September 15, 2010
Tom Intven
LO President

tom intven At the July Board meeting, we voted unanimously to institute a new award in honour of one of our recently deceased forefathers, Horst Dickert. Horst, especially in his later years, was an avid proponent of native plants in the landscape. The Horst Dickert Award will recognize the best use of native plant material in the landscape.

The use of natives in the landscape is a complex issue, the roots of which (no pun intended) go way back in history.

On the commercial side, in today’s market natives dominate over non-natives, as they have been pushed by municipalities, conservation authorities and development planners in the last 10 years or so. Tender calls predominantly list native species as requirements.

It is generally perceived that natives are more disease resistant and better adapted to our climate and soil types. There is also the threat of the non-natives becoming invasive and dominating the native population, as is the case with Norway maple, which casts such dense shade that it adversely affects the establishment of native seedlings.

Natives also vulnerable

It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, natives are just as vulnerable to disease, when overplanted, as non-natives. Rick Vanderkruk, president of Connon Nurseries NVK, says the widespread overplanting of Viburnum trilobum (highbush cranberry) in the past 20 years has had devastating results on the commercial landscape when viburnum beetle recently appeared and virtually wiped them out in a few summers. This case is also a result of limited availability of diverse native species.

There are other issues with native plants, like seed source to ensure biotypical hardiness, and cultivars. The issue of cultivars of natives is difficult to figure out for the environmental purists. How do they fit in?

Cultivars are frowned upon, because they are hybrids that are asexually propagated. There is some tolerance from the extremists south of the border. In the U.S., there is a new branded program called ‘American Beauties’ started by Steve Castorani, promoting the planting of native shrubs in the residential landscape. They have partnered with the World Wildlife Fund, contributing a portion of sales to their cause in exchange for their endorsement. The WWF has accepted cultivars of native plants into the program to allow for more foliage and flower appeal in the line-up.

On the residential side, served by the garden centres, natives have not had any significant uptake to date. It’s still all about colour and visual appeal. Natives tend to fare poorly in the WOW category.

Roots in religion

The philosophical conflict over natives (and natural landscapes) vs. highly cultivated hybrids (and highly manicured landscapes) has its roots in religious history.

In the twelfth century, St. Francis of Assisi founded the philosophical basis for appreciation of nature and the naturalistic movement. He saw God’s love expressed through all creatures, the forest and the beauty of natural landscapes. The patron saint of the environment (and animals) believed that nature praised God most when it was left untouched where all living things could live in their natural state of harmony. Modern supporters of the environmental movement have seized upon St. Francis’s precepts, suggesting that the most pleasing created landscapes are those which emulate natural landscapes (and ecosystems).

In the early sixth century, conditions were ripe for St. Benedict to establish the principles that glorified work and the control of nature to glorify God. St. Benedict, the founder of Western monastic life, carved the first monasteries from the swamps and mountains in the Roman countryside. He proposed regular working hours for all men, not just slaves, saying that the greatest disciplinary force for human nature is work; idleness is its ruin. His monks cleared swamps and briar patches, creating gardens that were tended daily. Benedict believed that mankind praised God most when he worked.

Proponents of St. Benedict’s philosophy of work and life value highly cultivated and tended gardens more than natural landscapes, because they represent the fruits of man’s labour. They feel that it is the action of working to enhance and beautify nature that praises God.

These two philosophies of landscapes and landscaping continually challenge each other in our industry today. There are strong proponents of each in our industry and in our client base, no matter within which sector we operate. While the environmental movement is claiming small victories on several fronts, I propose that the silent majority still appreciates a highly tended garden featuring cultivated hybrids that have heightened colour and appeal. Greenhouse, garden centre and nursery sales also verify this. I believe, as St. Benedict did, that our preference for these types of landscapes comes from our appreciation of the work that has gone into them.

That being said, I still love to look at and appreciate the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape.
Tom Intven may be reached at 519-631-1008, or