Going Native - The View from Inside, and Outside

As I stood in the long line for the Indian meal at the cafeteria yesterday, a lively young woman engaged me in conversation. What role do you play in the company? she asked. Oh, I'm in tech pubs. Ah she said.

She was in marketing. I tried marketing writing once, I said. But I like solid ground beneath my feet. Facts. Oh, she said, I wondered when you would get to that. You know, marketing has that image. Fluff.

For a few minutes, she defended marketing ably: it's about projecting a strong brand image customers can trust and respect, she said. So that when something like Exxon happens, the company won't go under. I thought she was doing well up to that point.

Actually, I said, I'm retiring from high tech in a month or so. I'll be doing a kind of marketing writing myself. Advocacy, for the environment, for California's native plants.

It's something I've been thinking a lot about, lately, and discussing with Ms. Town Mouse.

When Ms Town Mouse and I were driving between California native gardens last Sunday, we talked (as she mentioned in her last post) with some dismay about how isolated the native gardens looked in their suburban setting of lawn after lawn, edged with the same old could-care-less shrubs, for the most part.

 Gardens that are neither ecological nor native, any more than the smooth green - soon to be golden - hills above them are. Those hills were transformed into grazing lands for cattle and are dominated by Mediterranean grasses, just as the suburbs below are dominated by alien grasses. Lawns like that require water, fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, a lot of gasoline-powered equipment, and time to keep them in trim.

When I made my first garden here - this is what it looked like:

 The lawn was just freshly unrolled, and the dahlias I later grew in the borders had not yet been eaten by gophers.
My garden in 2005 looked, in fact, just like my mother's garden, back in the U.K.

I quickly grew tired of edging and mowing even this small area of turf. And all it attracted were armies of spiders, that made it impossible to do the very thing I had  installed it for: to enjoy relaxing on, after a swim.

Native gardens are so much more interesting, bringing birds and butterflies and native bees, and they take less water, little fertilizer, no herbicides or insecticides, and actually they take way less time to keep in trim. Here is the same area in 2012:

Same area in 2012

It isn't all natives, but it mostly is. It isn't perfectly neat or perfect in any way, really. The fuzzy grayish area near the fence is a coast sunflower in which I suspect some birds are nesting, so I'm leaving it be till summer. But it is SO much more interesting - And All I do is pick a few weeds out each week, and as I do so, I enjoy looking at how things are coming along.

So why are people not "getting the marketing message?" We wondered. They have - we all have - so little time. But it's actually more work to maintain the lawn. But then it's also fairly cheap to pay for a "mow and blow" service that keeps up the conventionally acceptable appearance. 

It's not the amount of physical work, I suspect. It's the mental work involved. When you don't know about natives, what to pick, how to care for them, you feel discouraged. We none of us have much mental energy left after a busy day with work and kids and parents. Meals and household chores. Mentally, the effort to maintain a lawn-with-shrubs is minimal, and you can get on with other parts of your life. It is perfectly understandable.

So maybe I think I still need to be in the fact mode - the best marketing is simple information.

Written in haste. Gotta go to work. More another day on this topic - Helen Popper talking at one of the gardens we visited.... And plants for shady areas....


Desert Dweller said…
So glad I met both of you "mice" at Rebecca Sweet's garden last month! Not to mention find your blog.

You bring up many important things...we into native plants do have a serious marketing issue, plus designs that appeal to the simplicity of some, plant suppliers, etc.

Could be worse...try Albuquerque, where the above, plus no interest in outdoor living or design exists, with countless hours with weather perfect for it.

I can't wait to read more here!
Elephant's Eye said…
Wonder if Desert Dweller reads Microcosm in the Q? She is as passionate about her native plants as the rest of us are.
Anonymous said…
I think the other problem is that people take it personal when plants die. Isn't supposed to happen. Especially natives.

