#TBT What’s Invasive? Telling People What They Can’t Plant In Their Yards

#TBT What’s Invasive? Telling People What They Can’t Plant In Their Yards

29th January 2016218Views18Comments
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The debate over invasive species won’t go away any time soon. We’re sure that many would still have issues with Rant co-founder Michele Owens views on flag iris and other problem plants. This post is from July, 2009.

Iris image courtesy of Shutterstock

I have very strong ideas about how a civilized society behaves.  A civilized society behaves like Paris, where the mangiest dogs are allowed on the banquettes in finest restaurants on the assumption that everyone, including the pooch, understands how to conduct him- or herself properly.

A civilized society behaves like my urban neighborhood in Saratoga Springs, NY, where the neighbors don’t entirely understand why I have hens, but put up with the squawking and even give me a friendly hello in the morning anyway out of a general spirit of tolerance.

A civilized society makes the fewest rules possible. If it’s not hurting you, it’s fine for me to do it.  A civilized society is dubious of authority, humorous, and unafraid.

The world of plants is not civilized. I was shocked a few weeks ago, when I wrote about one of the most beautiful moments of my year–the blooming of the flag iris around my pond in the country–only to be called irresponsible for celebrating an invasive plant. Never mind that there is no sign of a problem on my property, though the flag iris have probably been there for 80 years. Never mind that almost all pond plants are potentially invasive, including waterlilies. Is somebody proposing that we do without waterlilies? Because if that is the case, I think I resign.

The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia even includes hemerocallis fulva, the orange roadside daylily, on its list of problems. Hemerocallis fulva is just so graceful, with its long stems and small, cheerful upfacing trumpets, that it makes driving around my part of the world in July a total joy, and I hate driving.

One of the great delights of a country landscape is the naturalized plants like these that thrive by themselves and form a piquant bridge between the wild and the cultivated. But nothing that is not at least a little thuggish naturalizes.  Should our world therefore be nothing but weeds and overbred, super-fussy garden plants?

Naturalized daylilies are easily controlled by mowing if they get out of bounds. I’ve got them everywhere in my yard, and have noticed no spreading whatsoever. This is not purple loosestrife, which when established, simply cannot be pried out of the ground–not in my part of the world, at least.

Take a look at this list of herbaceous plants reported to be invasive. It includes all kinds of old-fashioned garden plants like hollyhocks, geraniums, several veronicas, lilies of the valley, even several clovers. I don’t know how aruncus dioicus escaped censure, since it’s seeding itself everywhere in my yard. Isn’t every plant that grows easily from seed potentially invasive?

Maybe you consider this list informative.  To me, it suggests a profound paranoia and lack of trust. It is the product of a culture I don’t want to join.

My feeling is, if it’s invasive in your yard, get rid of it. If it’s not invasive in mine, be quiet.

Here is how the Center for Invasive Species And Ecosystem Health defines the problem: “Invasive species, if left uncontrolled, can and will limit land use now and into the future.”

Exactly right. That control is called gardening. So the problem is not the plants, it’s people who neglect their land. But nobody who is reading this site is neglecting his or her piece of property.

So can’t we just be adult and admit that, as Michael Pollan pointed out in his brilliant first book Second Nature, the battle for an ungardened landscape has already been lost?

We’re not going to restore our pre-Columbian ecosystems, no matter what, for myriad reasons, including the size of our population and all that carbon we’ve been spewing into the air since the Industrial Revolution. The plants that are native to your area may well be struggling because of all the things we’ve already done to our environment, so planting “natives” may well mean planting something native to another ecosystem anyway.

Can’t we instead be as civilized as your average Parisian mutt and stop barking at each other?  Let’s face it, unless you have a staff of half a dozen taking care of your yard, every garden needs at least a few thugs just to take up room and do what they do best, which is add a brutal vitality to the scene.

Posted by

Garden Rant
on March 24, 2016 at 8:00 am, in the category Garden Rant turns 10, Ministry of Controversy.


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  1. Fan of the Rant, but on the topic of invasive species the posts consistently border on irresponsible. I guess controversy generates clicks. I actually agree with a lot of what gets said, but here in lies the problem: interchangeably using “invasive” plants in the garden vs. invasive species that escape cultivation. You can’t use two different things interchangeably to support your argument. I purposely use “aggressive” or “garden thug” for plants that behave that way in the garden. Invasive species are widely recognized by the scientific community as introduced species that escape and invade natural areas, and displace native plants, animals, etc. The environmental and economic costs are huge. Exotic plants may not be invasive, most of them aren’t (I’m not a native purest). Aggressive plants in the garden may not be invasive species that alter native plant communities, they’re just more of a nuisance. I agree that state lists of invasive species are imperfect. A regional approach is best. Some of them are exaggerated. I think a rating system backed by data that separates the worst from the rest would be helpful. Most gardeners have not spent the hours in the field (not the garden) to determine for themselves what is and isn’t an invasive species. With so many amazing native plants and non-native exotics to plant why are people clinging so tight to their precious invasive species?

