• ljmarkson

Gardening Advice Turns a Corner

Updated: Feb 7

Out of curiosity I visited a popular gardening guru’s FB page. Winter lawns, various Roundup products and a flowering (invasive) mahonia shrub greeted me. I realized just how disconnected this kind of gardening is from current trends.

This is a screenshot of the gardening guru's FB page. The feed is filled with photos of Roundup, winter lawns and a non-native leatherleaf mahonia!

When I read the post about mahonia and the hundreds of comments that followed confirming what a delightful landscape plant it is, I couldn’t resist posting the following comment about the status of mahonia as an invasive species in Georgia and giving a shout out to all the great native plant alternatives: The non-native leatherleaf mahonia variety Mahonia bealei (Fortune) Carr is invading woodlands in the southern United States! In Georgia it is a category 3 invasive species meaning it is an exotic plant that is a minor problem in Georgia natural areas or is not yet known to be a problem in Georgia but is known to be a problem (invasive!) in adjacent states. Gardening trends are moving towards supporting the local ecosystem and away from profiling exotic plants that offer little to wildlife and can even cause damage. Instead of mahonia, there are so many valuable and beautiful native Georgia bushes with winter interest including American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Winterberry (Ilex verticillate), American Holly (Ilex opaca), Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), Highbush Blueberry (vaccinium corymbosum), Southern Waxmyrtle (morella cerifera), Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americanus), or our native Arrowwoods (viburnums).

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a beneficial and beautiful native shrub alternative to non-native invasive mahonia.

I would encourage everyone to post informative comments about invasive species and native plant alternatives whenever you see a post on a gardening advice page sharing how great English ivy is for covering a hillside, privet is as a hedge, butterfly bushes are for pollinators, or liriope and vinca are as groundcovers. I try to remind myself that my goal is to raise awareness and to stay as dispassionate and informative as possible without getting into online arguments with strangers. I admit I sometimes break this rule a bit when I share facts in hostile neighborhood groups about the overwhelming damage caused by gas-powered leaf blowers.

When someone insists non-native, invasive butterfly bush is harmless and loved by pollinators, suggest they plant button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora), American elderberry (sambuca canadensis), Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), or summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) instead. When I removed all the butterfly bushes in my yard these are the plants I replaced them with. The pollinators love them and they're host plants for butterflies and moths.

When I opened the linked website on the gardening expert’s page, there was a jarring list of his most popular website topic words including fertilizer, disease, pruning, weed, herbicide, poison, glyphosate, Roundup, pests, pre-emergent, and pesticide. This list is not reflective of an ecologically forward sensibility and lags behind the kind of gardening information ecologically aware homeowners want to learn about.

My lush rewilded yard does not need an chemicals to maintain it. Traditional gardening advice is not needed! (Photo from September)

On the website wildlife is often mentioned in the context of controlling critters such as moles, voles, chipmunks, or rabbits as well as how to scare away a flock of roosting black birds or minimize snake habitat in your yard. Pesky squirrels are a popular topic, and a common suggestion is to trap and relocate them. No mention is made that doing this is a certain death sentence for a squirrel with only a 3% chance of survival. I have an older neighbor who must follow this expert’s inhumane advice because every summer I watch helplessly as the he traps and relocates squirrels to protect his handful of homegrown tomatoes.

When my neighbor follows an expert's advice to trap and relocate "my" squirrels, he's throwing off the ecosystem in the neighborhood.

Old school gardening experts like this one with a large flock of faithful followers who value their opinion are in the best position to lead the charge for embracing more eco-friendly gardening practices. Yet instead of setting trends by educating the public about naturescaping, rewilding, sustainability, habitat gardening, or native plants many are behind the curve and letting an outdated gardening aesthetic dictate their focus. I wonder if it gets tiresome teaching what poison to use to get rid of native violets in fescue lawns. (There was advice about this on the website!) In my zip code native violets host 26 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars including the giant leopard moth. It’s so hard to fathom this anachronistic world where monoculture lawn care still rules and there is so much advice involving some kind of trap or chemical solution. If you want to know about caterpillar insecticide, carpenter bee traps, using Roundup underneath bird feeders to prevent seeds from sprouting, or painting lawns green in winter this is the place to go.

Carpenter bees are super pollinators, not pests to be destroyed. Like all native bees, their populations are steadily declining. Advice to trap and kill them is out of touch with the big environmental picture.

I’m not trying to single out this gardening expert who like “the guy” in every town obviously has a sinecure influencing traditional gardeners and has no reason to change. I’m just so frustrated by the incongruity of what we know about the fragile state of nature and the potential damage caused when the choice is made to tell 48K followers how to use toxic Roundup on a lawn or under a bird feeder. I think as long as mosquito spraying companies, pest control services, and lawn centric products are generating advertising revenue in the gardening world, the energy won’t flow towards telling homeowners why pesticides are a problem, how to coexist with wildlife, or the benefit native plants add to a yard’s ecosystem. In all fairness, even though there are no dedicated categories for eco-friendly gardening on the website there are a few tips here and there about using native plants. Unfortunately they’re lost in the clutter of advice about grass seed, exotic non-native ornamentals, and toxic chemicals.

Advice to spray Roundup under a bird feeder would affect ground feeding birds like this adorable Eastern towhee fledgling that was pecking for food under one of my bird feeders last summer. To suggest spraying wouldn't affect him is disingenuous.

The tide is slowly turning and gardening culture is starting to change to reflect the reality of a world with limited resources where there are 25% fewer birds and 75% fewer insects than there were 50 years ago, and native plant species are disappearing 500 times faster than normal. The new voices informing home gardeners who are hungry for nature friendly ways to garden include entomologist Doug Tallamy who has popularized the idea of restoring nature in our own yards, native plant societies profiling and promoting native plants, wildlife conservation organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation or the Audubon Society educating homeowners about creating wildlife friendly landscapes, green organizations such as the Nature Conservancy advocating for healthier yard stewardship from an environmental perspective, native plant nurseries and eco-friendly landscapers extolling the virtues of regenerative landscaping, social media sites including interest groups like Pollinator Friendly Yards (115K followers!) on Facebook educating and raising awareness about using native plants, and even traditional gardening experts such as horticulturist Andrea DeLong-Amaya who oversees the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s gardens and nursery programs and shares the value of native plants in planned landscapes. The future is in restorative gardening resources, not in places advocating insecticide when what we want to learn about is how to attract insects to our yards.

Many conservation organizations give homeowners advice about gardening for wildlife. The process of certifying a yard or even applying for a yard sign is another way to learn about habitat friendly gardening.

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