the group don’t want their perennials touching each other and snip off dead foliage two seconds after a frost. I say live and let live if they allow me to garden the way I want (and they do). No one argues. I realize #1 they like the way they garden, #2 they aren’t me, #3 it doesn’t matter that much to me.

    While I respect Ben Vogt’s stance (Monarch Gardens, LLC) on only using natives and I have added more natives to my garden after reading his book, I still purchased several non-natives this fall.

    Elizabeth, if you hate the leaves in your yard and rake them up, what do I care? (You probably don’t care if I leave mine.) Anyway, at least you’re gardening. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Can we talk for one moment about the incredible ignorance of the plant world exhibited by the current occupier of the White House? And he is not the only one in a top leadership position who doesn’t know an annual flower from a shrub from a corn plant. (Both parties have their share of green-blind dunces, IMHO.) It is truly frightening to me that those in charge of our nation’s budgets and policies have so little understanding of the natural world and our place in it. #RakeNews

  3. I quit commenting or participating in online conversations (until now I guess) because I was tired of being viciously attacked because I have a point of view that’s unpopular with native plant enthusiasts – despite that I am an avid user of native plants IF they are the right plant for the place I’m gardening. I’ve been accused of “ecocide” (whatever that is) because I encouraged someone to plant some daylilies if they like them. I’ve been raked over the coals because I kinda like to leave a little honeysuckle next to the gate at my farm – it’s a plant of my childhood and it has personal meaning to me.
    What bothers me most about these purist’s attacks is that, not only are they often based on flimsy conjecture and pseudoscience, they only serve to dissuade and discourage potential new gardeners. We need young gardeners to plant daylilies and marigolds so they cut their teeth on foolproof plants and mature their tastes and abilities. Screaming at them or badgering them into planting things that, to them, only look like weeds is never going to help recover the lost enthusiasm for plants and gardens that we’d like to encourage.
    And we also have to recognize garden as an art form. It’s not just for nature. It’s not even nature.
    Oh and I love my corylopsis and my bearded iris and my boxwoods – and I’m a grown ass man and I don’t need the finger wagging.

    • David, I’m glad you mentioned the discouraging effect the purists are having on beginners! Esp the majority of new gardeners who shockingly want the result to look pretty.
      So often, purists’ vision of the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Susan

    • There are ideologues on all sides and in all conflicts* who seem to attack the *insufficiently* correct activists who should be their allies. Mixed Catholic-Protestant families were attacked in the end of the Irish troubles, compromisers in the last days of South Africa’s apartheid, vegan/vegetarian/omnivore/cannibal diet activists, etc. Fortunately gardeners are usually less violent…

      Attacking and discouraging fellow gardeners, or worse, beginner gardeners, is non-productive. Most of us were at one time not gardeners; we need to allow others to test the waters, to try it out, to make progress in their own time and way. Goodness knows I’m not infallible, and there are important issues which I am ignoring, and others of which I know nothing. Please, folks who do have strong opinions: share your knowledge and enthusiasm, not smug certainty.

      * But not always in equal numbers.

  4. I find that gardeners are as a whole reasonable people. Certainly there are the fringes -which exist in any discipline-but the deep connection to the natural world that a gardener has establishes a commonality that transcends tribal division. I am completely on board with the anti lawn peeps because I live in the summer dry west where rain is absent from May to November but my friends in New England don’t install irrigation systems or have the need to drag hoses around every single week all summer long- lawn works for them and I don’t begrudge it. I tend towards idealism when participating in garden discourse, even though I am an avid cynic elsewhere.

  5. While reasonable people can always disagree, there’s almost no reasonable use for pesticides.

    Massive loss of insects — some 70% decrease from 1940s levels — directly affects bird populations, which are shockingly decreased. One reference that tells the story: The Moth Snowstorm https://www.nyrb.com/products/the-moth-snowstorm

    Gardeners may help stem the tide of this tremendous loss and perhaps even in some cases reverse it by providing beautiful gardens that are also habitat for the native bees and other pollinators so under threat today.

    • I wonder what we’re supposed to do about the spotted lanternfly up in southeastern PA? I’ve seen the dang bugs go after our beloved milkweed! Do I spray the milkweed or rip it out to stop the lanternfly or do I live-and-let-live, benefitting both the monarch and the deadly lanternfly? What a moral dilemma.

      My gardens are a mix of natives and nonnatives. Many of our local natives really aren’t very pretty: they’re boring and white. Plus, our garden centers offer only so many natives. So, I make the best of the situation as I can and I do both. I can’t wait to remove some silver maples and replace them with delicious serviceberries.

  6. Interesting essay and discussion, thanks for planting the seeds, Elizabeth. A couple of comments – Michael Pollin suggested that gardeners (that’s us, right? whichever kind of ‘purist’ we might be) might serve as a bridge between conservationists and policy makers, since the very nature of gardening is finding a balance between the natural world and our desire for a garden that pleases us. That was in “Second Nature” (good book to read, still). In community gardening, we have to work mindfully to build capacity for consensus and listening, and to create policies and designs that allow ‘live and let live’ to prevail over turf wars and factionalizing. It doesn’t just happen, even when a garden looks lovely (which ours doesn’t, at the moment. Never does by late November – hmmm, seasons and cycles are something gardeners know, too.) That’s a lovely photo, by the way, illustrating your commentary. Interesting that is shows a corner of Nature’s garden, not one of our hopeful variations. No diligent Finns out there raking, I suspect. I wonder if a key to the puzzle is expanding our aesthetics to allow the beauty of the Niagara cliffs, of the meadow and the forest, more of a place in our own yards. And, as I read Tallamy, we might also want to look at deeper beauty – maybe that less-than-tidy jumble of seedheads isn’t “neat”, but if it gives us swallowtails and cardinals, maybe we can reach out a bit further, breathe a bit deeper, mindfully do a bit less. Meanwhile, I’m thankful for this opportunity to dialog – to say my piece and read other perspectives. ‘Rant has always felt like an old and comfy garden bench, a good place to sit, look around, and maybe have a chat before getting back to work. Thanks – and Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Thanks so much, Don. A note on my image–even this beautiful gorge is not without its problems. There is currently an effort to remove invasives and plant more natives here. It’s a big, expensive project. Judging from my reading, some might ask–not necessarily me–is it needed?

  7. Excellent essay, Elizabeth, and really excellent comments! “Live and let live” is an attitude that could be applied to most of life’s situations with beneficial results. Happy Thanksgiving, Ranters!

  8. Excellent topic and excellent comments. I have been mulling the “us and them” philosophy in general (religion, politics, ethnic background…. as well as native plants, organic, lawn/no lawn) and so this rant and the comments that follow feed into that. I have been “plant shamed” and find it mystifying. Can we all just agree that we each are trying to do our very best – for our souls, for our environment and for our little link in the chain. Isn’t that part of the diversity we all talk about?

  9. Thanks for this post and starting this discussion. As other commenters have mentioned, please be aware of how your approach, your commentary and your attitude could impact younger gardeners or people looking at getting into the hobby. There’s a whole generation of young people out there who are just waiting to discover the joy of our little lifestyle. Let’s be kind and empathetic with others, gracious with our compliments and sparing in our criticisms. As long you’re getting some dirt under your fingernails and a few mosquito bites, you’re doing it right in my book.

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