Collectively, the decisions we make as gardeners impact the ecosystem and the climate for better or for worse. To encourage us all to make positive choices for the planet and biodiversity, my guest this week is garden designer and writer Benjamin Vogt, the author of “A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.”
Benjamin is a poet and memoirist turned gardener. At his home on a quarter-acre lot in Nebraska, he has created Monarch Gardens, a 5,000-square-foot native landscape where he applies the practices he promotes: using plant communities and natural design strategies to reduce resource use, increasing wildlife habitat and creating climate resiliency. His naturalistic gardening practices don’t always go over well with his suburban neighbors, but through education, more people are coming around to environmentally sound practices and natural beauty.
Benjamin says we often think of plants in terms of how pretty they are versus their deeper contributions to life either above or below the soil. He advises us to stop judging a plant by its cover. It’s also important to remember that beauty and ecological services are not mutually exclusive. Plants can give us both.
There is more to a landscape than just planting something pretty. This past year I have done a number of podcast episodes on ecological horticultural, planting more native wildflowers and starting natives from seeds. I am learning right beside the podcast listeners, and I am excited and inspired. It’s rewarding to know you are planting the seeds of change in your own landscape and garden. You’re supporting those ecological services, and your yard comes to life.
Coming out this fall is Benjamin’s next book, “Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design.” The forthcoming book is written with beginner gardeners in mind so anyone can adopt the principles outlined in “A New Garden Ethic.” “Prairie Up” will teach how to garden naturally and how to use layers and the behavior of plants to put plants together.
How Benjamin Vogt Found Gardening Again
Benjamin lived his first 10 years in western Oklahoma. He says there are family photos of him as a child squatting in the dirt to avoid getting his knees dirty. Today, he’s completely the opposite — he doesn’t mind getting caked in dirt while working in his garden.
His family moved to Minnesota when he was 10 years old, and he recalls that the environmental contrast was incredibly striking — there were trees and water everywhere. Minnesota has 14,000 lakes, and everyone enjoys the outdoors in the cold winter to avoid cabin fever. The shock of moving was emotional and incredibly difficult, he recalls. “It took years and years for me just to sort of get my feet back underneath me again.”
Benjamin’s mother was an avid gardener who was always planting. He would help her plant, and they’d visit nurseries together. However, it would be a long time before he started planting again. It wasn’t until he was about 30 years old.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing from University of Evansville in Indiana, Benjamin went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from the Ohio State University, and then in 2009, a Ph.D. in creative writing from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “So I am trained in writing poems and writing memoir,” he says. “I am not a horticulturist. I am not a botanist.”
What brought Benjamin back to gardening was his dissertation in memoir writing. He wrote about gardening with his mother, and researched the history of gardening and landscape design. “I just started thinking more academically about the issue,” he says.
Benjamin has met many others who have followed an unconventional path to garden design and environmental living. “It’s incredible diversity we have in the gardening world of people’s backgrounds,” he says.
When Benjamin and his wife bought a house on a quarter acre in Nebraska in 2007, he started his first garden. “I told my wife we’re going to have a garden, and 20 yards of mulch later we had way more than we could handle,” he says.
Pausing & Asking Questions
Though Benjamin and his wife were new to gardening, they went all-in right away, spending thousands at nurseries. In his book, Benjamin relays the story of spending $10 on milkweed and later finding a bunch of caterpillars on the plant. As a new gardener, his initial thought was that the caterpillars were a problem. He went to his shed and grabbed a pesticide, but before he sprayed the caterpillars, he paused and thought about what it was he was doing.
“I was almost all the way back to the plant with my spray, ready to go, to kill those caterpillars that were destroying my precious, precious plant that I had loved and spent so much money on,” he says. He doesn’t know what it is that made him stop, but out of curiosity, he decided to Google what was going on before taking any action. He quickly learned that those caterpillars were not pests, but monarch butterfly larvae. “The whole reason I bought this plant was because there was a butterfly symbol on the tag,” he says. “So if I want butterflies, the caterpillars have to exist. And everything just was a huge slippery slope after that point.”
Benjamin learned that his plants did more than just look pretty for him for a couple of weeks a year. They are essential for the life around them. He changed his approach after that point and began using 100 percent native plants. Knowing that native plants are important in his yard, he realized they are 10 times more important in the prairie or forest down the road.
Natives & Neighbors
As he built up his landscape with native plants, Benjamin went from planting out his backyard to his front yard, which did not comport with the covenants and restrictions of his neighborhood. Every couple of years, a neighbor reports him to weed control. At this point, the “weed superintendent” knows Benjamin and his business quite well. Benjamin has had to help a number of his clients defend their landscapes as well, which he finds frustrating.
