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This is the dominant native plant community in Southern California. It is beautiful, but it is not a garden.

I am ruining the world.

Because I like pretty plants.

Because I practice the dubious art of ornamental gardening.

Yes – I admit it. I have planted non-native exotic species in my garden. I have planted them in gardens of others. I am one of those thoughtless, arrogant gardeners who have a palette that includes plants other than those native to my immediate environs. So, obviously – I SUCK.

I’m wary of invasive plant species. I don’t use plants that are known to be invasive in my area. I’m careful when choosing plants and always consider the specific environmental conditions I am working with when making decisions about what to plant. But sometimes, in the real world, things are not as easy as reading a list and then NEVER using anything that is on said list. More often than not, things are more subtle and more complicated than the simple black and white of “good plant” vs “bad plant”.

There are those who fervently believe that using any plant that wasn’t here before European settlement is BAD. I am not one of those people. I think horticultural xenophobia is as narrow-minded as plain old garden-variety cultural xenophobia (haha – see what I did there? Word tricks!) The responsible use of well-adapted exotics in gardens is a craft that I have worked long and hard to hone, and being able to have a large palette of plants to choose from keeps me flexible and my gardens suitable to the lifestyles of my clients. I try to educate as much as I can, but in the end it is my job to design gardens that look fantastic during the seasons my clients are outside grilling, swimming, playing croquet – what have you. In my particular climate, native plants largely go dormant in the summer. How would you like a landscape that looks lush during winter rains while you are cuddled up inside by a roaring fire, and is brown and crispy when you want to be outside enjoying the blue skies, the fresh air, and a beautiful garden.

Also, what about growing food? To use native plants exclusively limits edible gardening to a degree that I find unacceptable.

I don’t believe in hard fast lines. Don’t get me wrong, I use many native plants in my landscapes, but to limit myself to an exclusively native palette would, for me, be a futile exercise. I just don’t believe that we can recreate a pre-colonization ecosystem. I believe that creating responsible gardens is about making a better world moving forward, rather than trying to recapture some romantic notion of what we think things were before we screwed it all up. Yeah, sure, we’ve screwed up plenty – but making gardens is not a destructive impulse, it is a creative one – one that speaks to hope for the future. We have the advantage of more knowledge about how to garden ethically and responsibly, so please let me use that knowledge and don’t limit me to the restrictive plant palette that fits a narrow idea of what is “correct”. I think anyone who wants to garden exclusively with natives should go right ahead, but don’t get in my way, thank you very much.

I’m not looking to turn back time, I’m looking forward to a world gardened organically, thoughtfully, beautifully, enthusiastically, with both arms opened wide to embrace every beautiful, suitable plant that tickles my fancy. Doesn’t that sound awesome?

I can’t WAIT!!! (BWA HA HA ha ha ha ha!!!)

*rubbing together evil exotic gardener hands, one eyebrow arched, with a knowing smirk on my lips*

Posted by

Ivette Soler
on November 27, 2013 at 1:07 am, in the category Everybody’s a Critic, It’s the Plants, Darling, Real Gardens.

15 Comments

  1. Point well taken: not everyone can master the art of design so well that they can work solely in the palette of native plants and not every client values ecological function over aesthetic function.

  2. I could rewrite that as, “not everyone can master the art of design so well that they can work solely in a palette of blue.” Yeah, even Picasso got tired of a limited palette. Just because someone rejects your arbitrary limits doesn’t mean they haven’t mastered the art of design.

  3. Wow. That’s beyond snark. That’s just plain petty. Step outside the box, man. Just because one wants to see a non-native camellia/fruit tree/whatever in his/her yard, it doesn’t mean one lacks vision or knowledge of design. It means they have different preferences or goals for their gardening. If it isn’t harming the ecology, leave it be.

