While the native plant movement remains strong in California and locally in the San Francisco Bay Area, some communities are waking up to the fact that weeds make valuable contributions to our gardens and the wildlife that lives in them. The British have always been ahead of us in welcoming plants from all over the world in their gardens. The British have been enthusiastic importers of plants from all over the world for hundreds of years. They had one of the biggest empires in the world, spanning the globe from India to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and America, which put them in a unique position to sample the botanical riches of the world.
In a recent article in The Guardian, an English gardener describes her journey from fighting the weeds in her garden to her new relationship with them: “I remember writing, many years ago, about my fight to get rid of these dandelions. Clearly, I didn’t win. Now, when I am greeted by them, I am glad I lost the battle. These days, I truly consider them friends…they are welcome in my garden, because I know they do more good than harm.”
The English gardener reminds us that the war on weeds began only recently. Going deep into agricultural history, weeds were natural forage that were a part of our diet. Weeds fed our domesticated animals, stuffed our mattresses and made twine and rope. Many have medicinal properties, but most have marketable substitutes now. They were tolerated on the edges of agricultural fields and in our gardens.
The war on weeds began after World War II, when chemicals were introduced to agriculture. Pesticides were considered benign for decades. We have learned only recently of the dangers of some pesticides. The promotion of pesticides changed the aesthetics of gardening, initiating an era in which weeds were banished from our agricultural fields and our gardens.
Do not underestimate the power of propaganda to promote the use of pesticides: “A publishing company linked to the most powerful agricultural lobby group in the U.S. is releasing children’s books extolling the benefits of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers.” Industrial agriculture begins the indoctrination of the public at childhood.
Weeds made their way back into our gardens partly by evolving resistance to the pesticides we used for decades to kill them. There is growing awareness of the impact of pesticides on insects and wildlife. As populations of pollinators decline, we are more willing to indulge their preference for weeds such as dandelions and clover. Weeds are often the first to arrive in the spring garden, as native bees are emerging from their winter hibernation in ground nests. Weeds prolong the blooming season in our gardens, providing nectar and pollen before cultivated plants are blooming.
“No Mow May” comes to America!
“No Mow May” originated in Britain out of concern for declining populations of bees. Communities make a commitment to stop mowing their lawns in May to let the weeds dominate their lawns. Weeds such as dandelions and clover give the bees an early boost in the spring that studies show increases bee populations. Lawns maintained with pesticides and fertilizers provide poor habitat for bees.
Two professors in the Midwest of the US introduced “No Mow May” to their community in Wisconsin in 2020. They signed up 435 residences to participate in “No Mow May” and studied the impact: “They found that No Mow May lawns had five times the number of bees and three times the bee species than did mown parks. Armed with this information, they asked other communities to participate.” According to the New York Times, “By 2021, a dozen communities across Wisconsin had adopted No Mow May. It also spread to communities in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Montana.”
Farmers climb on board
Hedgerows are the backbone of the English countryside. They are a complex bramble of woody and herbaceous plants that traditionally served as fences, separating roads from agricultural fields and confining domesticated animals. They nearly disappeared when industrial agriculture dictated that fields be cultivated from edge to edge. They are making a comeback in the English countryside as farmers realize that their loss contributed to the loss of wildlife. The concept of hedgerows as vital habitat is slowly making its way to America.
US Department of Agriculture reports improvements in agricultural practices in the past 10 years: more no-till farming that reduces fossil fuel use and carbon loss from the soil; more efficient irrigation methods; broader field borders for pollinators and wildlife; more crop rotations that reduce disease and insect pests; reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous run-off; reduction in diesel fuel use, etc. These are all well-known methods of reducing environmental damage from industrial agriculture, but there is now evidence that farmers are actually adopting them.
Nativists are late to the game
We see progress being made to reduce pesticide use and provide more diverse habitat for wildlife, but nativists drag their feet. They continue to use pesticide to eradicate non-native plants and they deny the value of non-native plants to insects and wildlife, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
In a recent comment posted on Conservation Sense and Nonsense, a nativist explains the justification for using herbicides to eradicate non-native plants: “No one likes herbicides, but in the absence of a labor force willing to abandon its modern conveniences to do very hard work, they are important tools in restoration ecology, and methods are improving as a result of careful science to determine how the least amount of them could be used to gain the greatest amount of benefits to the maximum amount of species. Throwing those tools away is about like tossing chemotherapy or vaccinations because of that “all-or-nothing” black or white point of view that native plant supporters are being (unjustly) accused of.”
For nativists, the harm done by non-native plants is greater than the harm done by pesticides. This equation does not take into consideration the benefits of many non-native plants to wildlife and it underestimates the damage caused by pesticides to the environment and its inhabitants.