Why I’ll never go native

I ran a lovely article on native wildflowers, complete with gorgeous photographs (see above) in the April issue of the magazine, but I find them an inadequate solution for most urban gardens—particularly for a formally designed courtyard garden on a street of Italianate Victorian houses.

And here’s the thing: our gardens—for the most part—are not natural or "native." They aren’t swamps, meadows, or woodlands. (Read Christopher Lloyd's description of his tortuously-maintained "meadow.") They are highly artificial constructs where plants that would never be seen growing near each other are forced into close proximity, and then pruned, divided, and cultivated into submission. So to say that using flowers native to your area is somehow better than using any other flower doesn’t make much sense to me. Our models for gardening come largely from the 18th and 19th century British master designers—and none knew better how to bend a landscape to their will. Indeed, it must be from them that we’ve gotten our obsession with emerald green lawns (not that I share that obsession).

So in my garden you’re much more likely to see this

than this

The tropicals speak to the Victorian obsession with the exotic—appropriate, I suppose, for the days when the sun never set on the British empire.

(This was supposed to be posted from Italy, but I didn't get to it.)


firefly said…
I inherited a garden full of "exotics" that are now mundane -- rhododendrons, peonies, hostas -- and decided to tear some of it out for native shrubs like viburnum, winterberry, clethra, and butterfly bush. My main impetus was the alarming number of pests in the yard -- slugs, June beetles, aphids, mosquitoes -- and the desire to get some of Nature's help dealing with them, or maybe at least some competition for the space.

I also don't want to be chained to the plants on a daily basis. This year, the first full year of real-dirt gardening for me, has been unbelievably full of effort, because I reclaimed part of the lawn and first-year plants need attention while they get established.

And now that June beetle season is in full swing, it means going out at night with a flashlight and in full mosquito gear with some kind of bug killer (pyrethrins, at the moment) on "predator duty" because I don't yet have bats in the yard and this is only the first few months of treatment with nematodes and milky spore virus.

Frankly, I don't want to have to work so hard just for some flowers. James Lovelock, the author of 'Gaia,' had an appropriate metaphor, of someone standing there with their finger on the thermostat, regulating things that should really run themselves, and I think of it constantly as mosquitoes whine by my ears in the dark and I shoot down June bugs.

With any luck, having native plants as the garden backbone will give me a little bit of breathing room to include a few exotics here and there. I think I'd like the garden to be a blend of both.
EAL said…
I have viburnum and winterberry (not enough sun for butterfly bush); didn't know they'd repel mosquitos and haven't noticed it so far.

A lot of my garden is flagstones. If I had an all-dirt space, no doubt I'd be singing a very different tune.

Mixing it up is always the best way, I agree.
Unknown said…
I always wonder just how “native” people want to go. Are they talking “native” to our particular spot here in The Foothills, or does it mean native to Northern California, including the coast, or native to all of California. If you want to use ceanothus with a blue flower you’ll have to leave this particular region, where the native ceanothus is white flowering.

I find most people interested in “native” plants here are more interested in low water using plants (Xeriscape plantings), and just use the term “native” to describe this type of planting. If they can incorporate other low water using plants from The Mediterranean region, Australia, South Africa, etc. they can create a beautiful gardens while still using less or no water. I will remind folks that from about June to September we receive almost no rain here. For a plant to survive it has to be a plant from other “no summer water” areas.

Here, if you use only natives to your region, your choices will be limited. Expand your choices to include all xeriscape plants from other Mediterranean climate regions, and you can put together a great garden.
Kasmira said…
I suppose I'm afflicted with hubris. I tell my husband that I create gardens that are "better than Nature's." I'm sure I'll be struck down one day for that quote.
firefly said…
As far as I know, none of these plants repel mosquitoes -- I didn't mean to give that impression. (If I find out they do, you can bet what I'll have a yard full of in no time!) Viburnums and other berry-bearing plants attract the kinds of birds that also eat bugs.

When I say "go native," it's more the meaning Trey mentions -- plants that can take the Zone 5 climate -- not necessarily only plants that developed in this particular region. Maybe I should use "no fuss" or "naturalizable" instead.

