A landscape design client once told me that every time she saw me she wanted to burst into tears. And not with relief or gratitude. I was making her miserable. Though I wasn’t tearful, the feeling was mutual. I knew why she was unhappy. After a year of construction, she longed for immediate, abundant flowers. I was looking at a sea of dirt compacted to cement by heavy equipment. She needed stairs, paths, a retaining wall before we could start bringing the dirt back to life. I’d arrive with a crew of masons and find a single flower planted right where we were going to lay stone.
I was asking for patience she didn’t have, so we parted. That was a long time ago, but I remembered her recently because May is native plant garden tour season in my neck of the woods. Though I’m no longer designing, I’m ever interested in seeing what people are doing with their property. Especially with native plants, of which there is an abundance in California, a few pictured here from the gardens I visited. There’s also a lot of municipal support for planting them to cope with living in an increasingly drought- and fire-prone part of the world. And support from wildlife organizations knitting together habitats for birds, insects, small mammals, and invertebrates. Creating space and sustenance for the beings our houses have displaced.
These considerations accompany the general questions ahead of any design. Who is using the space and what do they want to do there? How will people travel through the landscape? Is it clear to visitors how they should approach the house? Where do the cars go? In the fiery west, there are different factors than in the wetter east. California’s fire-defensible guidelines, for example, would prefer homeowners to have no plants at all within five feet of the house. Elsewhere, plants are clustered — beneficial for wildlife habitat — into areas divided by non-combustible paths of stone or gravel. The guidelines advocate using native California plants. There are a lot of reasons to plant natives. Here, that they evolved with and adapted to fire is an important one.
So the very things that we feel make a garden — the actual flowers — are often toward the end of the list of things to think about while creating one. And getting there takes patience. That can be tested right away by a popular practice in this area called sheet mulching. Layering paper, cardboard, nutrients, and mulch over a lawn will kill the grass by depriving it of light. The moist darkness encourages underground dwellers like worms, beetles, and fungi to do their work so that the soil becomes rich and crumbly. It’s so important to the Marin County water district to encourage eliminating water-thirsty lawns that for a time they would do this for you. Now they offer a $3 per square foot rebate for people who do it on their own.
It takes months for this process. That needs patient dedication. Devoted gardeners are inured to this kind of waiting. But most people want something that looks nice as quickly as possible and don’t want to fuss with it afterward. I both understand this desire and wish, as a culture, that we would move beyond it. What we do with our land, however small an area, matters not just to us, but to the life of our planet. Our properties affect air, water, and wildlife above and below ground every minute of the day.
Landscaping isn’t a static, visual element, but an active participant in the world we create. It can foster healthy soil and air or drench it with chemicals. Filter water as it soaks into the ground or send it laden with toxic compounds to underground aquifers or nearby streams and lakes. Deep-rooted plants can sequester carbon dioxide in the soil. The shallow roots of lawn grass and annuals play only a small part in that vital work.
Most importantly, our landscapes can support wildlife or contribute to its demise. Monarch butterflies have gone from a population of hundreds of millions to a few thousand in less than 30 years. The number of songbirds in North America has diminished by three billion since 1970. Bumblebees have declined by 90% and have disappeared from eight states. The Center for Biological Diversity has applied for endangered species status for a bee that, though not native, has thrived here for centuries. The Center estimates that 1 in 6 native bee species throughout the world is regionally extinct and 23% of our U.S. native bees are in decline. Fourteen species of fireflies are flickering out.
There are lots more of these staggering numbers, often for far less charismatic but crucial beings, like flies and beetles. I do not for a moment mean to neglect them. But it may be hard to convince people to garden for insects. I think the persuasive way into gardening that fosters life is through the beloveds — birds and butterflies. Birds will bring gardening for insects in under their wings. Without insects to feed baby birds, there will be no birds.
We tell ourselves a story about landscape, one that is well illustrated in the front yard above, typical of both front and back yards all over the country. The garden below tells us a new story. We are far from that dream. The lawn is so sacrosanct that it’s illegal to do anything else in some places. There are a variety of reasons for Americans’ addiction to lawns, a couple of them reasonable ones. It provides spaciousness and an area where children (and adults) can play. Mowed grass makes pleasant paths through garden clusters. Some people feel it speaks to a sense of communality in a neighborhood.
