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Evil, Frivolous Gardener!!!

Evil, Frivolous Gardener!!!

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

    • Vincent Vizachero
    • 27th September 2016

    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.

    • skr
    • 10th November 2016

    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.

    • skr
    • 12th December 2016

    oh please, all you do is preach garden xenophobia and moral outrage against anyone that disagrees with your plant nativism.

    • Ivette Soler
    • 15th December 2016

    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!!!

    • skr
    • 17th December 2016

    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.

    • Ivette Soler
    • 17th December 2016

    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!!!

    • admin
    • 17th December 2016

    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.

    • Ivette Soler
    • 17th December 2016

    Thanks, Carolyn! If we would substitute any specific race of human for the exotic species in question when having a dialog like this, I wonder if the natives-only activists would be so quick to draw such hard lines. The same thoughts are used to exclude people from other cultures because they are “over-breeding”, “didn’t come from here” (who of us did, really?), “are taking over”…
    I don’t know, once you see what simple language does it puts things in a very different light, I think!

    • Mary McAllister
    • 17th December 2016

    Thanks for your spirited defense of freedom in our gardens to plant as we wish to satisfy our own aesthetic preferences. I’m also a California gardener, so I share your desire for a garden that is pretty during the summer when most native plants are dormant and brown.

    • skr
    • 18th December 2016

    you seem to assume that she is using plants that aren’t drought tolerant. there are plenty of exotics that are very drought tolerant and grow quite well in Southern California such as plants from Australia and the Western Cape.

    • Mary McAllister
    • 18th December 2016

    Most native plants in California must be irrigated half the year, during our dry season, unless you are satisfied with a brown garden of dead-looking plants. In California, it is a fiction that native plants are drought tolerant.

    • Ivette Soler
    • 18th December 2016

    Like a couple of my friends here have said, natives need water. Part of the reason people dislike native gardens here in So Cal is because they have been told native plants need no supplemental irrigation, and that is wrong. I rip out lawns as often as I can, and design drought tolerant gardens without thirsty plants as the backbone of my practice. ALL new plantings need irrigation in Southern California – we don’t get measurable rain for months on end. I’d like people who are used to a lush native palette made possible by frequent rain make do with what we have! (how mean of me!!!) When it comes down to it, you are very right, but of course your words are totally not news to me.

    • Kris Peterson
    • 18th December 2016

    Based on the comments above, it seems that the argument on this subject will probably never end. As another southern California gardener, I fall into the pretty does not mean irresponsible camp. Water restrictions control our choices more and more but, keeping those in mind, there are still a lot of choices among non-native, non-invasive plants well adapted to our climate. And how does climate change itself factor into the mix here? Is it really safe to assume that plants that thrived in this area of the world hundreds of years ago will still thrive as climate change inexorably proceeds? We all need to adapt.

    • skr
    • 18th December 2016

    A very good point. Let’s hear it for assisted migration.

    • skr
    • 18th December 2016

    I think you miht want to follow up on the Tallamy research. The most recent data refutes many of the arguments in his book about insect habitat.

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