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The Wrong Way to Teach Eco-Friendly Gardening

Jeanne LaBore17 comments334 views
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I recently attended a “Green Yards and Gardens” talk in my town. The intern giving the talk was more knowledgeable than I expected, but the topics covered were no surprise: natives, invasives, pesticides, composting, and rain barrels, the usual bullet points. Afterward I asked some attendees I knew how they liked the talk and wasn’t surprised by their disappointment: “We thought we’d learn to garden.”

Lecturing people about what NOT to do resonates with some – the already eco-minded – but fails to excite people about gardening or show them how to succeed at it.

I’ve come to believe that turning people into gardeners should be the number one goal of all communications about eco-friendly or sustainable gardening. Sure, mention at the end of the talk or article the practices they should avoid, but focusing on the negatives is just counterproductive. I’ve noticed this misguided approach over the years and a quick survey reveals that it’s as prominent as ever.

For example, a county in California recommends natives, IPM, drip irrigation, mulch and of all things, double-digging.

Perhaps the worst advice I found in my survey was Mother Earth News’ Eco-Friendly Gardening Tips, which directs readers to use natural sealants, fire pits, insect hotels, upcycling wood pallets into furniture and choosing hardwood over softwood furniture. Hey, where’s the gardening?

What a ridiculous tagline.

In recommending native plants, exaggerated claims about them are so common it’s hard to find any that that would stand up to scrutiny. For example, Treehugger says, “Already adapted to local conditions, native plants are easy to grow and maintain, generally requiring less fertilizer and water, as well as less effort to rein in pests.” This common argument sounds about right, until it’s pointed out that “local conditions” are so often nothing like the conditions native plants are actually adapted to. The “generally less water” is probably true of desert natives, but often this overgeneralization leads to native-plant abuse. And it’s misleading if not downright dishonest to say natives are more resistant to pests, when that’s true for native pests only, not the nonnative ones destroying elms and hemlocks.

So it’s exasperating to read this from Better Homes and Gardens: “Plant Natives. Plants that are indigenous to your region are called natives. These plants take less work, usually require less water, and thrive better than other perennials because they are already suited to your climate, rainfall, and soil types.”

At least Penn State’s push for native plants, above, employs the more honest “may include.”

But no matter how nuanced the promotion of natives may be, telling newbie gardeners to select only from the limited selection of natives on the market is a recipe for failure and disappointment. Most people just want a pretty garden, so why not help them achieve that – in a way that helps the environment?

And really, why not appeal to our innate attraction to beauty? On the contrary, beauty is increasingly under attack in eco-conscious writing.

For a change of perspective, let’s go to the U.K., where there’s a strong culture of gardening. The Telegraph’s  five “Tips for an Eco-Friendly Garden” include growing your own food and composting but the number 1 tip is: “Make the garden fabulous so that you don’t go out and spend money and energy elsewhere. Measure days you spend in the garden and incentivise yourself to do more there.” And number 5 is: “Keep yourself fit and happy. Get a step counter and check that you do 10,000 steps a day… Watch your steps soar as you spend more time in the garden.”

How different must attitudes be for being fit and having a “fabulous” garden to be considered eco-friendly steps!

Which leads right into the tips I’d give if I were a tip-giving sort. Like that English writer, my number one goal would be to turn readers into people who love growing plants:

  • Make your garden gorgeous to YOU, using plants you love and that grow well in your area. I’d show examples of inspirational gardens and describe how to get started creating one of your own – by making borders, including paths, etc.
  • Plant more plants, especially large, deep-rooted ones.
  • For wildlife, include a diversity of plants in your garden, and a water source, too.
  • And a tip I saw nowhere in my research may be THE most impactful change the public could make in their yard – switching to low-maintenance, low-input lawn care (see Cornell).

Yet if lawn is mentioned at all, it’s to say get rid of it! Better Homes and Gardens’ advice is typical lawn-shaming: 

Lose Your Lawn (or part of it). A gorgeous, green, and weed-free lawn uses a lot of resources. Water and fertilizer are needed to keep most lawns looking in top shape. You can have a more sustainable lawn by reducing the area planted in grass and replacing it with easy-care perennial ornamental grasses, low-growing shrubs, or groundcovers.

I’d posit that a “sustainable lawn” isn’t the same-old, high-input lawn but a bit less of it.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on April 21, 2017 at 8:05 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.


  1. Though some of the “don’ts” are freeing. I was intimidated by the rose spraying schedule I was told to follow years ago. It feel great not to do anything. I also think a simple prescription of “First, do no harm” goes a long way.

  2. Yes I forgot to mention that uncomplicating the whole topic for beginners would be good, too. Make it easier by telling them to skip the products and just buy as many good plants as they can. Susan

  3. Beauty for whom is what I ask. It’s not an attack, it’s asking us to think more critically — especially in a time of mass extinction and climate change. If we garden solely or primarily for our sense of beauty, for the pleasure of one species, does it exclude what other species find beautiful? And I agree that the “use native plants” mantra is too general and vague — it’s about using the right plant for the right place, and hopefully it’s a plant all sorts of local wildlife can use at various life stages.

  4. The best, simple gardening advice I’ve heard in years: “Make the garden fabulous so that you don’t go out and spend money and energy elsewhere.” Thanks for a great rant, Susan.

