Guest Rants

Gardening for the Future: Why Responsible Beauty Matters

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Guest Rant by Fran Sorin

There has been a tremendous amount of often rancorous debate about the use of natives vs. non-native plantings in designing gardens over the past several years.

Thanks to the internet and our ability to take advantage of viewing photos and videos of gardens around the world, if you’re curious, you can learn a tremendous amount about garden design, xeric gardening, and just about anything else that your heart desires when it comes to gardening.

But what is still lacking is a focus on beauty and how being surrounded by the beauty of nature is absolutely necessary in order for the human spirit to soar.

Oh, not that beauty doesn’t matter to gardeners! Indeed it does–as witnessed by the millions of us who are working non-stop to transform our plots of land into a personal paradise.

This is a tricky subject to discuss because Western culture, by in large, is of the firm belief that beauty is an individual undertaking; not to be disturbed by us disrupters who think that the concept of  “responsible beauty” takes precedent over “freedom of choice” when creating a landscape.

Now I’m not talking about the beauty of the natural landscape. Or sitting on a park bench and watching the sun glistening through the leaves of a tree.

I’m talking about the wholesale and retail nursery trade making a commitment not to market plants as clothing manufacturers and retailers would in the rag trade—always needing to come up with the latest fashion in order to keep their buyers’ appetites whetted.

I’m talking about our public parks and gardens raising their standards to a higher level so that we are exposed to and can take advantage of unbridled beauty. When we spend time in a public garden or park, we should have such an awesome experience that it leaves an indelible footprint on our consciousness and affect us in ways we can’t even imagine—but at the same time inspires us to plant responsibly.

I’m talking about home gardeners educating themselves on what specimens to plant that will attract hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and beneficial insects; as well as specimens that offer food and shelter to our beloved wildlife.

Quite frankly, the conversation about having the right to choose what we plant in our garden has run its course. Letting everyone define their own aesthetic makes no sense when the very existence of bees, butterflies, beneficial insects, wild life, and the native plants that they depend on is now in question–as well as our own health and survival.

We are at a tipping point in the world of garden making.

Responsible beauty in the garden not only matters but is critical!

sorin2We don’t need to re-create the wheel when it comes to designing glorious landscapes that will catapult us into a state of awe but at the same time create a healthy and thriving environment for all living things.

There are several talented designers throughout the world who already exemplify this model. Piet Oudolf, the world renowned Dutch landscape designer, may be the leader of the pack. But dozens of others, including my colleague Noel Kingsbury, are leaving a positive imprint on this treasured earth of ours.

So wake up and make the commitment to plant a responsible and outrageously dazzling garden! If you don’t want to do it yourself, then be discerning enough to hire the right people to do it for you.

After all, we’re talking about the future health and well-being of our children. Isn’t that enough of a reason to take action?

Fran Sorin is the author of  Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening. Sign up for Fran’s Newsletter and gain access to her free 1000 Digging Deep Book and Online Course Giveaway which has just gone live on her website.

Posted by Fran Sorin on October 14, 2016 at 7:59 am, in the category Guest Rants.
34 Comments

34 responses to “Gardening for the Future: Why Responsible Beauty Matters”

  1. Judy Simmons says:

    Beautiful post.

    • Fran Sorin says:

      Judy-

      I am so sorry for the almost 2 month delay to your comment about my post. I checked comments for the first 4 or 5 days after the article was posted and then stopped. I only checked it out now to cut and paste the article into my files.

      So…thank you for lovely comment. It was a post that clearly sparked some debate…which is always a good thing.

