I once designed a landscape for clients who wanted their property to blend in with the oak and hickory forest surrounding them. They’d read an article in the local paper about my advocacy for native plant gardening and liked the idea. This was at the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, which is blessed with glorious native shrubs. We had a great time working with beautiful viburnums, vivid oakleaf hydrangeas, spicy bayberry, sweet-smelling clethra, native azaleas, and a lovely native rose.
A couple of years later, after listening to me give a talk on native plants, a woman who lived in the same neighborhood came up. She told me that her neighbors felt sorry for my clients, who had “spent all that money and ended up with something so wild looking.” A landscaper told me the same thing. He would drive prospective clients around to see what they preferred. He liked what I had done and kept hoping to find someone who agreed. They never did. Too wild, they would say, about the landscape pictured above.
So a new housing development carved out of a forest that began at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation 11,000 years ago ended up with house after house with the same design: lawn to the street with a kidney-shaped area of varying size containing one or two non-native trees. These were underplanted with a frill of non-native — and sometimes invasive — shrubs. Some would then box themselves in with a wall of unspeakably dull privet hedge. Though not invasive in the acidic soil of eastern Long Island, privet is taking over forests in many other states across the country.
I am not easily discouraged and, by and large, found the experience fascinating. I began to appreciate the theory that our landscape choices reflect our evolution on the savannas of East Africa. Deep in our consciousness, do we associate open grassland punctuated by small areas of trees and shrubs with safety? We can see our predators. So we are forever mowing down and hacking back the wilderness that we find threatening.
More immediate history has played a powerful role. After (and since) World War II there was a huge push to build houses and suburbanize farm fields and woods throughout the country. To soften the stark, boxy neighborhoods developers chose trees and shrubs for speedy growth, regardless of where they came from. Many of us grew up with a landscaping language that saw native plants as weeds. Native plant gardening was a laughable concept.
No more native hedgerows filled with flowers, berries, birds, and bees. Now hedges were all the same, uninteresting plants, shaved into a box. Rhododendrons, pulled out of the woods and marched along the fronts of houses, were then pruned so hard they never bloomed. Flat slabs of lawn became sacrosanct, lined with fast-growing birches and aggressive maples. When we wanted something unusual, or more colorful, we imported delicate red maples from the forests of Japan. Or dragged blue spruces out of the mountains of Colorado. When they didn’t prosper in the heat of our summers, we sprayed them with poisonous compounds. We got those from chemical companies that had flourished during the war and now needed new markets.
It didn’t take long for a landscape that grew out of a hodgepodge of interests to become the norm. So much so that a woman who tried growing vegetables in her front yard in Detroit was taken to court last year. There is no reason on earth to essentially pave our yards with mown grasses that can’t survive without excess water and chemicals. And yet we have so accustomed ourselves to it that it’s the law in certain places. It is, as the Zen masters say, a story we tell ourselves. And we can tell ourselves a different one.
And must. If we are going to save half the earth to protect the biodiversity that every creature on the planet depends on, we need to change our landscaping story. We need another language. Satellite images tell us that lawns cover over 40 million acres in the lower 48 states. Half of homeowners also garden, which means we have upwards of 65 million gardeners. Allow them each an average eighth of an acre and homeowners in the US alone control up to 50 million acres of land.
Activists and organizations, with good reason, tend to focus on projects like saving the vast Amazon basin. But it’s also vitally important that we preserve, create, and connect local habitat everywhere we can. Mercifully, as gardeners, we don’t need to deal with the competing interests of eight separate countries. Or 400 indigenous nations. Or corporations itching for access to petroleum, minerals, beef, or palm oil. We can grab a shovel, put some plants in the ground, and make an immediate difference.
But it depends on the plants we choose, and the reasons we choose them. If we are growing for biodiversity, we have a rich and rewarding path ahead. Butterflies, birds, bees, moths, and other beings will discover our gardens. But it’s not what we’re used to. It may not be tidy. It goes through seasonal transitions. It’s more unpredictable. You leave your leaf litter on the ground to foster nutrition and manage moisture. There are bugs, and they are so crucial we need to aim for more of them, happily living in the leaf litter. In other words, it’s wild, or should be. We can organize and tame it, shape the landscape, choose and place plants to create beauty. But our fellow creatures need us to embrace wildness, no matter how urban our environment.
Birds and bugs have evolved over eons to adapt to the native plants they eat and nest in. And that’s what they need to survive. The monarch butterfly larva eats milkweed. That’s it. If there are no milkweeds, there will be no monarch butterflies or any of the other 11 species that specialize in milkweeds. Beautiful and fascinating plants, milkweed’s lovely flowers turn into extraordinary seed pods. Once opened, thousands of silky threads float their attached seeds through the air. But milkweeds are not conventionally pretty. They’re a bit wild-looking. Those silky seed threads could land in the lawn! You would be hard-pressed to find milkweeds in a nursery selling plants to the general public.
