Native Gardeners: Monkeys in Clothes

I’ve been struggling with my transition to native gardening, on a couple levels. The first and most obvious is trying to manage the more aggressive plants while nurturing those that need more space, light, or water.  I’d been told that Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm / bergamot) is aggressive, but I was stunned when it virtually took over my entire bed in its second year!

My first year native bed July 16 2018 - blog
Year one – July 16, 2018 – Monarda barely visible
Garden year 2 on July 22 2019 v2 - blog
Year two – July 22, 2019 – an explosion of Monarda!

And many of these plants get so tall that they need staking so the ones on the perimeter don’t flop down on the ground. (For reference, that’s a six-foot fence.) And in my first year, I was so enthusiastic that I got too many plants and just put them in the ground without enough consideration of their mature heights, so I’ve got some shorter plants that are being bullied by taller plants around them.  I knew better, but enthusiasm won out over reason. I’m working on that, I’m learning as I go, and I’m sure I’ll figure the logistics out eventually.

But on another more troubling front, I’ve been feeling conflicted about what this transition means in terms of the opinions of my neighbors.

Overgrown weeds by Keturah Stickann on Flickr - blog
This is NOT the look we’re going for!      (Photo courtesy of Keturah Stickann)

It’s no secret that native plants aren’t as “neat” as the cultivars sold in most garden stores. As I mentioned above, some of them get tall…really tall. Most of them don’t have obvious clumping forms that indicate where one plant begins and another ends. In other words, they can look messy. Or, dare I say it, weedy.

I’m certainly not the first person to struggle with this dilemma, and if I lived in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowners’ Association), I’d likely not be as free to experiment as I am here. Not long ago I lived within the confines of an HOA, and I had to get written permission to replace a rose bush with a purple coneflower beside my mailbox. No kidding.

Sterile lawn in front of traditional house - Photo by Milly Eaton from Pexels
This lawn doesn’t support any life…it’s sterile and depressing. (Photo by Milly Eaton via Pexels)

Native plant gardeners have discovered that we have to be careful to design our gardens so that it’s obvious that we have a plan. We have to include clearly marked pathways, bed outlines, and sometimes even educational signage, so that our gardens won’t be mistaken for neglected weeds.

By deciding to transition to native gardening, I knew that I would be going against what’s accepted as normal gardening in our culture. We’re supposed to have pristine green lawns and neat beds of flowers lining sidewalks and foundations.  But once I learned how unhealthy that type of environment is — for us as well as for the earth that sustains us — I just had to make some changes.

Shrubby st. john's wort Kim Clair Smith
Shrubby St. John’s Wort in my garden

These days, when I drive through neighborhoods of cookie-cutter-non-life-supporting-barren lawns, I feel sad and depressed. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so far detached from the natural world that we try to kill any signs of it that dare to encroach on what we’ve claimed as “ours.”  As a culture, we have forgotten that humans are part of the natural world. We need to rethink our connections to the rest of the life forms on this planet, or be prepared to suffer the consequences when we break critical links in the web of life because we don’t understand or care about them.

As an example, we have red foxes living in our urban Toledo neighborhood, and I occasionally delight to see one of them trotting down my front sidewalk early in the morning. Recently my neighbor told me of a minor disagreement between two other neighbors.  Apparently one person said they should be feeding the foxes, and the other one said they should trap them. My reaction to all this: Why in the world would you do either of those things?! Why not let them be, and just be glad that they’re here to help control rodents in our neighborhood? Jeez, people make me crazy sometimes.

Fork-tailed bush katydid on purple coneflower Kim Clair Smith
Fork-tailed bush katydid, a good food source for birds in my garden

Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been a nonconformist. Periodically when I’m eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, some people are uncomfortable with and judgmental about my choice.  I think that’s because they think that my decision not to eat meat is an implicit criticism of their choice to continue to eat meat. They’re curious about my choice, and ask questions about it, but then want to argue when I explain it to them. It’s frustrating and exhausting.

Tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed Kim Clair Smith
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed in my garden

Humans are social animals, and we evolved to understand that we needed the approval of the other humans in order to survive. We no longer need that approval for sheer physical survival, but it’s still painful to be misunderstood by others. Being a nonconformist is a difficult choice, but it’s usually driven by a belief that we are doing something that is less detrimental than the accepted traditions of our society. But even with a strong conviction that we’re making the right choice, it can be difficult to endure the harsh judgments of others who don’t understand our motivations.

Eastern calligrapher fly Kim Clair Smith
Eastern calligrapher fly in my garden —  great little pollinators!

So, those of us trying to grow native plants often face criticism from neighbors who may not understand there’s a higher purpose to what we’re doing. They may assume we’re lazy, or that our gardens will attract insects that they deem pests. I’ve learned that a garden buzzing with a variety of bees and flies is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but most people still try to swat the bees or run away in fear or disgust.  Or they may think that we’re trying to be rebels just for the sake of being different. And people don’t like those who violate the norms of society.

I’m lucky that my backyard is mostly shielded from view by a privacy fence, so I feel free to do what I want back there. But my choice to forgo chemical lawn care means that my lawn isn’t anywhere near what would be considered proper by most people. I’ve got tons of crabgrass and other weeds in the lawn and it’s a little bit embarrassing when someone wants to see the garden. I mean, I’m SO proud of my native garden, but I understand that other people won’t see it the way I see it.  Where I see pollinator habitat, they see messiness and insects — Oh, the horror! But am I willing to put toxic chemicals on the lawn just so people will approve of me? Nope.

