John Peter Thompson grew up in the nursery business and is now president and chairman of Behnke's, a large Maryland nursery, so when he talks about the history of gardening, I'm listening. But he's also an ex-hippie and the title of his recent talk at the nursery was "The Culture of Invasive Plants," so gardeners, beware!
During Thompson's fascinating one-hour talk I learned that the history of gardening in Western culture is all about dominating nature and creating an enclosed space that's safe from the evils of the wild. From the tightly wound knot gardens of Medieval monks to Suliman the Turk's walled gardens to Versailles, the slides on the screen were a parade of horrors and any viewer would have to admit that gardeners through the ages have been a pretty tight-assed bunch. And it only gets worse. Another feature of gardening history has been its purpose of flaunting wealth and power, as evidenced by English estate gardens. Who else but the superrich could maintain those parterres, fountains and great lawns? Even on a smaller scale, English cottage gardens are a helluva lot of work to keep up. (And though not mentioned, Japanese gardens are also extremely high maintenance, so shouldn't these criticisms be leveled equally against all gardening cultures and not restricted to those in the West? Just a thought.)
Next let's add good 'ole capitalism to the mix. Thompson asserts that most landscaping, such as it is, is installed to increase the value of our homes, so no wonder it consists mainly of lining up green things along the foundation and spreading a toxic greensward across the front. Then gardeners are encouraged by the industry to lust after newness - the latest exotic discovery, the latest horticultural product. And Thompson described that lust as "me, me, me, and my, my, my." So by the time that some famously bad actors in the plant world were exhibited on the screen, even the ones brought to this country for purposes other than gardening, (erosion control in the case of kudzu), we nature-lover/gardeners in the audience were starting to feel pretty bad about ourselves. The term "self-hating gardener" might even apply.
Which certainly leads me to wonder what gives with this nurseryman who's making me feel guilty about being his customer. Seriously, I know that Behnke's almost went bankrupt two years ago and now I'm wondering if this anti-gardening campaign by its owner is a factor in its struggles. And even more interesting is his involvement on the Maryland Invasive Species Council representing the nursery industry and his membership on a similar federal body representing only himself. I'm curious as hell about his relations with the rest of his industry, most of whom presumably want to stay in business, but I digress.
Thompson next turned to the commonly suggested alternative to destructive plants - natives - and once again I'm listening closely because he's no wild-eyed environmental theorist; he's a knowledgeable gardener. And the disappointing reality is that very few natives do very well as garden plants. Why? For starters, very few of them tolerate being moved, much less the harsh treatment that plants receive in the nursery business. Soils in this area are no longer right for native plants, since the pH was altered for farming. Native plants are vulnerable nowadays to imported diseases. And big surprise here, he said that earthworms contribute to the problem, calling them invasive destroyers of native plants. (Amy, weigh in here!)
Conversely, imported plants, especially those from Asia, like the amended soil and are immune to many pests and diseases. We use nonnatives because they're cheap, drought-tolerant, tough, grow anywhere, and are easy to care for. Apparently the term "they do well here" is often used to describe nonnatives, and Thompson invited his audience to share his disapproval of this attitude. He described the "inherent conflict for gardeners" as the fact that plants that "do well" are more likely to do too well if they find their way into natural areas, out-competing native plants and changing ecosystems for the worse. A photo very similar to this one was exhibited as the "ultimate noninvasive garden" and left on the screen throughout the Q&A session. Was this meant as another slap on the wrist - bad gardener - or a bleak prediction of the future of gardening? I'm genuinely clueless.
So at the completion of this horrifying recitation of damage
caused my gardening, Susie Sunshine here asked, "So, John Peter, your
talk was so compelling; now what kind of plants do you suggest we
grow?" You know, very solution-oriented, seeking answers from the
great environmentalist-gardener. There were two mumbled answers. One,
to cite a native plant installation in the Annapolis area which "the
public doesn't like." Bad public! And upon seeing my disappointment,
he suggested that the garden writer Colston Burrell had some
interesting thoughts on the subject, but offered no hints about what
Readers, help me out here because I'm genuinely bewildered by
this man's message. I even scrutinized the hand-outs in search of
answers and I thought I found some promising ideas in one called "Using
Beneficial Plants" produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's
Chesapeake Bay Office. Beneficial plants are those that "require
minimal maintenance because they're well adapted to local climate and
soil types." They include native plants and the "many horticultural
varieties and imported plants that are also deemed beneficial if they
have few maintenance requirements and are not invasive. Invasives are
a small percentage of those introduced species that have become
extremely aggressive. Even some native plants can become undesireable
because of their invasiveness." So reasonable, so refreshingly
nondoctrinaire. However, the only beneficial plants actually named in
the brochure were the usual very short list of native plants in this
area. So, still in my problem-solving mode, I asked Thompson in a
follow-up conversation where I could find a list of nonnative
beneficial plants and his reply was that nonnatives could be neutral
but they were never beneficial, "although I shouldn't say that because
that's what I sell." I really admire the guy, but it sounds like he
has trouble sleeping at night.
I remain confused as hell but unshaken in my belief that
gardening can be not only unharmful but actually beneficial to the
environment. After all, most gardens are created on suburban and urban
lots that were completely nature-less except for a swath of grass and a
shrub or two. Hardly a "natural" situation, which is in my opinion the
primary reason that native plants don't "do well" in our gardens.
(Especially in my area, most native plants are woodland plants, so why
we expect them to flourish around our homes is a mystery.) Looking at
the hundreds of varieties of plants in my garden and the abundant
wildlife attracted to them, I feel certain that my garden is more
helpful than harmful.
And my message to nurserymen who do want to stay in business is to get really good at producing beneficial plants for today's environmentally conscious gardeners. If they're natives, well and good, but more likely they'll be tough cultivars of natives and tough imports from climates and conditions similar to our gardens. They may be sterile cousins of aggressive spreaders. I sure don't know all the answers but guys, it's your business to lose so get to work.