This month we will be hosting Benjamin Vogt for a talk on his new book “A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.” Benjamin owns the prairie-inspired design firm Monarch Gardens and speaks nationally on both urban and wildlife habitat and landscape ethics. To get to know Benjamin a little better before you come out to hear his talk, check out this e-interview we did with him last week!

What motivated you to choose a career in sustainable landscaping?

The day I found destructive caterpillars on my milkweed, almost spray killed them, decided to first research what they were. From then on every plant I use, every plant community I design, is based on what wildlife it will support and how it will improve the ecology around it.

Were you always so conservation-minded, or was there a particular instance that changed the way you see the natural world?

No. It took having my own garden — and writing a dissertation — to really open me up to the complex issues of conservation, activism, human culture, and the culture of prairies.

How do you define ‘native gardening,’ and why is it so important?

Using plants indigenous to the region prior to the Industrial Revolution and supercharged settlement by those of European descent. These plants evolved specific relationship with one another, the environment, and other species. Using native plant is important for many reasons, including: 1) To support wildlife such as pollinators and birds 2) Help us better understand the place we call home 3) To create a healthy, sustainable future for our families.

Can native gardening mitigate the impacts of climate change? How?

I think gardens composed of native or exotic plants can help mitigate the impacts, it just depends on what impacts you’re referring to. All plants can sequester carbon, clean air and soil, and help reduce runoff. However, it’s primarily native plants that provide superior (if not essential) sustenance for many adult and larval stage insects and bugs — who are the base of the food chain; and if these creatures are to have any hope to adapt to climate change they will need the plants they evolved with. That being said, large swaths of prairie are incredibly suited to absorbing large amounts of intense rainfall, which we’ll see more of, as well as sequestering carbon.

What do you think is the most important thing for people interested in conservation to remember when landscaping?

Study natural planet communities in wilder areas near your home and consider how to best replicate that community at home. A lot of times that means not just seeing which plants grow and work well together, but using more of the traditionally ornamental plants (flowers) to appeal to the artistic demands of urban gardens.

What is your favorite thing about designing landscapes?

I love the energy of meeting new clients and the potential of projects where both I and the client want to do right by nature. Then watching the garden fill in and evolve over the years as it becomes what it wants, and how the garden teaches us about Nebraska and home.

What do you find to be the most common gardening error people make?

It’s a list I think. 🙂 Only going by plant tags and not researching the plants thoroughly to make sure they fit your site (soil, light, drainage, nearby plants, etc). Not using enough plants. Using wood mulch. Watering too much. Amending soil.

Do you have an all time favorite plant? Why?

Ha ha ha ha ha. Can I say a removed butterfly bush or hosta?

If you could change one thing about the way most people landscape today, what would it be?

We’ve been shown in our cities, and thus taught, that plants marooned from one another in wood mulch is both pretty and functional. It’s neither. Wood mulch requires constant re-application forever as a means to help slow down weed growth — but wood mulch doesn’t exist in nature and weeds still grow in it. If we used more plants placed closer together and in layers, the plants would form a tight knit and sustainable community that would require less management and more wildlife value. Green mulch (living plants) is one answer for many of our landscape management and environmental problems.