      Wishing you a magical and healthy holiday season. Fran

  2. David McMullin says:

    So what I hear here is that you all are making choices about your gardens based on your preferences. That’s the point.
    Homeowners in the suburbs do garden ending as a form of house maintenance. They don’t care about what we all here care about and they just want some grass and some bushes and for their property to look neat and tidy. That’s their choice.
    In the same way that paint on a house is not a masterpiece created by a trained artist, the typical “yard” is not a garden – so we can dismiss that demographic from the conversation. They won’t spend the resources for “responsible” design.
    But I still see that there is a lack of fundamental understanding about what is nature and what is art here in this forum. I was once chastised by a nativist for using non native plants and was told by her to visit the highline and see what could be accomplished by using only natives in design. Of course I did and found that a large majority of the planting there was not native at all. As a matter of fact I’ve read and heard interviews with Piet Ouldolf and he doesn’t seem to give a rats ass about whether plants are native – only that they are successful.
    We, as gardeners, are under absolutely no obligation to plant natives, to replicate nature, to provide food for wildlife or to plant “responsibly”. If we chose to do so then that’s great but a formal garden with symmetrically clipped boxwoods, espaliered trees and colorful annuals is a legitimate expression of the art form and can be magnificent, inspirational, transformative and satisfying.
    Nature isn’t in our yards or our cities or our roadsides or our parking lots or our malls or our subdivisions or our rooftops or our gardens. Let’s just garden unapologetically and without rancor and finger wagging and elevate the human experience in our human habitats.
    If you want nature to thrive then donate or volunteer to organizations like the Nature Conservancy which protects millions of acres of wild land forever.
    Then come home and plant petunias.

    • Stephanie says:

      We all have a general idea of what the words “art” and “nature” mean, but precise definitions are tricky. You seem to think that nature = wherever humans aren’t. I believe that we are part of nature and we forget this at our peril. We need the plants. We need the other creatures we share this planet with. The strategy of hoping that someone else is taking care of the problem someplace else seems to me like passing the buck. What of the many migrators who travel from Someplace Else to my neighborhood and need food and shelter? Nature is not only to be found in wilderness untrodden by human foot. Joy does not only come from self-indulgence.

      • Fran Sorin says:

        Stephanie-

        Sorry for the month and a half delay to your response to David McMullin’s thoughts. I have been pretty much MIA pre and post election and am now only returning to online communications.

        I concur with your thoughts 100%. I will respond to David’s words but I need to give it more thought.

        Wishing you a joyful and healthy holiday season…Fran

    • Laura says:

      Our current geological age is called ‘Anthropocene’ based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. We have lost roughly 50% of the world’s vertebrates in the last 40 years. Over 95% of the original tall grass prairie in North America is now farmland. Bird populations in North America are on a steep decline. It is estimated that a third of birds in North America are threatened with extinction. Examples of localized pollinator declines or disrupted pollination systems have been reported on every continent except Antarctica. Hundreds of pollinator species, primarily vertebrates, are on the verge of extinction. Nature isn’t something that exists ‘out there’, it needs to be nurtured in all human environments. Yes, David, you can choose to bury your head in the sand, believe that all that has nothing to do you with your garden, and use invasives and exotic ornamentals to satisfy yourself. I choose to believe that the more people that take positive action, the better it gets. While one small garden may seem like a drop in the bucket, hundreds or thousands (dare I dream millions?) might create real and lasting change.

  3. Fran Sorin says:

    Cathy Rose,

    As usual, you have offered us a thoughtful and detailed response, using your own experience as a gardener as a perfect example of someone who was curious enough and willing to do a tremendous amount of work to create their own personal and responsible paradise.

    What you wrote about garden centers not being a source of education is, in my experience, the truth.

    And how true….when we act as stewards of the environment in our own personal way….and open our garden and share our knowledge with others…this is truly a wonderful way of passing on the word.

    You are right…that there is no one right way. And what one person considers ‘responsible’ is not the same as someone else.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts…xo

  4. marcia says:

    If the insects show up, I’m happy. It’s like an adult who takes a child to an animated movie or a dog to a dog park. The happiness comes from their pleasure.

    And, sure my garden looks “weedy.” That’s what the insects like. The earthy look of my July-sheared common milkweed, for all the neighbors to see, is still producing leaves for the caterpillars I brought inside for faster growth and safety.

    I like Monet’s Field of Poppies, Anthony Bourdain’s funky clothes, and bed head is still pretty cool.

    And, I loved your guest rant.

    • Fran Sorin says:

      Marcia,

      Thanks for your comment. I love how you describe your garden and what gives you pleasure in it.

      This phrase of yours really grabbed my heart. I may borrow it and of course, will give you credit for it.

      “If the insects show up, I’m happy. It’s like an adult who takes a child to an animated movie or a dog to a dog park. The happiness comes from their pleasure.”

