Innocent or Invader?


I have debated when to publish this post, and have finally decided that now is as good a time as any.  We are fast approaching Earth Day, a time to consider our commitment to the Earth we live on.  So I am adding an extra post in honor of  the Gardeners’ Sustainable Living 2011 Project at Thanks for Today.  I plan to blog about sustainability in another post next week, but this is a good place to start.

Where hope grows, miracles blossom.
Elna Rae

Be warned that before you read further, these are my informed opinions influenced by my beliefs and principles as well as life lessons handed down from my ancestors.  First and foremost my parents taught me to treat others as you would want to be treated.  It is a hard lesson to learn and practice, but one I base my actions on continuously.  It keeps me grounded and behaving in a respectful, kind, courteous, caring manner.  I am not a saint nor do I act like one regularly.  I am human and I make mistakes, but I am not above admitting my mistakes, taking responsibility for them and passing on the lesson.  So fasten your seat belts…here is my rant on this subject…….

Recently there have been many conflicting reports about native plants, so-called exotic plants and what are termed invasive plants.  We can all debate these definitions (native, exotic, invasive) until the cows come home, and we can read the articles and research, but let’s dig right in and see what is at the heart of this issue.  One side says we need to be careful about what we plant because it could invade the natural habitat and do harm.  Those on the other side of the issue feel we are overreacting and that these so-called invasives are not all that harmful.

Here’s really what it all means simply put:  Do we pay attention to how our actions affect the land and those that live in and on this land as we garden it, or do we just do as we please and to heck with what ever happens? Can you tell where I stand on this issue?

I advocate that we always must be good stewards of the land.  If you have read any other posts I have written, you know I have blathered on about this stewardship idea often.  It is a type of Hippocratic Oath for gardeners.  If we can follow this premise, to do no harm knowingly, then we are being good stewards.  Really why wouldn’t you want to be more cautious in case you might be doing something harmful?  Why side with let’s not overreact and wait to see?  By the time we see the real “total” effects, it could be too late.  Whole species of insects, animals and plants are going extinct daily in our world, and many because of what we are doing.

I believe in Karma, and I believe in sharing the land, air and water responsibly. You see I really care about what harm I may be doing to plants and animals and insects.   Native plants are tied so closely to the entire habitat in which they reside…the plant influences the way other plants grow; they influence the habitat for insects, and all sorts of land, water and air critters so intricately that I would need to write a book or whole website to give you all the info.  But that has already been done so many times, and all you need to do is read the research, not just one or 2 lone articles that say, ‘oh now maybe so-called invasive plants aren’t all that bad’.  Really!!

And I’ll take it one rant further by saying perhaps we want to believe that these plants do no “real” harm so we do not feel guilty about planting invasives, and because we like these plants and don’t want to give them up.  Of course there is the talk that it is too hard and expensive to get rid of these invasive plants so let’s just live with them.  Again, REALLY!!!! Are we that lazy and cheap or greedy a society that we would destroy habitats…wait what am I thinking…yes we are aren’t we….

And what are some other excuses for not planting natives….I love this one…they are also invasive or aggressive.  Yes many of the natives are aggressive…by that I mean they will colonize and take over whole areas of your garden, but that is what they are meant to do as they create a nurturing habitat for living things around them to survive.  So you have to be aware of how they grow, and how and what to grow for your garden.  I am by no means an expert, and I have been an ignorant gardener for a while now (maybe I should change my blog name), but ignorant because I did not have the knowledge not because I chose to ignore the facts.  Once I am educated on a topic, I will research it more, and then I feel it important to pass along that knowledge for others to have so they can make informed decisions.  So that is what I am hoping to do here.

Why are invasive plants so harmful?  Well here are a few facts:

  1. They are prolific and can multiply rapidly taking over an area and choking out native species especially if there is nothing holding them back now that they are out of their more restrictive natural habitat.
  2. They adapt easily to varied growing environments thus increasing their survival.
  3. They spread rapidly with the help of animals, wind etc.
  4. It is being debated if the loss of natives or their replacement by invasives harms the wildlife dependent on the native species for survival.  Read all the research, it does.

I will confess, out of ignorance, I have planted invasive types of plants, and I will likely have to take responsibility for those actions and clean up any harm I am doing.  Come on people, that is what it means to be a responsible citizen of this planet.  So, I will be checking the “forever green” area behind my property to make sure I have not unknowingly let invasive plants, groundcovers especially, get a foothold in a native protected area.

