Who isn’t ready to see spring flowers? I appreciated Susan’s enthusiastic survey of April blooms in Capitol Region public gardens. I’m also eagerly awaiting my own bulb display (shown here from previous springs), which I put together in my front garden and in twelve big containers. I go with erythronium, species tulips, greigii tulips (love that foliage), big hybrid tulips (in containers and as annuals in selected beds) and a few patches of miniature daffodils. A cherry tree blooms right on time with the tulips.
Not much is out yet: just snowdrops and a few aconites, but the tulips are on their way. No deer in my urban area. Yet.
There is some pushback on spring bulbs, though. Upon checking my local gardening group on Facebook yesterday, I saw a link to a NYTimes article that appeared March 28. Apparently nonnative plants have “skewed our experience of spring.” After that depressing statement in the header, author Margaret Renkl, a Nashville-based writer, goes on to list all the Asian and European places our beloved bulbs come from. You all know this, so I won’t go into detail; also, Renkl is not telling anyone to pull out their daffodils. She does say that, in addition to the nonnative cherry, crabapple, and other intruders she has on her property, she’s put in pawpaws, red mulberries, Eastern red cedars, American hollies, redbuds, native dogwoods and, serviceberry trees. She must have a lot more room than me.
It’s actually a reasonable op-ed, aside from the header, and—as an editor—I know where that came from. Also, after watching Doug Tallamy’s eloquent—and convincing—presentation last week, I see the urgency, given the treated lawns that still dominate much of suburbia. What I’ve also noticed is the increasing willingness of beginning gardeners to include more native plants. In our Facebook group, which is getting toward 5k members, I notice “veggies” and “planting for pollinators” as top reasons for wanting to join the group. There are a few all-native proselytizers in the group, but, as an admin, I can ask them to tone it down—or simply delete comments that refer to “invasive” plants that are not on the state’s official invasive list. (Helpfully, it is not a very long list.)
This debate runs across a long and varied spectrum now. There are those who are completely unaware and still consider lawn maintenance gardening, those who are gradually transforming their gardens into more productive spaces (native or not), those excited about natives and adding them when possible, those very focused on pollinators but not exclusively native, and the strict all-native sorts. There aren’t that many of those, because, just as Renkl admits in her op-ed, we all have cherished plants that came from mom’s garden or that we planted in nostalgic remembrance. And then there are spring bulbs. What would we do without them?
I have two final notes here. One is that Ranter Marianne Willburn has an article in the latest issue of American Gardener titled “In Defensive of Inclusive Biodiversity,” which goes into much greater detail on many of these points. Do try to get a copy. It is not online.
Second, it’s Ranter and GardenRant cofounder Susan Harris’s birthday. Happy birthday, Susan!
Thanks so much!! The weather is perfect where I am so a great day it will be for me.
Susan, as a fellow (sister?) Aries, I just knew you would be one! Thanks for this helpful article, Elizabeth. Lovely photos, too.
Diane in CO
Many happy returns to Susan!
Happy Birthday, Susan!
Your bulbs are lovely, Elizabeth. I’m in the party that grows both natives and non-natives with a tilt toward the natives thanks to Tallamy. As to invasives, what is considered an invasive in some areas isn’t one in others. People forget this or just don’t think about it.
Marianne Wilburn’s American Gardener article is excellent. I read it the day the magazine came and have had it sitting by the computer since then, waiting for a good chance to say how much I liked it. Thanks for providing the opportunity! I absolutely agree with both of you.
Thank you Carolyn – your words are appreciated. There has been a lot of enthusiasm and a little push back – but I’m only calling for moderation…and perspective. We might be running the article on GR next week. – MW
I’m glad I wasn’t the only person who noticed Margaret Renkl’s op-ed in NYT. I usually like her columns and I’m guessing she is a nice person, but I wish she and other naturalists would dig deeper than their superficial reactions to changes in their gardens. Renkl seems to think these changes reflect choices made by gardeners in the past. In fact, they are also a reflection of the changed and changing climate that now brings spring to us weeks earlier than just 20 years ago.
Renkl is mistaken that although humans are a migratory species, the “vast majority of plants aren’t.” Plants have been on the move over millions of years before humans even existed. They have come and gone many times in response to continental drift that fused and separated continents and changes in climate that were sometimes cataclysmic (such as the asteroid 65 million years ago) and sometimes slow (such as ice ages). Renkl should expand her narrow frame of reference by reading Sonia Shah’s The Next Great Migration or a multitude of other great books about changes in nature in deep time.
