The Case for Native Gardens and Ecological Literacy

I want to thank the editorial staff of TSL for asking me to provide my thoughts on last week’s article “Bringing Back the Beauty of Native Plants.” However, before I begin, I want to point out that anyone seeking information on beautiful, native, drought-resistant plants should make use of all the tremendous resources at the Rancho Santa Anna Botanical Garden, located a short walk from all the Claremont campuses across Foothill Boulevard.

I also want to commend all the efforts that encourage the use of drought-resistant and native plants throughout the Claremont campuses. The laborious initial efforts to create these native gardens are critical in inspiring change. Native gardens are especially critical if we are going to change the inaccurate paradigm that native plants, although sustainable, are ugly.

I want to challenge the students and faculty to take the next step and quantify how such changes influence biodiversity, resource use and people’s knowledge and perceptions of native plants and landscapes. 

There were many vague statements in last week’s Opinions article defending our campuses’ grass and speculating about the directional change that may occur if areas currently dominated by non-native plants are converted to gardens with only native or drought-resistant plants—e.g., “plants use less water,” “cooling value of lawns” and “native plants are less aesthetically pleasing.” However, I argue that if we are going to objectively consider how these changes could influence our campuses and communities, we must quantify all these statements.

Last week’s piece left me wondering how much less water drought-resistant gardens use and, consequently, how much money could be saved if the colleges converted non-native gardens to gardens with only native or drought-resistant plants. This question can easily be answered by comparing water use in other areas of campus to the water use in the native garden constructed by the Ralph Cornell Society, which not only flowers year round, but requires no water after the first year. What if the proposed study found that converting half of the gardens at the Claremont Colleges could save the campuses enough money, through reductions in their water bill, to provide scholarships for ten students? Would such a result change the students’, faculty’s and administration’s perceptions of native gardens?

Different metrics can be used to address the various goals of these programs. I assume that one of the goals of these programs, and probably many of the academic programs in the Claremont Colleges, is to produce ecologically literate students. How many graduating students last year could identify or recognize a native plant? If the number of native gardens increased, would the knowledge of the common student increase? Other more dynamic questions could also be asked to determine if seniors could articulate their opinion on whether native gardens should or should not be supported. In addition, I think it would be interesting to quantify how a student’s perceptions of native gardens change as they become more familiar with native plants. A second goal of these projects could be to provide habitats for native insects, such as native bees. Surveys of flower visitation by native and non-native bees in native and non-native gardens could be monitored by students not only to determine if native gardens are better at attracting native bee species, but also to determine which combination of native plants leads to the most diverse native bee assemblage.

Regardless of the outcome, these studies will provide critical information for determining how to design and implement the most effective sustainable practices in and outside of the Claremont Colleges. As such, I advocate more native gardens, as well as more focused interdisciplinary research quantifying the positive and negative effects of transforming traditional non-native gardens to gardens composed primarily of native and drought-resistant plants.

Wallace Meyer

Director, Bernard Field Station

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply