Just Say NO to the Plant Zoo Mentality

Avoiding the Plant Zoo Mentality

Your Ecosystem Garden is a community of plants and wildlife that works together to create an ecosystem that supports biodiversity, ecosystem services, and creates welcoming habitats for wildlife who interact with those native plants.

Traditional gardening teaches us something completely different, that the goal is to collect “specimens.” You’re taught to choose this pretty plant from Japan, that plant from China, another from Russia, and yet another from South America.

The trouble is, these plants have no connection to each other in a community, nor do they support any interaction at all with your local wildlife. The goal is just to have the latest and newest cultivar from the most prestigious horticultural breeders.

If that is your goal, go enjoy yourself. But if you want to create a garden that supports the local ecology, does not harm the environment, and contributes to healthy populations of wildlife, some grounding in the principles of community ecology is very important.

The collector’s mentality creates nothing more than a Plant Zoo

Last time I went to the zoo, I became quite sad. I spent the afternoon crying for this wildlife who were so far removed from their native habitats. I don’t believe that observing a Lion in a cage really teaches us anything at all about that magnificent creature in its natural environment.

The reason that zoos make me sad is that we had to create them to counteract our own human actions. Habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to human action is the number one cause of species decline, along with the spread of invasive plants.

So, because we have destroyed or chopped up into tiny little fragments the habitats that wildlife needs to survive, now we are attempting to correct our error by protecting wildlife without the same amount of effort placed on protecting the habitat that species lives in.

No species is an island. The flora and fauna of a region are products of the interactions between them. So are we really gaining that much by attempting to protect a species that has been removed from the environment in which it thrived? Feels kind of like a losing battle to me.

The time to protect something is not after we’ve destroyed its habitat. Our time, money, and effort is much better spent in protecting the habitat as a whole.

But we’re doing the same thing with the way that we garden. We are creating gardens completely devoid of life as a showcase for our special ornaments, which provide very little, if any, benefits to wildlife.

When we have a garden full of “specimens” we may indeed have a visually appealing garden to our eyes, until we begin to look a little closer. we discover that there is no LIFE in this garden:

  • No host plants for butterflies
  • No birds feeding on seeds and berries
  • No insects which form the base of the food web for all other wildlife

What we end up with in a “specimen” garden is a bunch of unrelated plants that:

  • Require a lot of resources such as water and nutrients
  • Deplete the soil
  • Give nothing back for wildlife

Ecosystem Gardening creates a garden full of Life

Every plant in my Ecosystem Garden is there because it performs some function for wildlife: host plants for butterflies, seeds and berries for birds, a food source for other wildlife.

Over the course of ecological history, plants, insects, and other wildlife have developed specialized interactions. Some plants are only able to be pollinated by one kind of wildlife. Most insects are specialists, requiring a single plant or a single closely related group of plants for their survival.

The nutritional value of most native plants is not replicated in many “specimens” in the plant zoo. So while many birds may eat fruits and berries from some of these exotic plants, they are not receiving the nutrition they would receive from the plants with which they have co-evolved, and may in fact be starving as a result of this.

Moving Away From the Plant Zoo

Ecosystem Gardening teaches you to work with Mother Nature instead of fighting against her. Simply by adding more regionally appropriate native plants to your landscape will begin to increase its value to wildlife.

When you create areas in your garden that mimic the ecological structure of the natural areas around you, you will be contributing to the environmental health and ecosystem services of your region.

A healthy ecosystem is balanced. When the population of one group of organisms begins to get out of control, in a balanced environment there will always be some other organism to step in and restore balance.

On the other hand, when we create a plant zoo there is no connection between those plants and the surrounding environment, thus there is nothing to maintain balance. The most extreme example of this is that so many of these plants have now escaped cultivation in our gardens, become invasive, and are now running rampant through natural ecosystems, destroying the balance of nature and wreaking havoc in wildlife habitats.

Do you have a plant zoo or a garden full of life?

Check out my new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week, teaching you to garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife in your garden.