Benjamin’s garden is stunningly beautiful year-round, and there’s minimal lawn. To say that the contrast with the surrounding neighborhood is drastic would be an understatement. There are no trees or even bushes next door. The neighbors mow every week and the sprinklers run almost every day. Meanwhile, Benjamin mows his little patches of lawn just once or twice a month, and only mows down the garden spaces annually in March.
When his neighbor’s lawns are dormant and cleaned up, Benjamin’s landscape is host to overwintering life, seed heads and other food sources. He leaves his plants standing up all winter rather than cutting them down and cleaning them up. As bees, butterflies, frogs and spiders are sleeping, he knows there is something going on in his garden.
A Garden for Year-Round Beauty
When Benjamin designs a garden, part of him is thinking about how it will look when all of the herbaceous plants are dead in the winter. He considers the hues of brown and the eye-pleasing textures. “I want it to look beautiful but also want it to obviously be providing so many more ecosystem services,” he says.
Leaving a landscape uncut over winter benefits more than just the fauna, he points out. “When you have these thick, diverse landscapes that are layered and covering the ground plane, that stormwater runoff is going to be reduced. They’re still capturing water and keeping it from the drains.”
From Professor to Garden Designer
Around 2010, Benjamin began participating in garden tours. Visitors to his garden began asking him if he does any consulting. By 2015-2016, he took the leap — with his wife’s full support — from being a college professor into garden design and speaking full-time. It was also during that time that he wrote “A New Garden Ethic,” released in 2017.
“A New Garden Ethic” grew out of Benjamin’s early blogging about his gardening life. In 2014, he memorably wrote a guest post for Garden Rant about native plants being a moral choice. It led to an incredibly heated argument. “I didn’t let it go because the whole reason I wrote the book, I wrote that blog post: I was angry,” he says.
Benjamin was angry at humans as a species for what they are doing to the planet and at how humans treat each other. He wanted to deal with his anger constructively, so he spent a year researching for “A New Garden Ethic” before he ever wrote a word. He examined psychology, philosophy and history — anything that could be related.
Benjamin says it’s not a religion and he’s not trying to convert people to his side. But then again, “wink, wink,” of course he wants people to come around to his way of thinking, he says. He wants gardeners to think about these issues in a more nuanced way and to look at themselves and their own lives, when when it makes them uncomfortable.
He says he gets a lot of negative reactions to his ideas because he is an activist who is confronting people. As a teacher before switching careers, it was his job to play devil’s advocate to essentially throw a hand grenade and get people interacting, talking and thinking outside their comfort zone, he says.
In his first couple of years wrestling with these ideas very publicly, he often used the word “moral.” However, he says, the word invokes the idea that if people don’t do things a certain way, they are going to hell. He took that word out of his messaging. If people want to plant hostas, they can, he says. He would prefer that they don’t, but, he says, they’re not going to hell.
Another term Benjamin struggles with using is “climate change.” He says it has become very politicized and is a turn-off for many people. Instead, he uses “climate disruption.” Either way, it’s something that is affecting us now and that he knows will affect his son in unimaginable ways, he says.
‘A New Garden Ethic’
In “A New Garden Ethic,” Benjamin addresses our urgent need for wildness in our lives as a break from the monoculture of lawns and concrete that he says significantly harms our physical and mental health. The book frames environmentalism not as a political issue but as social justice for all species that are marginalized and facing extinction.
“I have been told by more than one person that this is not a book about gardening,” Benjamin says. “This book is not limited to what you do out your back door, even if that’s where the issue starts for you. This is about a human’s role as gardeners across the entire planet. And how do we define gardening?”
Is gardening what one species wants because it looks pretty to them? Or does gardening consider what each species wants? Does gardening let each species have a seat at the table?
One of the first passages Benjamin wrote for “A New Garden Ethic,” and his favorite, is this:
“Your garden is a protest. It is a place of defiant compassion. It is a space to help sustain wildlife and ecosystem function while providing an aesthetic response that moves you. For you, beauty isn’t just petal deep, but goes down into the soil, farther down into the aquifer and back up into the air. And for miles around on the backs and legs of insects. You don’t have to see soil microbes in action, birds eating seeds, butterflies laying eggs, ants farming aphids. Just knowing it’s possible in your garden thrills you. It’s like faith, and it frees you to live life more authentically. Your garden is a protest for all the ways in which we deny our life by denying other lives. Plants some natives. Be defiantly compassionate.”
What Is a Native Plant?
