Why Looks Aren’t Enough in My Garden—5 Reasons Why Pretty Doesn’t Cut It

Cascade hops (Humulus lupulus, “Cascade”) climbing up straw bale twine in the front yard.
Cascade hops (Humulus lupulus, “Cascade”) climbing up straw bale twine in the front yard.

Do you have some basic rules for the plants you bring into your yard and garden? I know from design work that constraints improve final results—there’s nothing more intimidating than a blank slate and the admonition to “just do whatever you like.”

Maybe the constraints for your yard and garden aren’t yours by choice? You’re renting and you can only farm in a small plot near the house, or you’re in an apartment and all you’ve got access to is a balcony. Maybe your loved ones have severe pollen allergies, or your yard is dominated by allelopathic walnut trees, or there’s very little space that receives full sun. All of these and many more constraints can actually help define the planting opportunities you have.

We’re fortunate to be well-positioned here at the Main Street Garden. While I’d love a little more Southern exposure, fewer vines like English and Poison Ivy, and somewhere—anywhere— to drain excess water to after a downpour, in general we’ve got room and light to try a lot. And plans to try a lot more than we have already!

Still, I’ve added some basic rules for the plants allowed into our yard and garden that are independent of any physical or environmental constraints. Some rules have to do with protecting our dogs—nothing poisonous to them inside the fence, so no castor beans (Ricinus communis) no matter how cool they look, and special care with garlics and onions. Other rules are more political/environmental—lean toward open-pollinated, heirloom varieties, and always organic or better. And some are purely personal/logistical—no-to-low maintenance plants only.

My first rule, though, is that a plant can’t just be pretty. It needs to do something for someone in the yard or garden. It has to be food, or It has to be shelter, or it has to amend the soil, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, a plant can look good for sure, but it can’t only look good. Grassy lawns comes to mind.

Here are five reasons why looks alone won’t do around here:

1) Wildlife is hard-pressed on all sides, largely due to thoughtless human activity. Planting with a thought towards other creatures is just being a good creature yourself.

2) It’s important to demonstrate that the new normal is not the only option. The large and chemically intensive lawns many aspire to today is a market segmentation phenomenon and the result of decades of advertising. It’s important to show that there are better—cheaper, healthier, less laborious, and more beautiful—options. I love my trellis of hops (Humulus lupus, “Cascade”), herb ground covers, and guilded plant groupings!

3) Insisting that a plant do more than look neat makes me take responsibility for what I plant. I’m a new gardener, so I see lots of plants that I know next to nothing about. That makes me take lots of pictures when I’m out shopping so that when I’m home I can hit the internet to research. I need to know what a plant will look like when its mature, if its poisonous, its root structure, its preferred soil conditions, tolerances, and most importantly, as a permaculture artisan, where else it’s being used and how. If a plant can do double, triple, or even more duties in the yard I want to know and both it and me up for success. This helps ensure that the Master Gardeners’ cardinal rule is heeded, “The right plant for the right place.”

4) It increases pride in tending and sharing the garden. This is an offshoot of #3, but when I know more about my plants and plant them with a role to fill and a function to expect and evaluate it changes my relationship to my yard and garden. Here, plants aren’t capricious purchases placed with a moment’s thought and when they don’t survive or if they do thrive it isn’t a shoulder-shrugging mystery or a call for intensive chemical intervention. It’s a design that I’ve participated in, that I’ve nurtured, and am rewarded by. Walking a guest through the garden is so much more meaningful for us both when I can articulate the natural processes at work—feeding pollinators or providing shelter or amending soil—this is good work. And ultimately, I think a big part of gardening is about stewardship, of the land and other creatures and of our own souls.

5) It increases biodiversity, and mental diversity too. Working with plants that earn their place in the yard through more than just a headshot has lead me to introducing WAY more species and cultivars into my yard than is typical for a southern Virginia in-town plot. As I try to find different plants for different needs—often prompted by a casual comment in something I’ve read or heard—it makes me look for different suppliers, different dealers for less typical plants, and it helps me prompt local nurseries for more diverse offerings. It also helps me to figure out what local suppliers excel at—herbs and cover crop seed from Abott Farm Suppliers, conifers and clearance trees from Lowe’s. It also makes me more creative, more open to possibilities, and more aware of hiden connections, believe it or not; it was looking for a solution to my walnut tree problem that helped me turn a corner into permaculture, which is related to my heart disease, honestly.

There are, of course, more reasons that you might think of, and certainly more to say about the list above. What are your rules for your yard and garden?

I’ll revisit these and related points again and again, I’m sure, but right now when the yard and garden are going through a particularly, shaggy teenage phase where it all seems just a mess at times, it’s important to remember that pretty isn’t everything.

~Ben

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