Garden Rant turns 10, Ministry of Controversy

#TBT What’s Invasive? Telling People What They Can’t Plant In Their Yards

The debate over invasive species won’t go away any time soon. We’re sure that many would still have issues with Rant co-founder Michele Owens views on flag iris and other problem plants. This post is from July, 2009.

Iris image courtesy of Shutterstock

Iris image courtesy of Shutterstock

I have very strong ideas about how a civilized society behaves.  A civilized society behaves like Paris, where the mangiest dogs are allowed on the banquettes in finest restaurants on the assumption that everyone, including the pooch, understands how to conduct him- or herself properly.

A civilized society behaves like my urban neighborhood in Saratoga Springs, NY, where the neighbors don’t entirely understand why I have hens, but put up with the squawking and even give me a friendly hello in the morning anyway out of a general spirit of tolerance.

A civilized society makes the fewest rules possible. If it’s not hurting you, it’s fine for me to do it.  A civilized society is dubious of authority, humorous, and unafraid.

The world of plants is not civilized. I was shocked a few weeks ago, when I wrote about one of the most beautiful moments of my year–the blooming of the flag iris around my pond in the country–only to be called irresponsible for celebrating an invasive plant. Never mind that there is no sign of a problem on my property, though the flag iris have probably been there for 80 years. Never mind that almost all pond plants are potentially invasive, including waterlilies. Is somebody proposing that we do without waterlilies? Because if that is the case, I think I resign.

The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia even includes hemerocallis fulva, the orange roadside daylily, on its list of problems. Hemerocallis fulva is just so graceful, with its long stems and small, cheerful upfacing trumpets, that it makes driving around my part of the world in July a total joy, and I hate driving.

One of the great delights of a country landscape is the naturalized plants like these that thrive by themselves and form a piquant bridge between the wild and the cultivated. But nothing that is not at least a little thuggish naturalizes.  Should our world therefore be nothing but weeds and overbred, super-fussy garden plants?

Naturalized daylilies are easily controlled by mowing if they get out of bounds. I’ve got them everywhere in my yard, and have noticed no spreading whatsoever. This is not purple loosestrife, which when established, simply cannot be pried out of the ground–not in my part of the world, at least.

Take a look at this list of herbaceous plants reported to be invasive. It includes all kinds of old-fashioned garden plants like hollyhocks, geraniums, several veronicas, lilies of the valley, even several clovers. I don’t know how aruncus dioicus escaped censure, since it’s seeding itself everywhere in my yard. Isn’t every plant that grows easily from seed potentially invasive?

Maybe you consider this list informative.  To me, it suggests a profound paranoia and lack of trust. It is the product of a culture I don’t want to join.

My feeling is, if it’s invasive in your yard, get rid of it. If it’s not invasive in mine, be quiet.

Here is how the Center for Invasive Species And Ecosystem Health defines the problem: “Invasive species, if left uncontrolled, can and will limit land use now and into the future.”

Exactly right. That control is called gardening. So the problem is not the plants, it’s people who neglect their land. But nobody who is reading this site is neglecting his or her piece of property.

So can’t we just be adult and admit that, as Michael Pollan pointed out in his brilliant first book Second Nature, the battle for an ungardened landscape has already been lost?

We’re not going to restore our pre-Columbian ecosystems, no matter what, for myriad reasons, including the size of our population and all that carbon we’ve been spewing into the air since the Industrial Revolution. The plants that are native to your area may well be struggling because of all the things we’ve already done to our environment, so planting “natives” may well mean planting something native to another ecosystem anyway.

Can’t we instead be as civilized as your average Parisian mutt and stop barking at each other?  Let’s face it, unless you have a staff of half a dozen taking care of your yard, every garden needs at least a few thugs just to take up room and do what they do best, which is add a brutal vitality to the scene.