Benjamin has given a lot of thought to what constitutes a native plant. He has studied the various interpretations of what that means: Is it a plant that was only in the United States and didn’t come from anywhere else? Or did it evolve over thousands of years? Like me, Benjamin has largely adopted the definition used by Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke.
Though Benjamin says the definition he uses today will probably change in a year, right now, he considers native plants to be plants that were here pre-industrialization, because the Industrial Revolution radically altered the environment.
What it comes down to is that native plants co-evolved with native insects and other wildlife. When native plants are replaced by imported plants, native insect populations decline and the effects are felt up the food chain.
Biophilia is a term popularized by the late naturalist E.O. Wilson. It refers to humans’ innate appreciation of nature. “We have something genetically programmed in us to respond to the nature around us — to appreciate it, love it, and nurture it and to feel this reciprocity between us,” Benjamin says.
“So if we’re a part of nature, why in the world would we harm it?” he wonders. He says that when you end the life of something, you are ending it inside yourself as well, even if it’s not physically obvious; it’s there spiritually and psychologically.
We all have a connection to the earth. We’re all born with that, whether we realize it or not, and we all eventually discover it. And for some of us, we take that connection and we go deeper with it. Others don’t do anything with it, and therefore it never gets fostered into anything more.
Benjamin believes that innate appreciation of nature is beaten out of many of us as we’re taught that we need to get a job and work in a cubicle. “We live in a culture very much divorced from nature, and it doesn’t have to be, because it wasn’t like that not too long ago,” he says.
The COVID pandemic created an opportunity for many of us to pause and discover that connection with nature. And that connection has helped us cope.
Benjamin agrees: Being outside in nature is therapy. Gardening is therapy. “Just the act of putting your hands in the soil, it’s a way to act through our grief and our isolation,” he says.
Deep Ecology Vs. Shallow Ecology
In his book, Benjamin writes of two core philosophies that describe how we interact with and engage with nature and the environment: “deep ecology” and “shallow ecology.”
Deep ecology explores the heart of our environmental issues by directly challenging personal and social values, which can be highly uncomfortable and even psychologically painful, according to Benjamin. “Deep ecology wants to revamp the human systems that deny cultural diversity and biodiversity in nature, recognizing human culture as not the only, or even primary culture,” his book states.
Shallow ecology promotes technological fixes to environmental issues often using the same methods as the consumptive, industrialized-based society that eroded nature. Another way of putting this is that shallow ecology looks toward humans for the answer.
“The main difference between both philosophies is that deep ecology regards all species as having essential wisdom to guide us forward, whereas shallow ecology primarily looks to humans for understanding and direction,” the book states.
Benjamin says we’re always told that we can make a difference: recycle, change to energy-efficient light bulbs, etc.
“I’m not going to say that one person can’t make a difference, but in the grand scheme of things, one person can’t make a difference,” he says. “If recycling and changing your light bulbs and putting a garden out your front door awakens you to the issues that need to happen on larger systemic planes of existence, then yes, that is what a garden is for. But our biggest fight right now needs to be to conserve what’s here now. To stop colonizing the planet in the aggressive and violent ways that we are. And that can certainly start in suburbia.”
The journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step, and it’s the collective efforts that make a difference. Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who don’t want to change and don’t want to take the extra effort. Still, I’m hopeful that if enough of us make a compelling argument, we can shift the tide a little bit.
Benjamin points to a study that found that any great cultural or social change happens with a small percentage of the population. It takes as little as 3.5 percent of the population to bring about change. And there is another statistic that says people must be exposed to a new idea 19 or 20 times before they even start to reconsider their viewpoint.
Plants Can Teach Us
Benjamin says that as gardeners we have no choice but to keep learning. We genuinely enjoy it, and we’re inquisitive by nature.
A lot of people get frustrated and quit gardening because they bought a plant and it died. Benjamin tells them they don’t have a brown thumb — the plant just died. Some things just don’t work out. This is a life lesson. The plant was trying to tell you something, and once you figure it out you will have a very green thumb and are full-on gardening. Let plants teach you where they want to be and how they want to grow. Trust them more.
Gardening is not static, he says. You don’t just put a plant there and expect it to stay there forever.
When plants die on us, I don’t call those failures. I call those opportunities. It’s how we learn.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Benjamin Vogt and it left you feeling inspired. If you haven’t listened to our conversation yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Have you run into challenges encouraging others to adopt more environmentally sensitive and ecological gardening practices? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future” by Benjamin Vogt
Monarch Gardens on Instagram: @monarchgardensbenjaminvogt
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.