Are Natives the Answer? Professor Cregg, Why Are You Asking?

Introduction by Laurie Sheldon
Article by Taryn Evans


The Seattle Department of Planning and Development is focused on long-term green priorities (water and material conservation, sustainable transportation and healthy landscapes) and working on a draft of some new "Green Code Provisions." These provisions were presented to the public on August 13, 2012. Comments and questions were encouraged.

The "Healthy Landscapes" component of the "Green Code Provisions" outlines the following initiatives:
Invasive Species and Native Vegetation (Regional Plan)
Who it Applies To: All new vegetated landscapes, or those being replaced
• Existing invasive plant species shall be removed and no invasive species planted.
• 75% of all new plantings will be native to Western Washington.
• A vegetation plan must be submitted for review.
• Existing native plant species shall be protected whenever possible.
Code Impacted: Code appropriate to jurisdiction
Washington State University's Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., received an invitation to the public meeting. Rather than attending, she chose to voice her opinion about the "Healthy Landscapes" initiatives in a blog entitled The native debate continues... wherein she criticized the Planning Department's push for native plants, and concluded her blog with the following question: "What's wrong with using well-chosen nonnative plants that will tolerated urban conditions, support wildlife, and add some aesthetic interest?"

In response to Linda's post, Bert Cregg, another WSU professor, published Are natives the answer? Revisited. Cregg's comments were inflammatory, to put it mildly. Ginny Stibolt provided a link to Cregg's blog on the FNPS Facebook page, and in doing so, sowed the seed to the following narrative by Taryn Evans, President of the Marion Big Scrub chapter of FNPS.


Recently, FNPS posted a link on its Facebook page to an article posted on The Garden Professors blog. Along with the link, we were asked our opinions on whether the article added anything to a discussion about native plant usage in the landscape and specifically, I presume, about any debate on requiring their usage for a “healthy”, sustainable landscape. We were also asked whether native plant societies as a whole might be “off-base” or “extreme”. The comment I made in response on the FNPS page was that in actuality, the vast majority of the people I had met in local FNPS chapters were practical and clear-eyed. For many, I could also use adjectives like “knowledgeable” and “professional”.

Bert Cregg, the author of the blog post in question, however, chooses to use words like “naïve” and “unable to critically think” (see his comment in the comment section) to characterize those that, in his opinion, unreasonably or unwittingly choose to concur with the Washington State Native Plant Society (and with a broad paintbrush, all other native plant societies) in its unwarranted preference for native plants in landscapes. I admit this is like waving the proverbial red flag in front of a bull, but his unnecessary stereotyping of a large and diverse group of people, left me eager to comment on his whole, seemingly pointless, article. I say this because the average homeowner or gardener, interested in perhaps knowing more about either native plants or the new building code, presumably the audience he was addressing, would come away from this post with no clear idea of what point he was trying to make.

Bee on Florida native beautyberry flowers.
 The name of Cregg’s post is “Are Natives the Answer? Revisited” and I suppose judging by what he proceeds to then write and by his overall tone, the answer is “No, they are not the answer.” But wait! Before we can proceed, the reader must begin to read again to try and determine what exactly is the question Cregg is really asking here? The reader is left to his own devices because nowhere in this post does he ask a simple question which then would have as its answer, “No, native plants are not the answer.” To be fair, of course, he also never explicitly declares this as being the correct answer to the question in his title.

Anyway, left to make assumptions of my own on what question he is trying to have answered, this is what I managed to come up with. He seems to have a problem with not just one part of this new “proposed” building code that apparently seeks to increase the usage of native plants and labels these landscapes as “healthy”, but the whole thing. His mocking, unserious suggestion that goats or armies of child slaves might be needed to remove existing invasive species gives me the first clue that he’s got a particular reading audience in mind as he writes, and they are not just someone seeking to know more about the pros and cons of using native plants in their yard. He goes on to ask a series of leading questions about aspects of the code, some of which may be valid, but others much less so. Nowhere does he say anything about the code being a “starting point”, “necessary”, “needing to be worked on and improved”. So, my belief is the question he wants answered is, and it’s admittedly convoluted, “This building code is bad and does not represent a “healthy landscape”. Can native plants really be the answer if they are part of this terrible code?”

For many butterfly species, natives are the
only choice for larval food.
But, Cregg does not want you to misunderstand him and assume by what he writes that somehow he is “against native plants”. Really! He’s written articles promoting them and given talks as well. And he most especially believes in biodiversity and stewardship, something that many native plant activists do not, including author, Doug Tallamy (who he misrepresents in a couple of places). I will ignore the fact here, that I have never met a native plant enthusiast who does not also appreciate biodiversity! His ending paragraph describes more fully what he means by biodiversity, which includes not only natives, which are “incredible” and should be “celebrated”, “promoted” and “planted” but also “carefully selected non-natives”, i.e. “exotics”.

