Is Gardening a Hobby or a Crusade?

Is gardening a crusade or a hobby? This question occurred to me after reading a New York Times article about a symposium featuring Douglas Tallamy, Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. Tallamy is also the author of “Bringing Nature Home”, in which he argues for the environmental importance of using native plants in home landscapes.

Yellow Coneflower and Wild Bergamot
Yellow Coneflower and Wild Bergamot

In his presentation, Tallamy maintains that gardens should not be judged on beauty alone: Gardens should, among other things, help sustain the diversity of life.

Tallamy’s argument is all about insects. His research shows that native plants support way more insects than exotics. To give just one example, native oaks support 537 species of caterpillar, as opposed to a Japanese elm (Zelkova serrata), which supports none. This is because most insects are specialists able to digest the foliage of only a very limited number of plants (Monarch butterflies, whose caterpillars eat only Milkweed (Asclepias) plants, are a well-known example.)

Virginia Bluebells
Virginia Bluebells

You may like the idea of fewer insects, but fewer insects means fewer birds, amphibians, and many other animals. Without insects, the food chain collapses. And in fact the number of birds has declined by half over the last forty years.

But should gardeners be expected to take on these dire problems? Doesn’t this approach detract from gardening as a means of relaxation, of simply taking pleasure in the beauty of plants? Also, can gardeners even make a difference?

Anise Hyssop
Anise Hyssop, Joe Pye Weed, Yellow Coneflower

Tallamy makes a pretty good argument that gardeners could help mitigate the loss of natural habitat if they wanted to. In the USA there are 40 million acres of lawn, an area about six times the size of the State of New Jersey. It would be significant if even a fraction of that lawn were converted to native plant gardens.

But let’s be honest. The real purpose of a garden is to make the gardener happy. If a gardener can’t be happy without tulips, or lilacs, or some other exotic plant, he or she should not be asked to go without (leaving aside the issue of invasives). Native plant advocates will win few converts if they insist on purity. And some exotic plants have wildlife value, for example by providing nectar for pollinators – though not forage for caterpillars.

New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee
New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee

In my own garden, I’d guess that about 2/3 of the species are native to the region, but these are mixed with exotics that I love.

Even so, there are a large number of beautiful and underused native plants capable of giving most gardeners a great deal of pleasure. And a garden full of insects and birds is a more lively, interesting, and enjoyable place.


Tallamy has written a new book with Rick Darke called “The Living Landscape: Gardening for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.” The idea is that we don’t have to sacrifice pleasure while gardening with the environment in mind. I read and was much influenced by Tallamy’s last book. I’m looking forward to reading “The Living Landscape”.

So, to answer my own question – hobby or crusade? I’d say the two are not mutually exclusive.

81 Comments on “Is Gardening a Hobby or a Crusade?”

  1. I find that gardening is for the gardener like you say and having the plants gardeners desire is not a wrong way to garden. What I mention often is that many non-native plants do a lot of good for insects and birds and are not always a detriment to habitats at purist seem to think. It just takes being discriminating to choose the right ones.

  2. I think if you have a good mix of native plants you can afford to throw in some exotics for interest too. I had hummingbird hawk moths on my annual Lobelias last summer, which made me feel less guilty! I would say gardening is primarily a hobby, but the added bonus is that it then often does become a crusade when people see all the beautiful creatures looking for food and make it their goal to help them along.

  3. Jason, you’ve seen my native plant garden– it’s the most bountiful and beautiful garden I have ever grown. Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles grows and sells 300 species of native plants, so one doesn’t lack for variety. Doug Tallamy has done a great job informing the
    Jason–you have seen my garden–is it lacking anything? The local nursery I buy from has 300 species of native plants, so the selection is huge and there is no sacrifice. A good place to buy native plants is at Plant Sales that local groups, in particular Wild Ones, hold in the spring. Tallamy has done a great job of informing the public of the attraction native insects have for native plants, but that is only one of their benefits. Another is their deep root systems. Surely you have seen the “Roots” poster that shows the roots of native plants growing 8-15′ deep into the soil. 1/3 of the root systems die every year, creating humus and opening up channels for water to infiltrate, preventing runoff, flooding, and erosion. And are you aware that the deep roots of prairie plants sink carbon in our area better than trees do?
    From my book:
    Native landscaping is the key to the long-term health of our environment. Native landscaping works with rather than against nature. In native landscapes and gardens, the plants do the work for us; in turn we must be willing to risk losing control. A landscape of native plants is not static–it is dynamic. It is free and alive–it will renew itself. If you have a passion to make a difference in the world , plant native plants in your own little piece of the planet. “Design Your Natural Midwest Garden.”

