Tell me what this plant is (like you don't know) and you'll win a free invisible Tesla sedan.
I live on the edge of town abutting small acreages and not more than a mile from the prairie at Pioneers Park. The advantage of this location is easy access to the interstate and a close drive to a lovely urban grassland. The disadvantages include these guys:
I'd be better able to manage them if I could burn my gardens, aka, my entire lot. They not only pop up in the back meadow and garden beds, but also the front beds and in the lawn. Over the last year I've pulled well over 100 seedlings of this native yet very aggressive tree. It's managed in prairies by burning, and even one lone specimen in several hundred acres will cause grassland birds to nest elsewhere. It's a water hog. It shades out prairie plants. Birds love the berries and poop them out all over the place. Folks out east rave over their use in gardens and folks out west listen in suspended disbelief with jaw agape looking for the nearest exit.
Tell me what this plant is (like you don't know) and you'll win a free invisible Tesla sedan.
If you follow me on Twitter you know I really let it fly there. Basically, I'm condensing larger ideas from my book and talks and really getting to the heart of a concept. Here's a collection of recent tweets that will likely turn into a longer piece at some point.
We have a been hammered with the idea there is only one "good" garden soil, and that if you want to have success then your landscape should feature something like a rich, crumbly loam akin to potting soil. Nothing could be further from the truth. Amending soil for the average homeowner isn't just out of the budget, it's out of their body's ability to work the soil or have the time to do so. And you know what? You don't need to change your soil 95% of the time; the only real reason to do so is if a soil test shows some severe contamination or you're trying to improve drainage around a basement wall. But even if there's contaminated soil, depending on what it might be, one might be able to use plants to help remediate it (indiangrass and sunflowers are good examples that clean soil, removing lead and even radiation).
Choosing the right plant for the right place is how one gardens successfully -- every time. Changing the site to fit what you want to grow is like trying to change your spouse to be the perfect mate... in the end, you'll have wasted a lot of time and energy while you'll eventually give up on the relationship altogether. So fall in love with clay soil.
Clay has the smallest particle size of soil ingredients, which include sand and silt. It has a very high water-holding ability, and is a fantastic nutrient holder, as well. A lot of our clay soils organize themselves in layers or fine sheets that are negatively charged; plant nutrients are positively charged, and so are attracted to the the soil levels and "stick" like opposite ends of a magnet. This is why clay soil is often a very rich soil to work in, even though we'd assume that's not the case.
Now, let's say someone wants to put prairie plants in a garden bed because they know they are native to them, are purported to be less maintenance, and will support pollinators. They might know they have clay and figure it needs to be improved, so they come along and till in compost. What the tiller will do is destroy those wonderful layers of clay that hold nutrients while killing soil life. Sure, the new soil might appear better to us -- and it's certainly easier to dig -- but it's now no longer fit for lots of of those prairie plants.
Take pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, a mainstay in prairie garden design. It's deep taproot is designed to punch through clay soil, which also makes it pretty drought tolerant. When you put it in a loamy bed this coneflower grows too fast, gets too tall, flops over, and has a much shorter lifespan. Why? You gave it a far too rich soil and it went bonkers. It's not evolved for that kind of soil. And now you have more maintenance because you've got to replace the plant. Many prairie forbs like pale purple coneflower have evolved these strong taproots for a purpose, just as the more fibrous roots of grasses and sedges. Together, all these plants reach into clay soil and slowly amend it naturally, adding nutrients while opening up spaces for water and air to penetrate. In fact, up to 1/3 of prairie grass roots die each year, and as they decompose they enrich the soil. This is why farming is so successful in the upper Midwest and eastern Plains.
So love your clay. If it's too hard to dig into, try using smaller 3" pots or plugs instead of massive and pricey one gallon pots. Consider a mix of sowing grasses and forbs with some potted plants. I like to create designs with forbs then come in and sow a groundcover of grasses -- which speeds up planting, saves my back, and costs less (plus that means no wood mulch). You could also sow a cover crop of annual native grasses and forbs, even biennial forbs like Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan) and Ratibida columnifera (mexican hat coneflower), to help prep the soil for a year or two. Otherwise, at planting time, a thin layer of 1/2" to 1" of compost doesn't hurt to add some organic matter if tests show the soil could use some.
When I meet a client who drops their head in their landscape sighing "I have clay soil, I know there isn't much we can do," I love to smile and say, "actually, because you have clay, we can do so much more."
Say it with me. Love your clay. Plant for it, not against it. Use nature to your advantage. Learn to be one with the force.
To learn more about sustainable wildlife gardening, check out some 200 articles or try one of these 5 online classes.
