• Kate Swisher

A Phoenix Needs Time To Rise: Part Two

This is a two part story that discusses how ecologically appropriate, fire-resistant growth in Oregon and California can help pollinators and thus, ecosystems rise back after the recent wildfire destruction. Part two specifically explores the benefits of wildscaping, the dangers of the plant nursery industry, and the pervasiveness of the English garden design in North America.

“It starts at the very beginning," Tim says, referring to planting seeds after a wildfire, "often what you’ll hear is 'we need to put fast growing grass out there to do erosion control' [but] there're a couple ways to do it. You could go with a seed mix that’s entirely non-native and fast growing or . . .with a seed mix that’s entirely native and fast-growing. The very first thing you do could be a difference.”

I met Tim Vendlinski in his backyard one sunny day this August. My mom drove us to his house in Oakland without explaining the purpose of the visit. When we arrived at his doorstep, Tim appeared with a smile on his face and an eagerness to show us around his yard. He stopped at every plant he grew to explain its benefit to the ecosystem.

Tim is an environmentalist who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for many years, yet did not become an environmentalist when he launched his professional career, or even when he became an environmental studies major at American River College and then UC Davis. His mom and the creek near his childhood home in Sacramento inspired his love for plants and animals. From a young age Tim realized the organisms he admired needed much more than a zoo to stay alive and well. As a boy, he led a group of ten year olds out to a construction site after witnessing two bulldozers approach the oak forest in his elementary schoolyard. He "negotiated a deal with the developers to transplant two of the oak trees into our schoolyard, but the habitat was lost, and the two oaks ultimately died."

Tim's fervent passion for environmental restoration remains very much alive. As we walked around his yard in Oakland, he pointed to the many California natives, both well-known and rare, that he grows to provide habitat for the insects, birds, newts, and other beneficial animals from the area. That day in Oakland, Tim inspired me to look around my own yard and identify its plants, challenge its English garden design, and replant some of the landscape with natives. Realizing how much I learned from one interaction with Tim, I decided to ask for an interview.

My first question was about the recent wildfire damage up and down the West Coast and what he suggests communities do to rebuild and regrow in a responsible way. He explained people's urge to rebuild stronger and faster. He said Americans are "culturally hardwired" to overcome wildfire damage with speed and a dose of patriotism. Americans want to demonstrate their success with fast, visually pleasing recoveries, yet the process of rebuilding and regrowing is much more complex, and as I wrote in part one of this story, requires patience, adaptation, and a respect for what and who came before.

Though seemingly counterintuitive, instead of focusing on the landscapes of the future, it may be more important to consider the landscapes of the past. Much of this involves a conversation with the community, asking: How do we landscape in a more fire resistant and ecologically appropriate way? Tim suggests people start with a native seed mix. The plants that are native to a given location attract the native wildlife from that area, respect Indigenous history and culture, support larger preservation efforts, and connect people closer to their communities and to themselves. Tim encourages individuals to take a hard look at their own backyards first, and consider wildscaping.

Wildscaping is a form of landscaping that provides habitat for wildlife. When Tim moved into both of his houses in Oakland, his first and his current, the yards were similar. There was dead grass, English ornamentals, ivy, snails, rats, “and a shed full of pesticides and herbicides.” In both situations, Tim immediately disposed of the chemicals at the local household hazardous waste facility. Then he “cleared out the non-native shrubs and trees and replaced them with heirloom fruit trees or natives, and stopped using chemicals. When I did that” he said, “the small little creatures would come back. . .If they’re given the right conditions, they can increase their populations again.” Tim mentions hummingbirds as another example. He never installed a hummingbird feeder in either yard. Instead he planted flowers he knew the small birds enjoyed, and lo’ and behold, they visited.

Many people do not wildscape and few consider planting natives in their backyards. Some of this has to do with lack of awareness, and perhaps even more so, what suppresses this awareness. The commercial nursery industry promotes a form of landscaping that can be detrimental to the environment. Let’s consider hummingbirds once again. The reason why hummingbird feeders are so popular is because there is a huge market for them. They sell well. Companies market them as the best way to attract hummingbirds to properties, yet in truth, the “nectar” solution (mostly sugar water) used in the feeders is not necessarily healthy for the hummingbirds themselves. The nectar from flowers on the other hand is much more beneficial for the animals and for the yard. Floral nectar is beneficial for the hummingbirds because it serves as both an energy and micronutrient source. Floral nectar is beneficial for native flowers because there are certain blooms that have evolved to be pollinated by birds (such as hummingbirds) rather than by insects.”

While certain companies sell products that draw attention away from natural restoration methods, the nursery industry falsey markets the best plants to grow in yards. Tim described the nursery industry as “lucrative, powerful, and almost scary.” I was shocked. I thought, if nurseries sell plants they must be good for the environment, but this is certainly not the case. Most nurseries do not sell native plants and if they do, they sell “generic versions of ‘native plants’ but the genetics of those are all scrambled. A given plant wouldn’t have the characteristics that ties it to any specific place or watershed.” The point of growing these generic or “cosmopolitan” native plants loses its purpose as the plant’s genetics are not in harmony with the place they’re from.