OK…huh? So since exotics are not excluded from this code and natives are really great, what’s so bad about the code and why are natives not the answer? Well, he says that there are so many problems with the code and questions to be answered that he could “go on and on” and being forced to plant native plants, though in theory all well and good, is truly NOT the answer.

Nectar from native plants provide food for hummingbirds.
And here is where Cregg, in trying to discredit the “Healthy Landscape” code he apparently dislikes goes off the rails. If native plants are “good”, then the real problem is all those gullible native plant advocates who foist stupidly written codes on unsuspecting public utility types, tools of a nefarious “movement” who parrot “the same old lines without ever critically thinking about what their saying. Repeating a LIE often enough does not make it the truth,” he states.

Cregg then goes on to “critically look at some of the reasons for planting natives according to the Washington State Native Plant Society.” I’m sure that any FNPS member would recognize them as similar to what our organization would give. But these are apparently the “lies” that we cherish, naively as truths. Only they aren’t actually lies at all, as he is forced to admit time and again. What you come to realize is that to Cregg, an actual fact does not qualify for his “Really True” Seal of Approval unless it contains all the nuances that he believes it should reflect, in his humbly assumed position as “smart”, even “professorial” native plant advocate.

A wasp on native iron weed.
OK…so at the end of the day, what is the point that Bert Cregg is trying to make by writing this post? And, more importantly, why should you or I care about what some guy writing in a blog says about a proposed new building code in Seattle?

As to the first question, I don’t believe he has any real point for what he writes, other than to muddy the water, so to speak, and thereby making any real discussion about the merits of and changes needed to improve the building code more difficult, by arming those with a predisposition to resent or oppose a “sustainable” building code. Why he would do this I can only speculate, but you would probably come to the same conclusions as I do. Certainly judging by the comments I read to his post, he was reaching his target audience of those who want politicians, bureaucrats and dogmatic treehuggers to take their public policy and put it where the sun don’t shine…again, so to speak.

As to the second question, I care because when a horticulture professor writes this type of post, it leaves people who are just learning about the positive benefits of native plants in the landscape with more questions than answers. It also leaves them with doubts about the real necessity for rethinking our concepts of what is a good, healthy, and sustainable landscape.

Native landscapes even in closely-spaced retirement villages can offer imporatant habitat.
I spend a good share of my time these days trying to educate people I meet about using more natives. Many of them live in retirement communities and are pretty resistant to any change in their landscape requirements. And perish the thought that they, as homeowners, should choose to plant something different but better. So I know what a tough sell it is.

Public policy is needed to give those who want to plant natives, or even “friendly” non-natives, the real opportunity to get approval from those entities that might withhold it otherwise. These policies could also increase the availability of native plants because more and more people would look to add them to their landscapes.

The Bert Creggs of the world, wherever they are to be found, try to delegitimize the public policy they disagree with by making caricatures of its advocates. We need to call them on their smoke screens that masquerade as informed commentary and recognize what they write as a load of hogwash.

The native snow squarestem or salt & pepper attracts many pollinators.
All photos by Taryn Evans.

Editor's note: Thanks Taryn for your important post and thanks for being an active FNPS member spreading the word about natives.

Marion Big Scrub chapter of FNPS
Phone: (352) 821-0298
Meeting Schedule: Third Wednesday of the month at 6:30 pm
Meeting Place: Marion County Extension Services - Main Auditorium
2232 N.E. Jacksonville Road, Ocala, FL

Posted and edited by Ginny Stibolt


Very good points. I've always found the FNPS to be realistic and reasonable. Brava!
Thank you! We think we're reasonable too! ;)
Anonymous said…
I would like to hear some remarks regarding the specific points that Dr. Cregg makes. I'd also like to know how Dr. Tallamy was misrepresented. For the most part this post seems like someone ranting about a professor who wasn't nice to a cause which they hold dear while ignoring the guts of what he wrote.
The third link in the article will direct you to Cregg's post.
Jeff Gillman said…

Over at the gardenprofessors blog we're trying to put together a live discussion of native plants for next Thursday and would love the opportunity to have someone -- or even a few people -- from your group participate. Please go over to our blog to check it out.


Jeff Gillman
jasontgordon said…
"Public policy is needed to give those who want to plant natives, or even 'friendly' non-natives, the real opportunity to get approval from those entities that might withhold it otherwise."

