When we first moved to this garden nearly 12 years ago, we were delighted to find daffodils blooming our first spring, in a lush mass across a bank in the front yard. We watched in wonder as their buds opened, revealing their varied forms and colors.
Our next door neighbors, an English couple, also love daffies and plant a fresh lot of bulbs each fall to add to their springtime display. Daffodils are heirloom plants, blooming for many decades after they are planted. They divide each summer and sometimes their seeds are spread around, allowing for natural hybrids and unpredictable spread. Their bright yellows, whites and golds light up our woodlands before the first buds of Forsythia or wild deerberries begin their bloom.
Popular in Europe in the 16th Century, early colonists brought Narcissus bulbs to Virginia sewn into the hems of skirts and coats. They were a bit of home brought with them as they settled this wild land.
Our garden was carved out of this woodland when our home was built in the mid-1960s on previously undeveloped land, rolling hills and ravines on the banks of College Creek. Before the developers bought it, it had belonged to a local hospital as an investment property, having been donated some years prior by a logging company.
I’m told that all of the native trees had been cleared around Williamsburg by the Revolutionary War. I’ve seen historic maps of the area between the James and York rivers, cleared of forest, dating to the late 18th Century. Although our area was settled by the English and Germans in the 17th Century, before their arrival and in those earliest years of settlement it was still hunted by the native peoples who inhabited coastal Virginia.
When we first came here, the garden we inherited was already a ‘novel’ garden. That is a term new to me, but means that the natural flora of the land has been disturbed and ‘exotic’ plants brought in to replace the native plants that once grew in a spot. The two earlier owners of our home were both avid gardeners.
We found Asian Camellia and Forsythia shrubs planted under the native oaks and red maples. We discovered European daffodils planted under the native dogwoods and redbud trees, already supporting a thick skirt of dark green European ivy.
There was an Asian Jasmine vine planted on the railing near the back door, Japanese mophead Hydrangeas in a hedge by the garage, Chinese hollies, a hybrid rose, various fruit trees, and Asian Hibiscus shrubs everywhere. I found it charming.
When we were ready to plant, we visited local garden centers and read nursery catalogs in search of favorite plants.
The American philosophy of gardening from the 17th Century until very recently has been to find, exploit and plant every useful and beautiful plant that will grow in the climate. Horticultural explorers have looked for useful and profitable plants on every continent and in every climate; and still do. Ordinary folks like us can grow shrubs and herbs, vegetables, vines, trees and flowers from any part of the planet, all jumbled together in the same acre of land.
But should we?
That is the intriguing question I’ve been grappling with, lately. The more deeply I explore the importance of planting site natives, that support the many insects, animals and other plants already living in a region, the more I realize how much I really don’t know, and don’t understand, about the ecology of our garden.
The issue is much larger than our acre. The issue is much larger than our neighborhood, or state, or even our continent. The entire world may now be a garden of sorts, touched by man for human purposes, with little wilderness left. But when we look around and consider the changes our hands have made, is it ‘good?’
A plant lives in complex relationships with the soil cradling its roots, the other plants growing nearby, the insects that chew its leaves or pollinate its flowers, and the insects and birds that spread its seeds. It is the relationships, and the community created by a collection of plants growing in proximity to one another that either support the greater ecology of an area or contribute to its demise. Issues of soil health, hydration management, species support or extinction, and perhaps even climate change all depend in large part on how we steward the land we own in our private and our public spaces.
Benjamin Vogt, a horticultural professional, ecologist and author has me squirming a bit as I read his 2017 book A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.
Many of the plants I love to grow are European, Asian, or from parts of North American beyond Virginia. Many of the site natives I perhaps should be growing in our garden don’t have the same appeal. As I’ve planted more and more native plants, or allowed them to take root and spread in this garden, I often find them aggressive. They crop up in unexpected places. Their plan runs counter to mine.
Plants I pulled out as ‘weeds’ during our first years here, I later learned, after a bit of research, are site native wildflowers. My knowledge of native plants grows a bit more each year as I question what grows around me. But most of these plants are tough to find, at least in their ‘species’ form, in any catalog or shop.
The whole conversation brings us back to that fundamental questions: “Why do we garden?” “Who is the garden for?” Is it for the human who makes it, or for the larger environment and web of local life that depends upon it for sustenance?
There are as many answers to those questions as there are individuals pondering them, discussing them. Vogt takes many of my own arguments for growing a ‘novel’ garden, one mixing native plants with hybrids and imports, and takes them apart piece by piece. I squirm, and keep reading out of curiosity and a deep knowing that on some essential level he understands the bigger issues more intimately than do I.
I’m still enjoying our daffodils, with their bright and optimistic blooms. Even as I’m watching flats of native oaks I sowed in fall for signs of growth, I’m also preparing to plant Caladiums, native hundreds of miles to our south. Caladiums do nothing for the local wildlife, which is part of why I love growing them. They survive the grazers.
I have decades of training in what to grow and how to grow it based on a novel garden filled with beautiful plants to please the human senses.
Now, I’m trying to learn to shift my sensibilities to garden more for the planet, and for the support of our local ecosystem, than for my own very human desires. The reward for growth and change comes in the flutter of butterfly wings and the flight of hummingbirds. High wages for rewarding work.
With appreciation to The Propagator who hosts Six on Saturday each week.