Posted by on March 24, 2016 at 8:00 am, in the category Garden Rant turns 10, Ministry of Controversy.
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34 responses to “#TBT What’s Invasive? Telling People What They Can’t Plant In Their Yards”

  1. There are so many ways to respond to this, I don’t know were to begin. I will start with saying your ideas of “civilized behaviour” have nothing to do with mine. All I want is to enjoy the beauty that has been wrought over the millenia, so carefully interlinked, where the complex relationships are only beginning to be understood. Where lichens, mosses, and sub-soil regions are full of living things we have only just begun to understand. But you have behave in ways that very much impact your neighbors…your barking dog, your escaping plants. I think that kind of behavior is incredibly rude and uncivilized. You choose to have a dog for your entertainment. I do not. So you expect me to have to eat with it? 4.5 million dog bites in the USA every year. Do you think you are God, that you can summarily declare every threatened native area a loss so you can plant what you want? Wonderful. You exemplify the very reason why laws are enacted, because you can’t be trusted to do your homework, and try to understand respect nature for its intrinsic value. You just don’t want to do the work to correct the problem you created (leave that for the next owner). It is easier to deny it. I invite people like you to come and see the destruction these plants are causing. No one does…because they might have to lift a finger find plants that are not harmful without the rush of instant gratification. On the Iris pseudacorus…yes, beautiful…until planted near water. Then whatever lived there before is imperiled. I have the same problem with you as I do permaculturists who think that what they need to eat is the only thing that matters. I love to garden, and if you take a few minutes you will realize several things. 1) With a few exceptions, most invasives are regionally invasive. 2) The internet allows you to easily make an informed decision…google the plant you want to introduce and “invasive” to start, then check your state. 3) There are invasives that threaten our food supply, some threaten our health, and some threaten us physically. They are a form of pollution that grows, and often sit in one place during a “lag period” before exploding. They deprive many forms of wildlife their food supply. People concerned about invasive plants are trying to save you and the community a LOT OF WORK by preventing them becoming a problem. That, my dear, is civilized behaviour; trying to act in the greater good rather than protecting your own selfish interests.

  2. Linda B - Lexington MI says:

    Walking thru my garden one summer, I saw a huge rosette of furry green leaves. Ahh, mullein, I said to myself. Wow! Never saw one that large before…lets see what it does next year. The following summer that rosette shot up a 10-12 foot stalk (nope, did not actually get out the measuring tape- way to much work). In a week or so that stalk was covered in small yellow flowers. My neighbors gawked and admired it. Each time I was asked what it was and where could one buy it, I was able to explain that this was a non-native plant brought to the US by settlers and is now considered an invasive weed. Why are you growing it then?! They would demand to know. To admire its strengths and beauty and to educate others-you see by simply cutting down the stalk once the flowers fade, I end its life cycle I would reply. And so I did.

  3. Glad I read these comments with a gin and tonic in hand. Thanks Michelle for an excellent rant. You might very much enjoy Fred Pierce’s new(ish) book The New Wild.

  4. Rosanne Kiley says:

    Glad I can calmly garden in the US-no fines-no prison.

  5. As a gardener in London I’ve been requested to perform numerous weed removal jobs. Sometimes people don’t even realise they have several types of weed in their gardens. One time a woman threatened to sue me after I removed her Himalayan balsam even though it is clearly known to be harmfull to the garden. Here in the UK we have very strict laws and fines if one allows contaminated soil spread into the wild. The fines reach up to £5,000 and a sentence in prison of 2 up years. Yes, invasive plants are no joke in London and other parts of the UK. What I usually do is stay up to date with what plants are considered invasive by DEFRA’s standards and let people know if I see something suspicious in their gardens.