      If everyone gardened the way you did, what a different place the world would be….not just how our garden would benefit others but also the emotions you feel because of what you are practicing (I hope that makes sense)!

      With gratitude….Fran

  5. Laura Munoz says:

    Oh, what an awesome idea your give-away cart was. I may borrow this idea once I have extra plants I don’t need. It could also be a sneaky way of getting natives into other gardens. I have beautiful Turk’s Caps that attract hummingbirds and butterflies but aren’t invasive. I’ve grown them many times from my own seeds….Hmmm….I could give away lantana, irises, crinums, blackberry bushes…

  6. Cathy says:

    OK, I’m probably really putting my foot in it, but I’m going to offer my 25 cents (inflation, ya know). “Responsible” gardening means different things to different people and that is part of the problem. The concept of “responsible” gardening is so nebulous, it can set up unfair expectations and be used to put unfair and inappropriate pressure on home gardeners and professionals alike to adhere to someone’s set of sometimes unreasonable standards that are not always even environmentally wise.

    I am also a home gardener. I have no special training in landscape design so it’s no wonder that people were more than a little skeptical when my husband (we were engaged at the time) and I announced – in 2002 – that we were digging up a half acre of lawn and planting a garden. We were doing this long before the “anti-lawn” movement and this kind of landscape treatment was unheard of where we lived. I wanted to garden responsibly, use natives mixed with non-natives, and have color all season long. I spent a year planning the layout and researching plant choices. I studied bloom times and plant heights and planned the plantings so that the garden bloomed in waves of color week after week from March through Thanksgiving (if the New England weather held).

    Most of all, I wanted to attract pollinators, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Out of concern for the birds and the bees, I researched and ultimately we used only natural methods of pest control in the garden. Again, that took a lot of awareness on our part about the vulnerability of bees and research to find natural, bee friendly ways to stay on top of the pest problems. Yet, we were ridiculed by several members of the local rose society who insisted that chemicals had to be used to grow roses in that climate. (NOT!!) We made our own compost and mulched and fertilized with our home-made concoction. The entire neighborhood knew when we were laying down manure. Even composted manure is… fragrant.

    It took a year to plan, five more to complete. No, not many “average” home gardeners would put that much time and effort into it. They would rely on the guidance of the nursery staff at garden centers where they shop for plant suggestions and therein lies the root of the problem from my perspective. We found that most of the nurseries near our home were no help at all in providing us with appropriate plant selections. Their recommendations usually amounted to whatever stock they were trying to move that weekend. And sometimes the information they gave us was flat out wrong.

    We ran into many bumps along the way and when we moved cross country 12 years later, the garden was still a work in progress. In my zeal to incorporate natives, I planted some monarda (bee balm) which I got at a local native plants nursery. It was a disaster; it took over our front cottage garden and in one season, it forced out all of our other carefully chosen plants. We ultimately had to pull every bit of it out. It took three years to completely eradicate it, mostly because we tossed it into our compost pile where it survived long enough to seed and then spread all over the entire front yard. That happened with a couple other natives as well. Obedient Plant, in my opinion, should be renamed Disobedient Plant and planted in sunken barrels. It spread like a bad virus through one perennial bed overtaking lupines and foxglove and larkspur seemingly while we slept. Still, we did our best to incorporate natives wherever we could.

    Gardening in seaside northern New England was challenging. Our biggest problem in building and maintaining our East Coast garden was, by far, getting plant varieties that would do well in our micro-climate. I found that almost without exception, local nurseries and garden centers stocked what their suppliers sold them with no regard for the vagaries of the local climate. They bought from distributors based in zone 7 and many of their selections failed in our zone 6 (and occasionally zone 5-like) winters. Home gardeners rely on garden centers to stock zone-appropriate plant choices but that is often not the case. One of the perennial battles we waged was getting zone appropriate roses and varieties of lavender.

    We ordered most of our roses on line at considerable expense. It was the only way to get the particular roses we wanted and knew would thrive in our climate. Frustrated at the difficulty in getting zone hardy perennials and lavender, we finally went “nursery” shopping and found a nursery that could meet our needs – 35 miles and a 45 minute drive from home. Eventually, we began volunteering there, teaching people about roses, which ones would grow best in their yard and explaining why, how to prune and care for their roses, and also helping them to select good companion plants.

