I’ve been a vegetarian on and off for many years. Initially I simply felt better when I ate less meat. But then I would periodically have cravings. As I ate less meat for a longer period of time, I stopped giving into the cravings. After many years, though, a tofurkey changed all that. I had had yummy all vegetarian Thanksgivings, but one year I thought something was missing, and so I got a Tofurkey. My first and last one. I decided then and there that I’d either eat turkey, or I’d just fully embrace a different conception of what certain meals were supposed to be. As I have spent more time thinking about gardening and, in particular, more wild and native gardening, it strikes me as a similar conundrum. As we are encouraged to garden “better,” it can be difficult to give up the meat, to figure out what to do with these “new” plants that just – are – not – the old plants we love. And so sometimes we tofurkey—we try to add natives here and there in an otherwise manicured and crafted space, and we grimace as it goes down. Maybe we keep eating it, maybe some even like it, but there is probably a fair amount of time when it leaves an unpleasant taste, it takes away from the joy that our spaces bring us. Gardens take care, they take a lot of work. They can cost a fair amount of money. They are a labor of love, and we should go out and love our spaces. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t change how we garden, while also not feeling like we are being deprived.
At this stage, I’m a wild gardener, not really a gardener at all. I’m more of a nature student and explorer, an assistant. This now more wild approach happened by accident. My last garden had 100-year-old stone walls and a more traditional cottage garden layout. It also had a steep terraced slope that was mostly mowed when we moved in. For a variety of reasons, I mowed less and less of it over time, creating new garden spaces in some areas, and letting some areas go wild. The area in the picture above was adjacent to the farthest wild area and had started off more controlled. Year after year, I allowed some things to move in, and then more. Before long it was a mixture of my plantings and volunteers and was mostly chaos becoming the “fairy garden.” This area coexisted with the more traditional sections elsewhere. It was anything but traditionally pretty, but I became transfixed by it. It was wild and unexpected, but most importantly, it was so vibrantly alive in a way that other areas in my garden were not. It was resilient and low maintenance and teaming with life—plants, insects, birds, critters. It engaged all my senses and immediately took me elsewhere. At that time, this was a section of my overall garden, but I’ve become so attached to the feeling that now, that “wild” is about as tame as I can manage, with more of my garden like this or even more natural. It’s easy for me to add more natives because I like the environment they like. It’s like I was offered a delicious dinner by a vegetarian and had things I had never tried before that I found to be really yummy. I wasn't substituting food to be healthier; I was exploring new options.
As I think of the push to add natives, I often think of this. If you are going to care for plants, if you are going to nurture them, you must, at a minimum, like them or like something about them (say new butterflies that appear). The more they bring you joy, the better care you will take. To me, one of the most challenging ways to approach natives is simply to substitute plant lists—same garden design, same approach, just adding different “healthier” plants (tofurkey). Although there are some easy crossover (traditional/native) plants, many are a square peg to a traditional garden round hole. For some this may be a fine happy medium, and that is great. You can do more research and pick natives that most resemble traditional plants and keep it tame. But there are other ways to explore natives. As I originally had done, you could maintain a primary garden more traditionally, and add a new area that is altogether different. It could be a small edge or strip (a mini meadow), or it could be something bigger while still being a separate native or pollinator zone. [See below for a recent New York Times article about a rewilding process.) You could simply reduce your mowed area and let nature garden some space and see what happens. In other words, if “garden” very strongly means something specific to you, then maybe natives in the “garden” is not the greatest way to try them out. But they could be lovely or be appreciated as a low maintenance lawn edge. This is a way to try something totally new without feeling that you are giving something up or spending time making yourself eat something that you don’t think you like. It also happens to be an environment more suited to many natives. Who knows what you may discover. You don’t need to be dazzled by the wild to find something new that works for you. It’s about trying new food before you decide you don’t like it and trying it in a way that has a better chance of being something that you may really enjoy. It’s not often that a prescribed healthy direct substitute is what’s appealing. It’s when we let go or get creative that we could have a new meal that we are wowed by, and that also happens to be good for us.
I find nature amazing. It wows me and teaches me new things all the time, while also being a very therapeutic space for me. I didn’t decide one day that this would be how I would garden, I simply opened a door, invited nature in, and started a conversation.