    • Hi Pat. Yes, I am aware of all those things, and I thoroughly admire your garden. We grow many of the same plants. I’m just unwilling to limit my plant selection to purely native plants – though I heartily approve of those who do. And I think native plants will be used more overall if people are encouraged to mix them in with the usual exotics.

    • True, but tastes change. We didn’t always have the sorts of lawns that became typical after WWII. There are alternatives to lawn that are actually less work. I think it’s telling that you now see all sorts of corporate campuses with “natural” landscaping.

  4. I plant natives, encourage wildlife and try to avoid chemicals but in a changing world I don’t see the point of forcing some idea of an ideal system on the land and working off some species cleansing master plan. My garden makes me happy and it’s much more diverse than the conifer forest it might have been 300 years ago, and I’m sure you enjoy having trees which likely weren’t native to your prairie area back then. I like diversity, limiting to natives only or allowing invasives to take over are just two different extremes of an artificial ecosystem.

  5. For me it’s neither – it’s an all-consuming passion! 😉 I don’t think you’ll ever get people to imitate nature in their gardens because gardening is about creating beautiful, meaningful places that fill our souls with happiness. Exotic plants are part of that and honestly, our gardens would be very sad and poor places if we’d only stick to endemic plants. We should rather think of ways to protect and conserve our planet – birth control, putting an end to that crazy, utterly destroying urge for growth…but I’m probably dreaming as I don’t think people will ever get sense.

    • I agree that the voluntary actions of millions of gardeners by themselves cannot stem environmental degradation. This will take major change at the national and international levels. How we garden, though, is a means of making a small but positive contribution. However, no one should be browbeaten into using native plants only.

  6. I think it can be both. I love Tallamy’s message and if it gets more people to plant natives and more nurseries to carry natives I think that is a good thing. I have been adding more and more native plants to my garden because it attracts wildlife and that is what I find satisfying as a gardener. That being said, I do have some well behaved non-natives just because I think they are pretty. I believe the more education that happens the better off we all are as gardeners. It is unfortunate that wildlife is so dependent on backyard gardeners for their survival. I hope one day that big farms get the message and stop spraying so much but I also believe that there needs to be more public education on chemicals. I see my neighbors spraying their gardens with round-up because they are too lazy to bend over and hand pick a few weeds.

  7. It’s both because gardeners tend to be passionate people who see the domino effect of their actions. I’m not a purist, either, but a garden without wildlife is a sterile, dead space to me, regardless of how conventionally beautiful it may be. Plus, gardeners have a very grass roots opportunity to show their neighbors and friends how effective their methods are.

  8. I love this question… really requires pause and there are so many ways to look at it. For me I feel pulled both ways…aesthetics are important to me. Call it the artist in me but I really enjoy playing with color and form. But than there is this other part of me…the environmentilist who wants to save the planet and live off of what I grow….hence the frustration with having a small plot. I think if you’re a gardener you most likely are a crusader as most gardeners have a unique connection with the earth. I would really like to check out this book….thanks for the post today Jason!

  9. Gardening can be both. I love exotics but have a lot of natives in my garden as well. I found myself thinking that it’s interesting how we as individuals feel that we should do things like recycle, plant natives, garden organically, etc. while giant corporations (did we decide that they were people too?) plant countless acres of sterile gmo crops, erect more skyscrapers, and pave paradise to put up a parking lot. There was an interesting article in Harper’s Magazine many years ago that posed a question about humans being a part of nature and our gardening perhaps being nature naturing. We’ve been planting non natives for centuries. For instance, the dandelion isn’t native to this continent but was brought here to be planted in herb gardens. Who is really in charge? The lowly potato, once a new world wild plant, is now growing on every continent in the world. Perhaps plants are smarter than we are and are using us to help them proliferate. On the other hand, they’ve found gmo pollen in wild corn populations in Mexico, the birthplace of corn. Oh, thinking makes my head hurt. Let’s just enjoy the warm ride in this lovely hand basket.

  10. Thought provoking post and I’d agree with your opinion. I always find it fascinating to sit in a class and listen to how some of the gorgeous hybrid annuals and perennials that we are drawn to because of their beauty are unable to provide nectar for the insects and birds because they can’t access it. I probably lean more towards natives because of that.

