Native Plants Part 3: Landscape design should include habitat restoration

Native Northwest landscape: alpine meadow in the North Cascades. (Photo by Brandon Husby)

By James Young

Great to have received such passionate comments to Part 2 of my article on Native Plants. Not so much that they liked what I had to say but it’s great that they were thoughtful and pushed the conversation forward on what native planting is all about. Thank you, My Edmonds News readers.

Paul Spehar wrote:

“For a great example of appropriate Native plants in a garden setting, please visit the Edmonds Native Plant Demonstration Garden… created by volunteers from Edmonds Backyard Wildlife Habitat project, Pilchuck Audubon, People for Puget Sound and Washington Native Plant Society.”

Paul points out these resources for Edmonds residents looking to help restore native habitats. Emphasis on native habitats. Native habitat restoration is the core reason for ‘going native.’ It’s not because native plants are superior to immigrants in the context of urban gardens. It’s because natives are superior in supporting native ecosystems. This is an important distinction that causes confusion when discussing the merits of native plants.

Two different criteria at work

In conventional landscape design, the criteria of selecting plants for aesthetics, maintainability and performance have long been established. This criterion is revealed when we look at the most popular landscape plants — large colorful fragrant flowers, interesting colorful foliage that is resistant to bugs and other pests, year-round interest, generally smaller size, cleaner rather than messier, containing some measure of exotic character or “non-nativeness,” and sometimes a reliance on gardener input to keep the plant alive and well.

On the other hand, the reasons for planting natives can seem completely opposite from the traditional reasons of plant selection for urban gardens. The main reason to plant natives is to support native habitats, not necessarily to make a beautiful ornamental garden in the conventional sense.

By definition, a native plant must have evolved in the local ecosystem and quite unlike conventional selection criteria, must support native fauna. Yes, that means native plants must serve as a food source for the local insect population (the bottom of the food chain) in order to fulfill their essential utility.

We should not be saying native plants are better to plant because they have superior garden characteristics. If this were true, they’d all be incorporated into the landscape industry long ago. History has proven they haven’t met this criterion; they are not superior in that way.

As Rita Moore writes:

“I also agree that some immigrants are bug free but that is because nothing can eat them. This is not necessarily good feature. We need insects to feed our terrestrial birds. There is no longer enough native habitat to support our birds. Almost all nesting terrestrial birds eat insects, in their various stages, while feeding their young.”

She also recommends the book Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy citing “We need to provide more habitat in our gardens and that means more natives… insects are the bottom of the food chain… (Tallamy’s) scientific studies that show how poorly immigrant plants can be utilized by native insects.”

As Rita points out, native plants are not more bug resistant — the opposite is true. What we should be doing is educating the public that insects are part of a healthy ecosystem, some plant damage due to insect feeding is good, and native plants uniquely serve this purpose better than immigrants.

This is a more complex message that will be difficult to swallow for some conventional gardeners. For example, how many people can we convince that their tree full of tent caterpillars is not a bad thing and you should just leave them there to eat the leaves of your precious plants? You might be able to yell that to them as they’re screeching away to the big box store to buy a can of bug spray; the one marked “Kill Everything!”

That bugs can be good, in fact essential, is true but contradictory to what we’ve been taught by convention. Illuminating this truth for the general public furthers our cause in a more inspiring manner. People are more willing to change if they know the real reasons why. Warning: it will also inspire distrust of media as we’ll continue to see commercials urging us to spray insecticides of all sorts in our “war on bugs.” Some kinds of distrust are healthy though.

We need to clarify the real reasons for planting natives. It’s not because they are beauty queens with hearts of gold and a talent for singing rousing anthems with a certain purity only attained through abstention from vice and vile things. It’s more about how they silently contribute to their society — their local ecology. They mix it up with the bugs and the fungi. A native plant’s value is unseen in the work it performs for the holistic natural system. They’re more blue-collar working class, less pomp and pageantry.

A new aesthetic: Landscape design Includes habitat restoration

The future of landscape design calls for a resolution of these two differing criteria at work here — conventional landscape design criteria versus the need for habitat restoration. Where the mistake is being made is trying to shoehorn habitat restoration goals into the conventional aesthetic criteria of landscape design.

The solution is to change convention to recognize the needs of today’s landscape. A new aesthetic is needed that relies on educating people about the entire ecological life cycle of plants and animals in a truthful way.

