MONTHS before the crocuses peep through the snow or the barn swallows chatter about their return from points south, there are signs aplenty of impending spring for those who know where to look on the small farm in Virginia where I live. None are so ominous, however, as the trays in the refrigerator. Long before the final frost they begin to appear -- a few at first, and then an invading army that settles in for an extended siege. Filled with potting soil and scores of practically invisible seeds, they are the seasonal harbingers of what I have come to think of as The Project -- my wife's efforts to turn 3,600 square feet of dirt into a garden of native perennials.
Thirty-six hundred square feet is about a twelfth of an acre, a laughably small patch of ground by the agricultural yardstick of our neighborhood. But it is alarming just how many plants it takes to fill a plot that size, and all the more so when the seeds of the plants in question must live in one's refrigerator for two months before they will germinate. (Just a few, mercifully, require an additional sojourn in the freezer compartment.) This has been going on for years now, and there is no end in sight.
We decided to concentrate on native plants and those cultivated in America before 1800, for no particular reason that I can remember now other than that it seemed in keeping with Alexander Pope's famous gardening exhortation to "consult the genius of the place." Our place includes, if not much evident genius, at least a log cabin and a rolling pasture secure for the moment against the advancing tide of townhouses. Although the tinge of nostalgia in our choice was undeniable, wildflowers and other native plants did seem more in keeping with the surroundings -- and also less fussy once past the refrigerator stage of their lives -- than gaudier and more temperamental garden standards such as roses and peonies, imports from distant shores.
Many of the native plants that now flank the oystershell walks of our square garden are pretty and elegant things, fully justifying their frequent description in the reference books as "unjustifiably neglected." A favorite of mine is Amsonia tabernaemontana, also known as blue star, which with its small clusters of steel-blue flowers has what one of these books calls an "understated grace." A tendency toward the exotic and showy has long dominated the American flower-breeding scene, and there is certainly nothing understated about the names given to conventional flower varieties. "Olympic Fire," "Hot Lips," and "Boy O' Boy" are a few of the tamer ones. Amsonia, on the other hand, this book goes on to observe, "certainly ... will never be called 'Mae West.'"
Another native perennial I have come to know and love for its simple elegance is Baptisia alba, white false indigo, which puts out a fine chain of white wisteria-like blooms against a deep-purple stem. A member of the legume family, it forms pealike seed pods that last until fall, a homey touch in the perennial border.
ONCE we had made what was at the time a rather casual, even naive, decision to grow only native and traditional plants in our ornamental garden, one thing quickly led to another. Starting from seed proved to be largely a matter of necessity. Many native plants are simply not part of the nursery trade: it's seeds or nothing. And when tiny bare-root plants or cuttings were available, through mail-order suppliers that specialize in native plants, prices often seemed prohibitive.
The short shrift given local species is an old story and an odd one, and I can understand why native-plant enthusiasts tend to feel so strongly about their enthusiasm. They must fight a battle not only against what the textbooks call the "complex dormancy systems" of many of these species (hence the refrigerator sessions) but also against indifference, neglect, and even a want of proper patriotic feeling. In 1851 one American horticulturist wrote,
Nothing strikes foreign horticulturists and amateurs so much as this apathy and indifference of Americans to the beautiful sylvan and floral products of their own country. An enthusiastic collector in Belgium first made us keenly sensible of this condition of our countrymen last summer, in describing the difficulty he had in procuring from any of his correspondents here, American seeds or plants.... "In a country of azaleas, kalmias, rhododendrons, cypripediums, magnolias and nyssas [he wrote] -- the loveliest flowers, shrubs, and trees of temperate climates -- you never put them in your gardens, but send over the water every year for thousands of dollars worth of English larches and Dutch hyacinths. Voilà le goût Républicain!"
I was prepared for the whiff of chauvinism, even xenophobia, that hovers around those who take up the cause of native species; I was aware, too, that a sort of reverse snobbery has long been attached to the cultivation of understated flowers, and growing only native understated flowers could seem too refined for words.
What I was not prepared for was the discovery that in dutifully hauling cartloads of muck and mulch each spring and acquiescing in the de facto annexation of my refrigerator each winter, I had become a marcher in a moral crusade to save the planet. This disconcerting fact came to my attention recently when I picked up a copy of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Handbook #157, "Starting From Seed." There is not a lot about starting from seed in this pamphlet. What there is a lot about is repairing the tattered fabric of local ecosystems, resisting the hegemony of "a handful of multinational corporations" and "agrichemical conglomerates," protecting the world's "irreplaceable genetic wealth," and, yes, preserving "Spaceship Earth."
In retrospect, there were warning signs that this was coming. I have subscribed to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's handbook series for a number of years, and looking back can trace a steady evolution from nuts and bolts to the Meaning of It All. The series used to be called the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record, and it was notable for its small type and many pages of raw data cataloguing various plants and describing their soil and cultivation requirements. But at a certain point it shed its fusty title in favor of the "21st-Century Gardening Series" (several years early); the type started getting bigger, and the word "diversity" started appearing with increasing frequency. Articles from the BBG began frowning on lawns and clipped hedges and warning that unnatural intrusions on the landscape such as herbs and vegetables had best be confined to the immediate vicinity of the house, where they presumably can be kept under close observation for any signs of threatening the biodiversity of the planet. Farther away from the house we are advised to "increase the degree of wildness" and "release" existing plant communities from "the grip of alien shrubs and vines." One special issue of the 21st-Century Gardening Series was devoted to combating the invasion of alien species, another to the complementary virtues of native plants. Most recently came "Starting From Seed," which in places seems more a sort of New Age spiritual guide than a gardening handbook.
There are other indications that we are in the midst of a full-blown movement here. Weighty books with titles like Gardening the Gene Pool in Your Own Backyard are appearing. Organized groups with names like Seed Savers Exchange and Flower & Herb Exchange are rising up with the avowed aim of preserving "heirloom" varieties and challenging the hegemony of the seed companies. The seed giant W. Atlee Burpee is apparently worried enough by all this that it has countered with its "Burpee Heirlooms" catalogue, illustrated with lithographs from its catalogues of a century ago.
What makes this a movement, rather than simply a hobby like collecting old phonograph records, is the ideological drumbeat that accompanies almost every piece of prose on the subject. People who collect old phonograph records may think that big-band music is superior to rap; they may think that Caruso was a better singer than Pavarotti; some may even think that vinyl records sound better than CDs. But none, so far as I can tell, think they are saving the planet by indulging in what most of us would view as a simple personal choice of leisure-time pursuit.
Nor, I imagine, do people who collect old phonograph records have as little fun as the native-and-heirloom and grow-it-from-seed crusaders seem to much of the time. The hectoring and moralistic tone of much of their literature is instantly recognizable to readers of a certain kind of environmental writing. A typical offering in this genre is a classroom study guide on native plants and preserving genetic diversity published by the Missouri Botanical Garden, which asks students to engage in thought-provoking exercises -- for example, "List five ways in which your life would be different if the world's tomato crops were suddenly decimated by a disease." ("We'll only have V-7 juice from now on"?)