  6. David mcMullin says:

    In the south, the epicenter of invasive plants, there has been a recent hysteria over buddleia. Someone somewhere out it on some list and now all the nativists are telling good gardeners and well intended butterfly lovers to grub it out or else they are commiting a dire offense to sacred Mother Earth. Buddleia was brought to the south before the civil war along with azaleas and camellias and crepe myrtle and dozens of other Asian species. If it was invasive it would be everywhere. It isn’t. At all.
    The problem with these lists is that they seem to ignore local climates, local soils, local competitors. Loosestrife? Can’t get it to survive the heat here or the acidity. North of here – yeah. I wouldn’t plant it.
    I’ve also been accused of “ecocide” because I have shared the opinion that a city neighborhood is not nature. We, as gardeners, do have some responsibility to our community, but planting pretty things as an expression of your creative self and as an act of hope and beauty is not evil and shouldn’t be discouraged. Unfortunately the discouragement is working and we are driving people away from gardens by the droves.
    The lack of understanding about why a plant might be invasive is another problem. Another judgy blogger once was screaming about miscanthus invading the roadsides in the North Carolina mountains. As though roads are native to a deciduous rain forest! The problem is almost always disturbed land – not the availability of species to colonize it. With exceptions of course. Here in the south the kudzu isn’t a problem. It’s almost always growing where the land has been destroyed. Privet, though, is horrible. Don’t plant that.

  7. Mary says:

    What happened to Ivette Solar? She wrote some fine columns on this topic. IMO.

  8. Stacy says:

    I volunteer at our arboreteum spending weekends cutting out hundreds of pounds of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle. When traveling into the south I’ve seen the extraordinary damage Kudzu and water hyacinth to their surroundings. They are not just ruining forests and waterways which many don’t care about. They continue to spread and also ruin personal property. These were all plants that people thought were a-OK at one point. On my own property my organic yard is constantly under attack by the creeping charlie someone once planted as a pretty ivy in the neighborhood. My choices are succumb to the invasion, hand pick it out, or use chemicals to try and destroy it each year.

    I absolutely understand the issue of invasive plants and try hard to assure that I avoid them in my yard. Despite that, they are there. The bayberry I planted years ago is now listed as invasive here. I bought it locally. I want to do the right thing, but honestly its hard. The lists out there don’t acknowledge zones very well. I wish stores were disallowed from selling invasives and internet sites from mailing them the to states where they were a problem or at least required to tag them as invasive so it would be more obvious. People will still go out and find a way if they are persistent but it will help those that are just ignorant of the danger purchasing something that they might otherwise avoid if they had known.

    I dunno, there is a want what I want mentality out there around invasive plants, water conservation and chemical pollution and so much more that rather saddens at time, as it is so short sighted and while it pleases the individual, in the long run, it harms as a whole. How do you encourage people to use more global thinking with their activities. I don’t think finger wagging or legislation is the answer. Its probably more like lead by example and vote with your dollar by refusing to purchase the bad stuff. Not sure that is enough though.

  9. Brooke says:

    Thanks Brenda and Ryan H. for calm, reasoned explanations that are easy to follow and learn from — in fact, they are civilized! I’ve always felt that gardeners LOVE to learn new things about plants and the natural world, and over the years, I’ve learned a lot about native plants and invasive plants. When I saw barberries taking over some of our Eastern forests crowding out beloved wildflowers, it brought into focus the reason why it would be irresponsible to plant new barberries in my garden, and why it would be good to educate others who might not see what is happening in the woods. Education does not have to be punitive or dictatorial; it can be enlightening!

  10. Donna says:

    A gardener must experiment and express themselves. I’ve made many mistakes in my garden and continue to learn. That’s what it is all about. One with nature.

  11. Mathew says:

    There aren’t many differences in my mind between folks who want to tell you how to garden, and what you can or cannot grow, and those who want to tell you who you can marry, where you can and cannot travel, or what you can or cannot do with your body.

    My property. My garden. My choice.

    • Beth says:

      I so agree. These people who respond to the article with yet another tiresomely long, accusing lecture are just proving the author’s point.

      And you’re right, there is a segment of the population who never tires of telling others how things should be done. Polite society used to identify these people as the annoying bores that they are and stop inviting them to social functions, but the internet now enables them to publicly lecture everyone unceasingly, with the excuse that they are simply “passionate” about saving the earth or whatever cause du jour they claim as an excuse to forget their manners and aggressively tell other adults how to live — as opposed to expressing gentle suggestions that might actually be more effective. This annoyance has no remedy, I’m afraid….

      • kermit says:

        Those of us who look different, behave oddly, hold uncommon views, or otherwise don’t fit the local mold can be continually harassed and harried by self-appointed Guardians of the Norm®. It’s easy to become sensitized to this.

