Talking Native Plant Garden Design with Allyson Greenlon
"There is nothing I love more than sitting side by side with someone I love, preferably with a cup of strong black tea in tandem and the morning light painting the scene beautifully, while we weed and talk about our lives, experiences, and the world as if we have all the time in the world."
So lovely. I really appreciate your framing of weeds and weeding.
Gosh, I look forward to Garden Study each week!
I love this. Learning about native plants can be so fun and doesn’t need to be virtue signaling or self-righteous. It can be a way to really fall in love with your local region
I just love it when people’s names match their professions. 😊 I think once you become interested in your garden as part of nature and the ecology of your area, you naturally move more toward native gardening. Pollinators dying out? Not on my watch! Once you start down the rabbit hole of food, shelter and natives for wildlife, you’re lost (but in the best way).
We have a wonderful native plant nursery near me and my first step towards introducing more natives is just going there and walking around, learning what I see commonly that actually belongs here. It's like a whole other world.
It is so, so important to match plants to your local growing environment. Here in Zone 5, we get wide swings from sub zero to the 90s. I see plants at garden centers that simply cannot withstand cold, but they are sold anyway. Likewise, when I lived in Phoenix, I saw northern plants that needed oceans of water to survive in Zone 9., and their pollen was worsening g allergies. A horticulturist told me snowbirds brought things down from up north that were not suited for the desert, which created a problem.
I love gardening in general, but especially native plant gardening because it feels much gentler to me than my day job working in commercial agriculture
I planted Chinese wisteria because I grew up with it in my east bay childhood home. It was a lot of nostalgia and a little grief for me--a reminder of my dead mom and everything that comes with that. The scent memory. Anyway, no one told me it's extremely problematic and invasive at the time I bought it. I haven't actually had any issues with it and I prune aggressively. But every time I try to ask a question about it and getting it to flower (two years no flowers yet) I just get hate and vitriol from the native plant people about how I should rip it out. Unfortunately this has put me off joining more of these communities online and learning more. I really appreciate this post but where can we find more similar balance? I'm not an evil person for having wisteria. Can we all take a breath?
What a beautiful and inspiring interview! my family and I moved out of a condo and into a home with a large and long-neglected yard in zone 6b 3 years ago and the idea of patience resonates so much! We focused on a 10 ft by 6 ft bed in the side yard, slowly adding to it based on what was doing well in neighbors' yards, what was on sale, what we could protect more effectively from deer and what we could propagate/transplant from other parts of the garden. This is the first year that it really felt "full" with beautiful color pops all summer long. I could stare at it all day, and I'm so glad we were patient and didn't just buy more plants - watching them fill up the space has been such a reward! I'd love to continue applying this philosophy, but have a challenge: We're doing a significant exterior home renovation that is completely tearing up our grass lawn. We are thrilled to use the opportunity to replace the grass with crops/planting that makes more sense and supports our local ecosystem but are totally overwhelmed with the amount of space we have to fill. We're talking about a corner lot, mostly grass lawn that takes me every bit of 40 minutes to mow with a push mower. Professional landscaping is not in the budget and buying tons of mature plants is not really an option either. But I also do not want to live with a sandbox for a yard for the next 10 years. So I'm curious - if you lived on the edge of a dune forest in 6b (with pretty significant deer and beetle challenges), what would you plant to "hold the space" while you slowly and lovingly chip away at a larger garden project? Clover lawn? Suggestions on what kinds of things to try as we build the garden are also very welcome! Our current faves are ornamental grasses interspersed with lavender, salvia, cone flowers, daisies, and black-eyed susans. Unfortunately, none of those are practical immediate solutions for the amount of space we're talking about.
I love this story. And I have fond memories of Mrs. Shellman in first grade having us choose pictures that we would then glue seeds/beans onto. (I was very nearsighted and didn't yet have glasses so I stuck my hand up when no one else did, which is how I ended up gluing yellow split peas onto baby chicks and forming the barnyard out of, maybe, flaxseed? I do love legumes so it must have been formative in another direction for me too.)
On the judgy native plant people, I've definitely found that vibe in the various Facebook groups on the topic so I mostly avoid those now. I took a course in naturescaping from my local Extension office and really appreciated that one of the first things we were supposed to think about was the purposes of the various parts of our yard. If one purpose is to serve as a play space for the kids and it needs to be grass, no judgment about having a lawn--that part of the yard is doing what it's supposed to do. My husband had to move around a lot as a kid whose dad was in the Navy and to him a tidy lawn represents home and stability. I'm not going to tell him he can't have any part of the yard that feels like he lives here too.
I'm lucky to have a native plant salvage foundation in our area that does a sale every spring and fall. We just moved here about 3 years ago and I'm slowly introducing natives into what was a pretty sad yard with lots of false dandelion and burdock on top of a heavy clay soil. It's nobody's show-stopping garden show entry yet, but someday we'll have two rain garden spots in front, paths curving around to the back yard, and lots of busy bees.
The need for "quick lushness" feels like more of the hustle culture attitude to me--have to have it all, have to have it now, so buy what's blooming at the big-box store. Last year I got an amazing quantity of tomatoes off of two "Charlie Brown Christmas tree" heirloom tomato plants on sale at the food co-op because it was later in the season and they looked pretty sad. Took them home, gave them good soil and compost and water, and ta-da, tomatoes! So satisfying. Plants are magic.
Getting a little verklempt over your mission made of beans! Hooray for delicious, beautiful beans and the nitrogen-fixing magic of legumes!
Someone I've been saying "Hi" to on my dog walks passed by our house last weekend while I was working outside and said some very kind things about my garden- we re-landscaped last year and are mostly using native plants. She kindly offered me a couple of pass-along plants using their latin name, which I did not recognize but I said "Sure, I'd love some, how kind" anyway. Oops. Colocasia- elephant ears, which are invasive in our area. They are sitting in little pots on my front steps as I type. How do I graciously handle this situation? I am fighting a war against invasives , not planting more. Help!
There's a fast-growing culture of native-plant purveyors where I live in Virginia, and they are such a fantastic part of our local community and economy. You do generally have to follow them on socials to see where they will pop up, but that's ok. I love meeting the owners and chatting in person about plants. We have a lot of local breweries here, too, and the vibe is very similar. A few of the breweries will periodically host plant-fests where native plugs are sold in six-pack holders. Very uplifting vibe in comparison to online native-plant communities (from whom I have admittedly learned a ton).
My family calls our approach to gardening with natives "natives plus peonies" haha. I probably am a 70/30 native, non native planter in zone 7a, and I agree with what Allyson says above! There are so many beautiful plants, why plant the same ones over and over again! I use a by mail nursery in NC quite a bit to get unique natives called Plant Delights. The fanfare I make about the blooming of this tiny, slow-growing flower called Anemonella thalictroides 'Schoaf's Double Pink' I bought a few years ago-- it's getting out of hand. There is a book called "Bringing Nature Home" by Doug Tallamy that talks a lot about the importance of native plant species and biodiversity for anyone starting (or is already deep into!) a native plant journey!
My favorite feature so far. Thank you!
Great interview! Fellow Bay Area person here hoping for some plant advice.
We are looking to plant a tree in the area in front of our house between the sidewalk and the street, and we’d love to do something native if possible. We love bay trees but never see them planted in residential areas — is there a reason? And are there any other trees you’d recommend? We are in San Leandro to be more specific.
What a wonderful interview - Ms. Greenlon is a WONDERFUL communicator - thank you for sharing your love of botany, gardening, botanical gardens and herbaria!