How I view my garden shifted when plants matured and I noticed what was using them: what was gathering nectar and pollen, what was eating leaves, what was predating what. I had to unlearn decades of “perfect garden” mentality, research my new world, and be more selfless to be a better gardener. I’m sure if you’re visiting this site the same thing has happened to you – your choices in the garden move from a completely human perspective to one informed by other life. Maybe you stopped using sprays, left your garden up for winter, let some things self sow a bit more. Maybe you’ve started using more native plants and even torn out some exotics that don’t seem to be doing much for wildlife.
This is what I know: we may be losing a dozen or more animal species every day, the Great Plains grasslands will be nearly 80% gone by 2100, up to 30% of plant species may be gone by 2050 (Timothy Walker, Plant Conservation). I know we have overfished our oceans. I know that oil pipelines fail. I know that it takes one mountain of coal to supply the U.S. with one hour of energy.
This is what I feel: that all of the above is wrong, and that all of it is connected like some wobbly game of Jenga and I’m at the center. I feel that my backyard habitat is critically important; I do not know that it is indeed critically important, though there are studies which suggest places like it might be so. I feel that the life I host here in my garden extends out beyond the fence line, and that in my garden I am making a grassroots (maybe bluestem roots) change in how I perceive the world. Recycling is not enough, or turning down the thermostat, or buying LED bulbs, or getting local food. These are grassroots baby steps, even if they are threads that pull on larger systems that need changing.
I look at my garden and see a novel ecosystem, as many places on Earth are – places altered in large or small measure by our actions. There will never again be prairie where I live. It would be easy to say well, hey, at least I have a garden, and to go ahead and plant whatever I think looks pretty. But I know I can have my cake and eat it too by using natives. A garden will never be wild, and the best it can do is echo or invoke the memory of what wildness is in our world of shrinking pollinators, songbirds, grasslands, and clean water. But every time I grow a native seedling – a Liatris, goldenrod, aster, or milkweed – I know something more: that my slow work in transforming my garden into an all native garden is a protest. It is a protest to all the ways in which we use this world and know are ethically wrong. For me, my garden has become a moral imperative, just as so much human art has been.
Author Rick Darke says “In the vital balance, the plants we choose to grow and the ways in which we grow them should be guided by our personal values – our ethics. Making note of these and referring to them offers a practical way to stay on course, or to determine when the course needs to be adjusted.” I’m not saying that if you have hosta, daylily, barberry, or butterfly bush that you are immoral or unethical, but I’m asking you to think about what growing those plants says in a world where species are faltering, where we privilege our immediate desires over long term needs, and what this all means to our ethical imperatives that influence other areas in our life (from how often you drive to what you teach your children about friendship). If you step back and look at it, a native plant garden makes us more aware of the places these plants come from, and why those homeplaces might be so important.
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