Gardening on the Planet, Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling

Native Plants are a Moral Choice

Nebraska Prairie

Nebraska Prairie

Guest Rant by Benjamin Vogt

It’s late July and I’ve finally seen my first monarch butterfly, but only after the Liatris ligulistylis started blooming. This is a very, very late start. In 2010 I raised 200 from egg to wing, then in 2011 a solid 150, last year only 25. This year I found 5 eggs.

I slip quietly behind some tall coreopsis, hoping the monarch won’t see or sense me. But they do, they always do. It lifts off to fly circles above me for much longer than I have the patience to benjamin Flowerswait. It’s an incredible butterfly, isn’t it? The quintessential summer insect. But it’s not just monarchs I’ve seen less of these last years – it’s all kinds of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, and wasps. Pollinating insects which provide 1 in 3 bites of food – even China has resorted to hand-pollinating large crops due to a lack of insects.

Have you seen this lack, this absence? It’s a proverbial canary in the coal mine. Folks speculate on the cause – pesticides, habitat loss, weather extremes. What’s the magic bullet? Suburban sprawl. GMO agricultural fields producing toxic pollen and taking more pesticide sprays. Tar sands and mountain top removal coal mining. Plowing up the last remaining prairies at a rate exceeding the years just prior to the Dust Bowl – in the last 5 years the size of Indiana has been converted as publicly-subsidized crop insurance guarantees a farmer’s income, even if they plow up marshes and highly erodible lands.

As gardeners we have first hand knowledge of environmental change – birds, butterflies, soil, rain. We are also the first and last line of defense. How we garden is how we see the world. Gardening is an ethical act, like shopping locally, going to farmer’s markets, et cetera. We make the choices as gardeners, and we are powerful — there are tens of millions of us in North America. Gardening has become much more than an aesthetic hobby – it’s now also a protest (you front lawn converters know what I mean!).

Monarchs need milkweed – a genus that has over 100 species in the U.S. alone. A native plant. A host plant. Why would you not plant milkweed given the absence of monarchs you see? Why would you not connect the dots to other lives and plants, other hosts for skippers, and swallowtails, and fritillaries? It’s estimated that 3,000 species of flora and fauna vanish every year, due in large part to human action.

So will you follow me one step further? Choosing native plants may be a moral choice. Asking for them in nurseries is asking for change, for restoration, for healing. Native plants can connect us to our home ground in ways a non native might not be able to. Native plants help us learn about local ecology, attracting beneficial bugs, fixing soil, feeding birds – all adapted, all co-evolved with the nectar and the seeds and the taste of leaves over tens of thousands of years. In the Plains what was here before Eubenjamin Monarch on Ironweedropeans erased it? Is it ok that those species are no longer here? The prairie once acted like the Amazon rainforest – huge lungs that cleaned the hemisphere’s air and provided a wealth of life that created backup redundancies. In a monoculture of corn, soybeans, hosta, or daylily (all new norms we seem to accept as if they always existed), one pest or disease can wipe everything away in a moment – there is no redundancy, and less value to native wildlife. Nature thrives on diversity, and so do we, physically and psychologically. That’s what makes America so unique. If we plant the same things from city to city, state to state, country to country, haven’t we McDonaldized the world? What do local wildlife think about that?

I tell you honestly, I ache for the monarch butterfly. I feel that absence in my garden like I feel the absence of deceased family and friends. My heart feels weak, my body shudders. I will gather as much milkweed seed as I can this fall from my Nebraska garden – indeed as much liatris, coneflower, bluestem, sideoats grama, culver’s root, mountain mint, aster, goldenrod, and sunflower as I can. I’ll wintersow them in pots and plant out the seedlings next summer. I’ll hope, but what’s more, I’ll take a stand and believe I can make a difference – it’s time to bring ourselves back to the native landscape, to connect to our home ground, to heal, and ultimately to connect more deeply to  ourselves and each other as we garden for all of us.

Benjamin Vogt blogs at Deep Middle.   Click here to read more from Benjamin on this subject.

Posted by on September 20, 2013 at 7:19 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling.
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130 Responses to “Native Plants are a Moral Choice”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Benjamin–I feel we are voices crying in the wilderness. (See my book Design Your Natural Midwest Garden and my blog, http://www.naturalmidwestgarden.com). I don’t, however, think scolding and scaring is the best way to win converts. Converting gardeners, who already have gardens filled with exotic plants, is not easy and blending natives with their existing gardens is a start. One of my programs that I give is entitled “If you aren’t ready to go all the way…” I’m assuming that once one starts planting native plants, their beauty and low upkeep will win out over exotics. One doesn’t need a prairie in order to have a prairie garden–my lot is only 50′ x 124′ and my garden beds are planted exclusively with Midwest native plants. (It was featured in Better Homes & Gardens several years ago.)

  2. SAo says:

    When I was a kid, behind my house there was a big patch of undeveloped land, including a few small fields full of milkweed. The town bought it as conservation land. Good, you are thinking. But they mow the meadow a few times a year and the milkweed is no more.

    I don’t think anyone ever looked at the biodiversity in that small area or considered how to keep it, but I’m sure if you asked, the town would trumpet the victory for conservation.

    • When I moved to Princeton, NJ, a field along a popular canal towpath was being mowed every week or two by state parks. I noticed rosettes of cutleaf coneflower surviving the mowing but unable to bloom, and was able to talk the parks ranger into mowing once a year instead. Less work, and a great explosion of native wildflowers and grasses–JoePyeWeed, tall meadow rue, milkweed, ironweed, deertongue grass, even species I’d never encountered before, like figwort. They mowed a nature trail that winds through this field. This is a floodplain field, so may be more resilient, but your milkweed may still be surviving in your field, ready to come back with a change in mowing regime.

  3. Mary McAllister says:

    Since Mr. Vogt uses the Monarch butterfly to make his case for native plants, let’s start there. Here in California the Monarch overwinters in non-native eucalyptus trees which are being rapidly eradicated on our public lands in response to the demands of native plant advocates. There is no historical evidence of a Monarch migration in California prior to the planting of tall non-native trees by Europeans in the 19th century.

    This is just one of many examples of the use of non-native plants by insects and other wildlife. Here is an article about the scientific evidence that the argument that wildlife requires native plants is not supported by the facts on the ground: http://milliontrees.me/2012/08/14/doug-tallamy-refutes-his-own-theory-without-changing-his-ideology/

    Wildlife has long ago adapted to—and in many cases evolved—to use non-native plants. But more importantly, climate change requires that plants and animals move as needed to survive. Demanding that plants and animals stay in their historic ranges is not helping them. It is dooming them to extinction.

    • Mary–So, do those monarchs use the trees as a host plant? I suppose I could have used any number of insect, but this one is certainly a poster child. I don’t see monarchs evolving to use aster or coneflower as a host plant — the rush of climate change is outpacing evolution, wouldn’t you say? If we are losing 3,000 species a year, as E.O. Wilson suggests, what are the moral implications of that? Should we just have the cavalier attitude that what doesn’t adjust just wasn’t meant to exist, as I’m taking you mean? Where will monarchs go in Mexico when cold winter rains strike as a result of climate change, freezing them to death? Even if you planted oaks you’d still have the changing weather, right?

      • Mary McAllister says:

        The Monarch does not lay its eggs on the eucalyptus in California, i.e., it is not a host plant. However, it is one of the few sources of winter nectar and pollen that is needed by the Monarch when it emerges from diapause in late winter. Most native plants in California are dormant at that time. The eucalyptus is therefore very important to the survival of the Monarch migration in California.

        More importantly, there are many examples of insects—and other animals—that now need non-native plants. The assumptions of native plant advocates have been tested by many scientific studies. Studies do not support those assumptions.

        A moral argument for native plants is not going to be effective for you if it is not consistent with the facts. Start with the facts before building a moral argument. Better yet, why not acknowledge that you simply prefer native plants? I doubt that anyone would want to argue with your horticultural or aesthetic preferences. I certainly would not argue with you. I like native plants too, but I do not consider them inherently superior and neither do most of my animal neighbors.

        BTW, I have an oak and I love it

        • Eric says:

          Mary, is there not also scientific evidence that native plants are in fact “better” in many ways (see the work of Doug Tallamy)?

    • greg draiss says:

      Could not agree more. And what exactly is a native plant? Where did it come from if it evolved from something else?

      That is like only calling “Indians” Native American. I was born here so I am a native (notice lack of capital N on native) American and that is how I sign my tax forms.

      If global warming is changing the climate is it not also changing what is native flora? What then forbid if the climate gets cooler and the tree line shrinks to Manhattan instead of Northern Canada? What will you call native then? To think that our small time spent on this planet can occupy someone’s time and make them feel so self important is beyond me….”I raised “x” number from egg to wing”……well Kumbaya to you.

  4. Great post, Benjamin. Right message, right tone. Inspired me to collect milkweed seed this fall.

    Best!

  5. Jim Gardner says:

    This is sublime, rational, necessary…this is pragmatic action and faith with power and belief as action. I will be sharing this one. A LOT! Thanks, Jim

  6. trey says:

    How we garden is a moral choice? Who decides what is moral in the garden? Benjamin, you, your neighbor? This is a dangerous road to travel. If a certain type of gardening goes against your morals do your rightly tell your neighbor that they are immoral for having a non-native “food garden” in their front yard?