  2. OK. But what if your yard isn’t large enough to accurately gauge if it is spreading? The wind/birds might take seeds of some of your thugs and spread them beyond your garden, to areas where there might not be a gardener to keep it in check.

  3. First of all, I have to disclose that I am a person that studies invasive species, and I am a person that enforces a weed act where we have a list of species that has been found to spread. We do take into account neighbouring areas that have invasive weeds and we put those on our list to be proactive.
    I understand your point of view because I am also an avid gardener. I think that we fall in love with the colours, the fragrance, the shapes and the wonderful wildlife that plants attract.
    However, there are numerous reasons why these plants are listed, and I don’t think there are any regions in North America or Europe that take adding a plant to the list lightly. It isn’t to make your life hard or because we like to “bark” at gardeners. These plants have been proven to be invasive (multiple reproduction methods, extremely fecund, high phenotypic plasticity, tough/robust), difficult to remove or eradicate, poisonous or hazardous to animals or people, change their ecosystem, AND/OR have a significant economic hardship to those that have to remove them. You’re right… we’re never going to get back to “restore” the ecosystem, and that’s a philosophical argument for another time. However, some plants can escape cultivation or gardens and do just fine in the ecosystem. They don’t outcompete native plants for niches, they don’t disrupt native wildlife or their habitats (which, by the way purple loosestrife does in addition to being difficult to remove). The plants that behave themselves are reasonably easy to control with mechanical methods, or they are listed on herbicide labels and the herbicides are effective.
    I think your rant is extremely irresponsible and that you are misinforming your readers on what the hazards are. It’s not just about you and YOUR garden. It is about your neighbours and how your acts can impact them. Karen (commenting above) is right, in that gardeners believe that they are keeping them from spreading, but they can’t control what animals move or the wind will move.
    I spend my time educating people about why they should care and alternatives for them to grow. I love educated debate, but it sounds like you don’t like being told you’re wrong. Instead of educating yourself on why you shouldn’t have it you just tell people that they are uncivilized and they should shut up. I hope that instead of just digging in your heels, you look at and look at some of the infestations people have because of neighbours that refuse to remove their plants/animals.

  4. The most dangerous, rampant, aggressive, and invasive species is of course Homo sapiens. 10,000 species go extinct each year and we are changing the climate with our activities and numbers.

  5. I had a purple Loosestrife pop up in my garden and loved the tall fuchia spike so graceful in my bed. It behaved for a couple of years and then these little seedlings were everywhere! They were the Loosestrife! I weeded like crazy since I knew it was reported as an invasive plant. I dig up the mother plant and it took me about 3 years to keep removing the sprout that tried to grow. I now am careful which plants I invite into my yard.

  6. Well, an invasive plant in my region may not be invasive in yours. However, it seems that an election year has me more than ready to allow others to say how they feel, and I will act as I will. The problem is not invasive plants so much (although garden thugs will escape when you move). The issue for me is more the freedom to garden in a way that makes me happy. On my land, happiness is a mixture of native and exotic plants thoughtfully placed, but I look to the plants indigenous to this county and the ecosystem where I am planting to distinguish my garden and give it a sense of place, as well as make it a celebration of nature’s gifts.

  7. There aren’t many differences in my mind between folks who want to tell you how to garden, and what you can or cannot grow, and those who want to tell you who you can marry, where you can and cannot travel, or what you can or cannot do with your body.

  8. Those of us who look different, behave oddly, hold uncommon views, or otherwise don’t fit the local mold can be continually harassed and harried by self-appointed Guardians of the Norm®. It’s easy to become sensitized to this.

  9. i don’t care whom you marry, but if you plant something which is invasive in your area then you aren’t just gardening, you’re attacking the local ecosystem. I too am impatient with, for instance, native only activists when they tell me that I shouldn’t plant non-natives per se in my garden. [makes rude gesture]

  10. Thanks Brenda and Ryan H. for calm, reasoned explanations that are easy to follow and learn from — in fact, they are civilized! I’ve always felt that gardeners LOVE to learn new things about plants and the natural world, and over the years, I’ve learned a lot about native plants and invasive plants. When I saw barberries taking over some of our Eastern forests crowding out beloved wildflowers, it brought into focus the reason why it would be irresponsible to plant new barberries in my garden, and why it would be good to educate others who might not see what is happening in the woods. Education does not have to be punitive or dictatorial; it can be enlightening!

  11. I volunteer at our arboreteum spending weekends cutting out hundreds of pounds of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle. When traveling into the south I’ve seen the extraordinary damage Kudzu and water hyacinth to their surroundings. They are not just ruining forests and waterways which many don’t care about. They continue to spread and also ruin personal property. These were all plants that people thought were a-OK at one point. On my own property my organic yard is constantly under attack by the creeping charlie someone once planted as a pretty ivy in the neighborhood. My choices are succumb to the invasion, hand pick it out, or use chemicals to try and destroy it each year.

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