November 15, 2010
Re: Tom Intven’s President’s Message, Horticulture Review, Sept. 15, 2010, native plants, and two ideals of beauty.

I very much appreciated Tom Intven’s reflections on the increasing use of native plants in the landscape. It was with pleasure that I read about the Horst Dickert Award for native plants. I was also happy to consider the differences between the gardening techniques of St. Francis and St. Benedict. I believe that it is only by appealing to, or changing people’s belief systems that we can ever effect true change.

I do want raise a cautionary note about the conclusions of the article. It’s the statement that the majority of people will always want to garden with ornamentals like St. Benedict, implying that the way of St. Francis is only for those who are passionate about helping the local environment. I believe that this is a false dichotomy, and hope to point out that our choices as horticultural professionals in highly-structured gardens have a much greater impact than we may realize.

First, it is important to consider how important native plants are for supporting the needs of local wildlife populations. Douglas Tallamy, in his excellent book, Bringing Nature Home, points out that while all plants can provide shelter, and ornamentals with berries can provide some food, but only native plants function well in ecosystems. Native plants have unique relationships with a variety of organisms, allowing them to transfer energy up throughout the food chain.

Second, all plants in the landscape act as seed reserves from which local parks, woodlands, roadside areas and other natural lands receive seed to grow the next generation of plants. When we plant natives in our urban gardens, we directly affect the plant community of other ecosystems besides the ecosystem that is within our own backyard.

What does all this have to do with choices? When I walk around my neighbourhood in west Hamilton, I see many ornamentals used in the landscape, creating an impoverished ecosystem. In wild areas along the escarpment, it is full of Norway maple, tree of heaven (or ghetto palm), and white mulberry, affecting those ecosystems.

How did these trees get into these environments? They arrived largely because of horticultural professionals. And my observations are true of most urban environments. Nursery growers and landscapers of the past made choices, and we are dealing with consequences. Currently most residential landscape planting practices still use predominantly ornamental species. As a result, we are continuing to contribute to these problems.

Here is where I believe Intven’s article presents a false dichotomy. It is possible to use native plants to solve most of the problems we encounter in the landscape. There is no reason why a variety of native plants cannot be used in highly structured landscapes, foundation plantings, and specimen trees. Our choices today as horticultural professionals have a much greater impact than just our own back yards.

Peter Scholtens
Verbinnen’s Nursery