    It’s understandable to use native plants for projects involving larger eco-systems. We’re talking about a garden though. I love and am passionate about northern California natives. Yet I don’t suggest to folks that their form of gardening is immoral for growing non-native tomato plants, non-native Citrus Trees, or as Mary say’s in the comment above, non-native Eucalyptus.

    I hate to think that we have come to the point where you can be chastised and called immoral for not planting natives. Oh wait! You also immoral for planting a lawn in your front yard. You immoral for planting marijuana in your back yard. Your immoral for planting a fragrance garden for the sight challenged with non-native plants. Your immoral for planting a anything that is not approved by the morality patrol. And we wonder why people don’t flock to gardening as a hobby anymore. Better to plant nothing, lest we offend someone.

    • I can’t speak for the author, but I will note that he never called anyone’s choices “immoral”.

      What I took away from Benjamin’s post is a reminder that the choices we make about how to garden are, inevitably, a reflection of our values. Of what he think is most important, and what we think is least important.

      Many gardeners and landscape designers seem to act as if the ONLY important thing is how a garden looks.

      Most people would, I think, admit that the sole function of our world is not to look pretty for people. Benjamin is – I think – suggesting that those people make the moral choice to garden in such a way that expresses that belief.

      “Moral” is a loaded word, but I think his point is valid: our choices flow from our values, and it is time to value something more than just good looks in our plants.

      • trey says:

        Vincent,

        If you don’t plant according the the accepted view of “morality” then by definition you are planting immorally.

        As far as people only gardening with what looks “pretty” how can you say that about my vegetable garden? It’s not pretty, but it does help feed the family. So what if someone wants to plant something that’s pretty” Are you, or anyone going to decide what is “pretty” and what is not? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

        The overall message of bio-diversity is one that we are willing to work towards. However don’t tell me that how I garden is a moral choice. Next people will want to know what else goes on behind my property line, and decide if it’s “moral” or not. Who decides what is “pretty”, or not? You, Benjamin, the guy down the street…

        • Trey, there’s a deeper issue here. Obviously, if you vegetable garden, you are making a moral choice. Well, I assume you are, you’ll have to let me know WHY you have a vegetable garden, but I suspect it has something to do with access to cheap, organic food for your family (pollinated by insects, which native plants support in abundance).

          I know the word “moral” is a complicated word rife with varied meaning, but I can’t find the word to express exactly what I mean. Choosing to shop local — what kind of choice is that? Standing up to fossil fuel companies who own our government — what kind of choice is that? Accepting someone no matter their race, gender, or sexual preference — what kind of choice is that? Not using pesticides that might be harmful to wildlife and your kids — what kind of choice is that? Planting a Liatris or Stiff Goldenrod or Viburnum (if native to your locale) vs. a barberry or daylily — what kind of choice is that? To me, the choices are all related (it’s a school of environmental theory called ecofeminism — that ecological and human rights issues are one and the same).

          • trey says:

            Benjamin,
            My choice to grow vegetables was to enjoy the process, not use synthetic pesticides, and taste. I am not sure where “morals” played a part. My choice not to use synthetic pesticides is not based on a need to make a statement, but rather to not pollute my body with synthetics.

            Yes, using the word morally takes what you are promoting to a different level. It say’s there is a “right”, and “wrong” way to garden, based on someones else’s ideas. My choice to grow vegetables instead of natives makes me “morally questionable”?

            Like many issues we face it takes cajoling, humor, and empathy to change minds. Telling people they have been gardening in a way that is “morally” questionable, does little to enthuse people towards your way of thinking. To make a difference at the magnitude you suggest takes everyone’s participation, not just the already converted.

            I sell native northern California plants, and non-natives. We sell organic fertilizers and well as organic pesticides. We promote the use of plants appropriate to the climate, ie Mediterranean types. I am sympathetic to restoring some of the habitat we have lost . I like Monarch butterflies and hope they will be around forever.

            What I don’t like is being judged because I don’t garden in the “approved” way.

        • Trey, I think you are misinterpreting the meaning of the word “moral” in this context.

          The point is that YOUR gardening choices reflect on YOUR moral values.

          Your decision to have a vegetable garden undoubtedly reflects some value you hold: self-dependence, for instance, or simply the love of a good, fresh Caprese salad.

          Some homeowners signal, through their used of expansive turf grass lawns, that they value conformity or “mastery” over nature”

          Some homeowners signal, through their extensive rose gardens, that they value beauty and fragrance.

          What does your yard say about you? I’m not asking to be judgemental, by the way. But your yard does represent your values, just as your driving habits do and your clothing choices and the way you raise your kids.

          I think what Benjamin is trying to accomplish is to get gardeners to be more thoughtful and intentional about their choices. If, for you, that means a vegetable garden instead of a bed of liatris then have at it.

          • Trey — I’ll be honest, I still feel like you’re missing the point; that’s fine, I guess. I’ll try once more.

            You made a choice to grow veg (which, AGAIN, I’m fine with) and not using pesticides. That was a moral choice, because the companies who make that crap don’t care about you or the health of the planet, just profit, using up what’s here now at the expense of whoever comes after. And you know why it’s bad. You mad a moral choice to say no. That’s how I see it.

            We have literally ignored local ecology for our own landscape ideals, transplanted from another country, time, and culture (and even of class). What have we lost as we plow and pave and sod over it all? Doesn’t that matter? Doesn’t it matter that you’re (not Trey, a general “you”) taking away something from future generations that can never, ever be replicated again? That’s the moral implication, and I’m not sure how much more clear I can make it for you.

            We plowed up the prairie without once thinking or knowing what was there and why. We still live like this. It’s called manifest destiny, the false American belief that says we can do whatever we want however we want because by golly we’re “free.” That’s not entirely true — I can’t dump toxic waste on your vegetable garden. I don’t know. Feel like we’re going in circles. I respect and admire your selling California natives, and I understand you run a business that needs to make money, too, and have a limited time annually to do that. I’ve enjoyed your blog posts over the years and am happy we are having this good conversation.

          • Kristin Landfield says:

            Hello fellows-
            To me, these are important and essential issues–certainly the care of diverse habitat. It seems to me that there are at least two threads here: gardening consistent with ones values AND assessing what role–if any–morality plays in making these choices. Indeed, they may be overlapping topics, but conflating the two may muddle the heart of the message. For many of us, gardening is in fact a reflection of values and a sense of duty to this earth we inhabit. But even the most native-intensive designed spaces are at best, an evocative and fertile interpretation of nature. We garden and shop and live with myriad influences and variables impacting each choice we make in each moment, and these are ever-changing from moment to moment. I might buy some seed or vegetable starts because I believe my neighbors will respect me more if I do, or because I got caught up in the scent of patchouli and hipster enthusiasm at my local garden center , or because it makes me feel better about all the ways I am negatively impacting the environment with the gas in my car, or because I have some romantic notion about food gardening, or because I like the narrative about myself that I am the type of person who gardens with natives. If I plant some Vernonia, I can ignore the big expanse of impermeable concrete in front of my house that sheets the herbicide from the park across the street into the creek behind my house that runs into a local wildlife preserve. I’m not intending to be glib or detract from the genuine plea for the maintenance of native habitats; it’s more about the recognition that I am human living in a human habitat, influenced each day by more impulses and drives than I realize–some much more noble than others–and all among us sit somehwere on the vast continuum of human consumption and impact on this earth. mae are all complicit by virtue of the spaace we inhabit. So placing the issue in moral terms is much like meting out moral dogma on people for the food they eat or watching tv or taking pharmaceutical drugs. As Benjamin notes, encouraging people to be intellectually honest about all the ways in which we impact our environment, pointing to the loss of beauty and destruction of ecosystems, calling people to operate with carenand compassn to this earth andnevery creature onit–even the human ilk–seems different to me than saying that my planting natives and food gives me moral purchase.

            I’m grateful for the call to fight against any and all of the gross destruction of this planet that feeds us and holds us; I’m also grateful for the scent of my non-native Brugmansia under a September full moon. And I’m grateful to be reminded that it’s only compassion that truly allows us to garden our lives and our space with honesty and care.

    • Nina says:

      Hear, hear, Trey. Geez, people, it’s my garden, not a moral choice. Sure I have milkweed, but I also have roses & a host of vegetables. Please let’s not start dictating what can & can’t be grown in one’s personal space.

      • I don’t see where the author is trying to give himself the authority to dictate what is in your yard.

        What I see is an essay suggesting that you think about whether what is in your yard reflects the values you hold.

    • greg draiss says:

      RIGHT ON…………..

      Finally some sense on the right to garden.
      The TROLL

  7. skr says:

    Where’s all this increased farmland that is being put under the plow? Both the USDA and the Census Bureau show farm acreage at its lowest level since 1945. The amount of acreage under the plow has been steadily decreasing for decades.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Trey–I don’t think Benjamin is telling us to police one another, or suggesting that what you plant in your garden should mark you as a target. Instead, he’s asking us to think of our individual responsibilities as citizens of this planet to take care of it. He’s asking for us to reflect on our actions, to see the far-reaching and long lasting effects of our choices, that affect not only other species, but also ultimately whether or not our planet can sustain our own human population in the future. If what we choose to plant (or not) is destroying our ecosystems and ourselves, it feels very much like a moral obligation to do what we can as individuals to save the the world. We have to start somewhere. Why not begin where we have the most immediate control, in our own gardens?

