Sunday, January 29, 2006

Going Native and Speaking Up

Takoma Gardener is on a tear! Go, girlfriend!

About garden bloggers needing to a forum to speak to the nursery industry--I wholeheartedly agree, but I'd say that we are speaking. It's not hard to find us. Go read some blogs, people! Hello, it's called an RSS feed! Our postings can appear, as if by magic, on your desktop. You don't even have to come to us--we'll come to you. Your customers are speaking--are you listening?

I get a couple of magazines in the mail that are aimed at the nursery industry. It's like listening in on a conversation I'm not supposed to hear. There's a great deal of hand-wringing over how to satisfy the customer--particularly the woman customer--and more particularly, Gen X customers. (Oh, that tricky iPod generation! The latchkey generation! The instant gratification, latte generation! Oh, puh-leeeze.)

They have a hard time getting beyond platitudes about customer service, but when they do, it mostly takes a wrong turn into easy plants for beginning gardeners, pre-planned gardens, pre-filled containers, the basic no-care, do-nothing, non-garden for non-gardeners. So like a certain political party who shall remain nameless, they ignore their base and instead chase after undecided voters --uh, I mean, novice gardeners--and get horribly off message and generally don't have a clue. I mean, do these people even garden at home?

And about the native plant stuff. Yeah, I agree that there's not much point telling gardeners that they should only plant a narrow range of natives in their garden. It is an artificial environment, period. Look on the bright side: what else do most people do that allows them to get outdoors and participate in any kind of natural science? A garden is a work of art, it's a science experiment, it's a habitat, it's a hobby, it's a form of exercise, it's a community connnection...need I say more?

Look, I'm more than willing--in fact, I'm eager--to boycott the real evildoers. The weeds of mass destruction. You won't catch me planting pampas grass or French or Scotch broom in my garden. Give me an invasives list of some manageable size (or, even better, talk the nurseries into not carrying the plants or labeling them or putting up a poster or warning peole at the checkout counter or something), and I'm there. But beyond that--honestly. Most of our food crops are non-native. Where does it end?

And about earthworms. I'm glad people are talking about the fact that soil is a living, breathing ecosystem full of critters that are themselves native or non-native. This is not just about earthworms; it's also about nematodes, spiders, ants, mites, fungi, all kinds of visible and microscopic creatures. And in some northern hardwood forests that did not have a native earthworm population because the last Ice Age wiped them out, European worms have moved in, thanks to human activity, and munched the sweetly rotting forest floor and, in changing the soil, changed what kinds of plants can grow there.

Even the forestry experts I interviewed for The Earth Moved specifically asked me not to use the word "destroy." They're changing the plant community. They're bringing about a shift in what plants will grow there. It doesn't mean that all earthworms are bad in all ecosystems; it just means that some species, in some areas, can change the soil and that changes the plant communities. It's a good lesson for anyone trying to preserve or restore a habitat: all dirt is not created equal. Think carefully about where you're getting your potting soil, fill dirt, etc. (It's also worth pointing out that the worms were not alone--what plants did survive were mowed down by deer. In fact, excluding the deer in experimental areas helped quite a bit, making it a markedly less dramatic story.)

But this has basically no relevance for your basic city or suburban gardener, where European earthworms probably already populate your soil and have for some time. They're basically good in almost all situations. You couldn't keep them out anyway; they're probably hitching a ride home from the nursery with you anyway. (for more, you can either read the book or the blog; it's all in there somewhere.)