So many of us know the importance of pollinating insects, and indeed of insects in general which are the base of the terrestrial food chain. We've read about bees and butterflies that are struggling and realize that our small gardens, in their minor way, can collectively play a larger role in supporting the wildlife whose homes we share. When we see an insect foraging on a plant we purchased we are happy and feel fulfilled -- we are doing something good, and it is fantastic to feel good about that.
So often, though, someone will say they saw pollinators on a plant -- which could be anything from a lavender to rattlesnake master to milkweed or daffodil. And then it's an open and closed case as that plant's presence is justified in the landscape as being ecologically important because something was using it. In the case of plants we especially find beautiful or unique, whether native or not, we rush to validate our preferences when it seems nature corroborates how we feel about a specimen. There's psychology at play here, something I discuss in my book A New Garden Ethic, about protecting ourselves in a world of mass extinction and preserving a sense of stability or safety in how we perceive the world. And that is what's partly at play in the defense of plants when an insect is seen using them. Of course it's an adult insect we're talking about here, not larvae eating leaves or other parts of the plant (without larvae there can be no adults, after all). Further, we're not often sure what kind of insect it is, and this is important to consider. Some questions we can ask about our backyard observations include:
1) Is this a native or exotic insect species? If exotic, is it pushing out natives? What role do those native insects play in the ecosystem compared to the exotic and what may or may not be lost as they are supplanted?
2) Is this a generalist or specialist species? Specialists are critical to the ecosystem and losing just one has a cascade effect that influences how well plants are being pollinated. Generalists, like bumble bees, will forage on just about anything. Also take honey bees: not only are they an exotic species that crowd out native bees and spread disease, they steal forage from native bees that native ecosystems (plants, etc) depend upon. That is partly due to their sheer volume, colony size, and range of several miles. A good number of native bees have a flight range of only a few blocks.
3) How is that adult pollinator using the plant? Is it foraging for nectar (fuel for itself) or pollen (essential food for its young)? What parts of the plant is it using (it's not just about the flower)? Is there evidence that any insect larvae are using the plant? Here we're commonly thinking butterfly and moth caterpillars, but also beetle larvae and much more will use the plant.
These are hard questions to answer, and if you can answer them you're now a bona fide backyard biologist who should be recording what you see to track how the climate and environment are changing. But simply, until we can answer these questions to some degree, our plants may not be as beneficial as we assume when we "see a pollinator" using it. It may very well be that the plant primarily supports insect species that are doing harm to other species, creating an unseen cascade effect that ripples out beyond the garden altering how nearby spaces function. If we can begin to understand that a garden is not its own self-contained place, but part of a larger whole, perhaps we will begin to ask harder, more honest, and more critical questions about what's using our garden and how we can improve the habitat so it's as pretty for wildlife as it is for us.
A growing voice in garden circles dotes on dandelions for pollinators, particularly as they are claimed as some of the first flowers to bloom in spring. This refers to the exotic dandelion Taraxacum officinale, not one of the native species we have like Nothocolais cuspidata. While early-spring insect species will use dandelion -- especially generalist species and European honey bees who evolved with the flower -- in some cases it is not the most nutritious option when it comes to pollen. For example, the earlier-blooming and native pussy willow’s pollen protein count is 40%, whereas dandelion is only at 14%. Nutritious pollen is what leads to healthier bees, which in turn leads to healthier environments (without pollen bee larvae would starve). In addition, many specialist bees have evolved relationships with specific native plants, timing their life cycles for when pollen is available from those plants. Specialists are incredibly crucial to keeping the pollinator system in balance, and when we lose even one such species pollination rates for plants suffer.
What can we do? As we alter landscapes we lose ecological function. Consider that 99% of the tallgrass prairie has been eradicated, yet so much of the wildlife that depend on the plants found within that ecosystem still exist in the same geographical area -- even in cities. Let's revive wildness and use native plants.
According to bee expert Heather Holm, there are a plethora of native plants that either bloom at the same time as dandelion or weeks earlier. These plants have ranges in the Midwest and northeast, and the list includes the following:
Trees & Shrubs
Native willows, Salix spp.
Red maple, Acer rubrum
Red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa
Native currants or gooseberries, Ribies spp.
American plum, Prunus americana
Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana
Native viburnum, Viburnum spp.
Native dogwood, Cornus spp.
Serviceberry, Amelanchier spp.
Prairie smoke, Geum triflorum
Pussytoes, Antennaria neglecta
Golden Alexanders, Zizia spp.
Wild lupine, Lupinus perennis
Pasque flower, Anemone patens
Marsh marigold, Caltha palustris
Woodland Perennials / Ephemerals
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria
Native violets, Viola spp.