    If we rely exclusively on garden centers to educate these folks properly, it won’t happen. While some are excellent, many leave much to be desired. I think that “responsible” gardeners can make a difference by mentoring other gardeners, sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge, and showing them by example how to be good stewards of the land. An inexperienced gardener doesn’t know what they need to know. It’s our job to reach out to them. We did this one on one in our neighborhood and we also volunteered at the garden center 4-12 hours a week usually for a month at the beginning of the growing season. The garden center publicized that we would be there and we were usually mobbed. We also wrote a blog that remains popular.

    I also think there has to be moderation in everything and people have to be realistic. Opening our garden to the public for garden tours meant opening ourselves to criticism. Occasionally visitors to the garden tried to shame us and make us feel guilty because we didn’t plant with native plants exclusively.

    Was our garden “responsible”? in my heart of hearts I believe it was. We made choices not just for ourselves but for the bees, butterflies, and bird who shared our garden. Someone in the neighborhood had apiaries and their honeybees visited daily. But it was the natives that tended to be invasive and cause us the most headaches! Our experience mirrors that of an earlier commenter; it was the non-natives that were the favorites of the bees and butterflies and birds. Our munstead lavender hedges were always swarmed by the honeybees and just when the lavender stopped blooming, the mint and water mint was starting to bloom, and the bees moved to the mint and of course the roses. They also loved the anemones later in the summer. The cherries, crabapples, and virgina creeper provided food throughout the fall and winter for the resident and neighboring birds and squirrels. Yes, I think we were “responsible” no matter how that may be defined.

    • Laura Munoz says:

      Not that I’m a judge, but your garden sounds responsible to me.

      I’m obsessed with gardening. You sound like you are as well. Most homeowners aren’t. If one works full-time and gardening isn’t an obsession, then one will probably opt for plants at the Big Box store that are easy to care for. These homeowners could care less about nature, native, etc. Frankly, they have little time to care if they work and have a family, and most aren’t reading this post. They just want their yard to look good with minimal effort.

      I agree with Fran that yes, there are those in the trade who care enough to promote plants that support insects and animals, but realistically if these folks are scrambling to make money in this economy, they’re going to sell or create what their buyers/clients want. They will sell or plant the plants that scream with color and/or are low-maintenance. The industry will feed whatever trend is on-going. For example, in Central Texas, the trend is to use agaves in the landscape and other primarily non-blooming plants that appear to need little care. Austin nurseries now carry a larger variety of “wood lilies” to meet this need. If Fairy Gardens are the “in thing,” the industry will supply plants for Fairy Gardens. Can you blame them? I can’t. Finally, if a homeowner insists he/she wants a garden design with only Nandinas, boxwoods, petunias, and Asiatic jasmine, and the designer needs the money, will the designer turn down the job?

      You and I aren’t the typical homeowner. We are the garden-obsessed homeowner. I recently read only 20% of the U.S. say they garden (whatever that may mean), so we’re a minority.

      I’m not optimistic that those who aren’t gardeners will suddenly be sensitive to the need for pollinators and the plants that feed them, native or not. I don’t have a solution.

      FYI – My garden isn’t an all or nothing endeavor with ONLY natives. How my garden appears matters a lot. There is a design to it (a long meandering brick pathway I installed–not cheap–and an arch over another mulched path with plants to either side, etc.) I’ve been gardening since the early 90’s. I don’t plant indiscriminately. I research everything and make mistakes like all of us do.

      • Cathy says:

        Laura, when we built this garden, my husband was a physician working 14 hour days and I was a scientist also working a 60 hour week. We spent the first hour or two of our day working in the garden, going out at dawn to prune, deadhead, and weed. Saturday AM was garden time as well, for me alone if he had to make rounds at the hospital and eventually for him alone when I became totally disabled. In 2006 he took on the bulk of the work when I was confined to a wheelchair and ventilator for a couple of years until we eventually hired someone to help us out and even then, we still did the bulk of it ourselves. I guess that makes us garden-obsessed but I don’t think we’re all that unique.

        But I hear you… Big Box stores have brought about what I think of as the fast food equivalent of the garden and because they have commandeered so much of the market share, nurseries have had to cut back staff [Translation: the experienced people who gave great advice are replaced with less “expensive” sales associates who know how to write up sales slips and take money and not much more] and they have to sell what’s popular to survive.