Other nurseries don’t even sell native plants, period. Once Tim visited his daughter down in Santa Barbara where she attended college. While there, he was doing some gardening at his daughter's rental home, and he visited a large and beautiful nursery in Carpenteria. People commend communities in Santa Barbara for their attention to restorative ecology and mindful landscaping, so Tim pulled into the nursery with high hopes. To his dismay, he could not find one native plant in the entire nursery. He asked a person working where the native section was, to which the employee responded they didn’t have one. The reason they gave?: native plants aren’t attractive and there’s no demand for them. Instead, the nursery sells plants in line with the English garden design such as: hydrangeas, hollyhocks, roses, and hedges. They assume people want plants that stay green throughout the year, or plants they can control.

The English Garden is perhaps the most popular in the United States. In many cases this design is simply what people know and are comfortable with. They don’t think too much about it or care to investigate, however a closer investigation is worth the time. A look into the English garden reveals a dark history for North America. The popularity of the English garden in North America links to a history of settler colonialism and the Puritan desire to “impose our way of life and our religion in this new country” while disregarding what and who came before.

In many instances, the English garden wants to control what is natural, native, and wild. Consider hedges, or the rows of green bushes gardeners trim into globes, pins, spirals, and rectangles. Tim made me laugh when he jokingly mocked a settler. He sarcastically declared “We must tame this new land! And what better way to tame it than with a hedge thats shaped like a rectangle!” All jokes aside, this way of landscaping celebrates colonial domination, and in doing so, may disrespect native lands and people. It reflects a part of the American psyche that craves domination and mass-integration of white, European values.

The ripples of manifest destiny (cultural force) combined with a capitalistic system (economic force) generates an incredibly powerful nursery industry. The industry has had a devastating impact on local and regional plant communities, as many of the introduced species have escaped as weeds into erstwhile, native landscapes.

A native plant industry that serves as a counterweight to the current industry has yet to exist. There are, however, small native plant nurseries and sales scattered around the United States. Because native plant nurseries and sales can be difficult to scout out, I attached links to some in the Bay Area, as well as in Southern Oregon. Feel free to comment your location below and I will send a list of native plant nurseries in your area. As Tim told me, “the more native plants you buy, the more you invest in the habitat restoration movement, and the more economic demand you stimulate for native landscaping.” In other words, you can vote with your dollars.

Like any complex issue, it is a burden to care. The state of the natural world is dire. Air quality worsens, plastics fill the water, hurricanes collide into houses, invasive species threaten native wildlife, and still there are people who choose to look away. This is a luxury. There are also people who think being vegetarian is enough to be an activist. My friends who have studied much more about environmentalism than I, often tell me that acting in an environmentally involved way extends far beyond eating vegan or using reusable bags in the market. This is true, but what does this extension look like? Tim broke it up into four tiers of action for me.

Daily practice of principles

Community engagement

National and international engagement

Taking joy

The daily practice is like yoga or mindfulness. This practice centers you, is kind to you, and is kind to the environment. A practice can involve shopping at farmer’s markets, growing native plants, weeding, cutting down on meat consumption, reusing items, buying used clothes and books, avoiding Amazon (haha), or diversifying your reading.

Community engagement respects local restoration efforts and community experts. This is the tier, in my opinion, that often goes overlooked. There is so much we as individuals can do in our own towns and cities no matter how small. Your own voice holds power and sway in these situations. Tim said he still serves as the primary advocate for the preservation of the creek nearby his childhood home in Sacramento. No one else has stepped up to fill that position. There are endless roles to fill and opportunities to chase, potentially on your street alone.

National and international engagement is essential now more than ever. This involves voting for the politicians and leaders who dedicate money and time to the environmental efforts, and do not support large corporations who profit from dirty energy.

Then there is self care or “taking joy.” For Tim, his self care and his daily practice meet in the garden. Tim says that “gardening is the joy, but at the same time, it’s gardening for nature. . ..It’s not just gardening for some ornamental pretty plant that I don’t even know the name of. I’m gardening because I know a butterfly needs the pipevine, a hummingbird needs the fuchsia, and the wrens need the wild grapes." Self care gives the mental space to simply look around and notice. It opens up room for joy. For Tim, he gardens to notice the needs of his yard and the creatures within it. He takes joy in his process. I currently take joy in writing, tending to beehives, watching others learn, connecting with friends, and appreciating subtle moments of beauty.

A wildscaper and native plant gardener experience a nuanced understanding of beauty such as “the rust color on buckwheat blossoms,” the pungent smell of sage, the piles of dead leaves around trees, the multi-colored, uneven terrain, the tiny blossoms in leggy brush, the rotting logs piled in creeks, and the misshapen apples. Opening ourselves up to multiple definitions of beauty is perhaps the true start to regrowth. The wildfires have actually presented an incredible opportunity to explore variations of beauty in landscapes. We have the opportunity to re-envision and reveal once again, what natural beauty looks like in our given location and how we can best showcase that beauty.

Native Plant Nurseries in the Bay Area and in Southern Oregon*

Bay Area Native Plant Nurseries & Sales

Southern Oregon Native Plant Nurseries & Sales

*Comment Below If You’d Like a List for your Current Area!

If you'd like to read something Tim has written, read Tales from the Oak Saver. Attached here.

Tales from the Oak Saver_Vendlinski
Download PDF • 333KB

All photos included in this post were provided by Tim. They are native plants from his yard. Below I identify them in order of appearance.

1. Matilija poppy

2. Humboldt Lily

3.Bumblebee on Flannelbush

4. Lewisia blooming in succulent garden

5. Dudleya gnoma in bloom

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