Jacob's Ladder, Polemonium reptans
Large-flowered bellwort, Uvularia grandiflora
Wild geranium, Geranium maculatum
Bishop's cap, Mitella diphylla
Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica
To learn more about sustainable wildlife gardening, check out some 200 articles or try one of these 5 online classes.
Traditional landscapers, some nurseries, and plenty of ads for big box stores and petrochemical companies want you to be spending as much time outside as possible -- and not counting butterflies or playing with your kids. Your landscape requires lots of constant upkeep and inputs, like soil conditioners, wood mulch, and fertilizer. That's just the price of home ownership. Grab a drink and let's bust these maintenance myths.
1) Amending Soil
There is no perfect garden soil. Repeat. There is no perfect garden soil. There is no ideal to strive for -- and that ideal certainly is not rich-smelling, loamy, dark black soil that crumbles in your hand like cake. The typical thinking goes that if you have clay, sandy loam, or gravelly sand, then you MUST bring in lots of topsoil and compost to make it good, otherwise nothing will grow and you'll fail. You'll need to till that in, too, destroying soil structure and harming soil life. Sounds like a lot of work and money to me. Now, sure, there are situations when soil needs to be remediated (someone dumped gallons of oil, drainage issues need to be fixed), but buying bags of topsoil at big store x or y is not the answer to successful gardening. Researching what plants will do well in the conditions you have is the answer. Right plant, right place. Let's say you "amend" the soil one foot down, what happens when the plant's roots reach the native soil? It freaks out. It might decide to stay in the babied soil, never fully establishing, and never becoming drought tolerant or resilient because it's constantly in a state of being pampered. Which brings us to....
2) Mulch Mulch Mulch
Wood mulch also keeps plants in a state of perpetual establishment. Commonly we'll place a flower here, than 2 feet away another flower, etc until what we have are large gaps between plants -- gaps that don't exist in nature. Those gaps will need to be mulched every year or two because, as we all know, bare soil invites erosion, weed seedlings, etc. Or you could simply use more plants, and layer those plants, letting them do the work of not only amending soil for free over time as their roots move into the soil, but also out competing weed seedlings and shading the soil, thus conserving soil moisture. Mulch does help new trees establish, but maybe you could also just plant a thick, layered garden under the tree's drip line. No more mulch. No more spreading mulch. No more carrying mulch. No more buying mulch. Use your mulch allowance on more plants and make the long term investment for beauty, resilience, and wildlife habitat.
Before planting it's smart to get a soil test done -- in the very least it will tell you pH, organic matter percentage, and other nutrient levels. Now, contrary to conventional wisdom, these numbers aren't necessarily here to tell you what to add to "improve" the soil. No, for you mavericks these numbers are here to tell you what plants to match to the site. Doing this will greatly improve your chances of long term success. Why keep adding fertilizers year after year to maintain a plant's life support when clearly it doesn't like where it is? Yank it out and find something that doesn't tug at your purse strings. Besides, that fertilizer is produced with intensive industrial processes that contribute to climate change and pollution, and when they run off our landscapes they cause real problems for waterways (looking at you, commercials that insist on 4 lawn fertilizer applications a year -- two is plenty, unless the company needs to move more product).
Do gardens require work? You bet. They always will, like replacing and adding plants, because we're putting in something that wasn't here on its own. But there's gardening nature's way -- matching plants with the site, creating self-supporting plant communities, fostering biodiversity -- and there's the other way which keeps us from getting in tune with our local environment by forcing in costly management.
If you want to learn more about how to research the right plants for your landscape, and to design a more sustainable / low maintenance space, try this handy online class on starting your native plant garden. You'll discover the most informative websites and books, strategies for research and plant lists, and be walked through a sample design for a small pollinator garden.
There are a few ways to convert your landscape into planting beds. Two of the most commonly suggested are sheet mulching and solarizing -- both of which can do more harm than good. Why? Let's look at both, and then eventually some suggestions for better ways.
Basically you beg friends and neighbors for as much cardboard as you can and place it over lawn or other plants you want smothered. This is followed by a good watering to soak the cardboard well, then perhaps a layer of soil or compost -- several inches or more. Some will also top this with a few inches of wood mulch or just use mulch. The goal here is to create a plantable area without having to remove current vegetation. But what's wrong here? It limits air and water transfer between the soil (its organisms and any tree / shrub roots which need to breathe). Read more at this link, or if you like termites, this one. And what if you have thousands of square feet to convert? That's a lot of cardboard.