        However, when one’s behavior seriously impacts everybody else, then one is perhaps out of bounds, and should consider consequences which might not be immediate, local, and personal – but are still substantial.

        Consider a farmer (imagine an organic farmer if that’s a more sympathetic image) who spends much of her time fighting invasive plants brought in by local gardeners. She might be somewhat sensitized on issue herself.

        As to folks who have philosophical or aesthetic criticisms to make about my garden, especially if repeated, I have a hearty Bronx cheer on hand for my explanation.

    • kermit says:

      i don’t care whom you marry, but if you plant something which is invasive in your area then you aren’t just gardening, you’re attacking the local ecosystem. I too am impatient with, for instance, native only activists when they tell me that I shouldn’t plant non-natives per se in my garden. [makes rude gesture]

      But, as they say, your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. If I plant something in my garden which threatens wildlife (already greatly stressed), hurts crop yield, or requires others to make a significant effort cleaning it up, then I am not well-behaved, I am a barking dog at a street cafe, and a waiter has every right to take the broom to me.

      Yes, there is no more traditional and natural climate anywhere, but established invasives should still be avoided, just as dumping hazardous waste needs to be limited and controlled, despite our already polluted world.

      Kudos to Ryan H for clarifying the difference between garden thugs and invasives. Two overlapping but different Venn diagram circles. I don’t understand how gardeners, of all people, fail to grasp this.

    • Kathy says:

      My garden, my choice? I don’t choose to have my neighbor’s prophylactic herbicide (2,4-D) applications to also kill off my garden plants, runn-off into “my” creek behind my garden, killing-off “my” frogs, dragonflies & other natural enemies of mosquitos & flies. I don’t choose to live next door to someone who doesn’t patrol their yard for standing water then uses insecticides (adulticides) to kill adult mosquitos. I do not choose to have “my” bees & butterflies killed by insecticides applied to kill adult mosquitos. I do not choose to live next to someone who would rather use insecticides to kill off the filth flies from dog poop. LET’s TRY TO ACT AS IF OUR PROPERTY LINES MIGHT JUST EXTEND BEYOND WHAT IS RECORDED ON THE PLAT MAPS.

      • Kathy says:

        & until you have held a dying great-horned owl in your arms, and witnessed the dead mink, you really can not appreciate the dangers of anti-coagulant rodenticides . I have, & I do .

  12. Linda says:

    Well, an invasive plant in my region may not be invasive in yours. However, it seems that an election year has me more than ready to allow others to say how they feel, and I will act as I will. The problem is not invasive plants so much (although garden thugs will escape when you move). The issue for me is more the freedom to garden in a way that makes me happy. On my land, happiness is a mixture of native and exotic plants thoughtfully placed, but I look to the plants indigenous to this county and the ecosystem where I am planting to distinguish my garden and give it a sense of place, as well as make it a celebration of nature’s gifts.

  13. Donna says:

    I had a purple Loosestrife pop up in my garden and loved the tall fuchia spike so graceful in my bed. It behaved for a couple of years and then these little seedlings were everywhere! They were the Loosestrife! I weeded like crazy since I knew it was reported as an invasive plant. I dig up the mother plant and it took me about 3 years to keep removing the sprout that tried to grow. I now am careful which plants I invite into my yard.

  14. Susan says:

    Any plant can be invasive/thuggish/insert your favorite adjective if it finds the site to its liking. Just as an example, many people nowadays seem to be in love with comfrey, an herb. I planted it years ago, and do I ever regret it! Every season, I’m STILL trying to get rid of it. Yet I doubt you’d find it on anyone’s do-not-plant list. I think it’s time for a bit more live and let live from the gardening community. I think Michele took the tone she did here simply because, like many of us, she got tired of being lectured and she decided to, using her word, bark back.

  15. hb says:

    The most dangerous, rampant, aggressive, and invasive species is of course Homo sapiens. 10,000 species go extinct each year and we are changing the climate with our activities and numbers.

    There’s a bright side, though. 99.99% of all the species that ever existed are extinct. We too shall pass.