Monica Van der Vieren writes:

“First, most of us who speak on the subject realize it is difficult to plant an urban yard entirely in natives due to size constraints and potential conflicts with utilities. We do not damn non-native plants, but recommend thoughtful selection to avoid problems…And we are plainspoken about the limitations of native plants: some are drain seekers (aspense, bigleaf maple, willows) bomb-droppers, spread like crazy in the right conditions, etc. We don’t want people using natives in their yards and getting turned off. We tell people to buy from responsible sources that don’t illegally harvest from the wild. We tell them natives now carry some imported diseases, like the white pine blister rust…”

Thank you Monica for being truthful that native plants have their limitations in the context of conventional landscape aesthetics. This was actually my point in Part 2 but I guess I didn’t say it clearly enough, what with all my thirst for a healthy smackdown. I’ll assume a more placid and responsible demeanor for this article. I agree with you 100 percent when you say: “I think the take home needs to be thoughtful balance… I’ve found our local audiences really appreciate being given some help, information, and direction to create healthy habitats…”

We need to change popular conception of how gardens should look. The conventional measure of garden aesthetics needs to be turned on its head:

  • The contribution of native plants to the ecological life cycle is good, the single-minded selection of plants for beauty alone can be bad
  • Some messiness can be good, overly clean can be bad
  • Death can be good, removing dead and dying plant parts can be bad
  • Bugs can be good, a search-and-destroy mentality can be bad
  • A better understanding of nature’s organic systems is good, relying on chemical or technological fixes can be bad.

However, you can’t just turn a long-held paradigm on its head without a good reason. You can’t encourage a new aesthetic by glossing over the reality with untruths. In this case, it’s especially important to be truthful when the new paradigm includes such distasteful notions as welcoming bugs with open arms and a big wet kiss.

The old aesthetics will not go down easily; the prime example being the all-consuming lawn that takes many resources but gives little back. For many years, various groups have been pushing to get rid of lawns and with good reason.

I can tell you from a landscape designer’s perspective, that people still love their lawns. They refuse the money and time they would save by not having to mow, thatch and edge their lawn. They ignore the storage space they would save by getting rid of all that lawn equipment. They gloss over the safety reasons – that lawn mowers lead to child and adult injuries (247,000 in 2009), mostly amputations. By the time I point out the noise and pollution they create, it all almost starts to become lost in a nostalgic haze… “oh the hum of lawn mowers and sweet smell of fresh cut grass after the gas fumes and noxious exhaust smells have faded!” Ahh, the stuff memories are made of.

After that, trying to convince people to give up lawns to support native ecology can be tougher than getting Charlie Sheen to admit he broke his brain with one too many recreational drug sessions. Lawns could be considered the national drug of choice from an ecologist’s perspective.

Regardless, we should continue pushing for our new ideals but we must first acknowledge the limitations as well.

It’s about the cycle

Gardening today should be about supporting and appreciating diverse forms of life beyond the plants, not just growing perdy flowers. A new appreciation should be cultivated for garden life from the soil itself on up to the bugs eating the leaves, to the birds who eat the bugs, and the other birds who eat the birds who eat the bugs, and then the whole mess being returned by said top-of-food-chain bird back into the garden after digestion. It’s time to start appreciating the entire cycle and not just one small part.

The entire cycle includes the poop too, you know. Experienced gardeners at least seem pretty comfortable with some types of poop, especially from herbivores. Steer manure, cow manure is pretty common. Some even become ecstatic at the thought of Woodland Park Zoo’s “Zoo-Doo,” which includes a whole diversity of beastly poo. They’ve become so ravenous about ‘Zoo-Doo’ that the Zoo had to institute a lottery system and a load limit to keep the teeming hordes from taking more than their fair share of poop, keeping the poop mongers under control. Hey, tragedy of the commons averted, y’all.

This gives me hope for appreciation of garden bugs. If gardeners can get that excited over poo, they may just become as excited about insects as well.

This Rufous Hummingbird doesn’t just drink nectar from flowers. It needs protein from eating insects to survive, especially when feeding its young. Insects support large portions of the food pyramid. In turn, native plants support herbivorous insects better than immigrants. (Photo by Brandon Husby)

Will the general public accept a diversity of life that includes insects? How about rodents, which are also a lower part of the food chain? Will leaf drop and dead plant messiness become appreciated additions to the garden or will people wax nostalgic over plastic bins full of yard “waste” at the side of the road and noisy garbage trucks passing during morning coffee? Will plant mess become chic? Will we hear people exclaim about their neighbors’ gardens “ooh, now that’s a fierce hot mess!”, or will it continue to be “when are you going to clean up that mess?”

Will the general public accept such things as animal “waste” is not waste at all but an essential part of nature’s sustainable soil cycle and learn how to compost it properly? Will humans come to realize “human waste” is not waste at all but also a part of this same cycle and learn how to compost it properly? Will that also be referred to as a “fierce hot mess!”? Will people come to realize “human waste” actually looks more like Charlie Sheen? In the entire history of humanity, really how far have we progressed when society as a whole doesn’t even know how to compost their own poop?