The above quote by Taryn Evans is rather opaque.

Translation: I can't plant things on your property against your will -- unless and until -- the govenment forces you to let me.
Chris Parisi-FNPS Pinellas Chapter said…
Taking this article as it is written you have to do some dissection and digging to get to some valid points. If you remove the inflammatory parts and generalizations about Native Plant enthusiasts, there are some interesting questions posed. The ordinance as it is written is very vague, often good intentions and good causes get muddled in the political arena. Although I don't know if this is written in stone, some of his points are true, especially when it comes to interpretation of percentages, removal and biodiversity. I am by no means condoning what he says but the burden lies upon the government and hopefully a well appointed panel to define precisely what these percentages mean and by what ways will the requirements will be achieved. If this is still a work in progress there is a bit of knee jerking here on both sides. I fully agree with the jolly bloggers in that biodiversity is a must in a particular biome or place of origin. Just cause you can create biodiversity in an area doesn't mean it qualifies under "sense of place."`
Hi Jeff,
It's difficult for many of us to forgo our day jobs to participate, but we are trying to at least get one person on board. We'll let you know. Thanks for the invitation!
Hi Chris,
The "Green Code Provisions" are a work in progress, and were only just brought forward for feedback - I'm certain they will be refined to the nth degree, as most ordinances are. If I was the person to initially receive the invitation to attend the public roll-out for these codes, I certainly would have gone and asked what the rationale was behind the 75% native requirement, which seems somewhat arbitrary (but there might be some sound logic behind it that I am unaware of). Aside from that, it appears that Cregg is either making a poor attempt at comedy, or itching for a fight - maybe both. His contentions with the GCOs are largely ridiculous. It is clearly stated that these codes would only apply to new landscapes or those being completely replaced. We aren't talking backyards here - this is large-scale or commercial grading and replanting (the kind that requires plan submittal to the city for approval). Why does it matter how the contractor removes invasives if everything (aside from the natives, which would be protected by the code) is going to be removed? Anyone who has ever dealt with invasive exotics knows it's rarely a small undertaking to get rid of them - if whatever mechanical or chemical treatment employed is legal, who cares how they go about the business of removing TERRIBLE plants, as long as their method yields permanent results? It's like telling the trash collector that you are concerned with how he/she will take your junk away. As long as the trash is hauled off and not left on the curb, he/she can backflip off of the truck and breakdance the whole time as far as I'm concerned. Obviously if the site is to be replanted, and most landscape contractors are required to guarantee that their plants survive for a certain length of time, they aren't going to douse everything in heavy duty herbicides.

His other points are equally asinine. He asks, "what about existing non-invasive non-natives?" and goes on to ask if a 40-year old maple would have to be cut down. Well, the code says that only the invasives are to be removed, so why is this even a question? Then he asks about who must submit a plan for review, and what happens if the reviewer doesn't like it. Really? He could not make it any clearer that he doesn't know anything about the construction process and the government's role therein. Planting plans (at least in Florida) are always submitted by a licensed Landscape Architect to the city's Landscape Architect for approval, and approval has nothing to do with "liking". The city L.A. reviews the plan for code compliance. Period. Usually planting plans are submitted along with hardscape plans, so in addition to making sure that no one has specified kudzu as a groundcover, the city L.A. will make sure that the slopes of the sidewalks, asphalt, etc will have positive drainage, and are not too steep for someone using a wheelchair.

I could go on pointing out all of the nonsensical things that Cregg wrote about, but the bottom line is that here is a man with an opinion that matters to impressionable students, and presumably other faculty members, who has gone out of his way to badmouth advocates of native plants and promote biodiversity through exotics as a way of being ahead of the climate change curve. Quite frankly, his call for "carefully selected non-natives" makes my skin crawl, as I recall the Meleleuca seed that was carefully selected to be strewn across the Everglades.

Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I hope that my response, though lengthy, touched on some important topics.

Laurie Sheldon
(One of the "Jolly Bloggers")
Hi Jason. I can't speak for Taryn or what she meant by this sentence. I will make her aware of your comment.
Taryn Evans said…
Jason...I'm not sure how you translate what I wrote into some sort of scenario where I, personally, rip out your landscape in order to install my preferred plants. But this is certainly close to the kinds of reactions expressed in the comments section to Professor Cregg's article. And this is why I took issue with his post. He gives the reader the impression that though native plants are in themselves worthy of being installed in the landscape, it's never a good idea to "impose" a good thing on someone who is choosing plants for their own property,there are "too many" problems to be addressed in creating a code and "education" of homeowners will do the trick, anyway. And...also "freedom".