In this method you're putting either black or clear plastic over an area, secured around the edges by bricks or stones, and baking the plants to death that you don't want. Usually you'll solarize over a few months in summer when it's the hottest out. But solarization doesn't just bake plants -- it bakes the soil, in effect sterilizing it. Or more to the point, killing organisms in the soil you probably want. Usually this method is used to kill soil pathogens and pests that growers and those in agriculture don't want -- so why would you use it in your garden if what you want is to promote healthy soil? And promoting healthy soil is good gardening 101. One final point, what do you do with all of that plastic trash? Talk about an environmental dilemma.
What else could you do? Read on.
If you've got lawn nothing beats renting a sodcutter. If you can't manage this machine bribe your beefy neighbor. What's wonderful is you get a clean, relatively smooth, ready-to-go surface in one morning. And the rolled up sod makes stupendous compost -- just the best black gold. What's not so wonderful is the exhaust from the machine and the gas you've used.
You'll Hate Me For This
The ends can often justify the means. As much as we vilify glyphosate (rightly so given how much of our nation's ag fields are doused in cancer-causing toxins), this is a fantastic, cheap grass and weed killer that with the right formulation targets only foliage. You may only need one application and the ground is safe to plant after 3-4 days (I've done it). If you're still reading and you go this route, follow the directions. Spray in the late evening in calm wind when the temperature is right. READ THE DIRECTIONS. The dead grass makes a nice mulch to plant into, as well. This method is probably best for a large area. If you want to seed in spring, rake away the dead grass for a fairly clean surface, otherwise a late fall and winter seeding is best right into the dead grass.
Direct Planting Into Lawn
If you've got a patchy lawn area, and / or one you seldom if ever water and fertilize, you already may have a great garden bed. In spring when the grass is actively growing scalp it. Two weeks later when it's recovering scalp it again. Stress it hard. Suck those nutrients and energy out of the roots it was using to put on new growth. Then dethatch the lawn well with a hand or power rake. Go ahead and rip grass roots out of the soil as during this process you are creating places for planting and seed germination. Sow seeds if you're going for a wild meadow look, combine seeding with planting potted material to ease your budget, or go just with potted plants / plugs (making sure to plant on 8-12" centers to compete against the lawn). I might suggest sowing an aggressive native species like Rudbeckia hirta or Ratbida columnifera, as these plants do a stellar job shading out various lawn grasses and, by the end of year two, have petered out extensively since they work more on a biennial schedule. Then you can go back in and garden or plant some more as you design and tweak the space.
There is no such thing as a no maintenance landscape, unless you literally just let it go and stay inside binge-watching the latest TV drama. Even if you have hundreds of acres you’re probably going to need to manage it in some way for how you and wildlife use the land, and the same goes for garden beds around your house. Let’s explore some strategies to help you make the best decisions as you plan your gardening goals.
1) Matching plants to the site
At the very top of creating a landscape that requires less work than many traditional designs is carefully matching plants to your garden areas. This means going beyond the limited information plant tags provide and consulting with several reliable online and print sources. What soil will it do well in? How big does the plant get in your specific soil, light, and moisture levels? How does it spread and in what time frame? If you’re gardening with plants native to your location you’re already one step ahead of the game, as they will be more adapted to your climate and weather if you site them correctly at home. Of course, you’ll also not want to use a shrub that gets large too close to a structure, or something that will weep or flop near a sidewalk. You’d be surprised – or maybe you wouldn’t – how often we don’t take into account what a plant will do in 5 to 10 years, so plan ahead.
2) Matching plants to one another
When you’re doing research on matching plants to your site conditions, you’ll also want to learn how they play with others. You wouldn’t want to place an aggressive species next to a behaved clumping plant, or one that gets super tall next to a more modest specimen. Thinking about roots is key, too: placing a grass with a fibrous and shallow root zone along with a milkweed or coneflower with a deep taproot is smart design, as neither will be competing for the same soil resources (the same rule applies for bulbs). And then there are plants which add fertilizer to the soil in the form of nitrogen, so planting them near other plants you know are heavy feeders is a good idea. Such free-fertilizer plants include Baptisia spp, Dalea spp, Lespedeza spp, and Cassia / Senna spp.
3) Designing in layers
Do you like fertilizing and mulching? If so, stop reading now. Otherwise, let the plants do that work for you just as they do in nature. For most herbaceous perennials, annuals, grasses, and sedges you can ignore plant spacing suggestions and place them 10-12” apart. The closer the better so they knit together sooner, which will impede weeds starting in year one. As the close-knit plants shade out weed seedlings they also shade the soil, which conserves soil moisture – this is what we call green mulch, or plants as the living mulch. We can take it further and design our gardens in layers that will further inhibit weeds and cool the soil. Start with a majority number of groundcover or shorter plants about one foot tall (50-60%), then have some groups of taller 2-4 foot plants (30-40%), followed by even smaller groups of 5-8 foot plants including small shrubs and trees (10-20%). These layers reduce maintenance like weeding, watering, and fertilizing while also providing ample wildlife habitat.