And I hope to chronicle natives in my yard (like the photos here-all are natives growing in my gardens) and in my area of the country through some sort of publication so I can continue educating people.  But finding some of these native species will be hard.  Many are protected by law and in some areas their whereabouts kept secret (really they are) so we won’t go and dig them up or trample on them.  Well someone has to protect plants that have become in short supply.

So what can you do:

  • If you are a grower, I hope you will cultivate more of the natives so those of us who want to grow more of them can.
  • Encourage nursery growers and local stores where you buy plants to stock more natives, and get rid of invasives especially those most harmful to your area.  If they are non-responsive, then do not buy from them.
  • Be careful how and where you dispose of invasive plants.  When in doubt throw it out in the trash.   I wouldn’t even trust composting some.
  • When going into “the wild” be careful what you bring with you.  Your clothes can harbor seeds from invasives growing in your yard.
  • Become more knowledgeable before you plant.

Carole Brown who blogs at Ecosystem Gardening is an incredible advocate and resource you should become familiar with. Subscribe to her blog, listen to her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.

Here are a few links for you to check out, to make sure you know what plants are labeled invasives in your state so you can make informed decisions:

National Invasive Species Information Center

The Nature Conservancy-Protecting Native Plants and Animals


The United States National Arboretum-Invasive Plants (lots of useful links for states and areas of the country) Species Information

If you have followed me to the end, I really appreciate your readership, and hope you will educate yourself and maybe start looking at what you are doing to uphold the Hippocratic Oath of Gardeners.  Look everyone has to make their own decisions here based on their knowledge and perspective, but I hope you will consider what you do as you garden so indeed you ‘do no harm’.

Special Note: Thank you to Vincent Vizachero of  Roland Park Native for keeping the dialogue going on a recent post I did, Going Native, and spurring me to write this post.  In one of his comments on the post Vincent said, “The really good news is that if, over time, gardeners simply increased the percentage of their gardens planted with natives, they would see a dramatic increase in wildlife.  Doug Tallamy has a great book about this (called “Bringing Nature Home”) and his website lists some of the most valuable plants for butterflies and caterpillars.” I strongly recommend Doug’s website and book which I am now reading.  Check out Ecosystem Gardening‘s post last week where Carole Brown talks with Doug.

    You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety. ~ Abraham Maslow

45 Replies to “Innocent or Invader?”

  1. Excellent Donna! I have used the Hippocratic Oath in regards to pesticides too. It is a very exciting time when so many are writing about this important topic and more are becoming caring stewards to our earth. The fact that you are now designing gardens for other people is a great way to educate others. Carole is a great example too! Some say that non natives do not even offer the quality of nectar produced by natives. I will have to say that some invasive plants . . . such as Bishops Weed . . . can be nearly impossible to be rid of without some pesticides, but I feel that is more harmful and do my best to keep the horrid plants I inherited in check. I appreciate the time it took to put this great post together! Brava!

  2. The movement to grow natives seems to be picking up momentum. More casual gardeners are aware that there’s a difference between plants due to garden centers native plant displays, at least in my area (St. Louis). There are growers in Missouri that specialize in natives too.

    I think it would be great if I could convince at least one nursery in the area to have a native plant giveaway… spend $x and get a free native plant, or something like that.

    1. Alan what a wonderful idea…you have now sparked me to think likewise here…find a grower who would display more natives and have a giveaway…even with the plant exchanges in the area I always give away natives since they love to sow themselves around…thanks for visiting my blog today….you certainly have added some sunshine to our gray weather!!

  3. So much good information, Donna. I’m with Carol on wanting to include pesticides in the call for awareness and may I also include herbicides. I’ve seen the ill effects in my own gardens of neighbors who spray herbicides freely without regard to educating themselves. Thank you for giving us all something to ponder and take action on.

    1. Ok I will exapnd my call now and add that to my educational rant to do list…I agree. I stopped using them even if it meant hand pulling spreading weeds…I mention chemicals in Mondays post but I think it needs more of a front seat…

  4. Donna, excellent post! I’m not an avid gardener, but I do love having a small one…the beauty, the fragrance, the natural ambience. I am also ingnornat about native and invasive plants and will do some research to find out the particulars. I don’t want to do anything harmful simply because I was too lazy to get the information I should have. Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention!

    1. Thank you Marcia. I am glad you learned something that has spurred you on to educate yourself more. You know once a teacher, always a teacher for me.