        But I have found nurseries that do buck the trends and do so successfully. It was hard and we had to travel, but we found two in MA. Here in CA, Mid-City Nursery is less than two miles from home and is a long time family owned nursery that has survived by having a little bit of everything… stuff that’s popular and stuff that’s not but are good gardening choices for the area. Their staff is small but very knowledgeable, another huge plus, since the plant choices are so different.

        Trends come and go, and landscape and garden magazines play a significant role in that. I rarely read them anymore. So much of what they promote is unattractive to me. Unlike many, when I want something, if I can’t find it locally, I’ll seek it out.

        Often when we are shopping at the garden center we chat with other customers and we have learned a lot from experienced gardeners and they too have learned a lot from us. We were just in there last week to get some new plantings for the herb box (we have a dog who likes to munch on my herbs) and I noticed that the display of succulents was much smaller and they were offering more traditional and native varieties. Obviously, they have a market for them, so buyers who buck trends CAN make a difference.

        Maybe some garden designers do give their clients exactly what they want, even if they know it’s inappropriate, but to do so and not even have a discussion with that client is, in my view, a professional cop-out. Are they sure the client would reject any suggestions for modifying the plan? In that situation, I would try to educate my client and strike a reasonable compromise. After all, the client is paying for their expertise as much as for a garden blueprint.

        Maybe I’m too idealistic but I see things that encourage me. Our water-wise patio garden was featured by the city we live in as an example to the community. We chat all the time with people at the farmer’s market, the grocery, and even the dry cleaner about container gardening and water-wise gardening.

        And we saw changes in our neighborhood where we lived. When we moved there, everyone had the typical manicured lawn and foundation and against the fence plantings. Gradually, one by one, we saw their gardens evolve to be more like ours. I don’t think that was by accident.

        A few years before we moved, we bought a stunning Victorian flower cart and put it along the side of the driveway with a sign inviting passers-by to help themselves. We called it the “Give Away Cart”. All of the “volunteers” that sprouted from our perennials and the plants that we thinned in spring were potted up and put on the give away cart. They rarely lasted a day. Neighbors walked over and people driving by could pull into the driveway and help themselves. When I pruned after the lavender bloom, I rooted cuttings of our Munstead lavender to share; the local nursery only sold Hidcote and Grosso, neither of which did well in that area. When Steve and I were working in the front gardens, it wasn’t unusual for strangers driving by to stop and ask us about our garden. (We lived on a very busy street and had an enormous circular driveway.)

        Responsible gardeners can share their knowledge and enthusiasm and it’s like that old Breck commercial…. she told someone, who told someone, who told someone, who told someone….

  7. Leslie N Inman says:

    “Since we have taken 95 percent of the U.S. from nature, we can expect to lose 95 percent of the species that once lived here unless we learn how to add the native plants they need for their very existence. It’s our responsibility make our living, working, and agricultural spaces habitat friendly for wildlife. Ninety-five percent of all plants and animals! Now there is a statistic that puts climate-change predictions of extinction to shame.” Doug Tallamy

    It’s a choice, you can garden with wildlife in mind -and that means provide the native plants that they need – and give back to the natural world, or you can keep taking resources, as we have always done, and we’ll all live with the consequences.

    • skr says:

      Tallamy is a bit of an alarmist that cherrypicks data. His 95% number is a ridiculous assumption based on the premise that only undisturbed land can support species. This is simply untrue.

      • Leslie N Inman says:

        Likewise, many have said that Al Gore is an alarmist for his efforts on climate change, but he’s the reason why we’ve moved so much closer to clean energy and advancements in solar. And others will discount Doug Tallamy in a cavalier and dismissive way, but his message is spreading because of all of his tireless traveling and speaking engagements to create a call to action, and it WILL save actually save some wildlife species on the verge of extinction. While other anonymous people simply make snide remarks on blogs while feeling quite self-satisfied… that’s productive.

      • Fran Sorin says:

        Skr,

        I certainly respect and appreciate your viewpoint.

        I wonder if Rachel Carson was considered an alarmist when she wrote “Silent Spring’.