4) Leave spring cuttings on the ground
Hopefully you wait until early to mid spring to cut down your garden, as this not only helps plants overwinter in colder areas, but provides shelter and hibernating spaces for birds and beneficial insects like butterflies, spiders, bees, and beetles. When you do cut down the garden in spring leave all that detritus on the ground where it falls. These stems provide all the nutrients plants will need, and in a month or so new plant growth will cover up the seeming mess. Come winter, soil organisms will have decomposed the vast majority of these cuttings adding a new layer of fertile soil to your beds. Ah, nature!
5) Let plants teach you
As gardeners we design. We put specific plants in specific places because we want them there. And sometimes, if we’re lucky and have done our research, the plants will thrive where we put them. But sometimes they will die, and often they will move. Don’t be dismayed if they move to a place you wish they weren’t, because what the plant is doing is teaching you what it really wants and needs – and you ought to pay attention and be humble about it. Success in gardening can often mean being a sort of plant whisperer who isn’t a helicopter parent. In other words let the plants find their way in the world, then help them thrive in that world they’ve chosen. In fact, if you really what to have some fun, plan your garden in anticipation of plants moving, dying, and overall ebbing and flowing. Each year the design will change and excite you in new ways. Choose species that self sow to varying degrees or spread a bit by runners, and use species like black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) that tend to be short lived in the garden, giving way to more mature species as the years progress.
To learn more about sustainable wildlife gardening, check out some 200 articles or try one of these 5 online classes.
It's a very common occurrence -- I show up to a new client's home, the landscape is nothing but thick shade and dry soil, and they feel hopeless anything will grow. Maybe others have even told them as much. There are many, many native plants that will do well in shade and various moisture levels, but I'll focus on just a quick list of forbs and sedges for medium to dry shade (clay, clay-loam, sandy clay loam).
Wild Geranium -- Geranium maculatum -- tends to be a low-mounding or groundcover, blooms in spring to summer, fall color is good
Wild Columbine -- Aquilegia canadensis -- spring bloom, wiry stems and open foliage, will self sow to peak up among groundcovers
Sprengel's Sedge -- Carex sprengelii -- about 2' tall when in bloom each spring, greens up early for a grass-like appearance
Ivory Sedge -- Carex eburnea -- low mounding and super soft groundcover that slowly spreads its clump
Early Meadow Rue -- Thalictrum dioicum -- cool, tiny, round leaves with 2-4' spikes of orange-ish / yellow-ish blooms
Poke Milkweed -- Asclepias exaltata -- 3-5' tall with cream to white bloom sin early to mid summer
Calico Aster -- Symphyotrichum lateriflorum -- tons and tons of white blooms with centers that turn from yellow to pink, about 2-3' tall & wide
Zigzag Goldenrod -- Solidago flexicaulis -- highly fragrant creeper reaching about 3' tall with thick, serrated leaves
Read more about each of these plants via their plant profile articles, and explore other pieces on gardening in shade.
I want to share these words by Derrick Jensen, and I'd like you to think about gardening and horticulture when you read them. Reflect on how we privilege ourselves in garden design over other species through the plants we choose and how we use them. Jensen's words are at the core of my own book, and address not only extinction but racism, classism, and sexism -- the violence we perpetuate to maintain inequality and create the illusion of freedom among the privileged few (the few being humans on the planet, among one example).
"In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves. It is not necessary that the lies be particularly believable. The lies act as barriers to truth. These barriers to truth are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities. Truth must at all costs be avoided. When we do allow self-evident truths to percolate past our defenses and into our consciousness, they are treated like so many hand grenades rolling across the dance floor of an improbably macabre party. We try to stay out of harm’s way, afraid they will go off, shatter our delusions, and leave us exposed to what we have done to the world and to ourselves, exposed as the hollow people we have become. And so we avoid these truths, these self-evident truths, and continue the dance of world destruction.
As is true for most children, when I was young I heard the world speak. Stars sang. Stones had preferences. Trees had bad days. Toads held lively discussions, crowed over a good day’s catch. Like static on a radio, schooling and other forms of socialization began to interfere with my perception of the animate world, and for a number of years I almost believed that only humans spoke. The gap between what I experienced and what I almost believed confused me deeply. It wasn’t until later that I began to understand the personal, political, social, ecological, and economic implications of living in a silenced world.