    • trey says:

      Jennifer,

      The discussion concerning bio-diverstity is one I am willing to have, and have had for years. Benjamin has purposefully used the term “morally” so as to spark reaction, which it has. I have found however that working with people, rather than judging what they do, is better. I don’t like people telling me how I garden is not “morally” correct in their eyes.

    • greg draiss says:

      So farming is cool except in Benjamin’s eyes because it destroys native plant communities. AND NO BENJAMIN there is not more land being farmed today.

      Let’s take abandoned farmland and watch what happens. It becomes a meadow, then small evergreens come in and it becomes a forest of deciduous trees.
      SO WHAT IS NATIVE NOW? What about wetlands that overtime fill themselves in? What about the native fish and frogs that have been replaced naturally? Should we then dig more swamps and ARTIFICIALLY replace what happens naturally?

      The problem with the Benjamins in this world is they take man out of the natural cycle of the religion of evolution and shoot themselves in the foot. You cannot have it both ways saying evolution exists and then remove yourself from the equation as a steward of what you evolved from and act like you are the end of the evolutionary train. To have evolution as your religion and then think humans are the pot of gold at the end of the evolutionary rainbow is crazy. Let’s hypothesize that it is indeed survival of the fittest and mankind is evolving into a one sex or homosexual being that cannot procreate. In the long run the plants and animals will win as they will be the fittest as we have evolved ourselves out of existence. Since this seems to be what evolution is all about then get out of the way let evolution runs it’s course and everyone turn on their air conditioners and CO2 us out of existence……………………

      The TROLL

  9. Loret says:

    Nice and thoughtful article Benjamin and I not only agree with you but with the comments of Vincent and Jennifer who seem to have understood your point of the article the same way as I.

    We need to examine our choices and get beyond the “I like the way it looks” thought process and move toward the “what is the overall affect” on life itself reality of how we perform in the environment. Decorations and aestetics will matter little when the pollinators continue to disappear, affectly food supply and the water supply dwindles from trying to keep that which is unsustainable on its own, going.

  10. UrsulaV says:

    Among people who volunteer in zoos, I hear the same stories over and over–little kids will start grabbing the animals in the butterfly houses, trying to step on ducklings, kicking animals in the petting zoo.

    When volunteers stop them and say “Stop, you could hurt the animals!” the parents–who have often been ignoring this behavior–lose their minds and start screaming–and often what they scream is “How dare you interrupt my precious child playing to tell them something so horrible!”

    They don’t care that other lives may be lost, they care that their kid may be damaged somehow by knowing that their play can cause pain to others. (About the only thing that gets through is ” Do you know how much we will charge you to replace it?” because harm to Mommy’s wallet is much more real and immediate.)

    Gardening is fun. It can be play! ( It can be back-breaking labor, too.) But it has the ability to harm–and to help!–other beings. I think complaining that use of the word “moral” may make people uncomfortable with their choices is wide of the mark–yes, we SHOULD be uncomfortable with some choices! Whoever told us that we should always feel 100% positive about anything we chose to do?

    I have made gardening choices that were hard. I felt uncomfortable making them. Likely I would do it again–the yellow jacket nest had to go, those flowers were right in the middle of the future patio, fire kills stiltgrass and unfortunate beetles alike. But I made those choices and own them. Morality is not always easy.

    Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

  11. Midwest Gardener says:

    Ben, you need to stick to your writing of poetry and leave the gardening to those that do not have the hang ups that you have. Is all the food that you eat grown locally–Do you use electricity? Where do you think your electricity comes from? I use both native and non natives- I don’t feel bad about that. I feel bad about the lack of monarchs this year and I have planted more milkweed to help them along.

    • If we all have to be environmentally pure to have a conversation about native plants, than we won’t be having one. Of course my electricity comes from dirty coal mined in Wyoming — the coal trains pass two miles from my house (my energy could come from solar or wind if the government subsidizes those the way it does fossil fuels). And I have non native plants — I didn’t know what I was doing when I started out, but am slowly removing the ones that get little to no wildlife action. If caring about the destruction of the planet — and our willy nilly hubris about effecting species change, water quality, and safe food — is a hang up, then hang me high. (And I’m writing memoirs now — one about growing up gardening with my mother and her revelations of childhood abuse, and the other about Oklahoma, prairie destruction, Cheyenne cultural eradication, Mennonites, manifest destiny, oil, gangs, trains, prairie dogs, the Ogallala Aquifer, Custer, Wichita Mountains, etc).

      • Midwest Gardener says:

        Ben, don’t you ever agonize over the use of dirty Wyoming coal for your source of electricity. Are you one that feel that it is more important for the government to subsidize your electricity from green sources rather than you do oit yourself. Too wrongs don’t make a right. Your argument seems hypocritical. You seem to want ‘cherry pick’ what you feel is eco important.

        • I’m guessing he probably does worry about those things. I imagine, though, that on a blog called “Garden Rant” he might have just made a choice to stick to the topic of gardening.

          I could be wrong.

        • I’ll tell you plain — I think you’re providing an easy out for the conversation on native plants by switching to the topic of energy. Sure, it’s all related, but to negate the conversation on natives by switching to energy is avoiding the subject here, and perhaps complicity in the destruction of ecosystems America was founded upon.

          • Midwest Gardener says:

            You are just selecting parts of the topic which you feel comfortable with. You talk about moral decisions. Moral decisions can be gardening decisions and lifestyle decisions. What is more immoral– using non native plants or using electricity whose source is some fossil fuel power plant contributing to global warming. Please stay consistent. It all deals with what you consider moral decisions–both selection of plants and sources of energy.

          • trey says:

            Benjamin,

            So now we are not only faced with a “moral” decision to plant natives, but if we even dare ask you about the other causes that also can lead to the destruction of habitat, and why you still practice them, we are “perhaps complicit in the destruction of ecosystems America was founded upon”? Mid-West Gardener is correct. “You are just selecting parts of the topic which you feel comfortable with.” How does asking a question and not staying “on topic” as you see it, make someone complicate in the “destruction of ecosystems America was founded upon.”? It’s was just a question, and no eco-systems we’re destroyed asking it.

        • Is your argument that you don’t think we should pay attention to this article about plants solely on the basis that the author uses electricity?

          Is it that anyone who isn’t perfect in every regard should be ignored on every topic?

          Honsestly, I don’t follow your logic.

          And, to be frank, even if you can prove the author is a hypocrite that wouldn’t necessarily make his argument about native plants wrong.

        • Becky says:

          Your comments remind me of things people say when they find out you’re a
          vegetarian or vegan. “What are your shoes made of?” or “Is that a leather belt?”
          or “Plants feel pain.” This whole discussion is becoming tiresome.

  12. Deborah B says:

    I think it’s great that this conversation is happening. The more we all are aware of what’s happening to pollinators, the better. Of course many (most) other species also are at risk. Here in upstate NY my fields are blanketed in milkweed (as well as the highly invasive but native goldenrod). We typically only mow our fields once a year in early spring or late fall. This protects the meadow-nesting birds also. And we haven’t seen monarchs this year either.

  13. Ellen says:

    I like Monarch butterflies and I’m sorry they are in decline and we’re reasonably sure it is because of human behavior and it’s great that humans are becoming more aware of planting milkweed. Monarchs don’t just need milkweed, they need nectar too. Roadsides and fields are increasingly being mowed down so some decline can be attributed to that as well.

    But that is only one species out of hundreds, even thousands, which are in decline because of our behavior. Just considering butterflies/moths, each of them have host plants like the monarch; some have several and can make choices but there are others like the monarch that are tied to a single host.

    Must we talk about each one separately or can we say that we should support a variety of native plants so that all these, even the ones we don’t know, can have a chance to keep going as a species? And while land is being converted for development or roadsides are being mowed, individual gardeners can take up the charge and be more mindful of how what we plant can make a difference. 100% native, not necessary … but 100% alien isn’t right either.

    We all need a better understanding of how we share this Earth with other creatures and find a balance that works for us. That is what I got from this post.

    • I think if we have a poster child, we can do a lot toward ensuring the survival of other species we “don’t care as much about.” So the fringe benefit is get caring about lesser prairie chickens or monarchs or black-footed ferrets and the rest follows.

  14. Howard says:

    I’m assuming this was meant as a rant and not intended to be taken 100% seriously, but even so I’m not sure it is very constructive. There are a lot worse environmental sins than planting non-native plants (whatever that means in a globalized world) in our gardens – driving a car and eating meat among them. Given Nebraska’s low population density and economic base, I’m willing to bet Mr Vogt does both. Let he who is without sin …

    • It’s a 100% serious rant, Howard. Yeah, I drive a gas car and eat meat, do you? Does that mean we shouldn’t have this conversation? If you will only agree with me once I’m an eco virgin, than I guess we’re in trouble. I feel like this an out, too, just like discussing where electricity comes from. If we’re not willing to face the ecocide we’re performing, than I question our suitability and ability to end hunger, racism, and sexism. Folks, we are eliminating species. They are going. It’s us. It’s proven. Does anyone feel any responsibility for this? Even any sadness? Aldo Leopold wonders what a field of silphium looked like in a parairie — we’ll never know. My god, doesn’t that strike you in the gut? What’s the point of an endangered species list if we’re not going to protect the habitats and climates they need to exist? And yes, part of that protection comes from getting off fossil fuels, just as much as it has to do with using native plants in backyard and municipal green spaces.

