A 21st Century Garden Ethic

– Posted in: Garden Musings

Butterflies- Garden Ethics

Written by Benjamin Vogt, Guest Contributor

One late summer afternoon I was crawling around on my knees out back, getting a view of the garden’s undercarriage where so much of the real action happens – spiders nabbing prey, beetles walking from stem to stem, ants leaving scent markers to food. On my weary knees I heard a faint scratching and turned to see a female black swallowtail struggling to lift into the air; with one missing wing and others faded and tattered, I’m not even sure how she made to my garden. But she did. She made it into my cupped hands as I lifted her to a Zizia aurea to lay what would be the last five eggs of her life before she gave out to her inevitable purpose.

Three of the eggs hatched in a few days, became caterpillars over two weeks, and hopefully emerged the following spring in the garden I left standing to shelter their overwintering chrysalides. I bet you’ve had an experience like this; one that feels like a gut-busting honor, one that connected you more deeply to place and welcomed you fully or openly into the rich web of existence. Such an experience transforms us and we can never look at the garden, the world, or our place in it in quite the same way.

Benjamin Vogt- bumblebeee

We live in a world fully altered by our actions. Overfished oceans acidify as the weight of plastic floating in it equals the weight of all living humans combined. Half of all North American bird species are threatened with extinction by the end of the century. One third of global plants may be functionally extinct in their ecosystems by mid century. Kids growing up today see 35% fewer butterflies and moths than their parents did forty years ago. One of the most threatened environments are grasslands, more in peril than the Amazon rainforest yet as effective at scrubbing the air. Our actions matter in profoundly destructive ways.

And our actions matter in profoundly constructive ways. Our gardens matter. How we garden and who we include in our garden, or who we garden for matters. Traditional landscape design, whether at home or in public spaces, so often privileges the needs and wants of one species – instead, our gardens could be designed more equally for the beauty and function of multiple species at once. As we welcome the biological life processes of other fauna into our gardens we welcome a profound element of design and purpose into our lives. A garden designed only for us is devoid of forgiveness, mercy, and hope – it is a signal of our disconnect, our alienation, our loneliness in the world. Gardens are meant to celebrate the beauty of wildness and translate our emotional connection to nature, but how can they do that if they are primarily created for us alone.

What does a 21st century garden ethic look like? Inspired by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, a garden ethic sees the built landscape as a community of like-minded creatures dependent on one another. A garden ethic builds on empathy – seeing life through anothers eyes – and rethinking what pretty is. A beautiful garden welcomes us, consoles us, heals us, teaches us; and a beautiful garden does this through providing the same services for birds, bees, moths, beetles, wasps, soil microbes, and more. Of course, this does not mean that you should allow your reading home to become overrun with insects such as wasps. While your garden should welcome all different types of insects, if you find yourself with an unwelcome wasps nest, you should probably do whatever you can to remove the danger of it from your property. A garden ethic asks us what we value in a world we’ve remade and now must tend as a gardener in order to maintain functioning and resilient biodiversity.

Ecodiverse fall garden

What will our landscapes look like in the future? How will they sequester carbon, cool the air, filter groundwater and re-mediate soil? How will they create a better home for all of us, not just one of us? How will gardens wake and empower us to address the larger yet connected environmental issues beyond the garden fence? How will built landscapes teach us about our new role as stewards of life and as gardeners of our own hearts? Empathy and compassion are our new core design elements in a world of mass extinction and habitat loss; the exciting realization is that we have the potential to be all that we’ve ever dreamed of as a unique species evolved to be far-hearted, creative, and able to implement a garden ethic for all of us. Go out to the garden, get on your knees, and listen for the life calling you home.