  5. I’m with you Donna- I don’t plant a lot of flowers but when I do they are most likely perrenials, but I do keep them contained. My favorite is a ‘Tiger Lily’ that grows wild around here- it was the first flower I put it.

  6. I confess: I shall never go entirely native. Apart from anything, it’s really rather hard to discern what should be considered “native” plants, if a plant has grown here for a thousand years, does that make it native? What if it has grown here for 500? Or 100? We’ve only grown potatoes in Denmark for the past 3-400 years, yet it is our national vegetable (unofficially, at least).

    I do subscribe fully to the stewardship idea, though, and I definitely try to consider the surroundings whenever I introduce something that has the potential to be invasive. (And whenever I weed… I do like Joe Pye Weed, but in Denmark it’s definitely alien and definitely has potential to be invasive if not kept strictly in check. Much like goldenrods that have already spread into the wild and are now probably beyond stopping.)

    I’ll finish up with an Australian saying: Upon this earth tread lightly. I was introduced to it when I attended a series of lectures by the Australian architect Glen Murcutt; his notions about architecture translates so readily into gardening. Do not abuse natural resources, consider the surroundings, adapt to the local vernacular style (or natural style for gardens).

    1. I am not sure if I will ever be a purist either, but thank you for such wonderful wisdom…I love the Australian saying…so true!!

  7. a brilliant post Donna, well written and one gardeners invasive is another gardeners native, I’m thinking of our English Ivy anf Scottish Broom both fine over here but invasives for you, Frances

    1. Thanks Frances and so true …it is all relative whether a plant is native or invasive…we just have to be careful…

  8. And the Oxalis I wait for impatiently, hoping for rain and green. While California looks on in horror.

    Disconcerted to read today that those postcard English cottages have thatch imported from China or Turkey and I wonder about alien invasive bugs sneaking in …

  9. This is a difficult subject to weigh in on from the standpoint of a city dweller. Not having the land in which to cultivate natives, my personal garden does not have even one plant considered native. Yet, I do have asters, yarrow, coneflower, coreopsis and many more, but all in hybridized varieties. Not one is the ‘weed’ version I would find in the field at the farm. It is primarily the same in design work. The Green initiative by NYS for publically bid projects has been running into some problems having growers grow plants typically considered native.

    And I agree with above. What determines ‘native’. How many years does it have to be established in an area. Also, what happens to the insect populations that are supported by these plants if we determine to replace them with another plant found in the environmental previously, say one hundred years before? I guess to be truly native, you would have to allow your property to to regenerate to whatever natural state it would assume. The problem with this is, what would it revert to. Not many would welcome that, especially in a city.

    1. That’s why it is hard to be a purist with this…so just doing what is good for your area is the best at this point…and the wonderful hybrids are better than some invasives…I also have hybrids and actually many would suffice…I think you are doing what you can where you can…there is never a perfect answer here…

  10. Hi Donna – Thank you for the wake-up call. As a “newbie” to gardening there has been so much to learn and absorb that I have quietly been avoiding educating myself thoroughly on this subject in favour of informing myself on others. I don’t think I’ve done any harm as yet, and I will now make a concerted effort now to properly educate myself on this. Fortunately our nurseries are responsible and I do have a list of what is considered “invasive” in our country. My landscaper removed some “invasives” from my garden last year and there are two left in my garden – trees which are considered Grade 3 invasive i.e. I am allowed to keep them but may not allow them to seed. So we are vigilant about weed removal in my garden. I don’t think I can bring myself to remove these trees – they are very old trees … what do you think?

    1. I would leave the trees until they pose a problem…how wonderful that you have a list for your country and growers who are helping…we need more of that here…I have only been learning about this the past few years so I am glad it has sparked you to learn more…

  11. You already know where I will come out on this. There just is no alternative: invasive plants are taking over our country and if we don’t do something quickly it will be too late. I hope you will forgive me for providing a link to my post on this subject: Yes, native plants are the most beneficial, but getting rid of invasive exotics is the most important.

    We can save the “what is native” debate until later, although I do think it is an excuse to disregard the whole issue and grow what you want. Doug Tallamy weighed in on the native hybrids and cultivars issue too: There is a native plant suitable for every spot that an exotic occupies so stop with the excuses.

    We bought our property in 1983 and have never used an herbicide, pesticide, or non-organic fertilizer. I started my nursery in 1992, growing 50% of the plants myself in the ground, and have done it organically. If I can do this in my business, which is my livelihood, I don’t understand why home gardeners, where gardening is optional, feel they have to use toxic chemicals.