It’s disturbing to read that Renkl considers the gardens in her suburban neighborhood “blooming wastelands where the flowers feed nobody.” She’s apparently been reading so much Tallamy that she can no longer see with her own eyes. There are many Tallamy antidotes available to nature lovers like Renkl. John Marzluff’s Welcome to Subirdia would be a good place to start. Marzluff is an academic scientist in ornithology at University of Washington who has studied birds all over the world, including in his home, suburban Seattle. The choices made by birds have nothing to do with the nativity of plants. A careful reading of Tallamy’s most recent book would also inform her that some native plants aren’t more useful to insects or birds than some non-native plants.
I am willing to give hobbyist nature lovers the benefit of the doubt when they adopt the nativist ideology, but a journalist has a responsibility to inform themselves when claiming expertise about nature.
Interesting and thoughtful, response, thanks! The only reason I even saw this–I read the Times mainly for hard news–is that someone posted it in my local gardening group. It is revealing that commentary like this is percolating down. Used to be nobody in Buffalo even knew who Tallamy was. However, I still do think that hardcore lawn culture is stubborn and still mainly out of reach of even compromise thinking.
I must revise what I said about lawns last week after taking the photo quiz in the NY Times a few days ago. They took 360 degree videos of 20 residential precincts around the country and asked people to guess which presidential candidate that precinct voted for. (That was interesting and surprising. I didn’t do very well.)
I learned that lawns are still VERY popular all over the country…in wealthy suburbs, in middle-class suburbs, in rural areas. Northern California is apparently not typical in its preference for drought tolerant shrubs in favor or water-guzzling lawns. Who knows, maybe Southern California is still addicted to lawns? I am guilty of generalizing from my personal experience. My bad! Here’s the quiz: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/upshot/trump-biden-geography-quiz.html
Ha. I read the same article though I did not take the quiz. Lawns are part of US culture. Lawns are still the American way, and I think in our rather narrow, insidery world of gardening media, we forget this. Mainly because we want to forget it. Whenever I read someone defending lawns as though they are endangered, I have to laugh.
Thank you, Mary McAllister. I’m actually working on a ‘personal history’ blog at the moment that is all about tectonics as it relates to a job I once had…. well it’s a long story. We humans — or some of us — tend to have a view of history that is very ‘now-centrist’. We stick a pin on a calendar and say “we must preserve what nature gave us”. But nature has given and taken for eons. The history of ecology — which informs the nativist argument — is young. It thinks it is pure. It places plants in a separate moral argument from Homo sapiens. We can travel all about the planet, changing our culture, our nationality, the place that our children and grandchildren will call their ‘home and native land’. Plants may not. Humans must wear the hair shirt of desecration, if they prefer their European meadow sage to Canada goldenrod. I belong to a few Facebook groups where I wouldn’t dare say this, because I enjoy learning more about the plants, insects and animals that were in North America before the 34,000 years of human habitation. Or… wait… is is just before ‘European contact’ that makes plants and insects okay? Even though, around the Great Lakes, indigenous people were farming with non-native (for them) tobacco and corn for hundreds of years before Champlain sailed down the St. Lawrence River in 1603. He found farm tracts everywhere. (see John Riley’s ‘The Once and Future Great Lakes’). I do not say this to denigrate a movement to planting more of the plants that came from the wild in our regions; surely, that’s a good thing. (Even though, as my friend, the late ecologist Michael Hough said, “You can’t bring back the buffalo”, which is shorthand for you can’t bring back the soil fungi and intricate connections that made a prairie a prairie, for example.) And lawns are fine, good for kids, sports, etc., provided they aren’t doused with chemicals. Many of us, including me, have removed most of our turfgrass to create more interesting plantings that hopefully feed insects and birds. In my case, I even call my front yard a ‘pollinator garden’, but it’s got Macedonian knautia (Agapostemon bees love it), European catmint (bumble bees all over it), Asian sedums (butterflies in September), purple coneflower (not native to my province of Ontario, for those who measure nativity by local borders). I would never share my beautiful images of native insects on those non-native plants because…. the insects clearly do not know what the hell they’re doing and are being victimized by my planting. They may like nectar and pollen and need it, like carbohydrate- and protein-needing me — but unlike me, with my New Zealand lamb and Middle Eastern chick peas, they should only be served up sweets and protein from plants that grew here… sometime in the past, not sure when. And… dare I say?