Benjamin Vogt lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where he owns Monarch Gardens, a prairie garden design firm. He speaks nationally on native plants, pollinators, sustainable (and ethical) garden design, and has a weekly column at Houzz.com that includes over 150 articles. Benjamin’s writing and photography have appeared in dozens of publications from Garden Design to Orion Magazine, as well as books such as The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (Iowa) and Gardening For Butterflies (The Xerces Society / Timber Press). You can learn more about Benjamin and his design work at: www.monarchgard.com

I have known and followed Benjamin Vogt for several years. I’m thrilled that he has added his voice to the GGW roster. He is a gardening professional filled with passion, knowledge, and an insatiable desire to share his gardening values with others; his words and thoughts are meaningful. So please give him a big welcome by commenting and sharing this post on social media. With deep appreciation, Fran

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at www.fransorin.com.

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Fran Sorin
13 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

donna April 15, 2016, 12:32 pm

This article fits with my intuitive gardening style which seemed to manifest at an early age sans a formal education prerequisite

Robin T April 15, 2016, 5:01 pm

Thank you for A beautiful article. In the fall last year We converted our landscaping to native California plants flowering and not flowering. Only recently, with the spring weather and some rainfall, we are seeing colorful flowers and the plants are growing more and more each week. We see some of the critters you speak of and look forward to more as time goes by.

Lillian Osborne April 15, 2016, 5:21 pm

It is not often an article speaks to heart and mind with equal appeal and reason. This one did, and I thank you.

SHEILA SCHULTZ April 15, 2016, 7:14 pm

benjamin… your words remind me of why I do what I do. We are the generation that needs to leaD the beginnings of change that will impact our children’s future. Life without pollinators will take future generations into SYFY.

lisa April 15, 2016, 9:47 pm

i love benjamin vogt. I became familiar with him through Houzz. His ethos is mine, and I have begun to plant and tend as per his guidance. I can’t wait for the butterflies of summer.

Linda April 17, 2016, 6:02 am

In the last garden we had, we tried to make it as insect and bird friendly as we could. We planted out flowers and shrubs favoured by bees and butterflies, as well as nectar yielding plants for birds. And it paid off! The amount of birdlife and insects went up noticeably! It was such a joy to see our garden full of birds and hear their songs and to hear the happy buzzing of bees! We have moved to another house which has no garden! But we’ll plant out plants we know wildlife love and hopefully soon, our garden will be full of life again!

Scott April 17, 2016, 9:31 am

Wonderful thoughts benjamin!

Benjamin Vogt April 17, 2016, 11:02 am

Robin — the instant I started adding more native my pollinators numbers alone increased many, many fold. the butterfly bushes left and were replaced with asters and goldenrod — far more beneficial. 🙂

Benjamin Vogt April 17, 2016, 11:04 am

lisa — he loves you, too! thank you for reading my words (seriously, writers never know if they make an impact — so thanks to all of you hear stopping to say something, it means a lot for all of us (human, butterfly, prairie dog, etc).

Fran Sorin April 20, 2016, 6:25 am

Thanks for your thoughts Scott. I think that younger professionals in our industry, like Benjamin, who is earnest, intelligent with a strong vision and the conviction and ability to share it through his writings and talks, need to be supported and encouraged. Fran

JT April 23, 2016, 10:37 am

I share the praise of the other commenters. Benjamin speaks to my heart, and reaffirms why we work so hard to keep a natural garden. Now if only the damnable HOA could be brought to reason.

Nancy Kirkpatrick May 6, 2016, 12:12 pm

an intelligent call to action. I’ve shared this article with several friends and asked them to do the same. Overwhelmingly, the consensus is: we CAN do more, want to do more. thank you for your words and your actions. I’d like to feature you (this article) on my own blog as a guest, if you would consider doing so.
The Lens and Pen – Nancy Kirkpatrick

Janice Goole July 24, 2016, 12:05 pm

You give us a lot to think about. Thanks goodness we have gardens to help the environment and give us a feeling of peacefulness and joy. Since I retired i have gotten more and more involved in my garden and it brings happiness and a feeling of accomplishment every day.

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