      • Howard says:

        No, I’m 100% vegan. I do drive a car, but it’s a small, low-emission diesel. As a carnivore, you not only subject animals to horrible lives and threaten all of us by encouraging the abuse of antibiotics, you also promote global warming: according to the IPCC, raising animals for food causes more GHG emissions than all the cars in the world, so I think your logic is deeply flawed. You could make a much bigger contribution to the global environment by promoting the conversion of pasture land to prairie than you can by berating gardeners for planting species you don’t approve of.

        • Where am I berating? If we all planted prairie in our gardens, we’d then have one large prairie. If we all did a little, we’d accomplish a lot. Sorta my main point here.

          • Howard says:

            Well, actually, I think you’d have a few acres of artificially selected prairie plants surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of methane-spewing cattle. My point is that you need to prioritize. I’m not trying to argue that native plants are bad, just that there are much bigger issues, like global warming, that are more worthy of our attention.

  15. Laura Bell says:

    Consider that nothing is inherently native to a place. As climates shift toward warmer or colder, wetter or drier, so do the plants that live in them. Plants have been hitching rides to new locales from the beginning. A huge number are engineered to use animals in just this manner to expand their territories. When they find a suitable new location, they do their best to thrive. Adapt, even.

    Yes, I’m concerned about the decline of pollinators & other insects. But I think the greater threat is pesticide use, not planting of non-natives.

  16. anne says:

    Benjamin, I enjoy your writing and will look for your books, which sound interesting. Please look up the definition of “Manifest Destiny” though; it has a specific meaning in an historical context, and not the one you’re stating in your comment above, although I can see how you got there.

    I actually think a lot of people who lived on the prairie a century or so ago (like my grandmother) knew what was there quite intimately (living more closely to nature then than people do now), but had a very different perspective about how to live with it, and human beings’ place there. How we’ve gotten to where we are is more complicated than just because we could.

    Since we all seem to be speaking anecdotally about pollinators here, I will say that in my neck of the woods (northern Oregon), I’ve noticed an increase in the diversity of pollinators over the last few years. As a farmer, this makes me really happy. I could speculate on the reasons, but I really have no scientific evidence for it, so I won’t.

  17. commonweeder says:

    Just a few years ago we used to have clouds of monarchs visit our field of mint plants (I did not plan or plant a mint field, but there it is) and it was a truly miraculous sight. For the last three or four years we have not been so visited. The mint is still there, and while I do have non-native plants, I have planted many natives and I live in a rural area which is loaded with monarch friendly plants – but the monarchs come in flocks no more. I take this to be the lack of hosts or nectar plants somewhere else. I am not a native plant purist, but I think we have to each do our bit to support wildlife.

  18. As a gay man with children, I am immediately combative when other people start questioning the “morality” of my choices.
    As a designer of gardens and a person who has a deep and resonant relationship with the natural world, I am keenly aware that the two things are not the same.
    Gardens aren’t nature and gardeners aren’t God.
    You can plant all the milkweed you want to, but its not even a small drop in the bucket toward solving the problem of global habitat loss – and it certainly won’t bring back the monarchs.
    Send all the money you can to the Nature Conservancy and other habitat conservation groups and gather yourselves together to support and encourage policy change if you want to make a difference, but hiding behind the liatris in your backyard isn’t doing anything positive for the environment. To think so is simply delusional. Sorry.
    There is no real scientific proof to support the idea that using native plants in a garden is somehow “better”. It is a myth – and since humanity has some trouble with basing morality on myth, I think we would all get along better if we could let go of this kind of thinking.
    A garden is a creation of the human impulse to express what cannot be understood. It is art. Its a lovely thing for anyone to engage in on whatever level they want to.
    Gardeners do, I think, enter into a kind of conversation with nature and can be good advocates, but we lose our voice when we wag our fingers at each other in attempts to ‘shame” each other’s choices.
    Lets let each other enjoy what we enjoy, please, without moralizing those choices.
    By the way, I had clouds of swallowtails on my Abelia, Joe-pye, and Clerodendron last year – this year very few. I don’t know why and its too soon to start making assumptions. But I miss them.

    • Mary McAllister says:

      Very well said, David.

      In California, the native Anise Swallowtail butterfly is now dependent upon non-native fennel. Native plant advocates demand that fennel be eradicated in our public lands. These FACTS caused one of the first incidents in the long debate between native plant advocates and those who do not want all of our non-native plants and trees destroyed.

      This is an opportunity to make an important point that I have not made earlier. If native plant advocates would stick to PLANTING what they prefer and stop eradicating everything they don’t prefer, there would not be such a heated debate. By all means, plant whatever you want. Just stop killing healthy plants and trees with herbicides and prescribed burns!

      Thanks to Garden Rant for this opportunity to discuss the issues.

      • Mary — without prescribed burns here in the prairie, our few remaining prairies would all be eastern red cedar. Does that bother you that we kill those native cedars invading from the east? And we maybe wouldn’t need as many prescribed burns in the west if sprawl wasn’t bringing people further out. Climate change — sprawl and fossil fuel emissions.

        • Mary McAllister says:

          You’re quite right. Prescribed burns are needed to prevent natural succession from grassland to shrubs and eventually to trees where soil and climate conditions support trees. The prairies that were found by early settlers were artifacts of the hunting and gathering culture of Native Americans. They burned the landscape regularly to draw game to the newly sprouting grass, to funnel animals into the hunt, to encourage the growth of edible plants, etc. This is well-documented history established by archeologists and confirmed by what remains of indigenous culture. Huge herds of bison and other ungulates helped to maintain the prairie and the herds of domestic cattle and sheep brought by settlers helped to maintain it. Here’s an article about this process: http://milliontrees.me/2012/02/21/the-globalization-of-ecology-by-humans/

          The prairie is as much a manmade garden as any garden. If it could be maintained without fires that pollute the air, endanger communities, and release tons of carbon into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to climate change, perhaps we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

          The cedars are not “invading.” They are doing what every plant and animal does naturally, including man. They are using an opportunity created by nature. The concept of “invasive plants” is an anthropomorphic epithet used by those who wish to demonize nature. For every example of an “invasive species” I can counter with an equally invasive native species and/or a species that appeared to be invasive in the short-run, but was not in the long-run. The human perspective is too short-term to evaluate invasiveness.

          • The writer, should be questioning her assumption that fire climax landscapes like savannas and prairies are artificial and manmade. This is one of many false notions I found on the MillionTree website she mentions, including a very deceptive interpretation of Douglas Tallamy’s research. The human use of fire to manage landscapes was not an invention, but an augmentation of natural fires. It would take only one lightning strike to start a fire that could sweep across vast, unbroken prairie. Because the landscape has been broken up and many of the fire-dependent native species that actually encouraged fire with their persistent leaves have been replaced by farm fields, the absence of fire can be described as artificial.

    • David, how do you feel about fracking? Any need to wag a finger there? Tar sands oil? What about lawns — do you think our current model for maintaining lawns is fine? I’m not trying to shame you — I’m trying to say “is what you believe in about the health of this planet and your family emulated in the landscapes around you?” So, is it? How can we possible BEGIN to engage people in the larger, often overwhelming conversation / reality of climate change without first getting them outside in their gardens, and knowing about local ecology? If it’s ok to remake the world for “artistic” or other “personal reasons,” then you should have no problem with the systems that are destroying this planet — yet it seems you do have a problem with them. I’m confused. Help me understand your perspective. I’m reading a book right now called The Green Boat by Mary Pipher — it’s all about the psychology of environmentalism and how to engage people in a problem as sprawly and complicated as climate change and extinction. You might want to pick it up and see what you think.

      • Relating fracking to gardening is like relating genocide to toll painting. I believe that I addressed the larger issue when I suggested that we as gardeners get engaged politically in issues related to habitat loss.
        While a crippled nuclear plant in Japan is leaking radiation into the Pacific Ocean at levels that potentially threaten the ecosystem of the entire pacific basin, you are moralizing what homeowners plant in their yard.
        I am personally offended at the triviality of that thinking. It’s a distraction and one that Nero would have certainly approved.
        Alienating your audience seems a poor place to start.

        • Ok, skip fracking. Take tar sands. Those oil companies scrape off layers of forests and lakes, rip it all up with violence, then come back and plant again. Is that a problem? This is not trivial thinking, this is much deeper thinking. I guess I finally have to “judge” a landscape I know:

          I have a neighbor that planted barberry. In a row. Front foundation bed. With a few spiraea. Rock mulch. That’s doing bupkis for wildlife (like polinating insects, which are on decline, and give us 1 in 3 bites of food). It’s also, if we want to talk about gardens as art, dull and repetitive — a hosta in every garden makes every garden the same, from Maine to California, Canada to Russia.

          Another neighbor waters twice a day every day, regardless of rainfall, or wind speed so no water actually hits the turf. Another neighbor that mows three times a week using a machine that puts out 11x the pollution of a car. These things are environmentally destructive and not helpful to local ecology. I think it’s unethical. I think it’s a waste of resources — water and gas. I think that air pollution is a problem. I think that fertilizer runoff if a problem (Gulf of MX deadzone). A shortgrass prairie would provide much more habitat for unused lawns (which most are here), mitigate storm runoff, and create richer soil. How can you disagree with this?

    • Jennifer says:

      It seems that for many, it’s difficult to move past the limitations of language. Human language is clumsy, plain and simple. It’s important to recognize that the words we choose matter, as well as that they are notoriously inadequate for communicating many of the intricacies of human and nonhuman experience. But, it’s problematic when we can’t see beyond those limitations of language, when we discount the truth of what those words are trying to convey, and use it as a reason not to be socially and ecologically conscious. Would you prefer: “Native Plants are a Social Responsibility”? Would that make Benjamin’s call to reflect upon the far reaching effects of our choices easier to see? Getting caught up in semantics, while valid to a point, is to me an easy way to side-step our responsibilities to the planet, to one another, and to ourselves.

      As far as saying, “There is no real scientific proof to support the idea that using native plants in a garden is somehow “better”. It is a myth,” well, that’s just not true. Here’s an example from my home state of Ohio: http://cfaes.osu.edu/news/articles/fighting-ohios-invasive-species-everyone-can-be-part-the-battle

      You might also want to check out research like that being done by Amanda Rodewald and Kathi Borgmann. One article in particular comes to mind, which shows how non-native plants in Ohio are weakening native songbird populations (both in terms of nest predation, as well as lack of nutrients in food sources): Borgmann, K. L., and A. D. Rodewald. 2004. Nest predation in an urbanizing landscape: the role of exotic shrubs. Ecological Applications 14:1757-1765.

      • I didnt say that there was no scientific proof that invasive non-native species are a problem for the environment. I am saying there’s no overwhelming proof that planting only natives in a garden setting in typical urban and suburban areas has any significant benefit to the environment. Once the grading is done and the house is built, nature is over. Plant all the goldenrod you want and it’s still not nature.
        A other good read is “The End of Nature” by Bill McKibben.

        • Ellen says:

          “there’s no overwhelming proof that planting only natives in a garden setting in typical urban and suburban areas has any significant benefit to the environment.”

          Is there any evidence that there is harm in doing so? Is there a chance that there will be a benefit? Because if there’s a chance that there is a benefit … I’d rather take the chance on benefit. I don’t know about “overwhelming” proof, but I’ve seen enough “pretty good science proof” so far to know that using more regional natives in a garden is better than not using them. Not everyone’s “yard” is a “garden” subject to an art form. I think what is being discussed is one’s personal space, whatever you call it. And yes, people are judged on what they plant all the time – I frown at the guy that deliberately planted 20 paulownias in his front yard every time I pass it. And I know that the seeds from those trees are blowing into neighboring yards and there will be paulownias in that area for years to come thanks to his choices.

          Agreed that we need to also be tackling the bigger issue of habitat destruction, but why not make differences in our own place when possible?

          • There is no harm at all in planting a garden with only natives. It would be your choice as the gardener – what I’m saying is that I don’t think it’s a moral issue and that a garden isn’t nature.

        • That is a great book. Love it. Do you think humans are part of nature?

  19. Of Gardens says:

    mor·al [mawr-uhl, mor-]
    adjective
    1.
    of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical: moral attitudes.
    2.
    expressing or conveying truths or counsel as to right conduct, as a speaker or a literary work.
    3.
    founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom: moral obligations.
    4.
    capable of conforming to the rules of right conduct: a moral being.
    5.
    conforming to the rules of right conduct (opposed to immoral ): a moral man.

    In my last post on my blog ofgardens.com I asked the question: What is a garden? Of the myriad different suggestions given to the question, the idea of right or wrong is not even hinted at. I don’t believe there is a place for the concept of right or wrong in a personal garden. I plant natives for pollinators, including milkweed specifically for monarch butterflies. This does not make me a better person, or a better gardener. I consider myself an educated gardener, and I like to do what I can do improve conditions for pollinators and butterflies. Like Fork over Knife, I choose Native over Non Native, but not always, and I do not want to be judged for my choices. The destruction of the American prairie, the Amazon rainforest, the Florida everglades, the Australian Great Barrier Reef, the forest of the Pacific Northwest all these are tragedies, but they were not caused by a domestic gardener planting non native plants. Yes, it is important to weigh the ecological impact of our life decisions, but an organic garden of natives and non natives, or all non natives, is still a better ecological condition than no garden. It provides food for pollinators, habitat for birds, open space, natural shade for cooling, and trees , even non native trees, clean the air. Vegetable gardening is all the rage and promoted as ecologically responsible. Nevertheless, most vegetables grown, including tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, wheat, the list is very long, are not native to the USA. Should we stop growing non native vegetables? Is it morally wrong to grow food which is non native? I don’t think anyone would argue against growing non native food, so why is there a need to stop growing non native flowers? The declineof the monarch butterfly population caused by the destruction of it’s habitat is a real issue which needs more attention and action. Let’s gather the resources of gardeners and use our collective interest to promote education on the plight of the monarch butterflies, rather than causing friction by creating a division between native vs non native planters.

    • We are ALL complicit in the destruction of habitat by choices we make and lifestyles we live — by the things we buy, by what we drive and where, by what lights we leave on, whatever. I’m asking us all to think DEEPER. When we buy non native plants we contribute to this complicity, we ignore what we’ve taken, we ignore what we don’t know and don’t care to know. We place ourselves as superior to all other life that literally sustains us. This is wrong. We are not superior. This superior mentality leads to a finite existence. I’m ashamed of our species. I’m distraught. I’m angry. I’m so incredibly sad. We could be doing so much better.

      The “division” between native and non native is really a division between a willingness to look honestly at your lifestyle and what the human species does on the planet, and the enjoyment of the comfortable lifestyle we now have at the expense of the planet. So in the end this is not a native or non native plant debate — it’s a debate about whether or not we’re going to do anything to mitigate our rampage across the planet, if there’s anything wrong with it, and what role gardening plays in that.

      • kermit says:

        “We are ALL complicit…”

        Ahem. It’s difficult to accept your claim that you aren’t judging anyone here.

        Sounds like you’re judging everyone, including yourself.

        Part of the problem is that we don’t have enough information to make completely informed choices. As Mary says upthread, with climate change coming on strong, we don’t know what the consequences of our gardening decisions will be in 20, 40 years. I suspect that diversity in general is a good thing. Personally I avoid plants which are known to be locally invasive (several of which I bought locally, only to find out their status later – why are nurseries allowed to do that?). I use almost no poisons (I spray wasp nests – my wife is allergic – but not bees). I suspect that using the “wrong” plants in a garden is a better choice than not gardening.

        There are numerous concerns worthy of moral consideration. If I am worried about our collective ignoring of global warming, does that give me a position to judge those who are trying to stamp out polio, or end an unnecessary war? We only have so much time and energy, and we all have different interests, strengths, and resources.

        I was raised in an atmosphere of guilt, and in that way lies madness. Pursuing beauty in a garden is a good place to start. If that were the worst offense people gave to this planet, it would be a better world.

    • “Should we stop growing non native vegetables? Is it morally wrong to grow food which is non native? I don’t think anyone would argue against growing non native food, so why is there a need to stop growing non native flowers?”

      Here’s the thing: every choice you make has consequences.

      If you have a yard that is entirely full of plants grown as people food (fruit trees, vegetable beds, etc.) that has a certain set of consequences. Some of those are potentially quite awesome (probably lowering your carbon footprint, maybe reducing global pesticide use, likely saving your family money, etc.).

      On the other hand a garden entirely filled with vegetable plants is pretty terrible for wildlife: there are few host plants in that garden, very little pollen and nectar, mediocre nesting habitat, and so forth.

      So the question is, what is important to you? What is your value system? What is your moral compass?

      Whatever those values are will, ultimately, determine how much of you yard gets planted for food production and how much gets planted for wildlife habitat. Neither choice is necessarily wrong. However the point of this blog post seems to be to get us to think about those questions and make sure we know the answers

      No one here is suggesting that having a vegetable garden is a bad choice.

      But if you think the world is worth saving, or at least fighting for, you have a moral obligation to take actions towards that end.

      I don’t think that is a very controversial position to take.

  20. Pam J. says:

    Interesting discussion. Many good points made — esp Trey, Laura, Howard, others. But David said something that really sums it up in my mind:

    “A garden is a creation of the human impulse to express what cannot be understood. It is art. Its a lovely thing for anyone to engage in on whatever level they want to.”

    The author of the original rant IS judging others. Maybe if he hadn’t used the words “moral choice” in the title I’d feel differently.

  21. Steve says:

    1) Morality. A moral is at play any time a human being makes a choice because the choices we make, for better or worse, affect other people (and other species.) What a freaking privilege to think that you can exist on this planet without having to be judged. That’s just incredibly childish.