        Hasn’t Michael Moore, the documentarian, been labeled crazy by so many who feel that his documentaries are filled with fiction?

        I certainly don’t have answers….just an opinion.

        My philosophy has been that all of these ‘outliers’ who are willing to voice opinions/theories/facts outside of the norm, unless totally crazy, are doing all of us service.

        Even if what one of them says or writes if 50% true, they have helped to raise our awareness. Fran

    • Cathy says:

      I don’t know where Tallamy gardens but where I garden, the insects and birds and butterflies don’t discriminate between natives and no-natives. In fact, in many cases, they prefer the non-natives. I see this especially in the honeybees.

      • Fran Sorin says:

        Cathy-

        Doug Tallamy gardens in Delaware. When his book first came out, I introduced him at a seminar. He makes a persuasive comment. And even if he is an ‘alarmist’ as someone has suggested, his point is well taken and he helps to create an environment where folks become more aware of the actions they take in their landscape.

      • Frederique Lavoipierre says:

        Honeybees are exotic, so it is no surprise that they prefer non-native plants. Native insects don’t prefer non-native plants- sure, some attract lots of generalist insects, but we don’t notice what is missing. I’m no purist, but native plants- lots of them -are essential to healthy landscapes and a healthy planet.

      • Leslie N Inman says:

        Cathy,
        Doug Tallamy has done a 14 year experiment adding native plants to his backyard and how that has had a huge impact on wildlife on his property. It’s very hard to have the native vs. non-native plant discussion with others if they are unaware of the work he has done. He’s an entomologist professor from the Univ. of Delaware.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UonRPIea48Y This is a link to his video. It’s excellent.

        He made me aware of the very specific needs of many native butterflies, and the specific plants they need to live, especially here in the U.S. (I’ve heard entomologists say that the butterflies in the UK tend to be more generalists.) Their caterpillars will often only eat one type of plant: the native one that they evolved with for millions of years.
        If you don’t have native violets…. then you don’t have Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly.
        If you don’t have native Viburnum, then you don’t have the gorgeous Hummingbird Moth.
        If you don’t have native pipevine, then you don’t have Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies.
        If we don’t plant native Paw Paw Trees, then we don’t have Zebra Swallowtail butterflies.
        If we don’t plant native oak trees and native cherry trees then we don’t have enough caterpillars to feed all the baby birds. Most baby birds eat 100% insects. Non-native plants support very little life in terms of food for larva or caterpillars… so they provide no food for native species of birds.

  8. Leslie N Inman says:

    “You have probably never thought of your property as a wildlife preserve representing the last chance we have to sustain plants and animals that were once common throughout the US. But that is exactly the role our suburban and urban landscapes are now playing – and will play even more in the near future.

    If this is news to you, it’s not your fault. We were taught from childhood that the plantings in our yards are made mostly for beauty; they allow and encourage us to express our artistic talents, to have fun, and to relax. And whether we like it or not, the way we landscape our properties is seen by our neighbors as a statement of our wealth and social status.

    We can no longer landscape with aesthetics as our only goal. We must also consider the function of our landscapes if we hope to avoid a mass extinction that we ourselves are not likely to survive. As quickly as possible, we need to triple the number of native trees in our lawns and underplant them with the understory and shrub layers absent from most managed landscapes.”
    Doug Tallamy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UonRPIea48Y

  9. Fran Sorin says:

    Laura,

    Thanks for both of your comments.

    I just want to make clear that there certainly are professionals who design both glorious and responsible gardens. But the truth is, like you said, the majority of folks who live in the suburbs (at least where I come from) do want immediate gratification, don’t want to educate themselves, and pretty much mimic the look of the neighborhood.

    I am optimistic that the more home gardeners who take risks, garden ethically, and balance out beauty with efficiency and the environment, can really make a significant difference.

    I do think a comment was made here by Donna concerning responsible non-natives that made a lot of sense to me.

    I hope you’re having a beautiful fall season. Fran

    • skr says:

      Every single client I’ve had this year wanted to make sure they had plants that would attract butterflies and hummingbirds. As goes California so goes the country. It’s only a matter of time before it percolates out to the rest of the country.

