The Wrong Way to Teach Eco-Friendly Gardening by Susan Harris

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Posted on: April 21, 2017

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I recently attended a “Green Yards and Gardens” talk in my town. The intern giving the talk was more knowledgeable than I expected, but the topics covered were no surprise: native plants, composting, water conservation, and organic pest control, the usual bullet points. Afterwards I asked some attendees I knew how they liked the talk and wasn’t surprised by their disappointment: “We thought we’d learn to garden.”

Lecturing people about what NOT to do resonates with some – the already eco-minded – but fails to excite people about gardening or show them how to succeed at it.

I’ve come to believe that turning people into gardeners should be the number one goal of all communications about eco-friendly or sustainable gardening. Sure, mention at the end of the talk or article the practices they should avoid, but focusing on the negatives is just counterproductive. I’ve noticed this misguided approach over the years and a quick survey reveals that it’s as prominent as ever.

For example, a county in California recommends natives, IPM, drip irrigation, mulch and of all things, double-digging.

Perhaps the worst advice I found in my survey was Mother Earth News’ Eco-Friendly Gardening Tips, which directs readers to use natural sealants, fire pits, insect hotels, upcycling wood pallets into furniture and choosing hardwood over softwood furniture. Hey, where’s the gardening?

What a ridiculous tagline.

In recommending native plants, exaggerated claims about them are so common it’s hard to find any that that would stand up to scrutiny. For example, Treehugger says, “Already adapted to local conditions, native plants are easy to grow and maintain, generally requiring less fertilizer and water, as well as less effort to rein in pests.” This common argument sounds about right, until it’s pointed out that “local conditions” are so often nothing like the conditions native plants are actually adapted to. The “generally less water” is probably true of desert natives, but often this overgeneralization leads to native-plant abuse. And it’s misleading if not downright dishonest to say natives are more resistant to pests, when that’s true for native pests only, not the nonnative ones destroying elms and hemlocks.

So it’s exasperating to read this from Better Homes and Gardens: “Plant Natives. Plants that are indigenous to your region are called natives. These plants take less work, usually require less water, and thrive better than other perennials because they are already suited to your climate, rainfall, and soil types.”

At least Penn State’s push for native plants, above, employs the more honest “may include.”

But no matter how nuanced the promotion of natives may be, telling newbie gardeners to select only from the limited selection of natives on the market is a recipe for failure and disappointment. Most people just want a pretty garden, so why not help them achieve that – in a way that helps the environment?

And really, why not appeal to our innate attraction to beauty? On the contrary, beauty is increasingly under attack in eco-conscious writing.

For a change of perspective, let’s go to the U.K., where there’s a strong culture of gardening. The Telegraph’s  five “Tips for an Eco-Friendly Garden” include growing your own food and composting but the number 1 tip is: “Make the garden fabulous so that you don’t go out and spend money and energy elsewhere. Measure days you spend in the garden and incentivise yourself to do more there.” And number 5 is: “Keep yourself fit and happy. Get a step counter and check that you do 10,000 steps a day… Watch your steps soar as you spend more time in the garden.”

How different must attitudes be for being fit and having a “fabulous” garden to be considered eco-friendly steps!

Which leads right into the tips I’d give if I were a tip-giving sort. Like that English writer, my number one goal would be to turn readers into people who love growing plants:

  • Make your garden gorgeous to YOU, using plants you love and that grow well in your area. I’d show examples of inspirational gardens and describe how to get started creating one of your own – by making borders, including paths, etc.
  • Plant more plants, especially large, deep-rooted ones.
  • For wildlife, include a diversity of plants in your garden, and a water source, too.
  • And a tip I saw nowhere in my research may be THE most impactful change the public could make in their yard – switching to low-maintenance, low-input lawn care (see Cornell).

Yet if lawn is mentioned at all, it’s to say get rid of it! Better Homes and Gardens’ advice is typical lawn-shaming: 

Lose Your Lawn (or part of it). A gorgeous, green, and weed-free lawn uses a lot of resources. Water and fertilizer are needed to keep most lawns looking in top shape. You can have a more sustainable lawn by reducing the area planted in grass and replacing it with easy-care perennial ornamental grasses, low-growing shrubs, or groundcovers.

I’d posit that a “sustainable lawn” isn’t the same-old, high-input lawn but a bit less of it.

The Wrong Way to Teach Eco-Friendly Gardening originally appeared on Garden Rant on April 21, 2017.

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