  11. Oh yes, I think it is grand if people like a native garden. I love them but I also like those ‘exotics’. I like a blend of them. They compliment each other. Like someone telling me I should grow only vegetables. Yes, that has happened. I do have a few fruits and veggies in the garden but I sure don’t like having someone tell me I MUST do this or that.

  12. I have talked to some nursery owners who intended to sell only native plants until it became obvious that it was a very bad business plan. Some of those same people and some bloggers are leading by example. They can demonstrate how beautiful native plant gardens can be. Peter the Outlaw’s point about plants using us is expanded into a whole book in Michael Pollen’s ‘The Botany of Desire’.

  13. Glad to hear he’s got a new book coming. I really enjoyed the last one and it made me think of my garden in a new way. I take great pleasure in gardening, it’s a wonderful way to relieve stress, enjoy being in nature. But part of what I love is providing a safe haven for nature too. Realizing how much we can do for nature has really opened up my eyes to what is possible and spurred to me try new things in the garden.

  14. In the UK very little is made of native and non native plants, but much is made of planting for wildlife, encouraging a beneficial ecosystem in gardens and educating folk on biodiverstity. We have fewer natives than America, maybe thats the reason, at home I plant both natives and non natives, but everything is grown responsibly and has to be beneficial in some way to wildlife.

  15. This is the best post I’ve read covering Tallamy’s message. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at the Native Plant Conference at the Arboretum, and found it inspiring. But it felt like he was preaching to the choir. Your post does a great job of communicating the major points to a larger audience. I hope you don’t mind if I share this post on my personal Facebook page? Very well-written, Jason.

  16. Tallamy’s message would have a far greater ripple effect if the public truly understood the role that insects and birds play in the health of the planet. Too many environmental issues travel no further than that proverbial choir. Political parties and the media understand how to influence public behavior and thought. We gardeners do not. Very sadly, we are skilled only in attracting the attention of – nd talking to – those who think as we do.

    • From my professional life, I would say political actors have a very mixed record in terms of impacting public opinion. Enthusiasts of all types have a habit of preaching to the choir. Still, my completely unscientific sense is that the whole “sustainable gardening” approach, of which native plants is a part, has gained wider acceptance. Around Chicago you can find quite a few corporate campuses with naturalistic plantings. Or consider the Lurie Garden – such a garden in downtown Chicago would have been unthinkable not so long ago. Now it is a major attraction, an almost iconic part of Chicago.

  17. Hi Jason, ultimately it’s both. I garden for pleasure; it’s a growing hobby. And as a hobbyist, I am interested in planting specimens (natives and non) that attract insects and birds to my garden. And if I am being completely honest, I have taken on this endeavor not as a crusade but to bring joy to my life. That said, as that joy increases, the importance of the impact my garden has on biodiversity takes on more meaning…and that’s where the crusade comes in. Increasingly that translates to reducing or eliminating my use of pesticides and planting native species and thereby increasing the birds and insects that visit my small yard, which in turn increases my joy. The cycle goes on. Great post. Your thought-provoking topics are very interesting read and so are the comments.

  18. I agree this is a great synopsis of Tallamy’s message and I hope to hear him speak to a large local garden club here this spring. I think it is a combo of both for me…hobby yes and crusade for sure as I have found so much more pleasure with more critters in my garden…and I feel like I am doing something to help mitigate the issues we have like the decline in bird populations. I am not a purist, but a strong advocate for natives first. They bring the critters and that just makes gardening so much more fun.

  19. My main objective as a gardener is to create a hospitable and healthy home for things that crawl, fly, slither, or hop, as well as creating something pleasing for those invasive species who walk on two feet. I was privileged to hear Doug Tallamy speak to a small group in Virginia and I use his book for reference when I plant. However, although I have a wildlife garden, I don’t have a pure native garden. Sorry…

  20. As someone who works in a nursery, allow me to add to that perspective. Rickii touched on it above. It is often true that native plants don’t look too attractive in pots, because they don’t do well in a greenhouse environment. We’re trying really hard to satisfy requests by bringing in unusual natives, but the truth is, once we get them, they usually sit there, unsold. Consumers are fickle, and if it doesn’t look fantastic, the general schmo won’t buy it. “Real” plant people will usually recognize, and perhaps even get excited about finding a less than stellar-looking native, but sadly, those people are rare.