The silencing is central to the workings of our culture. The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, education, psychology, medicine, literature, linguistics, and art have all been pressed into service as tools to rationalize the silencing and degradation of women, children, other races, other cultures, the natural world and its members, our emotions, our consciences, our experiences, and our cultural and personal histories."
from A Language Older Than Words
I'm going to start posting a few short plant profile videos. Are there any you'd like to see featured? Here's the first, one that's not used nearly enough even though it's pretty darn adaptable and bring in the insects.
I've been thinking a lot about fear lately, how too many of us are raised either by family or culture to be afraid of other species and even of wild places. More than once I've been on a landscape design consult and the client expresses concern about attracting bees or wasps or "pests" like mice or snakes. Almost all of these creatures are beneficial to our garden, our cities, and the long term success of our own species. Bees pollinate (native bees especially pollinate our native plants); wasps control infestations of unwanted pests or help naturally manage wanted species that can get out of hand at times; snakes eat mice and voles, the latter which are too efficient at eating Liatris corms.
How can landscapers shift their thinking and education when they meet with clients? Knowing the research and how healthy ecosystems function is a start -- and how good, beautiful, low maintenance gardens are ecosystems (not to mention the last vestiges of home or hope for countless displaced species in our urban world). One day I came in from the garden, sat in front of the tv, and it wasn't for an hour or two that I noticed a bumble bee resting on my jeans. That's not scary, it's cool. I feel so incredibly honored to see life moving, living, thriving in the garden -- and I believe that for most of us that's exactly why we want a garden. A landscape may be first about and for us -- we are a dominant species who sees the world through individual perception -- but in the end a landscape is about equality, empathy, and compassion. If all life doesn't thrive we don't thrive in real physical and emotional ways. Every day in our world sees fewer insects and birds as our ecosystems diminish in their ability to sustain life. And somehow, our fear of other species has contributed to this extinction crisis, and even to political deadlock when "environmentalist" is a dirty word meant more as derision than compliment.
Maybe I can sum it up like this.... Most of us feel threatened by nature many times in our lives. It can be a storm or a wasp, or an ominous feeling walking in a cave or forest. But too many of us also feel threatened by those who talk about nature by extolling its virtues or defending its existence. Obviously, part of the problem is a culture of extraction, and another is one species practicing supremacism in other less tangible ways. Fear holds us back from compassion for other lives and other places. Fear makes us rush to anger, use names to label new ideas and people we don't understand but that make us feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. In a time of climate change and mass extinction we're being asked to navigate if not fast forward the evolution of our primal brains, to see survival as something not solely immediate and personal, but long term and communal.
Why does every year go faster than the previous one? It doesn't help that phenology shows that for each decade, spring emergence of specific plants and insects is roughly three days sooner. Springs that arrive earlier shorten the sense of seasons and the demarcations of time our primal brains have evolved to live by. Our minds and our hearts, perhaps our connective spirits to all of life, are being radically altered in imperceptible ways.
It's the same phenomenon occurring in our daily lives when nature is absent. I mean real nature, not a single street tree or a line of roses or some lawn with a robin standing still in the middle. What happens when views out of classrooms and office buildings and homes are devoid of extravagant local plant and animal life? What happens when the rich layers of plants are instead one simple layer smothered in wood mulch? What happens when instead of bird or fox calls we simply hear the constant, overriding drone of lawn mowers and leaf blowers? Somehow we need to recognize that our human supremacism is making us sick in physical and metaphysical ways. It is certainly a painful recognition, because it will call into question everything we believe or thought we believed about natural order and our cultural lifestyle. We are changing the world without compassionate wonder and without speaking up for the least among us to whom we owe our miraculous lives.
I know many of us here, reading and thinking together now, unequivocally understand the profound, empowering value of flower beds and pollinators and sitting in silence in the wild -- even though that silence is the noise of dozens of species calling through and past us. How are you engaging with others and creating wildness in our daily lives? What lines do you draw, what passions do you cultivate, what lessons do you teach? Are you learning to speak the language of a certain plant or animal, and which one? What is being said to you? What are your garden plans in this new year as we cultivate empathy and joy in all others who walk this life with us?
A few images of the backyard meadow in late November and early December (I was still planting on 12/2 when it was 60!). As you know, this roughly 2,000 square feet was lawn two years ago. The first image shows a 7 foot wide lawn pathway / firebreak. I'd sure like to burn this all in the spring, but it's not worth the risk to nearby homes -- plus I imagine I'd need a permit which I bet I wouldn't get. So, I'll mow in late March and remove as much as I can so as many seeds germinate as possible.
Writers live in bubbles of isolation, hoping through some weird twist of cosmic faith the words they string together impact or help others -- or just mean something, anything to another life. I want to share a few online reviews of A New Garden Ethic that I've come across. I'm so thankful that readers took the time to share their thoughts and continue the discussion!