I don't know where you live...but unless you live on a large property in the country, with no near neighbors, you are probably already having other people's preferred plant/landscape choices imposed on you. Whether it's a city ordinance that says your front yard must be a lawn, with grass trimmed to such and such a height and "appropriate" shrubs and trees, and certainly no veggies growing or it's a homeowners association whose landscape standards dictate your plant and landscape choices, most of the public happily submits to these rules and regulations, either because their personal aesthetics match or because they believe that it helps maintain property value to have everyone's landscape be similar.

That's all well and good...but what if you decide that you want a veggie garden and the only spot where there is enough sun is in your front yard. You've worked out a plan that makes it attractive and unobtrusive and you install it...only to receive a notice from the city saying that you have a week to remove it. There go your nice tomatoes! Wouldn't it have been agreeable to have an ordinance that was a little more flexible about what constituted an attractive, appropriate front yard? Oh...and whatever happened to freedom? But what to do...the code is the code.

I live in Central Florida. Once known for its orange groves, it's now known for its subdivisions and retirement communities. These housing communities attract people from other places with a picture of living in a flowered paradise, warm and GREEN. But all that green comes with a pretty price tag...both in consumed and tarnished natural resources and in people's wallets as they pay more and more with their water bills, etc., for the privilege of having unsustainable landscapes.

More and more people want the choice, the freedom to decide for themselves, within limits, what they plant. The University of Florida has gone a long way in educating people about using Florida-friendly plants, both native and non-native, in sustainable ways in their landscapes. And the Florida Native Plant Society also educates about using the best native plants for the homeowner, keeping in mind the principle: right plant for the right place. But education is NOT enough.

I don't know how may times I've heard variations on: "Oh...I'd love to have that plant in my yard, or I would like to plant a butterfly garden, or I'd like to reduce the amount of St. Augustine grass on my property, or I'd love to have a rain barrel...but my HOA won't let me." Wow...feel the freedom. I call it the freedom of the status quo. The freedom to not have to submit to the reality of change. Is this what you mean to defend?

Taryn Evans said…
Anyway, to go on with my reply.... because of the Florida legislature, I can now respond to those people who want to reduce their water bill or who want to make their yards more attractive to birds, that there is a Florida statute that allows them to install Florida-friendly landscapes (those in keeping with the specific guidelines developed by the University of Florida)even if their HOA or city has contradictory standards. The only caveat is that the homeowner seek to work with the HOA/city so that both sides feel like they are getting what they want or need. With this tool in hand, property owners have more freedom not less, and real sustainable landscape practices can become more widespread, where, in the past,it was unable to take hold.
Taryn Evans said…
I think he misrepresents Dr. Tallamy when he states that "many native activists, including Tallamy, run away from this argument- apparently it doesn't sound scientific enough..." The argument in question is that native plants save resources and encourage a sense of stewardship. I've listened to Dr. Tallamy speak three times and read his book a couple of times and I've never heard him comment specifically about this issue, either in a positive or negative way, and I presume it's because his focus is on another reason to plant natives...their usefulness as food for the insects that support our natural food chain. But on page 12 of the paperback edition of his book, he does mention briefly some of the other reasons you might have heard for planting natives and he implies that these are valid as well. I would say that this does not qualify as "running away". Also Cregg continues in the same paragraph to talk about biodiversity as a good outcome from planting natives and what is Tallamy's whole book if not a compelling plea for more biodiversity in the landscape, both in plant and insect species?

As for the specific points that Professor Cregg makes in his post, I agree with nearly everything he writes except for his characterization of native plant advocates as naive liars and the conclusion he seems to draw from this wholesale picture of a diverse group that a "healthy landscape" code is therefore problematic and wrong-headed at best...and also completely unnecessary. I don't even know how they relate one to the other.If this conclusion was not his intention, someone needs to tell the people who were commenting on his post.
Taryn Evans said…
Actually, Chris, my reply was meant only to address the "inflammatory parts and generalizations about native plant enthusiasts" in his post. I actually, pretty much agree with the contention that a building code should be clearly and accurately written, without loopholes or vague language that would allow either side, if there is a challenge, to hide behind.

But, as Laurie points out, Professor Cregg attempts to take his issues with the code, whatever they are...and graft them on to a critique of, not native plants, but the people who speak for native plants. I don't live in Washington State and don't know any native plant advocates there, so I can't judge if they are a special type of over-enthusiastic hard-liners, but Cregg specifically judges the entire native plant movement as being a bunch of ill-informed zealots. Here in Florida, I don't believe that is true. The practical result, judging by the comments to his post, is that Cregg has not only "shot the messenger", he's gone a long way towards hurting the message. A message that he claims to believe in and support.
Bert Cregg said…
Wow, looks like I picked the wrong week to go on vacation! Taryn, thanks for your comments. I’m not sure that questioning the validity of the assumptions used to justify natives hurts the message. If anything, taking a critical look and tightening the rhetoric will strengthen the case.