  4. Thank you, Ivette!! I completely agree with you on this. It’s how I garden myself. I too am so tired of the gardening xenophobia and native plant tyranny. I believe that if you do it responsibly (and I think that most, if not all, serious gardeners are responsible people), there’s room for both plant groups. Having said that, however, I will also make the point that in some instances what you plant needs to be determined by where you live. For instance, I want to dope-slap people who move to the desert in Arizona and plant an English cottage garden. That’s just ridiculous. But by and large, you should be able to plant what makes you happy. I for one would be pretty unhappy if we were restricted solely to native, pre-colonial plants. In fact, I’d be so honked off I’d probably quit gardening altogether…..

  5. The point of a native plant garden is not to return to some pre-colonial nostalgia orgy dream of native plants; I kinda get tired of that limited critique of native plants. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to do so because we’ve so screwed up our ecosystems. I do think we have MUCH to learn about native plants, especially when I walk through other gardens, local nurseries, and big box stores. And once you begin to learn about natives, you get hooked, start thinking about larger ecosystems and the larger issues beyond our tiny world of a backyard garden. I also think we need to learn to let go when it comes to aesthetics, and adjust a bit more to local climate — which most prominently means letting lawns go dormant, and using native grass lawns which don’t green up as fast in spring. Also — how do we know when e behaved exotic will jump the fence? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. I don’t preach garden xenophobia, but we have a hell of a ways to go to even understanding native plants, knowing they exist, which ones to use, seeing them in stores, and thinking about gardening as something beyond just for ourselves (especially as pollinator numbers dwindle).

  6. Hi Benjamin I’m so glad you chimed in! I love our discussions. You point out that we have to loosen up our aesthetics in service of our climate ecology – and I guess I come from the place that there ARE no aesthetics without first working within the confines of your climate and the ecology of your region. But to me that means using aloes from South Africa, phormiums from New Zealand, herbs native to the Mediterranean, many locally grown and very well adapted. I also love my agaves from Mexico and many native and cultivated species from the desert southwest. My gardens have to be extremely drought tolerant AND look fantastic. I agree with you on many points, but the strict use of natives is where we diverge. I want to have the freedom to use any plant that works well- I need that playfulness. But as someone with a conscience, I am always ready to pull back and get rid of an important plant to me if it proves itself bad under my specific working conditions. To me, every site has a different set of rules, and to limit the possibilities in service of what almost feels like a political agenda goes against my nature. But I’m always happy to listen and talk things out – until things get stoopid!!!

  7. Nature as a garden maker is at a distinct disadvantage when compared to the human garden maker because the scale of the projects are so vastly different. If you take a plot of land in nature comparable in size to the typical human scale urban/suburban garden, nature’s plant palette is going to be very limited. When a plant species finds itself in a suitable environmental niche it does its best to fill it completely. Nature plants in large drifts over large spaces. To the human eye that seems stingy and not a garden. You have to zoom out to the much bigger environment to find the plant diversity and design principles that gardeners and garden designers want to fit in a human scale garden.

  8. I’m guessing you haven’t had some plant nativist go off on you for using Nassela tennuissima because it’s invasive and not native enough as in within 20 miles of the site.

  9. You seem to have a very broad definition of what it native. If I go by your playbook, well – ANY plant is native to SOMEWHERE. Most native advocates maintain strict proximity standards, a radius of 20-50 miles, etc…
    I really like your point about nature gardening in broad strokes, and that we have to pull back to appreciate it… that was lovely. Yes, we who garden on human scale may only see a monoculture, but I think that is telling. A monoculture also encourages things that work against habitation – fires, large scale die-offs – these are part of how nature works and has always worked, but it doesn’t work for inhabited space. To cultivate is part of our collaboration with nature. I don’t think it has to be an either/or proposition. To cultivate using only the palette given to me in one small region seems artificially constrained, especially if we are collaborating with nature, who works on a bigger scale, as you said. In many ways what you said made me even MORE happy that I use a broader palette – it is my way to be in conversation with a divine spirit. Thank you for your comment!!!

  10. We ourselves are an exotic invasive species. Humans are native only to a small part of Africa. The first Americans came in from Asia via Alaska–and they probably brought some plant seeds with them, if only by accident.

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