"Read this profound take on the ethics of gardening. It's actually so much more than that and a book I shall reread because it's so deep. I was digging (ha!) his ideas about plants not being art and how we - nature and humans - coexist so all decisions need to be made with that in mind, when Chapter 3 blew me away with discussion of shame, guilt, metta meditation and unethical amnesia. Wow! I expected to be drawn to the social justice aspect of Chapter 4 and felt inspired by Vogt's message. I especially like how even though he isn't necessarily optimistic, he is not giving up the fight. I was fortunate to hear Vogt talk at a bookstore and found him funny and humble, yet forthright, all of which made me appreciate his book even more. It's a manifesto for our times."
"A surprisingly deep and thorough look at ecological philosophy and the anthropogenic forces on our environment and our climate. All of this through the lens of "the garden" as created space, as natural setting. Natural spaces/wildness and its role in such social justice movements, activism, and even religion - all subjects covered in this book. Vogt's intelligent writing challenged me in a pretty radical way and I am grateful for that. I suspect several more readings and ruminations of the text."
When we ask for equality among our own species it feels like an attack for many, especially for those accustomed to privilege in our culture. But equality does not mean less for those used to privilege, it simply means equal opportunity for all to thrive. It means true universal freedom. This is something humans grapple with in every level of society, especially one based on a linear, hierarchical organization.
So when we ask for this equality among species it is no surprise there is uncomfortable pushback. If we suggest that gardens should be designed with more consideration for the wants and needs of other species, the first response is that gardens will then automatically be less for humans. Or, from a design standpoint, that gardens will lose the aesthetic value and purpose humans find so appealing. This is not true. Designing a landscape for other species as much as for humans doesn't mean we're designing a less artful or creative space, I think if anything it means we're designing a far more intentional and powerful space because we've added to the levels of design and to the lives who will use the space. Just as we know the benefit of opportunity for marginalized human groups who contribute to a successful society, so we know what the benefit is to thriving wildlife landscapes.
When someone questions whether a garden can be more welcoming to wildlife, a perceived attack on humans, that question does not mean the space should be less welcoming to people or less usable by people. It does not mean the space should simply be a wild bramble of unfettered nature left entirely to its own devices where humans have no place. A garden is still an intentional and arranged artifice, for better or worse. But in the face of climate change and mass extinction -- in the face of daily wildness and awareness of nature being absent from so many of us -- asking more of our designed landscapes is not asking for less. Asking for more is opening us up to far more empathy and compassion not just among all species but also among ourselves. When we step outside of a narrow vision -- gardens as spaces primarily for humans, or even primarily for privileged groups of humans (white, educated, etc) -- we step into gardens as being places of social justice and true freedom for all who use them.
It is time for a garden revolution. It is time for gardens to be made with far greater purpose for others -- for birds, snakes, bees, spiders, butterflies, beetles, and for those who have no nature on their walk to school or work. It is time we realize that sharing the art of garden design with others is an elevation of garden design, and not a marginalization of garden designers or landscape architects or humans. Asking what a garden does and for whom it is fulfilling those purposes is not a criticism of the garden, but an act in critical thinking on how the garden can be improved, how our lives can be improved, and how we can help nature thrive in the way it has evolved to thrive.
Here at Monarch Gardens HQ -- a 1/4 acre lot in a newer suburban development -- we are down to about 400-500 square feet of lawn. That means there's about 4,500' of garden beds. The front area is three years old and was planted into bare soil after using a sod cutter. The native prairie plants are not just a bag of seed. Flowers are placed in clumps and drifts with no more than 2-3 blooming at one time so as not to overwhelm the space visually. A lawn pathway goes up the middle to show human use and purpose while tying into the suburban lawn monoculture. The main problem for this guy is that the red twig dogwood along the sidewalk look fantastic in winter (open shape, stunning color) but in summer are too thick and tall. These were supposed to be a shorter selection but need annual coppicing just to keep them at a wishful 4x4 feet (however, this will prevent flowering and berries). Each spring plants in the beds are cut with a hedge trimmer and the detritus allowed to stay to add nutrients back into the soil.
Out back it is certainly more wild in the two year old meadow. The lawn was stressed (no watering for years), scalped, then thatch raked away. Three types of shortgrasses were sown, along with collected forbs (flowers), and 150 forb plugs were placed in clumps and drifts. A mowed pathway will be employed next year to create both a visual sign to follow through the area and for access (right now a sculpture and piece of corten steal or foils with which to view the area). A 10-15' deep lawn area near the house serves as both a gathering place / location to view the meadow, as well as a fire break. An annual mowing will occur each spring.