…. I had a 2-year project to photograph honey bees on flowers years ago. Now beekeepers have to wear disguises to go out in public (okay kidding). The other day on my Ontario Field Botanists page, there was a lot of tut-tutting about letting invasive Siberian squill grow with bloodroot. There were recipes for getting rid of it… “pull up every bulb, every bit” (haha)… it will “outcompete” the Sanguinaria. I have been in gardens where that beautiful white-and-blue combination is striking. Bloodroot seems to be able to take care of itself. Since I have an entirely ‘blue’ front garden at the moment, filled with squill and glory-of-the-snow, I am perhaps biased. But I did write a blog a few years ago called ‘The Siberian Squill and the Cellophane Bee’ — because my front garden is also full of native spring bees. Again, I know that invasive plants like garlic mustard and barberry and rhamnus have taken over deciduous woodlands where trout lilies and trilliums once bloomed. That is a shame. And I am lucky to grow meadows on 2 acres north of Toronto where native red oaks (Doug Tallamy’s favourite plants because native insects eat the leaves and bring the native birds, tralala) grow in profusion. Paradoxically, it’s the European gypsy moth that will be munching its way through our oak forests this summer during its peak cycle, judging from the egg masses I killed last August. I think I have rambled on long enough for a comment, but sometimes it’s good to vent.
Wow Janet, thanks! We love long comments; there are no word limits for these! I love so much of what Tallamy says; mainly I love his gentle sincerity, but in others’ hands this rhetoric has turned into obnoxious guilt trips that are scaring beginning gardeners.
Thanks, Elizabeth. I have put on the boxing gloves in the odd post on Dutch Dreams (as my pal Tony Spencer knows) but it’s a topic we always thought deserved a lot more energy and thoughtfulness. Not just “I’m right and you’re so wrong.”
YES! It is so true that an understanding of nature requires some knowledge of events in deep time. We cannot appreciate the dynamism of nature within the confines of our own lifespan. With a bit of knowledge of even the most recent ice age, we can learn that when the climate changes, vegetation changes. Going back a bit further to 65 million years ago, the deep dark winters caused by the asteroid that ended the dinosaur age changed the climate and the vegetation that fed the dinosaurs. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Great Extinction is a good starting point for those who haven’t visited deep time.
And Tending the Wild or Charles Man’s masterful 1491 are good sources to understand that the land that Europeans considered pristine in 1492 was actually gardened for centuries before they arrived.
Lawns aren’t an issue in California after 10 years of severe drought that has made irrigating lawns an unpopular choice. Most people have replaced lawns, often with succulents and rock mulch. I have no gripe with those who are critical of lawns, but lawns still perform valuable functions such as play areas for children. A lawn dotted with clover, dandelions, and English daisies does not need to be maintained with chemicals and it is more beautiful than a featureless, pristine lawn.
One issue in Renkl’s column today that I didn’t mention. She is apparently under the impression that more pesticide is required to maintain a cosmopolitan garden. Yet, she claims that insects are solely interested in native plants. The contradiction apparently hasn’t occurred to her. She is apparently also unaware of the fact that non-native plants are being eradicated with heaps of herbicide. Public parks are doused with herbicide in the service of the native plant agenda.
When someone really really gets on the native only band wagon I want to ask them how soon the for sale sign is going up and they are going back to their native turf.
How terribly sad for Ms. Renkl that she looks out on the forsythia, cherry and crab apples her late mother planted for her (and which come from her childhood home) and actually contemplates their destruction because they don’t have the ‘right’ provenance. Gardening with Guilt – it’s all the rage. Tragic, but even more tragic that impressionable beginner gardeners may feel paralyzed by so many “don’t plant THATs” that they lose the enthusiasm to re-green the planet – to say nothing for those who read her words and face a joyful, burgeoning landscape with sorrow, worry, and guilt. I wonder what she would have thought of my paths of non-native lavender on a sunny Mid-Atlantic hillside years ago that swarmed with so much insect life my little son called it “National Beetopia Land.” Just another guilt-ridden but gorgeous, blooming wasteland I guess. – MW