But in my experience, the choice of lawn is often because people don’t think in terms of alternatives. Or, if they contemplate other possibilities, they fear they will be messy, too wild, take too much time. Lawn care is a 100 billion-dollars-a-year industry, so it’s clear that caring for all that largely lifeless space is expensive and time-consuming. The chemicals involved are devastating to all wildlife, including us. The collective square mileage of lawns in the United States adds up to the state of Texas. Keeping that much 2” high grass watered can require as much as 200 gallons of fresh, drinkable water per person, every single day.
In the West, certainly, that has to change. California has a growing movement away from lawns to low-water, native landscapes. Thirty years ago, I read an article in an upscale design magazine about a garden in California. The writer interviewed the designer, who sneered at the idea of using native plants and would be glad, he said, to see that nascent trend peter out. He celebrated the water-guzzling lawn he had installed. It made me so mad that the magazine would foster such an attitude I’ve never forgotten it. Today there is a social media hashtag called #droughtshame, calling out water wasters.
I’m not advocating social media shaming, just noting that things do change. Our task is to figure out how to spur the change. How to tell a different story. One of interdependence. One that acknowledges the need to provide for the creatures we have displaced. That celebrates the plants those creatures have evolved with and now need in as much abundance as we can manage. A story for us as well. No one wants a world without butterflies and birds and bees. No one wants a toxic world, or one with scarce clean water, or a drought-ravaged food supply.
And yet, that’s the world we continue to design. Not willfully, but blindly. In a time where there is endless competition among issues to be concerned about, plants are low on the list. I’ve written about the phenomenon of plant blindness. One definition is “the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” This is despite the fact that we owe them our lives. Without plants, we couldn’t eat or breathe. We wouldn’t even have evolved. They keep the planet habitable. How do we not treasure them?
There’s a lot of work to do to bring plants and people together to garden as if life depends on it, but there is a potential army out there. There are an estimated 65 million gardeners in the U.S. Many are growing food and most are not specializing in native plants. But they are plant people and my guess is that they care deeply about birds and butterflies and lots of other species. They understand the dangers of invasive non-natives.
When I started designing with native plants, the staff at one nursery dubbed me “the weed lady.” I was asking for plants most other landscapers were taking out. Though there were just a few of us weed people, by the time I retired 25 years later, local nurseries were competing to have the largest stock of native plants. Advocacy works. Nurseries respond to demand. Municipalities wrestling with water issues want to know the best plants to use. Children love learning about creatures and plants. Parents and teachers would love to know enough to teach them.
At home, change is only a shovel away. Our gardens, especially if we include signs explaining what we are trying to do, change the story and inspire others. Imagine if entire neighborhoods in town after town were teeming with the native plants that birds and insects evolved with and need to survive. That’s the way we quilt habitat together to recreate some of what our fellow beings have lost. As is happening here, communities can move beyond blind allegiance to lawns and support people who are landscaping for life. Thus, we join the blessed unrest, the quiet work of millions of people around the globe who are advocating for plants, water, air, and wildlife. The challenges are everywhere; the goal is beauty and abundant life. Just like a garden, it’s a patient, step-by-step endeavor.
I’d love to have you join me! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new monthly posts.
Activists focus on crucial projects like saving the vast Amazon basin. But it’s vitally important that we preserve, create, and connect local habitats everywhere we can. Mercifully, as gardeners, all we need is a shovel and the right plants for fostering biodiversity where we are.
Why, when we can, do we choose to live in places of distinct beauty and then make our part of it look like everywhere else? There are important — and even urgent — reasons to use native plants in our gardens. Including a deeply spiritual one.
I often remember the spirit of a place by the plants that I saw there. They tell me a complex story about their land, bringing back the scents, the bird song, the sighing of wind, the feel of the air, the rock and soil under my feet. They hold the long history, and, I sincerely hope, the future of the places where I find them.