Gardening on the Planet

The Wrong Way to Teach Eco-Friendly Gardening

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

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

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

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

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

What a ridiculous tagline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by on April 21, 2017 at 8:05 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.

31 responses to “The Wrong Way to Teach Eco-Friendly Gardening”

  1. Elizabeth says:

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

    • Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

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

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

  3. Allen Bush says:

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

  4. J Speck says:

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

    • Dr. GS Hurd says:

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

  5. Sheera Stern says:

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

    • Dr. GS Hurd says:

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

  6. Scott Reil says:

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

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

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

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

  8. Brian Tremback says:

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

    • Jodie Cook says:

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

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

  9. MDGARDENER says:

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

    • Jeanne LaBore says:

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

    • Dr. GS Hurd says:

      Insect damage?

      Insect damage is butterflies. Insect damage is forage.

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

      • MDGardener says:

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

        Do we have a deal?

  10. Mary Gray says:

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

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

    Good rant!

  11. Jodie Cook says:

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

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

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

  12. jacki says:

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

  13. Are comments reviewed? I spent hours writing a response to this, and don’t see it. Please delete this if the answer is “yes” and my comment is forthcoming.

  14. Helen B. says:

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

  15. Dr. GS Hurd says:

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

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

    • MDGardener says:

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

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

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

  17. Nell says:

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

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

  18. Nell says:

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

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

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