I have posted some additional comments back on the Garden Professors blog site.
jasontgordon said…
As odd as it must seem, your "clarification" only bolsters my characterization of your remarks.

Firstly, I live in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston proper (home of the Arnold Arboretum), where no public overseers dictate to me what I may or may not plant -- anywhere -- on my property. If your position is that my situation, i.e., no governmental interference with my freedom to plant either natives or nonnatives, is optimal, then why not just say "get government OUT of landscaping"?

But that isn't your position. You believe that private property use should be restricted -- but restricted by the "correct" set of limitations -- limitations you agree with.

Case in point: HOAs. Imagine that you and a group of like-minded folks set up a gated community where the landscaping was limited to only native plants. (Mind you, I completely accept your right to do this with property owned in such a fashion.) It seems odd to me that you would be in favor -- at least in principle -- of the ability of a state or local ordinance (permitting nonnative plants) to override or modify the agreement into which each homeowner voluntarily entered. Would this not be a gross violation of your property rights?

Why not encourage homeowners subject to such restrictive agreements to join with their fellow residents to change the terms of the property covenants, rather than wish for goverment to dilute property rights for the sake of your pet cause?
Taryn Evans said…
You know Jason, I think I have a good understanding that anything I say to you in response on this topic is going to be twisted by you to fit the picture you have of me and what you think are my "true" opinions. See...I'm doing it also. I believe I know who you are and what your belief system is just by reading a couple of entries in a blog. So...I think we are probably at an impasse on this. And I think this is sad, but also an illustration of why this idea you have that everyone unhappily subject to property covenants or outdated city ordinances should just sit down with the other side and work something out, though a happy notion, doesn't always work out so simply or easily.

But for those who have read this discussion up to this point, let me say this.... I am a person who believes that the "middle way" is often the best, that moderation in life is a good way to live and that compromise is a positive behavior in general. And I think I line up with the vast majority on this. Maybe Jason even believes in these values.

This is what I think about this whole question of whether government should at anytime be in the business of dictating landscape choices (remembering that this should not be written in stone): YES and NO. I think that there is a need for standards and landscaping codes in places where they are appropriate, as determined by the people who live in those places, be they city neighborhoods or gated communities. But that these rules, should be subject to frequent review by a diverse group of people in the community so that they no longer serve the purpose they were intended for. They should be flexible and reflect a broad aesthetic, not a narrow one. And they should promote bio-diversity, because I personally believe it's important. Rather than a restrictive or limiting position, I think of it as expansive, open, inclusive, creative, and smart. And I think a lot of other people are starting to agree.

Taryn Evans said…
Finally, before I completely walk away from this discussion, let me try to answer Jason's question about HOA's and what he sees as a "gross violation of your property rights" if a state or local ordinance has the ability to override or modify the homeowner's agreement." He asks me how I would react if it was me whose right's were being infringed upon.

OK. I don't like gated communities and wouldn't live in one for a number of reasons, but let's go ahead and suppose this. I would want to know why the state or local government is wanting to override this agreement. Knowing as I do that they wouldn't have much of a leg to stand on in court, if they were challenged, I would have to assume that there is some compelling reason why they would seek to do this. If it was a reason that they can convince me is necessary, I would hope that I would be on the side of the angels and work with the local people to comply. Because just the fact that it is "government" wanting this, doesn't make it "bad" in my book. Then again it doesn't make it automatically "good" either. So, maybe I don't agree, with their conclusions, and choose to fight. I take them to court and they lose, because in general in Florida, you don't mess with real estate developers, their HOA's, or their covenants. Even when you have a new state law on your side, there's no guarantee that the HOA won't come out on top. And that should make you happy, Jason.

Taryn Evans said…
Ooops! Thought I proofed what I'd written better than I did. In my 1st comment about landscape codes, it should read "...these rules should be subject to frequent review by a diverse group of people in the community so they can be amended when they no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended." I apologize for any unintended befuddlement.
jasontgordon said…
Seems to me, the FL law you want would be something like: 'HOA landscaping covenants shall be unenforceable If no provisions for native species substitutions are provided.'

It's worth noting though, that this would likely cut both ways and preclude our hypothetical 'Native Acres Community and Habitat' development, since excluding all nonnatives wouldn't be very diverse would it...


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