I sure get frustrated seeing social media post after social media post proclaiming how a garden or plant is beautiful (sure, I'm guilty of it, too). I predict I'll be frustrated the rest of my life. A human proclaiming a space as beautiful is just one phase of many phases in what makes that space beautiful. What's beautiful to spiders and caterpillars and beetles and birds? What's beautiful to air, water, and soil?
Beauty from the human aesthetic standpoint is a judgement based on emotion. And there's nothing wrong with it per se. We are part of nature, part of what is alive both animate and inanimate, and our spiritual bonds to wildness are necessary to our psychical and psychological survival. What is less a judgment, what is less subjective, is how a space is beautiful on a much deeper and more profound level. When we say a garden is pretty, we are treating the space as something to consume -- it's on the same level as most art, a momentary engagement, even if we have MANY momentary engagements that cultivate new responses. Our understanding of the art is limited, perhaps willfully limited, to what we perceive in the blink of an eye or the grazing of a hand over soft leaves. Our environmental crisis demands more than this simple engagement.
Again, those perceptions are good and powerful, but it's only the perception of one species -- a dominate species that seldom considers the perceptions or needs of others. We proclaim to act on nature's behalf simply by having a garden, as if any assemblage of plants -- particularly if it wakes in us a sense of awe -- is the only or primary goal of a garden or wild space.
How can we hope to garden ethically for all life if we don't comprehend even one additional aspect of a space, if we don't redefine beauty in a time of climate change and mass extinction? We may find an exotic plant beautiful and functional, but it may be ugly to wildlife. We may find a plant cleans water or stabilizes an embankment, but why can't or why isn't it doing more? We limit our response to life when we stop at calling a space beautiful simply because we find it so -- a culmination of our culture and our family's expectation passed down to and through us. A freshly mowed lawn is beautiful, but it seldom benefits the kind of biodiversity and ecological function we force upon it to defend our aesthetic choices. A butterfly bush is beautiful, but it supports no larvae and a very limited number of adult insects.
What is a new garden ethic? How do we get there? Why is it important? What do we defend about our perceptions and beliefs, and why do we defend them so fervently? Is that garden beautiful? To whom? How are gardens an act of social justice that awakens or builds a new compassion and resolve to honor all life and cultivate equality?
When we are pushed to think in a new way, from a new perspective that challenges our world view or concept of self, we feel defensive. We feel as if we are being judged or criticized. We feel shamed, guilted, talked down to. This natural response may in some ways be tied to the burgeoning realization that we've broken personal or cultural ethical codes and are being asked to think critically about why and how, as well as the ramifications of our thinking and acting. When I ask what other species some plant supports, what value it brings beyond aesthetic function to humans, I'm not telling you to screw off and that you blow chunks. I'm asking a question meant to draw you out of a single perspective, out of human supremacism, and out of an assumption of power and freedom. I'm asking you to connect to the world in what is now an almost foreign way -- through the other. I'm asking you so much, and certainly too much, as our ethics have not evolved nearly as fast as our ability to induce climate change and mass extinction. I'm asking you what love really is, who we are as a species or culture, and if you will dare to be empowered enough to fight for the equality of all of us.
If this is your kind of thinking, my book was just released last week. You can order a signed copy here. I'm also having a book launch on 9/30 at 2pm, complete with prize raffle (seeds, plants, books, tools, local goods). Here's the Facebook event page. The book launch is in the Hardin Hall auditorium on UNL's east campus and will include a one hour presentation based on the writing. Come party with me!
Don't clean up your fall garden. It's not the living room after the kids have gone to bed, strewn with foot-impaling LEGO pieces. Butterflies and caterpillars will be overwintering in leaf litter, as will some bee larvae in hollow stems. Countless other creatures will be doing the same, while birds will come for shelter and seeds on the snowiest winter days. Plus, all those plants look gooooood in winter -- way better than a moonscape.
Over the years I've written several pieces tackling our penchant to clean up the garden, as well as to assume fall isn't the ideal time for planting. Why is fall so perfect for new plants? Cooler weather puts less stress on them and you, and we tend to see more rains. Mid to late fall is also ideal tree and shrubbery time, especially once the leaves fall off (no leaves = far less stress). Come spring your fall-dug plants will be better rooted while likely flowering sooner than if you planted them in the spring.
7 Reasons Not to Clean Up Your Fall Garden
Get Year-Round Good Looks With Matrix Gardening
Why Fall is the Best Time for Planting
10 Native Flowers to Beautify Your Winter Garden
Benjamin Vogt's thoughts on prairie gardening in Nebraska. With a healthy dose of landscape ethics, ecophilosophy, climate change, and social justice.
In a time of climate change and mass extinction how & for whom we garden matters more than ever.
"This book is about so much more than gardening."