Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Don’t Panic! Ethical Gardening is Possible

By Ron Sullivan
Friday July 13, 2007

I’ve talked about a couple of ethical aspects of gardening over the past two weeks: ethical suppliers and basic kindness to plants, the reason I don’t buy Arizona desert species for my shady, poorly drained Berkeley garden.  

But wait; there’s more!  

(Gardening can get to feeling like being a Catholic in the ‘50s: no matter what you do, it’s morally suspect. Some of us remember the “fault” of scrupulosity. If you’re too careful about never doing anything wrong, that’s wrong too. Think too much about this stuff, you’ll end up catatonic. A commenter on Twisty Faster’s ovular blog I Blame the Patriarchy countered paralytic perfectionism. One’s patriarchy footprint, like one’s carbon footprint, exists no matter what, but it’s useful to reduce its size. So stop fretting, start learning, and garden on.) 

What we plant and where we plant it matters also because of two almost-contradictory points.  

The first and most obvious is that we shouldn’t plant invasive exotics. Reams and volumes have been devoted to this point, but still the “really, this variety hasn’t been proven invasive yet” broom and “oh, it’s not so bad on the coast” pampas grass and German ivy and Algerian ivy and Japanese dodder—the yellow stuff that eats entire trees—gets sold and bought, and planted.  

Planting invasives is no more responsible than a night at the bathhouse without condoms. “Invasive” means wildland-invasive, not garden-invasive; the latter’s a mere inconvenience, though it is certainly reason for suspicion.  

More subtle is the idea that maybe we shouldn’t plant natives, either—if they’re close enough relatives of our native neighbors to interbreed with them, but distant enough in other ways to mess with the local gene pools. For example, California poppies from the south of the state might have heritable differences from those native here; we just haven’t noticed those differences yet.  

The wild strawberries native to Strawberry Creek are legendary for their taste, though I doubt there are any of the originals left there. Most of what you can buy (or find) is insipid. They look the same, though.  

Coastal wild California poppies look different to us, yellower than the straight-orange “standard” poppy. For all we know, northern and southern, or Contra Costa and Marin, or Berkeley hills and South Bay orange poppies might look different to, say, certain native bees; they might have markers visible only in the ultraviolet range. They might smell different to other olfactory receptors. It might matter. We don’t know.  

With that in mind, Native Here Nursery in Tilden Park labels its plants with their points of origin, in careful detail, sometimes as fine as the north side of some hill vs. the south side. If someday we find out that there are differences that matter, such plants will have kept their ancestry whole, ready for the future. 



Native Here Nursery 

101 Golf Course Road, Berkeley 

(510) 549-0211 

Fri.: 9 a.m.-noon; Sat. 10 a.m.-1 p.m. 

Tilden Park, across from the entrance to the Tilden Golf Coursewww.ebcnps.org/nativehere.html 


Twisty Faster 



Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.