    2) Purity. If Ben can’t criticize the use of non-native plants until he stops using dirty coal…well, that’s like saying you can’t worship Christ until you sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.

    3) Would be nice if some of the more negative nellies here would ask themselves who/what they are really mad at? The mere suggestion that they should change their behaviors? I mean, if you think someone is wrong that’s one thing: fine, air your opinion. But if you are OFFENDED that someone thinks YOU are wrong? Again: grow up. Maybe just maybe YOU”RE WRONG. If we were all a little better at that, imagine what we could accomplish together.

    • Mary McAllister says:

      “…ask themselves who/what they are really mad at?”

      That’s easy. Here’s a short list:
      1. Millions of healthy trees which store carbon and perform other important ecological functions are being needlessly destroyed simply because they are not native. In the prairie states, most of the trees being destroyed are even native.
      2. Our public parks are being sprayed with toxic herbicides for the sole purpose of killing non-native plants and trees.
      3. Open spaces on steep hills are being sprayed with herbicides, bringing a cascade of herbicides into our residential communities and polluting our watersheds.
      4. Prescribed burns are used to destroy non-native plants. These burns pollute our air, endanger our residential communities, and release tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to climate change.
      5. The wildlife that lives in our open spaces are losing their sources of food and their homes.

      I could go on, but I don’t want to sound “mad.” “Alarmed and saddened” are better descriptions of my attitude toward all this pointless destruction.

      • Steve says:

        Mad seems like a fine adjective to me, Mary–and I wouldn’t say that your responses have been negative (or at least not exclusively so like some of the others.) As with any complex problem, there are no silver bullets here. You are absolutely right when you point out that a purist’s approach to real world problems can often exacerbate those problems and create unintended consequences. I happen to believe the position you have staked out is indeed an important one, and a moral one.

        But I wonder: if we made exceptions for examples such as the ones you have offered…would we be closer to agreement? Because I think planting native plants is a moral act and not just an aesthetic choice; and yet I also think being as conscious as possible about our impacts on the critters who call our hybrid ecosystems home is also important. Just because we consider a certain act “moral” doesn’t immediately mean it has no flexibility, no shades of gray (though it sounds like some in your community have voiced that opinion.) Perhaps one of the most moral acts a person can engage in is attempting to look at the world from multiple points of view.

  22. Maybe we should define the word “garden” :
    n.
    1. A plot of land used for the cultivation of flowers, vegetables, herbs, or fruit.
    2. gardens Grounds laid out with flowers, trees, and ornamental shrubs and used for recreation or display. Often used in the plural: public gardens; a botanical garden.
    3. A yard or lawn.
    4. A fertile, well-cultivated region.
    5.
    a. An open-air establishment where refreshments are served.
    b. A large public auditorium or arena.

    I am aware that it may seem like I am arguing against “nature” here and native plants specifically, but my personal ethos goes very deep into environmentalism and I have a ten acre garden that is chock full of good, garden-worthy native plants.
    I, however, believe that the garden is an art form and not a natural habitat and no – I do not believe that gardeners need to be judged for what they plant or that anyone who gardens is wrong for doing so. That’s just plain silly.
    Judge a person’s willingness to grub and grunt and plant and pull weeds and spend buckets of money and stake a claim for a more beautiful life and a beautiful place to live it against your own passions and you’ll probably find a common language.

    • Maybe the definition of a garden needs to be re-written and re-imagined, and not confined to Webster’s (which for most gardeners I don’t think it is — I could think of another 50 definitions off the top of my head).

      And when / where did I judge you, David? Or anyone here? I know nothing about you. This is not about “judgement” but about ecocide. Beauty is as subjective as any word. If we don’t get busy preserving and restoring what we’ve raped and pillaged, we are screwed. Plain and simple. Why can’t we have “beauty” and environmental restoration at the same time? Why the disconnect?

      • Mary McAllister says:

        Accuse those who plant non-native plants of “ecocide,” but claim that’s not “judgemental” (sic)? Really digging yourself into a pretty deep hole here, Benjamin. I’d say quit while you’re ahead, but I don’t think you’re ahead. I think you were behind as soon as you chose to make a “moral” argument.

  23. The disconnect is yours. I’m not saying you are judging me or anyone else but rather that you are placing a moral judgement on the topic that I simply think doesn’t belong.
    When I was an art major in college a thousand years ago, the perpetual question was “what is art?”. The elusiveness of that definition is certainly as applicable to the garden as it is to art. Although there are definitions that are rooted in some pragmatic principals such as form over function and communication, etc. it’s always the intangible something that hang people up.
    Garden is an art form, i think, primarily because of its difficulty to define. It is non essential, creative, expressive, and does rely on universally understood principals of beauty and design.
    Asking the question in a new context is always rewarding – but only if you are willing to hear that someone else’s answer might be as different and as right as your own.
    The stamp of morality on any topic often results in closing that topic for further discussion. I would like to see these questions get considered again and again. My fear is that shaming people for gardening will stop them from gardening and the world will lose something else that we all cherish.
    Redefining the garden as nature is simply false. A house is not a forest because it is made of trees and earth and stone. Likewise a garden is not nature because it is made of natural things. It’s a made thing that at its best is brilliant and at its worse ain’t that bad. We don’t have to make it bad.

    • A garden of loosestrife or kudzu is bad. I’m not asking to define the garden as nature, I’m saying the garden can play a natural role that USED to exist until we eradicated it due to our own hubris. Until we can fully face what we do and how we do it, we can’t have much more of a conversation about what a garden is or why it matters.

    • Gloria says:

      A garden is nature, most are just not very good ecosystems and do not function well as a community.

  24. Now THAT is hubris! The garden can play a natural role? Maybe in the same way that trash cans can play a natural role for raccoons…
    I chose to integrate my ethos into my short and human life rather than to sacrifice my life for my ethos. I’m not ready for a monastery.
    I will have a garden that is about my personal vision and I CAN and will continue to engage in conversations like these – even if I have not fully faced what I have done.
    I refuse to pay penance for daffodils.

    • By the way… loosestrife isn’t invasive here. But we have lots of kudzu!

    • Why cant’ a garden look nice to its owner AND provide wildlife habitat?

      If you think the only correct way to garden to to make it look pretty according to the rules you learned in art class, I’d say that’s a pretty narrow view of things.

      • Well I didn’t say that at all. Gardens provide amazing opportunities for wildlife – even the pretty ones. What I’m saying is that gardens are not nature – the habitat they provide isn’t the same thing as a natural habitat just like my attic isn’t a natural habitat for bats – but they want to live up there anyway.
        And the universal precepts of human’s understanding of beauty and the principals we use to create beautiful things are far from narrow. A song is bound by standard musical principals that create results as varied as Vivaldi and Kanye. The same goes for a garden. Think the Villa d’Este and the Highline.
        My BIG issue with this discourse is the insistence that the one way to do things has been handed down by the moral authority and we all have been found lacking.
        This isn’t a conversation about gardens at all.

        • What if we just agree that there is no such thing as “nature”?

          I think any line we try to drawn between “garden” and “nature” is ultimately arbitrary, so maybe we’d be better just jettisoning that distinction altogether and focus on this: in the context of a garden, is there some value to choosing plants based on more than just how they look?

          And if you don’t mind me saying it, I think the thing you have a “BIG issue with” is a straw man. No one that I see is saying you are “lacking”.

          Instead, what I see is call for gardeners to decide for themselves whether they choices THEY make are consistent with THEIR moral values.

          If you’ve thought it through, and you are good with your choices, then garden on as far as I’m concerned.

  25. Anonymous says:

    I find it curious that Mr Vizachero demonstrates such a strong need to defend Mr Vogt…as if he is the one who wrote this piece? Is Mr Vogt not capable of backing himself up? Mr Vogt has become notorious for making blanket statements that are patently offensive, such as for each daylily or hosta one plants, an insect will die. This is not the way to attract more people to native gardening. A little of both works just fine. A native plant here, an ornamental there, a veggie in a pot, etc. They all work fine and the insects and other animals will NOT be deterred! Want to turn people off from native plants? Continue your judgemental approach. It’s a real downer.

    • “Mr Vogt has become notorious for making blanket statements that are patently offensive”
      I am fairly new to this site and now that I understand a little more about Mr. Vogt I regret that I’ve spent so much time engaging him. He’s angry, wants to be angry, gonna stay angry.
      I have given over my life to the love of all things garden and plant. I grew up in the woods and fields and creeks of middle Tennessee and started growing oak seedlings and wild ferns in Dixie cups in my bedroom when I was 5.
      I have worked in absolutely every area of horticulture possible and have owned my own design business for over 20 years. I am really good at what I do.
      I have traveled everywhere and visited every garden, public and private, and every nursery – often cramming plants into my suitcase to try in my own garden.
      I’m extremely dedicated to gardening and believe that it is a profound art form that is often overlooked and misunderstood. I believe that gardeners do often come with a kind of a sixth sense about the natural world and that we, together can make change if we can find our voice.
      In the last few years I have seen that the conversation about gardening has been co-opted by peripheral interests – mainly the native plant folks and the edible folks – who seem to find it necessary to moralize and shame gardeners who plant for beauty.
      I see the general gardening homeowner become discouraged and confused by the rhetoric and I’ve seen almost universally bad design at the hands of designers and architects who are using these plants without any attempt to make the planting pleasing to look at.
      I’m interested in bringing the definition of a garden back to its highest potential – as a profound and compelling art form – and letting the ecology discussions remain with the ecologists where they belong.
      It’s foolish to lump the two together – it doesn’t serve either any good.

