The Ethics of Native Plant Gardening

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

© 2014, Benjamin Vogt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. Marilyn says

    Nicely stated. I grew up in a world where there seemed to be infinite choices, and we made most of them on personal preference. What is pretty, what tastes good, what is convenient. We have certain areas where we have historically believed that morals apply, but it seems to be a new concept to respect other life forms, to realize that we humans are not the center of the universe.

    Learning to make better choices in these areas is a new concept for many but I am encouraged to see real change taking place in so many different areas. Some people are first moved to plant with natives, others to recycle, some make dietary changes, many are moving toward organic food and buying from local farmers’ markets. Some do it all, but the movement from all directions converges at the same place–making responsible choices based on caring about the world around us, not just our own personal tastes. Thanks for stating this so well.

  2. says

    Beautifully said! Our personal ethic determines the not only the plant species we select but how we view what we plant and tend. Observation through the eyes of our values increases our understanding and perception of those things we value and further energizes us in our commitment. Thanks for sharing your boundless enthusiasm and commitment to native plants!
    Kathy Settevendemie recently posted..Does it matter where my seed or plant comes from?

  3. Pauline Horn says

    What a beautiful explanation of why we should go native! Yes, one does make a difference. Convincing others is important, but you have to start with your own garden. And the advantage of that is that you can be sincere, and therefore inspiring, about how much joy and excitement you can derive from this kind of gardening.

  4. DeAnna B says

    I love this beautifully written article! You brought up many important points to think about. When I first started gardening, I did exactly what you said, I planted what I thought looked pretty. I planted for me. Then, as I got educated about native plants & how important they are to the environment, everything changed. Now I plant for the insects. I replaced the lawn with native plants, and the yard is filled with bees, hummingbirds & butterflies. This year the rest of the non natives & the invasive will be gone, replaced with natives. I have a small space, & every plant must be a functional part of the ecology, or it must go. As you stated in the article, we become selfless, & plant for the local wildlife.

  5. says

    “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.” Well Done, Benjamin. Certainly a vital and beautiful ‘living art’ — is your garden. Your words express my feelings and convictions too. I did not start out thirty plus years past with the consciousness I now work the land with. I still have room for the daylilies and hosta planted so many years ago but would not plant another now. The deer, swallowtails and hummers seem to enjoy dining and sipping in the flowers, but I do not think their worth or beauty compares to the many natives that now thrive nearby. If space were an issue I would most likely take them out. May the threads you mention continue to thicken and weave a mighty web about our earth. Even if it is too late — we must keep trying. Thanks for all you do and for sharing your passion so eloquently.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Monarch Migration Milkweed & Monsanto

  6. Cora says

    Well said…wish everyone had your dedication and knowledge. I live in an area where people have no clue about natives. Thankfully, we have several wooded and non wooded acres to work with. A wonderful surprise last summer…discovered (by accident) false nettles growing in our woods. I had been wanting them as a hostplant for the Red Admiral butterfly. Yay! I keep telling my husband I wish I had known 30 years ago what I know now and am still learning and loving every minute of it. People are not endangered…why can’t we see?!?

  7. Cora says

    An afterthought…it wouldn’t make any difference if we had only a tiny strip of lawn…I would dig out the grass and plant only natives. (and would compost the grass) Thanks to you writers of these wonderful posts, I have learned so much and still learning. So grateful to all of you.

  8. Kevin Burke says

    I agree with the value of natives in our landscapes. However, I also believe that adapted and non-invasive plants have a place in our gardens as well. They may not have been here when the native americans roamed the land (or whatever other measure of :native” you select, but they have proven that they will grow with little to no additional inputs and maintenance

    • says

      Kevin, I feel you’re missing the entire point. We’ve so tilted the balance toward introductions that we should make a stand for what’s left while we still can (this might be a fuzz easier to do out here in the fast-eroding prairie than the long gone east, of course). It has nothing to do with who plays nice, it has everything to do with what has evolved with native fauna, and it has everything to do with the realization of what we’ve done to this world and that just maybe that’s wrong on some level. So I see both practical and philosophical realities pointing heavily against exotics.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Joy Williams On the Morality of Environmental Issues

  9. says

    So much to weigh here. Yes, these last years brings reports of loss of habitat and introduction of genetically modified crops. For almost all of us, this remains unseen and far, far away. Never within miles of our homes, these destructive activities might as well be happening in the Amazon watershed.
    Better news is that this has become noticed and reported, and habitat ‘detectives’ are now more numerous and … watching. At the same time, thousands and thousands of us are switching, as you report, to native wildflowers (asclepias, asters, phlox, lobelias, pentestomens, monarda, shrubs, trees). The legions of monarch watchers grow to a force to be listened to. States are being campaigned to plant native along their highways…there is so much that is encouraging going on.
    In the 14 years that I’ve been searching for butterfly images, I report that their populations remain constant, and those butterflies enjoy health and vigor.
    Woe to the politician who snubs NABA (North American Butterfly Assoc) and Xerces!
    Thank G-d that you are the point person here for legions of committed nature lovers! Pity anyone who makes a habitat disparaging comment at tomorrow’s church gathering or cocktail party!
    Thanks,
    Jeff
    wingedbeauty.com

  10. Shireen says

    You said, “one mountain of coal to supply the U.S. with one hour of energy.” That’s pretty horrific, do you have a source for this information? I’d like to learn more.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 3rd, Woodlanders will be holding their annual Open House and Plant Sale. You don’t have to buy any of the exotics if you don’t want to, but they will have an outstanding selection of native plants, and if […]

  2. […] Benjamin Vogt inspired me to start thinking about important backyard plants and practices with this quote: “I feel that my backyard habitat is critically important (in the face of such large-scale environmental degradation).” And it’s true: each of us with any amount of outdoor space, be it a patio or a thousand acres, has the opportunity to support life: plant life, insect life, possibly even animal life and full microhabitat life. You can read the article here at the Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens blog. […]

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