So I have this native plant collection.
Seriously. I did a count t’other day, and there’s over a hundred different natives that I put in the ground, and that’s different species and doesn’t even include all the different variations (I hit a big plant sale late last autumn when they had a LOT of asters half-price, and now there’s a large section that’s solid aster cultivars. Haven’t a clue what it’ll look like next fall, but here’s hoping…)
And those were just the ones that are still alive.
From this you can assume that I’ve got A) a large yard and B) sufficient disposable income to satisfy a rather obscure hobby. It’s actually not that spendy, particularly when nice people at the arboretum learn of your passion and are happy to dump random plants on you, or if you haunt a lot of end-of-season sales, but yes, this is indeed my primary hobby. Not that you could have guessed or anything…
As a result, my garden is exactly the sort of garden we are told by designers absolutely not to have—the plant “collection” where there’s one of everything and nothing is related. If I am feeling self-justification-y, I will plead that this is in the spirit of research as I am still new to gardening in the Southeast and if something does very well, I go out and buy five more, as in my mountain mint planting or all that Husker Red penstemon and swamp-milkweed, and two black-eyed-susans going full-throttle are definitely not a “specimen planting,” and anyway, one bee-balm turns into EIGHTY FREAKIN’ MILLION given thirty seconds and a little rain, so it’s a mass planting NOW and…um…what was I talking about?
Right. Garden design, don’t have a plant collection, whatever. Those people can bite me. The chief function of the garden, as Henry Mitchell once wrote, is to bring delight to the gardener. My collection brings me incessant delight. I can kill an hour in early spring just wandering around checking on plants. If you want to show up and complain that it looks like a patchwork quilt designed by a blind man on LSD, that’s your prerogative, but I will have words, probably starting with “No, really, do I know you and how did you find out where I live, anyway?”
Anyway. Right. Native plants. I collect them. Some people do commemorative spoons or Star Trek plates, I do native plants. They don’t have to be pretty. They honestly don’t even have to be useful–closed bottle gentian’s an awesomely weird little plant, and as far as I know, hosts no specific bug, has no useful properties, and the poor thing’s endangered and threatened in a lot of places to boot, so obviously I HAD to grow it.*
However, I read yet another garden blog today that reported “push-back against native-plant purists,” and wondered yet again who the heck these purist people are. I have had readers tell me they exist, that they occasionally button-hole nursery owners and lecture them, and I have absolutely no reason to doubt these reports, so clearly there are some weird native-plant trolls out there.
So let me just state the following, for the record, lest anyone assume that I am among their number—and honestly, given the number of times I talk and rhapsodize about native plants, I can sorta see how you got there, and anybody who plants a hundred of ANYTHING is probably suspect.
I have no problem with most non-native plants. I am all for them. What Sara Stein called “well-behaved immigrants” are welcome in my garden any day of the week. I have a fair number of non-natives, including Walker’s Low Catmint, Jerusalem Sage, Autumn Fire Sedum, calamint, pineapple sage, all those wonderful Agastaches and pretty much my entire vegetable garden, and we’ve already talked about my little Salvia problem. The aforementioned catalog of my garden turned up thirty-odd non-natives I’ve planted, and I’ve got at least that many that are only what I call native-ish—i.e. they’re from somewhere within driving distance. Texas and Florida has some awfully neat stuff in it, and if it’ll grow here, fantastic.
I do not expect everyone to share my deranged passion for natives. As far as I’m concerned most plants are better than no plants whatsoever. If you want to grow nothing but azaleas and boxwood, it is no skin off my teeth. No, I don’t think it’s very exciting, no, it doesn’t do a lot of ecological heavy lifting, but it’s also not hurting anything, and some generalist bugs are still going to benefit, so that’s a net win, as far as I’m concerned.
Yes, it would be nice if we had more native plant options. Some native plants really do a lot more ecological heavy lifting on the bug front than any non-native ever could. And even a couple of native plants in a garden is better than none, and I think if every gardener put in just one or two native plants, it would be awesome, and it might make some bugs very happy. That’s really all I ask there. I don’t expect everybody to take up a plant collection like mine, I don’t expect people to get terribly excited by little plastic pots of American Mandrake or Mountain Dog-hobble or Rattlesnake-Master (although hey, are those great names or what?) And almost any plant is better than no plant at all, as far as bugs are concerned.
Even azaleas and boxwoods beat the hell out of concrete.
Where I draw the line is when people plant thugs. If I have to spend hours of my gardening time wrenching out the spawn of something you planted, this makes me a trifle grumpy. I would much rather be sipping a mint julep and reading inspirational literature to my closed bottle gentian than spending the day yanking Himalayan blackberry runners and swearing every time a thorn goes through my goat-hide gloves.**
And let’s not even talk about the Screaming Buttweed (aka Japanese honeysuckle.) We hates it, Baggins, we hates it forever.
I do not feel this is an unreasonable point of view. Don’t plant things that make life harder for other people. (Bamboo, I am looking in your direction!) And I realize that people get very upset when they find out that a plant they really like is a thug, and frequently they get defensive about it, because there’s often a very sentimental component to gardening, and thus there is a tendency to start arguing that people are just purists who don’t want ANYBODY to have nice plants. Hey, my Grandma planted Japanese honeysuckle, I know how it goes! But my emotional response doesn’t give me the right to make life harder for all the neighbors around me, or for the poor Forest Service, who is already spending a truly obscene portion of their budget trying to get rid of some of this stuff.
I have heard from readers who would like to garden, but are in a sea of goutweed or ivy or bamboo coming in from the other yards and have thrown up their hands in despair. I think this is very sad. I don’t think it’s kind to do this to your neighbors, but I understand that some people don’t realize that they are being horticulturally unkind by doing so, which is why you have read this same speech from me, in variation, about fifty times now, and will probably continue to do so every time I have to spend a week tearing out buttweed.***
So. To sum up, because as usual that got way long:
Native plants good!
Well-behaved non-native plants also pretty good!
Really, that’s all.
*If you understood this justification, you are either a gardener or a collector of something.
**Whenever I read somebody dismissing invasive plants as no big deal or overblown or whatever, I just want to invite them to my garden in early spring, when the Himalayan blackberry and the honeysuckle are both going at once. I can only assume that they do not garden in the sub-tropical Southeast and thus have not actually encountered invasive plants on the scale that some of us live with. Presumably a good multiflora rose thicket would have a similar educational effect.
***Honestly, if I had goutweed, I might just napalm the whole place down to bedrock. It’s the only way to be sure.