    • Right, Anonymous, because we all know how important it is to know someone’s true identity before we pay attention to what they say.

      I’m not Vogt and wouldn’t take the head-on approach he takes were I to pen an article for Garden Rant.

      But I do think we can all benefit from being offended every once in while. How do you expect to grow as thinking adult if no one ever challenges you and your choices?

  26. Eric says:

    Benjamin’s saying so has nothing to do with whether gardening one way or another has moral implications. It either does or does not regardless of whether or not we recognize it.

  27. For all of those who agree and disagree, who feel perturbed and don’t, the fact that we have nearly 100 comments in two days shows that we are having a good and necessary conversation about the most important topic of our time (a topic we rarely talk about). Thank you all — it’s just what I wanted!

    Last night I walked a nearly 1,000 acre prairie at sunset, tossed milkweed seed into the breeze and watched it float over the tallgrass, all without a single butterfly in sight. The joy of the milkweed in flight, and the sadness of no butterflies even during peak migration — and our place in that new reality — is what the core discussion is about for me. Garden on, folks.

    • It was a pleasure to disagree with you, Ben. I look forward to disagreeing with you in the future! These are worthwhile discussions. When did we all decide that disagreement is impolite? It’s the foundation of our civic life.
      I am currently enjoying a brilliant September day and looking out over my wet meadow in bloom with goldenrod and asters and eupatorium… And not a butterfly anywhere.
      Lets wish together for butterflies at least.

  28. Steve says:

    Make it personal. Make it about Ben. How pathetic.

  29. Well that was a lively discussion. Someone needs to stand in the barren parking lot of Walmart and shout “Plant Milkweed!” and if Benjamin is willing to take on the job then all I have to say is thank you.

    This doesn’t mean I plan to dig up my day lilies and hosta and I suppose I can try and plant milkweed again. The turkeys annihilated the last batch I planted.

  30. Eric says:

    All human actions have moral implications, as do decisions not to act. Gardening is no different. While determining what is morally better or worse to do in the garden is no easy matter, the fact that we now must ask the question is inescapable to anyone who has read this piece. If one decides to blow off environmental concerns or questions of whether native plants or better or not, he or she must now do so consciously. So whether one agrees with Benjamin or not, he has done his “job” in raising our consciousness about the inescapably ethical dimension of gardening.

  31. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but my opinion is that he raises a false concern. If you could see my garden and the work I do you would immediately know that I would never blow off environmental concerns and have, in fact, been very thoughtful about these issues for a long time.
    My own conclusion is that gardening, especially the kind of gardening we in this forum are all likely to be doing, is at worst not doing any harm and at best is providing a positive impact on the natural world.
    As we all know, Americans are prone to hysteria when a topic gets media attention and I assume that many people are less thoughtful about these issues than some of us. I want those folks to hear another legitimate opinion than the one being broadcast – that while a garden can be a habitat of sorts, it is not a viable, natural ecosystem and is primarily a persuit of human creativity.
    Making garden a moral issue is distracting from the legitimate issues at hand and is likely to dissuade people from gardening – leaving our human habitats even less green, less healthy and less beautiful.
    We should encourage everyone who has a plot of urban and suburban ground to get outside and plant something – anything. Otherwise I’m afraid we will throw out the baby with the bath water.
    I personally hate alot of what I see happening in people’s yards – especially the over use of unnecessary chemicals. I am letting a perfectly magnificent conifer die in my garden right now from a fungal attack because I refuse to spray it with fungicide. It’s an aesthetic anchor in a very visible part of the garden and its loss will have a big impact – but I guess my garden has decided it isn’t fit for a very wet summer. So there is my “moral” decision. And these are the kinds of decisions gardeners need help making – the subtle ones that show us that gardening is an art and the more you do it, the lighter your hand will get.
    Ben Vogt is brave to present such a strong opinion at the risk of criticism, but a warrior goes into the fight knowing that its a fight – good for him.
    Too many of us gardeny types are too timid and polite.
    More voices, please!

    • “My own conclusion is that gardening, especially the kind of gardening we in this forum are all likely to be doing, is at worst not doing any harm and at best is providing a positive impact on the natural world.”

      If only this were true.

      No doubt readers of Garden Rant are better informed than your average homeowner, but there is also no doubt that “gardening . . . at worst” is definitely causing a great deal of harm: overuse of chemicals, overdependence on water, use of invasive plants, maintenance to the point of ecological sterility and so on.

      It doesn’t have to be this way, and it might not be for you, but it is for millions of American households.

      • I guess I don’t equate “gardening” with yard maintenance. Homeowners do horrible things outside in the process of yard maintenance – but I know very few true gardeners that are causing problems in the environment. This blog is for the latter, I think.
        Painting a house and painting g something g for a gallery are also different things. A big problem with how we define garden – because most people have a yard and few have a garden.

    • Finally, I want to come back to another point you raise: “. . . while a garden can be a habitat of sorts, it is not a viable, natural ecosystem and is primarily a persuit of human creativity.”

      Leaving aside the concept of “natural” for a moment, since I think that descriptor is a red herring, it should be recognized that no single piece of land is of itself a viable ecosystem.

      But a garden, just like a forest or natural park, can easily be a functional PART of an ecosystem if the gardener makes the right choices.

      Ecologists often use the term metapopulation to describe this concept, but the notion is quite simple to imagine.

      Just think if every homeowner converted just 25 square feet of their yard into a chemical free, native plant filled oasis. That would create nearly 60 million acres of new habitat, the equivalent in size of 30 new Yellowstone National Parks.

      • My ecologist and biologist friends tell me that a tended garden can be a habitat but not part of a natural (as in “nature”) functioning ecosystem.

        • Either you misunderstand your friends or – more likely – they haven’t thought about this as much as you might assume they have. I don’t mean any disprect to your friends, but it will be no surprise to you that not every ecologist is up-to-date on every topic related to ecology.

          If you want to read research which demonstrates that residential gardens filled with native plants are notably better at supporting wildlife than gardens filled with non-native plants then that research is out there.

          That all still ducks the central point of this post, which is this I think: people, through our action and inaction, are making a mess of the natural world and we therefore have a moral responsibility to start taking better care of our environment.

          One way to do that is to plant more native plants and to plant fewer plants that are merely pretty.

          • I don’t see any evidence to support that conclusion. At all.
            Most of us, I assume, agree that we are making a mess of the natural world, but the central point in this blog was that planting native plants is a moral choice. It says so at the top of the page.
            I count among my circle of influence people who are doing restoration work, conservation work, growers of plant material for those projects, park rangers, environmental educators and administrators of conservation non-profits.
            Real scientists don’t pretend that gardens are nature.
            And neither should real gardeners.
            I’m not buying the dogma until I see some facts that support it.

          • “”Real scientists don’t pretend that gardens are nature. And neither should real gardeners.”

            You keep talking about “nature”, but I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

            The notion that there is a bright line between “nature” and, well, “not nature” is quaint but anachronistic. And a little bit dangerous.

            The concept of nature as being exclusively the province of the wild – pristine, unspoiled, untouched – is a myth. “Pure’ nature doesn’t exist, and the concept itself only gets in the way of productive discussions.

            Discussions about what kind of choices we should make in our gardens, for example.

            “Real scientists” know that the choices we make about plants in our gardens has a direct causative effect on the types of wildlife those gardens support. You don’t have to pretend: just read the research.

  32. Eric says:

    David, I see some of your points but I would insist that no one is MAKING gardening a moral issue (as I see it). I am simply pointing out that it IS one and that we have hitherto been in denial about the fact. This does not mean that it is a simple matter to determine and do what is morally or environmentally better or worse but we can no longer pretend that what we do in the garden has no ethical/environmental consequences.

    For the record, I’m not convinced that cultivars of natives and perhaps even some non-natives may not be okay or even beneficial in some environmental sense (sorry for the double negative) in some places. We need to move toward a better understanding, however, of just what the environmental impact of a given plant or plant community truly IS. This too will be a huge challenge and the answers will necessarily have to be tentative and subject to revision. But I believe it is a moral imperative to do just this to the best of our ability. While planting natives may not save a given ecosystem or, by itself, the fauna that depend on it, it can help us to avoid the clear harm of some non-natives. Good analysis can also help us understand when and where certain native plants might be harmful as well–a possibility that I would never rule out entirely.

    • I’m a big fan of gathering actual statistics rather than making assumptions on “moral” issues.
      The little research that I’ve read that was done in my region has concluded that native plants in a typical garden setting don’t perform any better or worse or use any less resources than typical non-native landscape plants.
      A native plant in its specific eco-type that has grown in place from seed in a habitat for which it was designed is likely the toughest living thing on the planet – but vegetatively propagate that plant and grow it in a nursery and plant it in a cultivated garden and its just a pet.
      I’m not sure that what we plant is a moral issue because, in my experience (which at my age is starting to count for something), garden plants are garden plants no matter where they originated.