    I will get off my high horse now, but you can tell this topic makes me crazy. Anyone who hasn’t read Doug Tallamy’s book should buy it tomorrow.

    1. I am so happy you provided these links..If you don’t mind I would like to use them as I keep the topic going and post again soon on a similar topic…since I have only read your blog these past several months I did not know some of your history and I thank you for making me more familiar with you and your passion…I agree totally with you and will think of you as another resource…as for the home gardener, it is about education…many are duped with the media bombardment of chemicals and pretty plants never even realizing there may be harm….since education is my day job I figured it was time to use it more here with this topic in particular..only by continuing the conversation and helping other gardeners learn more, we can make a change one gardener at a time…that is why I keep a native theme with my flower/plant posts…BTW I didn’t see any high horses 🙂

  12. This is a very nice post, Donna. Thank you for linking it to my project;-) It has just been during the last couple of years, since I started garden blogging, that I’ve been seriously learning and making some changes when it comes to being a steward of my habitat. I was outside just this weekend pulling and clipping, pulling and clipping ENGLISH IVY, that I myself had planted in 1996! I bought them at Lowe’s or Home Depot…where they still continue to sell them in huge quantities. What did I know about invasives back then?! At that time I also purchased & planted Euonymous vines that also are considered invasive. I added Vinca, too…which isn’t as bad, because the vine doesn’t get as thick and difficult to pull up…plus, it has a lovely little purple flower in spring. But I will be FOREVER trying to rid my property of these other invasive vines and it does frustrate me that I didn’t know better back then…but mostly, that the stores continue to sell them to unsuspecting gardeners. Ah, but no use being too upset. We all live and learn at our own pace & I think what’s most important is that we ARE learning and we ARE trying to do what we can to change problems we may have. I wish native plants weren’t so ‘rare’ and so ‘expensive’, too! I just ordered a bunch online…and spent way too much! But I’m excited to plant the Trillium, the Hepatica, and the rest of them. By the way, happy (almost) spring;-)

    1. I am so glad you liked it Jan…I too have made these horrible mistakes and have spent lots more on the natives which is why I hope we can get more growers selling natives for less….you will so love those natives…actually I agree we can’t get upset, but we can be passionate to try to educate people … they will hopefully come to the realization and make a change at their pace and timing…as your project says, we can all do one thing and planting one native and taking out one invasive will help…I’ll have a more traditional post to link in with as well on Monday that goes a bit broader about all the things I am trying to do…

    1. It seems a no-brainer as they say Jean but we all come to the light at different times and speeds…I hope to continue to keep this and other such topics front and center…thx for your support…

  13. Great post Donna. I am thoroughly in the “tread lightly” camp but also a pragmatic idealist rather than a purist. I wonder if this is currently more of an issue in the US than it is in the UK? Its not something I come across being discussed in the same way here.

    I think the big problem is one of education. It can be hard to know what will prove invasive if you buy plants from garden centres in this country. As is so often the case, it isn’t the informed and passionate gardeners that are the issue, but the weekend gardeners who pick up something pretty to brighten up their garden without even the knowledge that some things are invasive and the understanding as to why this might be a problem. I think that is the real battle.

    1. Janet it is definitely a big problem in the US and you are absolutely correct it is problem because of lack of education…I am glad you liked the post…we will continue the battle and I will continue to try to educate people…thx…

  14. Excellent article, Donna! I totally agree that each of us needs to become a steward and take care of the little patch of earth that is in our care. Consciously making the effort to do no harm is the first step. Seeking ways that benefit our environment, the wildlife who lives there, and also ourselves is the next step. Once we have knowledge creating positive change becomes easy, and we can help others stop doing those harmful things. I love how you are such a passionate advocate for the earth and teaching others how to take more positive steps!

    1. Thank you Carol…I am honored that you liked the post and that it touched you…I think this passion has been there since the first Earth Day….I am finding my voice again and loving the teaching aspect…after all it is what I do as my day job, teaching/education…perfect marriage with writing and gardening….

  15. Great, passionate post! Tallamy’s book is excellent.

    Your thoughts echo Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.” I’d like to suggest, if you’ve not read it, Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, which talks about the need for stewardship and our role in what he calls the biotic community–something I’m always on about, myself. He puts the whole idea of what our place should be in nature in an ethical context. Plus he’s just a great writer.

