The next time someone apologizes to me for their non-native daffodils or Dianthus, I'll cringe. But maybe I'm partly to blame. I've been writing and giving presentations about native-plant gardening for years, and sometimes my enthusiasm for the subject has been interpreted as orthodoxy. It's time to set the record straight.
I think gardening comes down to an expression of love: a love for plants, a love for a particular place, a love for the planet, a love for the process of nurturing growth. As gardeners, we make decisions and choices about how to express that love, and as long as we're not doing harm (to ourselves, to others or to the earth), “shoulds” don't enter into it. The garden is a place of personal, creative expression: some of us may choose to explore the world of native plants exclusively; others may stick to favourite exotics; still others may decide to combine the two, with wildflowers and cultivated varieties in a bountiful mix.
For those who choose to go the last route, or who are interested in beginning to experiment with natives in a predominantly non-native garden, no apologies are necessary. Wield that trowel with pride. And remember: many exclusively native gardeners started out with non-native plants in the garden. There, you've been forewarned: tentative experimentation with natives often leads to obsession. You may get hooked. Not because of any “shoulds,” but out of love.
The cultivated context
There's a bit of a contradiction at the heart of native-plant gardening, most forcefully expressed in gardens that combine natives with horticultural varieties. The contradiction is this: native-plant gardeners cultivate the wild. As this is not possible, why not view our task as simply bringing a bit of wildness to the cultivated context of the garden.
In the combination garden, the aim isn't to create a habitat that mimics a plant community found in the wild, but to use selected components of that habitat in conjunction with other design features. In fact, the general principle of native-plant gardening—matching plants to the conditions (the habitat) at hand—applies to any type of garden.