To save native habitats, preserve native habitats

We cannot blame immigrant plants as the cause of habitat destruction. If you really want to save native habitat, we have to get serious about preserving native habitats. We need to restore wildlife corridors to connect orphaned native habitat areas. We need to contain urban spread and integrate better transitions into wild areas where they do meet.

Let’s step back for a moment. The merits of any plant’s contribution to an ecosystem are extremely complex. Anyone can make the claim that native species supports native habitats and therefore they are a good answer as to how to restore native habitats. This is obvious.

However, this cannot be stretched to say that immigrant species are the cause of the destruction of native habitats. Why? Because it is inextricable from and insignificant in comparison to the vast habitat destruction caused by human development and resource use.

For example, how can one make the observation that invasive plants are taking over a riparian area and yet ignore the houses, farmland or industry lining the same riparian area that have cut into the vast buffer its ecosystem needs to sustain itself? In many cases, the stream has been diked, levied, and straightened or otherwise prevented from meandering. Beavers and their dams have been destroyed, and adjacent wetlands filled. How can a native ecosystem work when restricted in such a fashion by human activity? Would certain immigrant plants survive the natural flooding caused by a beaver dam, natural meanderings of the stream, an intact mature forest, or the wildlife itself?

Blaming immigrant plants is not the answer.

To preserve native habitats, we must begin to talk human population control

We must begin to realize that to preserve the world’s native habitats, you have to breach the subject of controlling global human population growth. The responsibility for saving the world’s habitats cannot be dumped so heavily on the floppy hats of the gentle gardeners of the world. Yes, continue to plant natives in our gardens and replace immigrants with natives, but that is not a cure for global habitat destruction.

The idea that adding some native plants to urban and suburban gardens will somehow make up for all the damage caused by destruction of native habitat is just bad math. At best, what we are doing is buying a little time. We are not moving forward.

Going by the math, you cannot save native habitats by replanting a small percentage of destroyed habitats back to native when the destruction of native habitats is continuing. That’s an ever-dwindling percentage. It’s not a static endpoint. Even though we may feel our suburb has been divided and that’s the end of it, it’s not. Growing population will demand more land continuously. Already urban and suburban lots are being further subdivided, urban sprawl still sprawling.

Census of remaining virgin forests in the USA. The map marked ‘Today’ actually depicts 1925, the year this map was created. Modern satellite imagery confirms the trend shown in this picture.

At worst, it is false hope that something is being accomplished when really the opposite is true. It’s about as effective as banning plastic grocery bags in some vague attempt to help save the environment. Feels good but doesn’t mean much in the context of what must be done. Perhaps it is a small step forward but we don’t need baby steps, we need big fat earth-shaking, elephant-sized steps.

Continuing population growth will overrun every native habitat in the world with demand for food, housing, transportation corridors and silly things like strip malls. As natural resources are pushed to the limit, every forest will fall to the need for fuel, every meadow to the need for pasture or cropland, every stream tapped dry for irrigation and drinking water. It’s already happening in poorer countries like Haiti and Afghanistan.

Perhaps math is out of vogue these days. It’s seems more fashionable to judge global problems by stepping outside your door and if you aren’t immediately killed upon your doorstep, everything is all right in the world.

Global population control has to be made a major topic of political discussion. To do anything else is all but guaranteeing failure, foisting our responsibilities onto our children and grandchildren with a smug “Gee, it was too hard for us, now it’s much worse for you. Good luck with that.”

There are known ways to reduce global population that are not draconian. No forced abortions are needed. No wars required. Quite the opposite. Proven methods include eliminating extreme disparities of wealth, reducing infant mortality through health care, and providing education, to women in particular. These all work and increase quality of life for everyone in the process.

These are all possible but must be implemented on a global scale. That is, if you’re serious about solving the problem.

So stop blaming the petunias already. And I don’t even like petunias, by the way.

James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscapes in Edmonds.

  1. I was with you until you started talking about the need to control population growth. The United States consumes 25% of the world’s resources. So one American consumes the same amount of natural resources consumed by 25 people in any other country in the world. It is imperative that we continue to look at what we can do IN OUR OWN BACKYARDS.

    This also applies to the decimation of natural resources in our own backyards. I and my neighbors have been involved in fighting development on a, previously, beautiful isolated wetland in our neighborhood for over six years. The developer was able to vest under the old Critical Areas Ordinance, because the former Mayor and former city attorney delayed publishing the CAO (see for information about this). This wetland once provided habitat for up to a dozen ducks, raccoons, mountain beavers, birds, and thousands of insects and fungi.

    My point is that resources continue to be consumed at an alarming rate by Americans. Habitat for native plants and animals continues to be destroyed at an alarming rate. All of this continues to happen IN OUR OWN BACKYARDS. Turning this issue into an issue of global population growth serves no purpose. In fact, it serves only to punt responsibility for the problem elsewhere.

    We all need to take responsibility for our resource consuming actions. A discussion on population growth will not move us in that direction.

  2. Joan – you say “I was with you until you started talking about the need to control population growth. The United States consumes 25% of the world’s resources. So one American consumes the same amount of natural resources consumed by 25 people…”

    I do not know if we consume 25% of the world’s resources (it would not surprise me) but that would mean we each consume as much as 4 other people not 25.

  3. Sure we need native plants to support insects and therefore higher organisms but which plants, which insects? You have to give people specifics, something they can name to create a more effective message. Around Vancouver we could point to some specific butterfly/moth plant relationships: no willows – no mourning cloaks and fewer Lorquin’s admirals and western tiger swallowtails, no salal – fewer grey hairstreaks, no red alders – no pale tiger swallowtails and fewer of over 100 species of moths. That’s a vital food supply for breeding warblers and other migrating birds. It’s a simple message.

  4. Hi Joan,

    Thanks for your comment. You are right that the amount of resources the US uses is extremely high per capita. I’m not saying that isn’t also one of the many problems we face. It is not, however, the answer to stop habitat destruction because the continued growth in population will create a need for more resources beyond sustainable levels even if you could shrink our energy use to minimal levels.

    We could certainly buy more time to solve the population problem by using less energy and we are certainly starting to confront that today with rising energy prices. However, we must start talking about population control with intelligent science based, non-draconian methods (that also increase quality of life in the process), if we want a long term solution to Habitat destruction.

    History has shown that poverty, lack of food, or minimal use of energy does not stop population from growing and demanding more and more until catastrophe comes in to thin out the suffering hordes. I would recommend avoiding that but we must first breach the subject that many people, like yourself, are loath to do. We must do it, or precious lands like your wetland will continue to be plowed under.

    Perhaps you could talk about why population control is so distasteful to you. I’m not talking about draconian methods of population control, you know.

  5. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for your comment. I purposely avoided too many details and definitely believe many environmental groups over the past many years have made a big mistake by trying boil a very complex problem like habitat destruction down into a simple message.

    The problems with simple messages is they make a complex problem appear to have simple answers. If you change habitat preservation into butterfly preservation you open huge holes in your argument through which skeptics can drive their metaphorical bulldozers right thru.

    A simplified message, by definition, leaves some info out. Skeptics will use that to point out the inaccuracies in the message and they will be right, thereby destroying our credibility when in fact we were only trying to simplify for a neophyte audience.

    If you say plant willows, alders, and salal to save the butterflies, some people will do that and the result is they will have NOT solved the problem of HABITAT destruction but think they did. Developers will claim they saved habitats because after knocking down a whole diverse ecology that includes more distasteful, yet necessary, bugs, like beetles and flies and thousands of other lesser knowns, they will plant a few willows, alders, and salal, and then claim they saved the butterflies and people will think they have contributed to saving habitats when the opposite is true.

    The World Wildlife Fund has a panda as its mascot. The panda is going extinct because of habitat destruction. What is the result? Many biologists are trying to save the panda by studying their biology and trying to introduce breeding programs. They are so focused on saving the Panda that they have forgotten the real problem is habitat destruction. Even if they succeed in increasing the panda population, they will have failed because the panda’s native habitat is going, going….

    A while back we had the ‘spotted owl debate’ about logging our forests. Someone thought it was a good idea to use the spotted owl as a mascot to represent the whole ecosystem. That turned the debate into spotted owl needs vs. human needs. This kind of argument is wrong and inaccurate but nevertheless works in favor of the skeptics. Many people still don’t understand it wasn’t about the spotted owl at all per se but the whole ecosystem it represented. The whole ecosystem represents us but that is lost in the simplification.

    Simple messages will not do it. It is better to go with the real deal and demand that those who don’t understand, ask questions and school themselves. Political discourse today is full of simplistic and ultimately wrong conceptions. Part 2 and Part 3 of my article were in large part all about oversimplification. We don’t need more of that.

    If you do want to get into the minutiae of all the details, I (and Rita Moore) do suggest you start with the book mentioned in the article: Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy. In that book is much more info on many of the most common insects and their associated host plants. You can also look up Tallamy’s resources online with a Google search if you want to research further – but that’s too much info to pack into the article and only muddies the message, making it more difficult to digest and comprehend, in my opinion.

  6. James,

    All any of us can do is take responsibility for our own actions. Our culture changes with the little things. Someone thought up the phrase Reduce, Reuse, Recyle, This one phrase helps me to remember to be careful about what I consume. The steps that many of us have taken to change our habits of consumption are very small steps indeed, but as far as I’m concerned they are very important small steps.

    Any ACTION taken to save, or repair, or provide habitat is valuable, no matter how small. You can’t solve problems by throwing words at them.

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