Selling the Sizzle, Not Just the Steak: Promoting Native Landscapes
While meeting with a client who knows nothing about native plants and their benefits, I find myself recommending some great native plants for their landscape. As I rattle off names of possible plants, I notice the puzzled look I get from the client. Did I comb my hair this morning? Do I have spinach stuck in between my teeth? Am I speaking Latin again? Maybe it’s just the peculiarity of some of the common plant names that come spewing from my mouth. Milkweed, Joe Pye weed, Sneezeweed, Ironweed, and so on.
I imagine what this client is thinking about me: “is this woman” (that would be me) “out of her mind?” Is she really a horticulturist? Why on Earth would she be recommending weeds for my garden?” Therein lies the problem of promoting native plants with unfortunate names.
Then it gets worse. Yes, dear client, I want you to encourage leaf chewing by caterpillars and please, Mr. and Ms. Homeowner, leave your perennials standing (and eventually flopping) through winter. And by the way, those leaves that you have been meticulously cleaning off every inch of your landscape in fall – please leave those alone. The cherished Burning Bush and robust Japanese Barberry that your dead grandmother planted many years ago – they have to go.
And the green desert you have – the lawn that you so carefully mow, water, feed, and spray – I’d like you to get rid of most of that – even better, let’s totally eliminate the one landscape feature that your neighbors recognize. And when we are done, I want you to post a sign at the end of your driveway (perhaps a “Wildlife Habitat” sign) that announces your rebellion against conventional gardening practices and your return to the wild.
Is it any wonder that native landscapes are a tough sell to homeowners who just want to keep their heads down and keep on mowing? We’ve gotta start selling the sizzle, not just the steak! Promoting native plants isn’t enough. Get your sizzle on and promote environmental stewardship – the real sizzle of native landscapes (with the kicker of beautiful native plants to enjoy).
Increasing environmental health, stopping species loss, encouraging biodiversity and ramping up ecosystem services, means more than simply switching nonnative and invasive plants with native ones. We desperately need a cultural change, whereby each of us becomes an environmental steward of our own landscape. Get on board, before it’s too late – we can’t unring the bell of climate change, but we can wake up and act now.
From Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!
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1) I guess we could use the Latin names instead of the common names for the native plants. (Eutrochium purpureum is the Latin name for Joe Pye Weed, according to what I just looked up.)
2) As for removing the lawn, describe it as a solution that requires less maintenance.
3) Always keep a tiny strip of border lawn to appease the neighbors, so that we’re “reducing” (by 80% or 90%) more than “eliminating” the lawn.
4) For the remaining lawn, consider native grasses like Buffalo Grass or native groundcover that looks somewhat lawn-like and call it a lawn of sorts.
5) As for leaving fallen leaves untended, maybe just recommend it where the shrubs or groundcover are sufficiently high enough to mask the fallen leaves. (Many owners of traditional yards with shrubs have done this for years, knowingly or unknowingly, probably thinking they were being “lazy”.) For a native landscape, a homeowner can brush off or remove the fallen leaves from the tops of bushes where they are visible.
6) When the homeowner periodically removes fallen leaves from their walkway and driveway, they can do as they please. But we can recommend they shred-and-sprinkle the leaves as mulch. Every homeowner recognizes the concept of mulch. When fallen leaves are finely shredded, they look just like store-bought mulch. And if the homeowner really wants to bag the leaves and put them at the curb and then go to the store to purchase bags of organic mulch, let them.
7) Always frame things in ways that traditional homeowners understand.
8) Remember that saving the planet and saving money are different objectives. If a homeowner wants to spend money on unnecessary things, that’s his or her business. We can only recommend cheaper alternatives.
9) Lose the battle, win the war. If we can get a native landscape in a yard, we shouldn’t care about a 10% strip of regularly-mowed turf grass, or a row of bagged leaves at the curb each autumn. Every native plant in a yard is a victory.
10) For grandma’s Japanese Barberry, let it be. When a non-native ornamental specimen is adored by a homeowner, let it be. A yard doesn’t have to be 100% native. To be 90% native should be good enough for us.
Hi Matt. Thanks for your 2¢! As for the Japanese barberry, in the NY area it is a listed invasive species, meeting the Federal definition (a non-native species that causes or its likely to cause environmental harm, economic harm or harm to human health). In my home state of New York, Japanese barberry has taken over the forest understory outcompeting the native plants that would be supporting that ecosystem – clearly causing environmental harm. To add insult to injury, Japanese Barberry also poses a threat to human health. Research from University of Connecticut has linked Japanese Barberry with higher populations of Lyme Disease-carrying black-legged ticks. Japanese barberry provides an ideal habitat for the white-footed mice that are plagued by ticks, then becoming vectors of Lyme Disease. My recommendation to clients is to eliminate not only invasive species, but species of concern (sleeper species) and I include invasive species in adjacent states.
If you shred the leaves into mulch, you’re shredding some of next year’s pollinators who attach their cocoons to the leaves. Both before they fall and afterwards as well. Try to keep as many non-shredded, and shred what you can’t rake into your gardens.
The “Sizzle” I use is saying we are reducing the time and money spent on lawns by replacing lawn with natives because we are doing it for the birds! Everyone loves birds, so they start to listen. Audubon’s website will tell you exactly what natives to plant if you just put in your zip code. This is a great service, and their authority is widely accepted. Then I show them the top invasives in our area with the maps from the US Forest Service; they are shocked, and the maps have more impact and carry more authority than my just saying so.
When people are confronted with new ideas, like getting rid of lawns and traditionally used plants like Japanese honeysuckle, you need to have trusted authorities like Audubon and the US Forest Service to back up your recommendations.
Thanks for all these tips. I hate looking & talking like some unearthly alien & all of these ideas, I think, will help me not suddenly be whisked off to the loony bin! : ) Thanks! I can use this stuff!