    • Laura Munoz says:

      Thanks Fran and Donna. While I support the benefits of native plants, I have never been a purist. Pretty non-native flowers turn my head just like everyone else. I garden with non-native plants such as lilies, irises, spirea, roses, Speedwell, etc. I see the bees on the Speedwell and feel good about it, but I just re-read “Requiem for a Lawnmower” and recently read Mary Reynold’s new book, “The Garden Awakening”. These books have renewed my commitment to take care of the insects and animals that come to my property. I held this commitment in my old garden, and I’m renewing it in my new one year old garden.

      • Fran Sorin says:

        Dear Laura,

        Your point is well taken. I don’t believe that natives should take precedent over design and beauty. To me, it’s like a see saw….how do you balance the 2 elements? In architecture, I think, there has always been clarity about this point. Landscape design is a bit trickier because we are dealing with a living palette and all of the ‘beings’ that it has an impact on.

        I am not a purist BUT I do believe that if you look a suburban neighborhoods where the large majority of folks use the same landscaper who is NOT well versed in plant material, this is a problem. When you look at the average gardener, I believe that most are just trying to bring some color to their landscape. I wonder how many folks who stroll the High Line are curious enough afterwards to check out the plant list and think about incorporating specimens they’ve seen into their own landscape….or is it just too much work?

        I don’t have the answer. And it is certainly a tricky subject to discuss. Thanks for taking the time to respond. Fran

  10. Fran Sorin says:

    Dear Donna,

    Thanks for your response. I agree with your thinking and appreciate you reminding me that sensible non-natives are very useful in the garden….the word sensible makes all the difference. I love perovskia, verbena bonariensis, and caryopteris.

    I think my intensity was heightened because of having just been in Philly, where I live part time, and seeing the new garden that was designed in one of the most populated parks in the city…Rittenhouse Square. You can get onto my website to see a video I did on it. The bottom line is that it is abhorrent…. both design and plant selection. And since Philadelphia is hardly a neophyte when it comes to horticulture, it makes it all the more hard to believe. They had such a grand opportunity to inspire and teach…and the blew it.

    Your points are well taken. I appreciate the time and thoughtfulness you put into articulating them. And yes, I do agree that not all professional aim aesthetics first…. Fran

    • Cathy says:

      Fran, the same thing happened here in our community with the rebuilding and landscaping of one of our community parks. I asked the city manager about it. There is no garden club in this community and while the public works director apparently did ask some gardening people, thwere wasn’t a thoughtful design that combines aesthetics as well as xeriscaping and the needs of wildlife. Based on our discussion, that will change for future projects. But like Philly, we missed a huge opportunity here to plant a beautiful sensory and wildlife friendly garden.

  11. Donna@GWGT says:

    I am an architect and designer. I believe many are responsible both in conscientious building of structures and in sustaining site design. My own garden is fully planted with many navitars and some true natives, but I have to admit some of the most bee attracting plants are non-natives and seeding annuals (Verbena bonariensis – butterflies love it) later in the year when other navitar plants are resting or have gone dormant. Bees swarm the Verbena, Perovskia and Caryopteris, even passing by the Rudbeckia, Solidago and Aster novae-angliae in the same garden. I think many times it has to do with how hydrated a garden is during the growing season. We have had severe drought and I have had to water just to keep even the water-conserving natives blooming. Keeping the gardens in bloom for wildlife is a responsibility too. As far as garden aesthetics, yes, many of these gardens are weedy looking, but they are the ones with a month of down time or huge spaces of brown “sticks”. The key is having the garden blooming all growing season long. There are many tricks to have the garden in bloom through the long growing season too. It may take annuals that reseed, sensible non-native plants as I mentioned, and native plants like those late bloomers all having differing and sequential bloom times. Just a few thoughts that not all professionals aim for aesthetics first and only.

  12. skr says:

    Responsibility isn’t an aesthetic. That’s like telling architects that they need to design buildings that don’t fall down in order for those buildings to be beautiful. I don’t know anyone working in the industry that doesn’t take environmental considerations to heart as part of their every day practice.

    I have no idea how introducing new plants and cultivars every season is irresponsible. It obviously expands the availability list and increases planting diversity more than if they were to offer the same old same old.

    I like the idea of public parks being striking, but I feel like we are moving in the opposite direction with the native plant movement generating landscapes that most people rightly think looks like a weedy vacant lot because design considerations were incindental.