If there are enough open meadows and wetlands, there will be enough milkweeds. But as we destroy more and more of those, it’s left to gardeners to keep milkweed available for monarch butterflies. After we build and pave our neighborhoods, it’s up to us to use native trees as street trees to support the hundreds of life forms they shelter. Instead, we use pear trees imported from Asia. They grow upright for many years, so don’t need a lot of pruning. They provide a profusion of white flowers when everyone is desperate for a sign of spring. They aren’t susceptible to being eaten by our insects, so harbor no life at all. From a highway department’s point of view, they’re perfect. From a biodiversity standpoint, they’re a disaster.
Plants produce toxins to protect themselves from too much predation. Over millions of years, local bugs have evolved enzymes to neutralize those toxins. When you introduce a plant that insects didn’t evolve with, they can’t eat those toxic leaves. This may seem like a win for gardeners and planners. But not feeding your insects means you’re not feeding birds, lizards, frogs, small mammals, fish. You’re not allowing butterfly larvae to mature. Insects that we depend on to break down plant and animal detritus — thereby returning nutrients to the soil all life depends on — die out. First flowers and then whole plants disappear because there are no pollinators. Naturalist E.O. Wilson calls insects “the little things that run the natural world.”
The idea of gardening for insects may seem alien in a world full of products to exterminate them. But nature has been at this way longer than we have. If insects consistently defoliated plants, there would be no photosynthesis, no plants, no animals, no us. The caterpillars munching your oak leaves are themselves likely to be eaten by birds or parasitized by wasps. If they make it past such hurdles, not much will get eaten before it’s time to spin their cocoons. Introduced aliens, like gypsy moths and Japanese beetles, can do a lot of damage because they have no natural predators. That’s the problem with all non-native species, animal and plant.
Over 5000 non-native plant species have taken over vast swathes of our natural world. It’s such a mess that in many places the only way to preserve the natural ecosystem is to first reclaim it. Eastern deciduous forests are being smothered by bittersweet and mile-a-minute vines. Autumn olive is choking Utah’s great river canyons. Wetlands are disappearing under the seductively pretty haze of lythrum’s magenta flowers. Some plants, like the melaleuca that is destroying Florida’s Everglades, were brought here to do what they did. Developers wanted to drain the swamp to contain mosquitos and allow building. A few invaders arrived by accident. Others, like the oats and annual grasses that have taken over the hills of California, were grown for fodder. The eucalyptus and pampas grass spreading along the west coast were among many, many plants brought here as novel ornamentals.
The same sad trajectory is true for plant diseases and insects. In British Columbia, I drove past mile upon mile of boreal forest destroyed to the horizon by an Asian beetle. We are losing our native ash trees to the accidental importation of emerald ash borer. An early casualty of imported plants was the complete destruction of the eastern chestnut in the nineteenth century. When the European chestnut came here it carried a fungus to which it was resistant. The native one was not.
It’s a very complex problem, made even more so by unpredictability. Lythrum became a garden stalwart in the mid-1800s. It bloomed in backyards for 100 years before it became invasive. We don’t know why some plants reach invader status after such a long time. It may be genetic. Plants and insects evolve over time. One genetic switch may bring a dramatic change.
Early on, no one foresaw the damage alien plants would do when they were free of the constraints that kept them in bounds in their native homes. But we know now and know that we can’t predict which seemingly desirable aliens will turn into invaders. So we are faced with not only an ecological problem but also a moral one. In his excellent and heartfelt book, Bringing Nature Home, entomologist Doug Tallamy asks a thought-provoking question. We go to great lengths to quarantine and prohibit diseases that affect humans and farm animals. “Why are the native plants that sustain us and our native animals less worthy of protection?”
Possible answers bring us back to the stories we tell ourselves. The dream of the west, and now most of the world, has been dominion. The earth is ours to subdue. Humans, or at least a select subset of them, are the undisputed lords of creation. Other humans, animals, plants, minerals all exist for the benefit of those with money and power. This is the driving force behind the destruction of the Amazon rainforest today. A milder but still deadly version drives the landscaping trade. New and more exotic plants, more lethal insecticides, billions spent on millions of acres of grass two inches high.
The alternate dream isn’t new. It’s the dream our human consciousness emerged from: the deep knowledge that we are intimately related to everything on earth. Literally related: we share 45% of our DNA with plants and 60% with fruit flies. We share with insects the same enzymes, muscle fibers, neurons. Our hearts and brains do pretty much the same things. Our digestive and reproductive pathways are similar. Insects communicate, form communities, and work together, as we do. With infinite care, evolution has woven a web of interdependent beings to create the lush and beautiful planet we live on. Yet we are severing those miraculous bonds with increasing rapidity. All because of stories we tell ourselves about what progress or prosperity or happiness or aesthetics should look like. When we grab our shovels and replant a place for the abundance of life we are re-tying our links to the diverse world around us. And we are changing those stories.
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