More Than Native Plants – On to Urban Wildness and Social Justice

January 28, 2021

With Benjamin Vogt’s book, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, as a conscientious landscape professional you will find a lot of familiar information. References to biophilia, the ways gardens connect us to our health and wellness and the realization that without native plants we face a mass extinction event are in our common background and our shared body of knowledge.

In this book, Benjamin Vogt takes us to “why” we need to heed the signs and signals we are given through nature – awareness that we can use in our businesses and in our interactions with clients and potential customers to help the situation with education and action. The first chapters in this book share the reasons we need to remember and utilize in choosing native plants. Insects feeding on leaves may have a greater resilience to the nativar plant breeding programs, while ignoring the studies about pollinators’ appetites for nectar and pollen composition. You will be intrigued when you consider things Vogt writes about the pollinators’ extrasensory cues like ultraviolet light markers on petals, for example.

Vogt lives and works in Lincoln, NE. His descriptions of the various plants on the wide, open prairies or the small, focused reconstructed prairies, will take you to a place a lot different from our New Hampshire landscapes. His writing style reflects his background in creative writing with its simplicity, accuracy and alluring details. If you would like an introduction to his work before you get hold of this book, check out his Instagram @monarchgardensbenjaminvogt or his website,, to see extensive samples of his private client garden designs, landscape photos. Learn more from the Instagram posts and web info about his work and landscaping philosophy. From his website, “Plants don’t want to be marooned several feet apart; plants want to cavort and mingle and be their own mulch while naturally improving soil with layered root systems.” That’s one important tenant of Vogt’s design work. It’s evident as you look at his portfolio of projects and may remind you at times of Piet Oudolf with the layer upon layer and depth and mingled, indeterminate textures.

More than a book review, I am hoping this article not only recommends the book to you, but leads you to Benjamin Vogt’s Instagram and website, and helps you think, during the winter, about your own designs and landscapes you maintain. Where can you wean off of barrowful after barrowful of fresh mulch and work in plants that will eliminate the need or create some of their own mulch? Where can you soften some edges of monoculture lawn area and work in more types of grasses or even replace some of the green expanses with more green leafy textures which may also sport blossoms at different times through the seasons? Where can you leave some plants in place, and help your customers relish in the winter interest they will discover with small birds balancing on the tips of echinacea cones with some frost on the remaining leaves draped off the flower stems?

Besides explanations and questions Vogt raises about pollinators and healthy ecosystems, we read a lot of varied references to different scientific thoughts of the author. He compares the sap in plants to our own blood, with magnesium in chlorophyll serving as our blood’s iron – one gathering light for photosynthesis and one gathering oxygen supporting our life cycle. The final chapter of this book is intensely involved with comparisons such as this, and with information on insect life cycles, too. It’s on the one hand a quick read, on the other, leads you to want to look up more – keep your smartphone handy for some quick googling as you read it!

Notes include not only Vogt’s references to material he used in research or background for this book or related work, but to recommendations for other books and authors to look in to if a particular aspect of this resonates with you. The notes are divided in segments correlating to the chapters in this book. Chapter 4, for instance, “Urban Wilderness and Social Justice” contains the recommendation of a good introduction to the history of landscape architecture by Elizabeth Barlow, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History, which sounds like a great winter read. Even Vogt’s index at the conclusion of the book is helpful. You can readily look through it to find what you may be particularly interested in, such as butterfly bush or foundation beds. Any way you want to handle this book, it’s a reference, an informative cover-to-cover read, or a set of facts balanced with philosophies by other researchers and designers such as Douglas Tallamy, you may want to dive in to again with Vogt’s insights gathered in this book.

With descriptions of prairies, descriptions of how underground fungi is fast at work and with an extensive array of notes and suggested further reading, this is what I call a “Winter Companion Book.” Read it at one go or put it down and read it when you are in different moods – sometimes its relaxing and sometimes you’ll feel overwhelmed by the enormity of situations that may be out of control in the natural world already.

by Cris Blackstone, NHCLP