Well, plants die all the time. It's just what they do, and if you consider how much hardscaping costs, a little money for replacing plants is nothing. Gotta plan a post around that....

Town Mouse
Mary Pellerito said…
I was a technical writer in my previous life. Now I am a garden writer writing mostly about Michigan/Midwest natives. Were we separated at birth?
Country Mouse said…
At the dentist, the assistant said she is no good at gardening - because she planted wild flower seeds in a pot for her child, and nothing happened. I remember too being hopeless and helpless. There feels like a big chasm between nothing and something when it comes to any type of gardening. Thanks for the suggestion about microcosm for desert dweller. I went there myself just now and enjoyed a fine post. Mary, good to hear from a fellow techie-turned-garden writer!I look forward to reading your blog/other writings - but right now - the techie world calls...
NellJean said…
So many points of view. Mine is colored by the big rattlesnake (six rattles) killed here day before yesterday when he came calling too near.

Near the house we have closely clipped grass, unfertilized and unsprayed but easy to see something with a pattern, crawling.
Country Mouse said…
I would not want to make dogmatic statements - I think lawns are nice for kids to play on, for sports, and so on. We live in a Mediterranean climate zone that is not friendly to traditional lawns such as we had in the UK. But there are native grasses that can make interesting rough or lumpy lawns, and some new grass mixes that do better here.
Stacy said…
I think the mental work involved is a huge issue for many--hence the gravel yards more people are turning to here in Albuquerque rather than lawn. For many of us it takes a long time to learn what will grow and what size it gets and how it looks with other plants, and that means a great many disappointments and failures. Those of us who enjoy the process keep going, but those who want something DONE that they can...well, forget about, might not find the detective work quite so appealing.
I noticed a dichotomy in the 10 gardens I went and visited on Sunday during the tour. I didn't visit any terribly established gardens this time. The tiniest, simplest of them all appealed to us the most. Two others had some planning involved, but many others looked like -shade, shade plant goes here, sun, sun-loving plant goes here, ok done-. Native gardens are great, but the ease comes only after the garden is established. Sprinklers must be moved/turned to drip, etc. CA native plants are sometimes slow growing, and some people can tolerate sparse planting until it fills in and others over plant and then forget to thin out and potentially give away specimens that aren't fitting their evolving plan. Others are afraid of failure, as TownMouse pointed out, and dead plants. I am struggling to find suggestions for native plants that can tolerate a lot of wind, as I've moved somewhere with a yard that my neighbors confirm is a bit of a wind tunnel all year long, you find butterfly lists but not windy-conditions lists, I'm worried about mulch and overeasy seeders, etc. But as we walked through gardens that seemed somewhat uninspired this year compared to others, garden design is marketing for native plants. If the native garden is the most attractive- or at least as attractive- as the block, it's a feature. If it's just whatever, wherever, it isn't selling the native idea over more traditional planting-- it has to be cooler than, like Sigg and Kleen Kanteen and the popularity of refilling your own water bottle. I certainly don't think you need a landscape designer to get design, some of the gardens we were in and out of in a hurry were landscaped. But a native garden with a good sense of design makes you go "WOW" about the affect of the garden on you as you walk through it, vs. individual "oh, isn't that plant interesting" comments. For the record, you rodent writers, having seen both your gardens, you fall in the wow category. If I could have a sun room to enjoy my garden from as you do, Town Mouse, I'd really be in heaven.
James said…
Congratulations on the upcoming shift to full-time advocacy. You're managing to get the word out already, but the extra time should be energizing, even if it will end up being endless hours devoted to "fluff." (Actually I'm sure all of us reading this far are sold on the importance of the work you're about to jump into even deeper!) In conversations I had at yesterday's garden tour I heard ecological concerns, concerns over water use, concerns about suburban blandness, concerns about connecting better with nature--all great ways to keep the conversation going. But I was talking to the converted. How do you begin the conversations with those who aren't thinking these thoughts? That for me is the challenge.