  16. Well written Donna. Sorry to be late to the conversation but just checking blogs…I commend you for your efforts, especially in helping to educate others on the topic. Education is the key to changing people’s perspectives and habits. Gardening is such a joyful experience and like anything else in life, it’s a path that we journey along and learn as we go with some mistakes and some successes. The more thought provoking information supplied to people, the sooner it will become more of a “main stream” topic of conversation.

  17. Hi Donna, I’m glad to have found your blog! Great post and a lot to consider. I think I’m kind of in the middle. Being from California, I love the warmth and color of Mediterranean plants. I now live in a very natural area which has been invaded by non native grasses, which are too numerous to think of removing on seven acres.
    We have battled poison oak here and broom when we see it and I, myself, planted Mexican primrose, before I knew how well it would ‘adapt’ itself into the flower beds. I am blogging about my struggle to remove it.
    I now stick to mostly CA natives, although I know some purists who will only plant those CA natives that are native to their very local area. I think it’s personal how you fit on the scale!
    To me, it’s a real crime to plant bamboo, where it can go wild. I see it spread through the irrigation ditches here in the San Joaquin Valley where all the crops are grown. Can you imagine how far it could spread through the waterways?
    I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    1. Sue I am so happy to have found your blog too thx to Anna…I agree it really is about what you can do at your pace and with your circumstances…I do not see myself as a purist and I have exotic plants and have planted invasives before I knew, but now I take it slow and consider things…I look froward to reading your posts too…I loved learning about nurse logs on your blog and have a stump just waiting for me to plant it…

  18. I have enjoyed reading your thought provoking post and the commentary that follows. I, too, am shocked that invasives continue to be sold. Leatherleaf Mahonia, which I pulled out of my garden, is supposedly on the forbidden list in my state, but what does that mean? I still see it for sale in many places. When I tell the nursery worker, I get only a shrug. Apparently these lists of invasive plants are purely for education and lack any enforcement. It is definitely an uphill battle, but at least I can do my small part.

    1. Deb I am so glad you enjoyed the post…I enjoyed the conversation that has ensued. I guess it really is about what we all can do…I hope we can persuade the nursery people there is big money in natives as well…it really is too bad..

  19. Donna, I sure did follow you to the very end. I appreciate all which you say in regards of where you! live. However, I know about this problem, and sometimes I talk the talk, but do I walk the walk! Tell you what does annoy me, those darned weeds that are not native to my country, don’t feel responsible for them though. I have to say, in this part of Scotland, the majority of garden plants come from elsewhere in the world and I honestly can only think of one which was regarded as an unwelcome guest and that was the Rhododendron ponticum which has now been pretty well eradicated in our area. Most other garden plants require nurturing and would have difficulty thriving in the country verges and wild areas of this land. I do of course see where you are coming from and know better advocate for the cause could be found.

    1. Thanks Alistair…it is hard to walk the talk here too…we so love our exotics and unfortunately in many places here they do catch wind and take off …it is good to hear how others are dealing with similar problems around the world though…

  20. I’ve always grown a mix of native, and pollinator friendly, native-friendly plants and do my best to avoid anything invasive. Aside from the benefits to our environment, including our soil and our beleagered native pollinators, native plants are also cost-effective since they can be started from seed. Seed for native plants is readily available, if not in local garden centers, then through seed swaps and through the internet. We can also save and share some of our own seed from our native gardens.

    Some plants are much easier from seed than others. I started with the easier varieties and am now having fun with others that are more challenging to start. It takes patience. Some natives bloom from seed the first year, others may take 3, 5, or more years before they bloom. The rewards are worth the effort, seeds are much less costly than plants, and it’s sometimes easier to find seed than it is to find certain native plants.

    1. Linda these are such excellent points…I have a meadow of native wildflowers all from seed…it does take patience and te natives have so many more benefits..hopefully the more bloggers write about natives the more other gardeners will learn and try…thanks for stopping by!!

  21. Interesting. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and really kind of soul-searching. I agree with Donna that natives are harder to manage in an urban environment. My townhouse garden, for example, only gets 1/2 day of sunshine, and desert native plants really seem to need more than that–if they don’t get it, they either get leggy or misshapen or they grow all out of proportion. (Or they die.) On the other hand, the more mountain-y native plants that are OK with a.m. sun just fry in the heat reflected from the walls, and many of them want more water than I’m willing to give them. I’m beginning to find natives that thrive, but it’s not as easy as I thought it would be when I plowed in with all kinds of ideals!

    1. Stacy it is hard to find natives for a native area that has been changed by our man-made materials as you and Donna have pointed out. But just trying that is so wonderful…

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