    It is also difficult (even in Oregon) to find wholesale growers of natives that deliver tidy, retail ready plants that don’t have to be weeded before they go on the tables. The aversion to herbicides and interest in natives often go hand in hand, and I totally get and support that. But we all know that going chemical free requires elbow grease, which means higher labor costs, etc. It is very disheartening to get a shipment full of weeds in. That said, the nursery I work for (strictly retail – we don’t grow anything ourselves) went “all natural and organic” last summer, and because of that commitment, we also try to tailor our buying to growers with similar philosophy. It’s exhilarating, but still a searching journey. The ultimate goal is to lead by example, so I guess you could call us ornamentalist crusaders. In a few months, we’re installing and planting a rain garden in the nursery which a lot of native plants will adorn. Hopefully, seeing how these plants perform in the ground will make them sell themselves.

    Lastly, I think in many peoples’ minds, the word “native” often has negative connotations. So, I often choose not to mention where it comes from at all. Instead, I point out all the other positive attributes, and leave it at that. Rickii mentioned the impact bloggers (like yourself, Jason) can have in showing the way. Remember Tamara’s (Chickadee Gardens) from the Fling? It’s a beautiful garden, and she’s been posting great, informative posts on good natives to try, with stellar, mouthwatering photos from her garden. She is really trying to change the natives’ reputation of having unexciting foliage, being large, shrubby green things – what have you, by bringing her favorites to the forefront. And, I know you do too, Jason. I admit to having more exotics than natives in my garden, but I want to reiterate Rickii’s shoutout to the importance of the blogging community in changing the way we see things. I have and continue to learn a lot from the blogs I read. As a result, my next garden will be different. Great post!

    • Thanks for this really interesting comment. I wonder if the connotations of “native” are different here in the Midwest, because I don’t think it’s thought of as having negative implications around here. Perhaps because so many Midwest natives have become commonplace ornamentals (Echinacea, Rudbeckia, etc). Good luck to you and your nursery as you try to lead by example!

  21. I would hate to see gardening become a crusade. It is all about creating a beautiful area for the gardener to enjoy, providing a peaceful and tranquil, private space. Gardens and gardening can give so much to gardeners. But, if, in the process, it can help redress some of the damage and loss, by providing a haven for wildlife, then that is a very welcome bonus! The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. At the end of the day, it’s all about personal choice!

  22. Jason I guess the thoughts about maintaining wildlife with someone’s private garden is rather correct in a highly urbanized area, when you live in the countryside birds and insects don’t bother about your specimen in the garden when they can find whatever they want all around. As for the crusade thing, mine is, but for different reasons! Are the pictures above all of your garden? I love that tall rudbeckia what is it?

  23. I am sure I read a RHS report or something recently where they had different beds some with exclusive native, some non-native and some mixed to see which were most attractive to insects etc and it wasn’t the native ones. Of course here in the UK our flora has been diluted for so much longer than in the US and it is quite hard to say what is native.

    I think if you have a good mix of plants and avoid the double flowers which often don’t produce pollen so aren’t of any use to bees etc it is fine. I want my garden to please and excite me and to provide a home for the plants I have collected. I don’t want to feel constrained to worry about if I am doing the right thing by this insect or that. At the end of the day my garden with a whole mish mash of plants offers a refuge and food for a whole range of wildlife far more than the non gardening neighbours gardens so surely that is better than nothing.

    As you can tell I hate the whole crusade thing and I think it puts people off gardening.

    • As I said, the primary purpose of the garden is to make the gardener happy. That said, it can be a very satisfying aspect of gardening to think about how specific plants interact with different insects. There are enthusiasts whose evangelism may be counterproductive, people should not be made to feel that they “must” have only certain types of plants. Though I am a bit evangelical myself about Asclepias for North American gardens. Speaking of which, I think your explanation makes sense as to why there is not the same emphasis on native plants in Europe.

  24. I want to grow some of your wonderful native plants in my garden but your expert I presume disapproves as I live in England. Phooey to just native plants. What is a native anyway? To us, does it have to be English and not Scottish!. Can’t I plant European native wild flowers, even to replace those that are extinct over here. What if foreign plants arrive ‘naturally’ via wind or birds, are they foreign?
    Do a few foreign plants in your garden make any difference whatsoever to the overall populations of your native plants of which I presume there are millions? Perhaps we should just grow rare native plants, those that need help and to support endangered insects and fungi to which they are hosts.
    I have a Gynkgo in my garden, can I regard it as native because it was here naturally 56 million years ago? (I am being silly now, but I want to conserve plants of the world)

    • All legitimate points. I think for Tallamy he thinks in terms of native to a regional ecosystem which shares the same flora and fauna. Other commenters have talked about how “native” is really harder to define in Europe (Eurasia, really) because plant migrations go back thousands of years.