  5. My yard is mostly “native”. The few “exotics” that I do have are the ones that have survived in spite of minimal attention. Almost all of my native plants have been much more tolerant of my laid back gardening style. Plus, the wildlife that they draw in is remarkable (delightful and delovely).

  6. My most wildlife friendly shrub is not native: Cherry laurel (prunus laurocerasus) ‘Otto Luyken.’ It draws bees when it blooms at least once a year; catbirds when it fruits; even Eastern tent caterpillars that fed a nest of robins. The catbirds nest deep within it every year. I have rather a lot of Ottos, and the wildlife they attract are a source of endless amusement.

  7. While I appreciate the sentiment behind the article, I take exception to your taking exception with the descriptions of native plants. I couldn’t find a single point that didn’t ring true. Given a native and a non native plant suited to similar ecotypes, you will be hard pressed to find the non native that beat the native in any one category, let alone all.

  8. That’s just not accurate. Studies have shown that native plants in garden conditions require as much care, water and nutrients as any garden plants. This native plant thing is largely mythology.

  9. Thanks for a great post/rant! So many articles merely are repeating ‘old’ news that we have found to be incorrect. Your citation of the benefits of native plants is case in point. Ditto the comment directly above mine about eco-friendly lawn grasses. We need not to paint with such a broad brush and tell people DO NATIVES. We need to educate what natives DO and why they are good, and exactly when and where in a particular landscape they are well-suited. Some native plants will become weedy messes and a maintenance nightmare in a small residential situation… particularly if they are happy.

  10. If the only goal of gardening is to create a collection of botanical knick knacks, I would agree with you, Susan. But why not nudge gardeners towards a much more rewarding connection with the environment? The birds, bees, and butterflies that are much more successfully attracted by native plants should obviously be considered part of the garden and appreciated for the jewels that they are. To create gardens that are not only attractive but that are refugia for species driven out by cities, suburbs, and farms, seems like one of the loftiest goals a gardener could aspire to.

  11. Hear! Hear! And while you are trying to save the birdies and butterflies, don’t forget that habitat destruction doesn’t just mean paving over paradise. It means planting things from Japan, New Zealand and South Africa that they or their preferred meals (in the case of birds; insects – preferably caterpillars) don’t exactly know what to do with. Doug Tallamy should weigh in on the ‘plants as tchotchkes’ debate.

  12. A garden is a man made thing in a man created environment. Gardens are not nature. They are primarily a creative human pursuit. And the wildlife comes weather your plants are from Oklahoma or Japan. I’ve never heard of a sterile garden.

  13. Well, just because the wildlife comes, doesn’t mean the “fruits” of which they are partaking are nutritious. Sure, birds love Japanese barberries, but did you see which birds are the ones hitting the shrubs? I’ve only observed house sparrows eating from barberries and house sparrows are an introduced (problem) bird. Sometimes the introduced plants we think wildlife love are actually nutritious disasters: it’s like planting a donut tree versus an apple tree. You can bet more people would be stealing your donuts, but the donuts would not be good for them. Butterfly bushes are hit hard by winged insects, but they are not a good choice for caterpillars. For every butterfly you’ve seen, how many caterpillars died in the fight for survival? By favoring butterflies over caterpillars, we may be reducing the number of butterflies over time as the few caterpillars left are all picked off by voracious birds and other insects. Without the caterpillars, there will be fewer individuals of some birds. We need to think outside of the box that because we see some thing feeding at a plant, that means it’s a good plant. What if there is nothing else around for the critter to eat, so we think they prefer to eat there, but as a last resort, that plant did no good?

  14. There is no sharp line between a meadow planted by humans and one that developed without human assistance. A species planted by a human will be just as likely to attract, or not attract, birds and bees, as that species grown from a seed carried on the wind. My point is that all plant species are not equally sought after by wildlife and your best chance of supporting other species is to provide plants from your own region; not ones that have been uprooted from ecosystems on the other side of the planet. For those gardeners that are interested in gardens accented with wildlife, gardens that make a difference to other species, gardens that are lively participants in ecological processes, selecting plant species from the palette of native regional species is the most direct route. See Doug Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home” for a popular discussion of the comparative value of native vs. exotic species. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it has the same ecological value.

  15. Couldn’t agree more with this rant. I have a VERY small garden. Every plant has to perform. I have found that non-natives perform every bit as well as natives, if not better….less disease, less insect damage. Yes, they were properly sited, planted, etc. There are gardeners out there who will buy plants and shrubs and will be thrilled to see them devoured by local insects for all the right reasons. Most, I dare say, will find themselves grabbing the insecticide and fungicide to save their investment. No amount preaching, teaching, brow-beating or nudging will change this. I have pulled out many, but not all, of my natives, because I DIDN’T want to spray.

  16. yes! After 40 years of gardening, I learned the hard way that while many natives do well and are appropriate in the large landscapes (prairies, savannas, woodlands) where they’re indigenous, my backyard is a poor synonym. Some are not as robust as their cultivated varieties, and others become down right bullies in a cultivated environment. I have been moving toward a more balanced collection of native cultivars and exotics. The birds and bees are happy and so am I

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