      • Eric says:

        I’m not sure what data people are citing when they say studies don’t show natives to be any better than non-natives. Doug Tallamy’s research has shown that both the biomass and variety of species supported by native plants are MUCH higher with natives than non-natives.

      • vicki Holmberg says:

        no, many species have specific requirements for certain plants. It is the difference between someone giving you a piece of bread, versus someone giving you a stick to eat. You can’t eat a stick. Native gardeners are planting the bread.

  33. anne says:

    Just to throw a thought in here: Does the definition of “natural ecosystem” exclude humans?

    If we thought of ourselves and our activities as a natural part of the ecosystem we live in (rather than as a visiting species in that ecosystem), would that change our perspective? We behave as humans behave (and that’s a broad range of behavior, based in part on adaptation to our environment for survival); we are part of the world we live in; therefore, even if whatever we’re doing is at odds with other species, why should we see that behavior as “unnatural”? Do we call beavers “unnatural” when they radically alter their environment, for example?

    Because we are self-aware about how we are changing our environment, does that mean we should put everything back the way it was when we found it? Aren’t there some things we do that add to the ecosystem in a positive way? Who decides, and how?

    If another species over-populates an area (deer, for example), we say things are “out of balance”. One perspective is that, knowing this, we humans should do things to restore the balance. Another perspective is that, no matter what we do, nature will find a way of balancing things (and the outcome might not be happy for us). So, is it possible that we should get off our high horses and admit that restoring an ecosystem is as much about our survival as “doing the right thing”?

    Apologies for stirring up the hornet’s nest, I know I’m being a bit of a devil’s advocate, but that’s a thought I’ve been wondering about for a long time. Please don’t rip me apart, people; but feel free to unpack what I said.

    • I ponder these same points, Anne. It’s a hard question to stake an answer in though, without espousing an opinion about extraterrestrial life and we probably don’t want to go down that path! Heehee
      What you said that resonates with me, though, is that nature may get the last word on this topic and we ultimately may have little to do with the outcome.

      • anne says:

        Well David, I’d love to explore the extraterrestrial possibilities, but I think that’s for another blog :)

        And yeah, I think always, nature gets the last word. Hopefully, we can live with that (and have thriving gardens!)

    • Pam J. says:

      Interesting questions Anne, for which you shouldn’t apologize! I’m eager to see how your comment gets unpacked, if it does.

    • Anne part of the problem is that we have excluded ourselves as part of the natural ecosystem for a very long time, culturally and spiritually. Our exclusion comes in the form of domination, which is indeed natural to our species. Exploitation of the environment and its resources is natural to all species. It is how the system works. Our domination of the environment is so natural, our intelligence may not be enough to check it before it is too late. What we lose in that domination is the truth of our interdependence and connection to the rest of the natural ecosystem.

      • anne says:

        Oh, that’s so sad!

        If our intelligence is enough to dominate, might it not be enough to balance that domination?

        Really what I think is that when the human population was less, we weren’t able to dominate, and lived within the limits of our environment (despite efforts to dominate).. Now, we’ve crossed that line. Where do we go now?

        • Our intelligence is not enough. Our emotions are, our hearts. When we FEEL the landscapes, we care, and so many of us don’t have the contact / opportunity to feel — unless it’s for a few minutes in a park, or on some weekend getaway. Out of fear, out of doubt, out of anger, out of anguish we have sought to control nature — when the whole time we should have been letting it integrate us into itself (since we are part of nature).

    • Eric says:

      If everything we do is “natural” because we are part of nature, why try to do anything to protect the environment?

  34. Pam J. says:

    “we should have been letting it integrate us into itself ”
    What does this mean Benjamin? What’s an example of how humans should have behaved over the past 200,000 years?

    • Gee, I dunno, not mountain top removing for coal. No tar sands. Being a bit more careful transporting plants. Not wiping out the bison. Not acting like we’re the only species on the planet — and not, in America over the last 200 years, like rich white protestant men always have the right answer. When you eradicate entire ecosystems, it’s kind of a problem, and shows a great lack of ethical and moral insight and fortitude.

  35. Gillianne says:

    Ah, the monarchs. In childhood I lived along a monarch migration route. Seasonally 3 trees in a neighbor’s yard would be so heavily laden with monarchs that we couldn’t see the leaves. It was glorious; felt like a miracle. I kept a reverence for those creatures into adulthood and have planted milkweed along the way. This year I reluctantly removed volunteer milkweeds, the monarch’s host plant, that I had let flourish last year. They had invaded my raised vegetable beds and were outcompeting my greens. Sadly, I’ve seen so few monarchs the past couple of years. When milkweeds appear in perimeter areas, I’m encouraging them to stay with the hope that they’ll lure monarchs back to my yard.

  36. [...] Native Plants are a Moral Choice (Guest post at Garden Rant)–”As gardeners we have first hand knowledge of environmental change – birds, butterflies, soil, rain. We are also the first and last line of defense. How we garden is how we see the world. Gardening is an ethical act, like shopping locally, going to farmer’s markets, et cetera.” [...]

  37. Lisa W says:

    I haven’t had time to read everything in this interesting discussion, but I did want to throw in a comment about the idea that what people do in their little gardens has no impact.

    In 1867, someone brought over black swallowwort, a plant from southwestern Europe, to a garden either in Ipswich or Cambridge (sources differ). Either way, it took only a few years for this plant to escape that garden, and it is now all over the Greater Boston area, strangling native plants around Walden Pond, and invading my neighborhood like a monster. It strangles all plants and shrubs, can completely kill off a field of goldenrod, and worst of all, Monarchs sometimes mistakenly lay their eggs on it, because it is similar in some way to milkweed but is deadly to Monarch caterpillars.

    I’ve been ranting to my neighbors to pull it out wherever they see it, and there are committees of people who go around pulling the stuff out in Cambridge.

    I do think even tiny gardens like mine can have a positive impact as well, especially if you interested in raising caterpillars. We can only try to do our best based on what we know now, and what’s best can never clear-cut, because things always change. I have mostly native plants, but I have fennel for the black swallowtails, because they won’t even pay attention to the flimsy native zizia (their native host) that I planted. And I know you would not forgive me for this, Benjamin, but I do have one butterfly bush, that I love to deadhead, because after the liatris ligulistylus which I can barely keep alive, the Monarchs and many other pollinators prefer it even over the goldenrod, milkweed, silphium, asters, joe-pye, mountain mint, etc etc that I’ve got crammed in there. (Honestly I’d rather have buddleja take over here than swallowwort–don’t worry I won’t stop deadheading my supposed sterile bush.)

  38. GG says:

    I’m almost afraid to comment here. Everyone is so passionate. I’m from the northeast so I can only imagine the vast areas and prairies you are talking about. I have only 1/3 of an acre in an inner ring suburb. The lawns around me are chemically treated, the shrubs (if they exist at all) are non-native, and the trees are being cut down at an alarming rate, I have one of the few gardens in my neighborhood and I have to believe I am doing something to help the birds and butterflies or I would despair at the sterile “landscapes” around me.

    What I take away from the rant is do you best to make an informed choice about what you plant in your garden, yard, whatever. If you ask for native plants at your local nursery maybe they will stock more natives and take some of the space away from the barberries. Buy a blueberry instead of a winged euonymus. I won’t part with my daylilies but I will let the violets grow along the edges of the paths. If one of the Forsythias dies (please) I will replace it with something more wildlife friendly. I’ve let a portion of my yard revert to its pre-developed state at risk of violating the weed ordinance. I’m careful to weed out the invasives and encourage the most disable natives. I wish my neighbors would join me but they don’t know any better. They believe their yards need to look like the yards in the Scott’s commercial. The focus of our energies should be on informing the uninformed not arguing semantics among people who already know what they are talking about.

    Nice rant btw, I know what that ache feels like. A stand of mature sugar maples outside my window at work were just destroyed to make it easier for the contractor to replace our windows.

  39. vicki Holmberg says:

    great article. It is a moral choice, because the species whose lives depend on native plants are being threatened by the introduction of so many ‘vanity’ choices. You sense that in the passionate replies about having a freedom of choice, that is, to choose the useless ornamental, fertilizer guzzling, fossil-fuel requiring turf grass, for instance, is not hurting anyone. But loss of the Monarch is a tragedy of the commons. In essence that species is being ‘stolen’ from our collective ownership of the world’s biodiversity resources. These are deeper concepts than just someone’s right to grow a plant that is pretty or that will impress their neighbors. Plus your dollars are ‘voting’ for more of these nonnative plants, when growers see that they sell, naturally they produce more. Folks passing by, view your endorsement of these plants, as an avid gardener, and try to emulate you, another inducement to grow more. It’s more analogous to the ownership of a big fancy 10 mile per gallon SUV, when you just go to the store once a day and live in a suburb in the city. You have the ability to choose this vehicle and the right to purchase one, but that doesn’t make it a good example for your kids, or a wise, ethical, or morally desirable choice, given the dire straits of the world’s populations, suffering from drought, floods and displacement due to climate change.

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