  25. Isn’t it a kind of evolution? We all start with the more obvious plants but as we gain experience we diversify and develop interest in less common plants and eventually in native plants.
    I think we are all getting more realistic, accepting that a mixture of exotic and native plants will prevail.

  26. Hello Jason, I agree in that i’s a combination of the two, though sometimes, particularly when I’m looking at the scale of work this garden needs, I think it’s purely a crusade and grim determination, the enjoyment will come from when all the hard work of digging and restoring the borders (95% effort) is done and I can start picking plants to go into newly prepared ground (5% effort).

  27. If everyone grew a few native species in their gardens the accumulative effect would be positive for wildlife, even adding a logpile, compost heap and a water source is beneficial. I think gardeners have to have the plants they like but most include natives too. I think collectively we have a duty re preserving our wildlife and their food chain and it takes surprisingly little to encourage wildlife into the garden. I would call gardening an obsession! An interesting

  28. Thanks for deciding to follow my blog. I have recently appeared on a BBC TV programme with Dermuid Gavin showing how our allotment community garden encourages wildlife. I also give a talk on wildlife gardening to garden societies using our own garden at home as an example . So you can see why I am now following your blog.

  29. This is an interesting post and has generated quite a bit of debate. It is easier for you in the US to concentrate on native plants when you have such an abundance. Our native flora is not very extensive. We only have 32 species of native tree. Here, a garden with only native plants would not be very satisfying to most gardeners. It is great to encourage birds and bees into the garden although I am quite picky about what other wildlife I encourage. Anyway, it would be never be my first concern. I love wild flowers and I grow some but my garden is also full of exotics. My garden is for me first of all. Gardening is not just a hobby, it is a passion.
    I don’ t use chemicals because I want my garden to be a healthy environment not just for wildlife but for myself and my family.

  30. I very much agree and appreciate with Tallamy’s message, even though I do have quite a few non-natives in my garden. In fact, more than I would like. The longer I garden the more natives I want in my garden, although I have always loved natives. Over 20 years ago the display gardens at the NC Botanical Garden and the wealth of wild flowers in western PA really opened my eyes to the beauty and diversity of native plants.

    I wish there were more programs in schools to teach kids about the value of nature and native ecosystems. People need to love something before they are going to be interested in restoring and protecting it.

  31. This is a really interesting post and discussion. I must admit that I get really annoyed when I get ‘tutted’ for suggesting that exotics can be almost as good for wildlife as natives. Who wouldn’t grow exotic sunflowers for birds or exotic winter heathers for early bees or exotic asters for late bees. Gardeners are usually very aware of their responsibilities and I do not know any gardeners who do not feed the birds. (though I accept that birds are not all wildlife and that planting flowers for ‘pretty’ butterflies is useless if you don’t have some food plants for the ‘nasty’ caterpillars). If gardening is your hobby you are making a huge contribution to wildlife and I do not think that planting hellebores (which early bumblebees love) rather than let that patch be filled with plantains, will be a negative act. Why not ‘pick on’ non-gardeners sitting on their backsides in their houses surrounded by a concrete yard scattered with weeds? Oh yes, they only grow natives! And the problem with ‘growing natives’ is that not all natives are suited to your area or soil so, if you are being a real purist, those wildlflower meadows , filled with ‘natives’ from across the country, may not really be any more natural than a border of plants from a different country. It reminds me of a day when I was giving advice in a garden centre and was collared by a customer who wanted organic compost. As I was not regular staff I checked and there was none. I was assaulted by a tirade about how disgusting it was that they didn’t sell organic compost and didn’t I care about the environment. He left me fuming as he went and drove off in his Range Rover.

    • I am irritated by people who drive their SUV to the organic food store, which is sort of comparable to your garden center jerk. Otherwise, what can I say? Certainly there is some silliness attached to every idea which becomes fashionable in certain circles. People who are serious about natives know that by definition they are well adapted to their native range, but not to other areas in the same country. As for wildlife, exotic berries and flowers can provide excellent forage. Tallamy’s research indicated only that the foliage tends to be indigestible to native insects.

  32. Thought provoking post! We had a speaker last year at our annual Landscape Symposium who emphasized that if a “native plant” garden is unattractive, it will win no adherents other than those who are strictly politically motivated. Better to find a middle ground, with enough natives to feed the creatures and a balance of beautiful plants to make the mix appealing to everyone. I couldn’t agree more – it can be a mutually beneficial place that supports life and embraces beauty by any standard.

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