  16. Brenda says:

    First of all, I have to disclose that I am a person that studies invasive species, and I am a person that enforces a weed act where we have a list of species that has been found to spread. We do take into account neighbouring areas that have invasive weeds and we put those on our list to be proactive.
    I understand your point of view because I am also an avid gardener. I think that we fall in love with the colours, the fragrance, the shapes and the wonderful wildlife that plants attract.
    However, there are numerous reasons why these plants are listed, and I don’t think there are any regions in North America or Europe that take adding a plant to the list lightly. It isn’t to make your life hard or because we like to “bark” at gardeners. These plants have been proven to be invasive (multiple reproduction methods, extremely fecund, high phenotypic plasticity, tough/robust), difficult to remove or eradicate, poisonous or hazardous to animals or people, change their ecosystem, AND/OR have a significant economic hardship to those that have to remove them. You’re right… we’re never going to get back to “restore” the ecosystem, and that’s a philosophical argument for another time. However, some plants can escape cultivation or gardens and do just fine in the ecosystem. They don’t outcompete native plants for niches, they don’t disrupt native wildlife or their habitats (which, by the way purple loosestrife does in addition to being difficult to remove). The plants that behave themselves are reasonably easy to control with mechanical methods, or they are listed on herbicide labels and the herbicides are effective.
    I think your rant is extremely irresponsible and that you are misinforming your readers on what the hazards are. It’s not just about you and YOUR garden. It is about your neighbours and how your acts can impact them. Karen (commenting above) is right, in that gardeners believe that they are keeping them from spreading, but they can’t control what animals move or the wind will move.
    I spend my time educating people about why they should care and alternatives for them to grow. I love educated debate, but it sounds like you don’t like being told you’re wrong. Instead of educating yourself on why you shouldn’t have it you just tell people that they are uncivilized and they should shut up. I hope that instead of just digging in your heels, you look at and look at some of the infestations people have because of neighbours that refuse to remove their plants/animals.

  17. Karen says:

    OK. But what if your yard isn’t large enough to accurately gauge if it is spreading? The wind/birds might take seeds of some of your thugs and spread them beyond your garden, to areas where there might not be a gardener to keep it in check.

  18. Marcia says:

    Lack of trust
    Culture I don’t want to join
    Be quiet
    Be adult
    Stop barking”

    OK, but if you spent each morning trying to avoid the countless native bees and butterflies already at work in your yard as you walk to your car, you might want others to see the personal and local benefit.

  19. Ryan H says:

    Fan of the Rant, but on the topic of invasive species the posts consistently border on irresponsible. I guess controversy generates clicks. I actually agree with a lot of what gets said, but here in lies the problem: interchangeably using “invasive” plants in the garden vs. invasive species that escape cultivation. You can’t use two different things interchangeably to support your argument. I purposely use “aggressive” or “garden thug” for plants that behave that way in the garden. Invasive species are widely recognized by the scientific community as introduced species that escape and invade natural areas, and displace native plants, animals, etc. The environmental and economic costs are huge. Exotic plants may not be invasive, most of them aren’t (I’m not a native purest). Aggressive plants in the garden may not be invasive species that alter native plant communities, they’re just more of a nuisance. I agree that state lists of invasive species are imperfect. A regional approach is best. Some of them are exaggerated. I think a rating system backed by data that separates the worst from the rest would be helpful. Most gardeners have not spent the hours in the field (not the garden) to determine for themselves what is and isn’t an invasive species. With so many amazing native plants and non-native exotics to plant why are people clinging so tight to their precious invasive species?

    • Eliz. says:

      Totally agree about the abuse of the term “invasive.” But some of these lists do seem crazy to me. We’re now being told we shouldn’t grow sweet autumn clematis in Buffalo. That’s ridiculous. It may be a problem to the south, but it’s not an issue here.

    • Saurs says:

      Whereas anthropomorphizing nature (“invaders,” using racialized language like “thugs”) is equally irresponsible and hyperbolic.

      • Kathy says:

        No it’s not. It’s to make a point & it’s funny…a “hook” to help people read through to the end & quickly relate.