    • Laura Munoz says:

      Okay, I know your comment was aimed at the article, and I’ll probably regret my response, but “I’ll bite.” (I don’t feel like cleaning my bathroom right now.)

      I’ll give you that “responsibility isn’t an aesthetic” but I disagree the industry has environmental considerations as their primary focus. By industry, I assume you mean nurseries, designers, landscapers, and commercial plant propagators?? Generally speaking, fame (to have a plant named after you), money and more clients usually comes first with those who are in the industry. Maybe where you live, everyone is an environmentalist tree-hugger, but that’s not what I see in my part of the country.

      I agree not all new plant introductions are bad, but you asked how introducing new plants could be irresponsible. My answer to this is that people are into trends. They want the latest and greatest ___________. They want to be the first to have it or they want to look like everyone else. Thus, people bypass tried and true plant or natives for the new introduction and if unused, those bypassed plants will go out of production. The new cultivars have in some situations displaced the selection of potential wildlife-supporting plants in someone’s garden. In addition, the new plants may turn out to be invasive and could displace native plants in the woodlands such that we end up with a monoculture in our woods just as we have a monoculture lawns. Believe me, I’ve seen this first hand.

      In Austin, native plants are disappearing around the creeks and Ligustrums, Nandinas, and non-native honeysuckles take their place choking out everything else. Students at the University I formerly worked in would volunteer as a group with one of the biology professors to pull these plants, but it was an almost impossible task.

      Finally, you can’t paint all gardens or garden designs with natives as “weedy” because they simply aren’t. I think you’re smart enough to know this. I, too, have seen some pretty weedy looking native plant yards, but I’ve also seen some that made me drool.

      Okay, now you’ll probably blast me out of the water. Just remember, I’m a lowly home gardener, so don’t shoot me.

      • skr says:

        Yes new plants present a risk of invasiveness but considering that less than 1% of introduced plants become invasive, it’s a weak argument. Besides, most of the good growers that I know test new introductions in demo gardens for invasiveness these days. As far as displacing other plants, sure that happens. There are plenty of plants that aren’t being grown regularly anymore. Sometimes there is a good disease and pest reason for that but sometimes it’s just fashion. But they are only gone from the nurseries. They are still out there in gardens contributing to biodiversity and can be brought back with cuttings or seed. My experience is that it is typically just a specific cultivar that falls out of favor not the whole species.

        I didn’t mean to say that all native landscapes are weedy, but there is a definite trend in CA public landscapes that is basically a confluence of lack of budget with a dogmatic native wilderness aesthetic that has lead to some terrible landscapes. I use natives all the time for my clients. There are some great native plants out there. I think the problem begins when the use of natives takes precedent over the actual design.

  13. Laura Munoz says:

    As much as I want plant propagators, nurseries, garden centers, and home gardeners to be environmentally responsible with the plants they sell/buy, for the most part, I don’t think this will happen.

    Sadly, the Jane and John Homeowners I know, won’t take the time to become educated. They want instant gratification. They go to the Box store to buy the brightest flowers without regard to important small details such as whether those plants will even survive in their yard and what does it take to get them to survive. Even my friend who owned a mom and pop nursery never stopped to look more than superficially at the plants she planted in her own yard. Certainly, she never considered whether those plants would be beneficial to insects and animals. In fact, she was critical of me for not mowing down a wild butterfly plant covered in monarch caterpillars that stood alone in the middle of the yard.

    Perhaps younger gardeners with their penchant for technology will take time to research what they buy and MAYBE this will influence the plant industry, but I have my doubts.

    Finally, people resist change and they’re also a little lazy when it comes to research. If I hint that the volcano-mulch around the baby trees across the street isn’t a good thing, I’m told by the homeowners (who, in my opinion, are uneducated landscapers) that they plan to set the gardening standard for the ‘hood. Now, I keep my mouth shut and instead, take all of their bagged leaves to use as mulch in my own backyard.

    I search for beauty in plants but am aware the plants should have more benefits than just their looks. Case in point: I REALLY wanted to buy a small Japanese maple to use as a focal point. Instead, I opted for a parsley hawthorn and a smoke tree, which are more fitting for my area and have some value to insects and animals.

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