I recently read an article about nonconformity that claimed that people will perceive you differently based on whether they think you’re breaking the norms on purpose or out of ignorance. If they think you’re doing it with full understanding that you’re breaking the norms, they’ll be more accepting, and may even respect you for it. But if they think you just don’t know any better, well, you’re destined to be scorned.

I’ll end this little rant with my favorite advice about being a nonconformist, which comes from author Evan Tarver:

REALIZE THAT YOU’RE A MONKEY IN CLOTHES

This might make you feel uncomfortable, but this makes me extremely comfortable. The best way to beat social pressure is to realize that deep down, all you are is a monkey in clothes. You’re a primate, an animal, and all your fears about not fitting in with society are silly when you think about it in these terms. In fact, for me, it creates a bit of absurdity that allows me to laugh in almost any situation, making it easier to do what I want even if other people won’t get it.

So what if you don’t follow society’s defined path? Who cares if you ignore the social pressure you feel and march to the beat of your own drum. Ultimately, all you are is an advanced primate who finds him or herself playing house every day. So, where is the real risk when deciding whether to go against the grain or not? The worst that can happen is that a bunch of other monkeys in clothes get mad at you for not fitting into a box they understand. Silly monkeys.

 

14 thoughts on “Native Gardeners: Monkeys in Clothes”

  1. You and I have discussed humans before. We think the same. I could totally relate to your frustrations and discoveries in gardening about what doesn’t work and what needs changing. As many years as I have been planting plants and trees, I still end up moving what isn’t working or ripping something out, transplanting and dead-heading. I’m into native plants and trees now too, but sometimes the soil or the amount of sun/shade, or wildlife nibbling this and that, interferes with my plan. I’ve learned just to roll with whatever I get… nature does whatever she will do. And I am so thankful that we’re on the outskirts of town and no one cares about how things look here.

    Since we’ve let the pecan orchard go wild (mostly because we couldn’t get into it with all of the rain and insects the last two years), we’ve seen how even in nature, something might flourish one year and then not appear again for a number of years. We’ve seen the old river channel dry up, and with that came a whole different species of plants and trees and we saw less fungi and water fowl. Insect species come and go, as does all wildlife. Last year the deer flourished and this year, predators have taken out most every living thing. It’s always changing, and truly we have no control.

    1. It’s so interesting to watch how things change through the seasons and the years, and to see how our actions impact the rest of nature. I’ll never run out of things to learn from my garden, that’s for sure! And I’m glad to hear that you’re into planting natives now too. 🙂

  2. Beautifully expressed. I have heard Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) speak a couple of times and actually a group of us lunched with him following a presentation and heard so much more. He’d love that you are spreading the word.

  3. Hi Kim,
    If you think steril but still green (!) lawns are awful what would you think of our newest garden trend-rocks! As in nothing but! I live in the Black Forest, not a desert! My horticulturist heart bleeds!
    I surround our home with vegetation that feeds insects, birds and us. It looks good but is somewhat wild. Even the lawn is just the original meadow cut short. The birds get way more of the fruit than we do but that is fine.
    More power to you, Kim!

    1. Hi Cindy! (I think that’s you, right?) I could tolerate some rocks, but I need plants that are alive! Glad to hear that you’ve got a living, functioning ecosystem in your yard. 🙂

  4. I intentionally put my native garden in my front yard in front of my living room picture window so more could see the potential beauty of a native pollinating garden. One thing you have to remember is that if one plant doesn’t work, or fit, it can always be removed, planted elsewhere, or just moved to a better location in the garden itself. Gardens are not meant to be static and limited, but rather looked upon as an ever changing landscape. Every single year, they are different, and that’s the joy of having them…never knowing what and how they will change, and where and how their innate beauty will morph and mature.

    1. I’m hoping to plant a native bed in the front eventually, but don’t want to take on more than I can handle too soon. Trying to pace myself now. 🙂

  5. I can’t imagine anyone saying something about what you eat! What nerve. I don’t care about what people say about my garden. I have a big mix and I plant what I want where I want it. We looked at a lot in an area that had an HOA. We didn’t build there. We stayed in our comfortable neighborhood where we could and can do what we want. Some people have had the audacity to stop and pooh pooh some things but hey that is their problem. Enjoy your garden.

  6. Here, in Australia, it is looked upon very favourably to plant native plants and we have very little else in our garden. The birds and bees, butterflies and insects love it and so do we. I did plant some evening primrose 7 or 8 years ago, though, and that was a big mistake. It took over the garden and self seeded like crazy. I finally had to hire someone to come and rip it out for me as I couldn’t do it myself. We could buy it at our local nursery back then, but you can no longer buy it as this climate is the wrong one for it and it becomes feral. In the immortal words penned for Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand”. We are a judgemental and fearful bunch of monkeys.💕

    1. Ardys, it sounds like Australian society is more advanced than ours at this point, at least regarding the desirability of natives. The nursery industry in this country is large and powerful, and it will take time and education to shift the mindset over here. But we’re working on it!

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