News and opinions from Operation Wildlife and Associates

The Effects of Gardening on Ecological Integrity

Plant something that grows and you have changed the world!  Gardeners would enjoy such a statement, for everyone likes the ego stroked and hopes for significance of personal existence.  But is the change one makes in the world always an improvement?  A simple question with a complex answer!  If, for instance, your garden interferes with the continued natural vegetation around you, the consequences may well become far-reaching and quite possibly negative.

Most gardeners are amateurs.  Their main expertise and knowledge lie elsewhere.  If they do wrong in their gardening practices, they vaguely hope that their ignorance will not cause harm and that they will be forgiven!  Here follow some thoughts of such a layman gardenerwho saves plants from destruction where development threatens them.  The problem is solved by transplantation in a private garden somewhere else. The thoughts pondered concern the unintended ecological effects caused by gardening and whether forgiveness might be in order or not!

What is a garden? A garden is a collection of plants made to grow through the intervention of a human being or beings, as opposed to the growth occurring spontaneously in natural vegetation.  Natural vegetation is all the plant material growing where no human interference has occurred.

Humanity has a variety of reasons for making plants grow, seldom considering the action as an intervention in nature. The reasons for planting and gardening vary from the production of food, medicine, fuel, building material and clothes, plus a myriad of secondary business and industrial goals embedded in the complex economic life of the species, as well as a range of aesthetic and personal enjoyment needs we fulfil by making plants grow where we want them.

The ecological diversity in nature itself is not static.   The mix of plant species found growing at every naturally vegetated place on earth changes continually whether humans play a role or not.  Plants on the Hawaiian Islands are all classified in terms of the time of their introduction, not as indigenous or not, as there was a time of no plants existing on each of the islands, much more recently than for the rest of the vegetated earth.  Geography of mountains, seas, rivers, glaciations, winds and many other factors that we may not understand yet, have contributed to the spread of plants and all other living species.  But what happens there is still nature!

Humanity is then only one of the influences contributing to the overall impact on nature; initially the actions were innocent and minor, possibly finding the flowers cute or eating the fruit or seeds.   But humanity's age of innocence as far as nature is concerned is certainly in the past.  Our intervention has impacted heavily and ‘unnaturally’ on plant life and vegetation patterns globally; and never more so than in the last century.  Plant life is increasingly changed, its diversity threatened by the reduction of birds and insects, monoculture crop production, the increase in cataclysmic storms ascribed to global warming and the direct destruction involved in building the urban environment for the life chosen by humans when they reach large numbers.

But is our gardening habit dangerous in itself? We need food and some other things from the plant world for survival!  Initially our monoculture plantation owners were irritated by what we choose to call ‘weeds’.  Later we noticed that natural vegetation changed through the appearance or disappearance of plant species due to our agricultural and horticultural activities, sometimes without any intention on our part.  We then learnt about unintended consequences.   Belatedly we would sometimes introduce countermeasures to these consequences, only to find that the primary effects had been less than the later, secondary ones stemming from our corrective measures.  More things than we could foresee start as chain reactions; the original state, suddenly deemed desirable, is forever lost.

Our meddling to improve nature doesn’t work! It never has.  Environmental management interventions to lessen our increasing, now often overwhelming impact on nature ‘works’ sometimes to lessen negative effects, when we study as many aspects of a situation as we can find and then act in a disciplined and less selfish manner to pursue the cause, enforced by the government of the day, but often only until the opposition takes over.   We are notorious for changing or abandoning half-executed plans!  The sugar coating of making an effort salves the conscience. And we do learn some things from mistakes we made.  Learn enough?  We'll never know, but we are halfway across the river and have to keep swimming!

We frankly cannot suddenly turn our backs on the elaborate plant supported lifestyle we have developed, even if we wanted to.  Our survival is weaved into the overall fabric.  Curbing our own numbers is not yet an option in our thinking, for economic growth is still holy in our time and more customers are always needed to sustain that!  So we will continue to squeeze the other life forms out of the finite space, because we can (albeit in an enlightened, controlled manner)!

And gardening is part and parcel of the inalienable human right we had defined long ago to rule the world as the dominant species.  Our cities and towns are too many, too big and too important for our quality of life to be threatened by a curb on planting what we want where we live.  If we don’t plant indigenous (which may well be safer in terms of unintended consequences), we will be planting what is or has been imported legally or illegally from around the globe commercially.

So, the simple mantra became: plant indigenous!  It is increasingly seen as good, although it is not the only planting that makes sense.   Learning about your country’s indigenous plants and caring for them help to sustain their survival.  Could indigenous plants also escape in your area if you introduce them there from somewhere else?  Yes, they can.  But gardening is beyond what is endemic to the gardener’s immediate vicinity.  It takes the sense out of gardening to only grow what naturally grows over the fence.  But we can monitor developments and take countermeasures more easily by sharing information in horticultural networks and spreading the word.  Sometimes the interest only grows in the practical and commercial uses of plants, but here the end justifies the means.

Botanical gardens worldwide are full of plants from elsewhere, put there for the human population to learn about and enjoy botanical diversity.  When a plant escapes and causes havoc ecologically in an area, it might have been from a botanical garden, not always from an unsuspecting lay gardener’s actions.   Escaping and invading plants must be controlled by ‘the authorities’ where that occurs.   And we all have to accept this where it is rationally and reasonably decided.

It won’t help to decree that no new plants may be introduced in new areas (apart from natural processes like the wind or birds bring the seeds).  Where then is the golden mean in this case between a purist extreme and anarchical surrender?  One should not pick on the gardeners, plant lovers and collectors as the only ones to control their actions.  What about the major botanic trauma caused by developmental effects in all types of industry that have nothing to do with saving or collecting of interesting plants privately?  Commercial plant markets fed by unscrupulous rapists of natural vegetation through illegal actions must be curbed.

The all or nothing solutions are clearly too reactionary and cannot be helpful.  The right balance between the extremes requires much thinking and good knowledge management.   We need many watchful eyes, informed observers and continual feedback loops to adapt chosen strategies at all times.  This will help in raising the quality of the dialogue and sharing values for dealing with nature respectfully.

Botanical diversity needs many different inputs, much learning and sustained caring.  No final answers exist in the continually changing environment.  The debate must go on and the concerned citizen must be encouraged in the constructive gardening hobbies or businesses that impact positively, but in a disciplined manner.   The leadership for decision making at all levels of dealing with these complexities will have to be informed, strong and steady.

Ivan Latti

Written by Ivan Latti
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