We often think of nature as being something which exists far away, in national parks or at the tops of mountains. But nature is everything: it is us, and all the things around us. Nature is in our cities, in our yards, and even in our homes. Sadly, we tend to treat the areas where we live as if they are human-only zones, and do everything we can to exclude everything else, from the lowliest ant to other mammals. Of course, wherever humans settle in large numbers, there is always a dramatic decline in the populations of other species. But even so, the natural world is all around us. We can’t escape it!
One of the most paradoxical things we humans like to do is to create the most environmentally unfriendly gardens that one could imagine. If you think of a conventional “British” style garden (the kind we tend to grow in North America), you tend to think of a few very spaced out plants, usually arrange by color, poking out of freshly fluffed black soil. Most of the work of gardening and landscaping revolves around the never ending task of keeping that black soil looking fresh and fluffy. But where in nature do you see that? That’s not what plants like! And that’s why we have to spend so much time weeding and raking and fertilizing.
The great irony is that we create in our gardens the conditions which, to a plant, seem like a damaged ecosystem. And so nature sends in her rapid response team — those plants which can grow rapidly in poor conditions, that have lightning fast reproductive cycles, and which produce ridiculous quantities of seeds. These are the plants we call weeds, and so we have locked ourselves in an endless battle with an invincible army of plant pioneers, who are trying to fulfill their nature-given purpose as early-succession plants of transforming your garden into a forest.
This is nature’s gentle way of trying to teach us a lesson. Forests are nothing like most of our gardens! You almost never see exposed black soil anywhere, unless some critter has been digging a hole! That’s because the soil is healthier when protected by mulch. And usually, plants tend to crowd together, each of them serving a different function in the ecological network which is the living forest.
We should make our gardens more like the forests! Our gardens can be spaces that are welcoming for the wildlife that lives all around us, from lovely insects to birds and even rodents and amphibians. And this is the great advantage of planting native plants. Because, you see, as smart as we are, nature is smarter. The plants which have been adapted by constant evolution for your local biosphere are not only suited to the conditions in your garden, but they are the plants which the other local species have come to rely on, too. By planting native species in our gardens and urban environments, we help to make the landscape a little bit more welcoming to all those beings with whom we share this planet.
Of course, our gardens can never even approximate the biological diversity of a forest. Gardens are gardens, after all. So it’s not necessarily always a bad thing to plant non-native or exotic plants, either. After all, over the millennia plants have dispersed their seeds all over the globe, and the flora that exist in your biome today are quite different from those of several hundred thousand years ago. Even without human assistance, plants can disperse their seeds many thousands of miles away from the parent plant. But, because our urban environments are always unstable ecosystems, we run the risk of introducing certain species of plants that, in our context, can become troublesome.
Whenever the wrong plant is put in the wrong place, problems can arise. Take for example the common experience of trees that are planted under power lines or in front of someone’s balcony, without consideration for how tall that tree will eventually grow. Or there’s the classic example of ivy, planted as a decorative ground cover, but which quickly overruns it’s bounds and becomes a giant sprawling mass. This isn’t the plant’s fault — we simply put that plant in an unstable ecosystem where the various niches that it has adapted to live in are just not present.
Putting the right plant in the right place is the fundamental art of gardening. By planting with native plants, you’ve automatically won half the battle. Help to make your garden an inviting place for the local critters, and reclaim the nature in your own back yard! It doesn’t mean you can’t grow a rose here or there, but dedicate some space in your yard for the flora that came before ya.