To me, "native" plants are those that can cope with the climate without a lot of help from me -- pest or fungal sprays, special soil treatments, constant watering, or bloom promoters, or any obsessing over, which I am fully capable of doing. (See, I'm trying to be a better person as well as a good gardener :-)

Something like rosa rugosa, which sells for $2 a plant at some mail order places, is perfect for this town because it tolerates salt and all kinds of mistreatment and isn't delicate enough to succumb to pests at the drop of a hat. It has naturalized in lots of places, and that's what I'd consider native, although I understand it is from Asia.

I've got four raised beds of wildflowers in the center of the yard, and I've preserved some things that were "native" because I think they're lovely accidental inclusions. But I keep exotics, too -- I have a pot of Eucharis amazonia that blooms every summer, a 13-year-old Clivia miniata that always blooms twice and just had a "baby" (offset), Kaempferia galanga, dahlia, Hymenocallis, and in the garden, species tulips from Turkey, Tigridia pavonia, and Hibiscus syriacus. They've all proved to be relatively easily managed. (Which is to say, the way I prefer to treat them not only hasn't killed them, they seem to like it.)

I don't see gardening as a process in which I run myself ragged trying to grow something impossibly demanding (because this is the wrong climate or sunshine zone for it) just for the "pride and joy" aspect, or to impress the neighbors. Beautiful plants that can take care of themselves is what I'm aiming for.
Susan Harris said…
Excellent points, ones that are finally starting to be made now that "native plants" - a term with no agreed-upon definition - are such a craze.
Anonymous said…
Two great reason to grow natives (which I loosely define as plants that you could find growing in the woods or meadows in your area, and which aren't obvious, recent escapees from peoples' gardens): 1) they are a food and shelter source for native birds, insects, and other animals, which may depend on certain native species for survival; 2) they impart a regional look to your garden and, by extension, your town.

I like to mix non-natives into my garden as much as anyone, but I do see the value in all-native gardens, like the ones at the Wildflower Center in Austin. One doesn't have to go completely native to benefit from using at least some. If we can bring local flavor into our gardens, we'll fit in better with the natural world, and towns across the U.S. won't look exactly the same but will have a regional identity.
Anonymous said…
Oops, I meant "reasons."
Anonymous said…
Pam/Digging gives some good reasons for "going native" but gardens, by definition, are unnatural constructs. Gardeners, too, often become avid plant collectors, loving the challenge of growing something not really suited for their locale.

I try to be environmentally sensitive by not planting and replacing invasive non-natives. It seems that every plant that grows here without much trouble has been labelled an invasive by the city and we're warned that when they escape into the wild they harm native plants and wildlife. Yikes!

As for non-natives, I could hardly have a vegetable garden without them.
Stratoz said…
the title of this post caught my eye...

interesting read, what I will say is that wheteh they are native to Lansdale or not, the anise hyssop in my backyrad had 5 male goldfinches very happy yesterday. well they were happy until I went out to harvest a hot pepper, new zealand spinach, a red onion, and some basil; at which point they flew off for a while.
Redneck said…
I find it interesting how, especially here in my neighborhood, people ripped out all of the local plants and installed yards and gardens like you describe. Then, when we couldn't water them enough to maintain them, many of those people them spent thousands of dollars to rip out their exotic gardens and install xeriscape. I can't help but think that if they had just let their yards grow wild, they'd be using just as much water as their new cutting-edge xeriscape, but without the huge cost to install it.

Don't get me wrong, I think that your style of garden is beautiful in its own right, but I can't help but get pleasure from the fact that the homeowner's association bitches every spring about my yard being an eyesore and lowering property values, and come summer, I have one of the greenest yards and the lowest water bill. Then the H.O.A. apologizes, winter rolls around, and we rinse and repeat.

So I guess I could call this "Why I'll never go exotic." We come from completely different schools of gardening, but we seem to meet in the middle at one point: we want to be able to look at our property and see beautiful plants.
Anonymous said…
My garden consists of nothing but native plants (Michigan-zone 5). I think the point is missed entirely by the author. Native plants are vanishing from the landscape because of habitat loss. Planting natives is far more ecologically responsible than any European species. Native genotypes are adapted to local climates and soil conditions and require little to no attention from the gardener. The artificial constructs we exist in are here because native habitats were removed. Why not try to gain some of that back by planting a few natives? Too many gardeners are too concerned with how their gardens look, no matter how much work and resources it takes. Also consider that the non-native plant you put in your garden has little value to the wildlife that was pushed out so we can have our artificial constructs. Think about it.

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