© 2010 – 2012, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of EcosystemGardening.com If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Carole Sevilla Brown

Carole Sevilla Brown is a Conservation Biologist who firmly believes that wildlife conservation begins in your own back yard. Carole is an author, educator, speaker, and passionate birder, butterfly watcher,  and naturalist who travels around the country teaching people to garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife so that you will attract more birds, butterflies, pollinators and other wildlife.. She gardens for wildlife in Philadelphia, zone 6b, and created the philosophy of Ecosystem Gardening. Watch for her book Ecosystem Gardening, due out soon. Carole is managing editor of  Beautiful Wildlife Garden, and also  Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. Follow Carole on twitter, @CB4wildlife and on Google+


  1. If it makes you feel any better about animal zoos, modern zoos tend to be VERY conservation minded. I am terribly proud of the efforts of the Phoenix zoo (once my local zoo) which is credited with single-handedly saving the Arabian oryx from the brink–because of their efforts, the oryx is no longer extinct in the wild and there are even breeding populations out there with captive-bred ancestors. And the Minnesota Zoo (also once a local zoo…I’ve moved a lot…) has done some really fabulous work to establish conservation areas in Namibia for the re-establishment of the highly endangered black rhino, and is a participant in captive breeding of the endangered (and obscure!) golden takin. Lots of zoos fund and spearhead research projects in critical areas, and with some species, if it wasn’t for active and meticulous zoos, there wouldn’t be enough genetic diversity left in the wild to keep a species going.

    There are bad zoos out there, just as there are lousy garden shops full of Norway maples, but a good zoo really does do a great deal of good in the world.
    UrsulaV recently posted..Seedy Dealings

    • Carole Brown says:

      Ursula, I understand that zoos are doing wonderful conservation work, but what makes me sad is the reason that they are so important is that we have destroyed, fragmented, or degraded the habitats that wildlife needs to survive. It’s an “after the fact” approach, and is not ideal.

      No species is an island, but survives in community with the plants and other organisms in its habitat. By removing these species from its habitat, yes we can preserve a small amount of genetic diversity for some specific species, but we cannot preserve the ecosystems of which those species are a vital part.

      We’re doing the same thing with plants. Moving “specimens” all over the world, and focusing on them simply as decorations instead of viewing the functions of that plant in its native environment. Plants are not just ornaments. They play a vital role in the ecological health of our ecosystems and environment, and we need to value and recognize that role. No food web means no wildlife. And exotic plants do not contribute in any way to the local food web.

      My point was not really to knock zoos, but to make an analogy between them and our traditional gardening philosophy.

      • *grin* Yeah, it’s a good analogy for planting random Asian imports with a careful grass moat. I just know a lot of people who are pained by zoos and animal captivity and so forth, and I get the urge to say “No! They’re really doing a lot of good, I swear!”
        UrsulaV recently posted..Seedy Dealings

        • Carole Brown says:

          Ha! Don’t you just *love* those grass moats? You are a very passionate advocate for wildlife, and I LIKE that in a person! Thanks.

  2. Carole –

    “Plant Zoos”, is great way to explain it.

    Yes, there are good conservation minded zoos, But the point is that zoos are not functioning ecosystems. A zoo is a bunch of animals from all over the world grouped together because humans like them or the animals native habit is declining and the species need help.

    I perfect analogy of what our gardens have become.

    I hope you won’t mind if I use the plant zoo example when I teach workshops on native plants.


    • Carole Brown says:

      Thanks, Donna. I think it is a pretty good analogy to how we approach the stewardship of our properties, with no understanding about how natural systems work, how we can contribute to the healthy functioning of those systems, or how we can interfere with them and create resource sinks instead of resource sources. A sink is something that just uses up resources without giving back.

  3. Mike Korner says:

    I share your sadness about zoos. While I appreciate the opportunity to see animals that I wouldn’t otherwise get to see (typically, there no elephants running loose in Iowa), I hate that the animals aren’t free. For example: No matter how large the zoo is, the spot earmarked for the elephants just isn’t large enough.

    As for the plant zoo, sometimes it’s just ignorance. Stores sell flowers and plants, and all we get to choose from is the way the plant looks at that moment and the little 3/4 inch blurb on the tag. While the nursery’s supply the plants, their experts aren’t at the store. So, we either need you to tour the nation sharing advice at all places where plants are sold, or we need you to write a book on the topic to raise the awareness and give those of us who care some needed guidance. Your choice :)

    • Carole Brown says:

      Mike, no elephants in your Iowa garden, what’s up with that? LOL

      As for plants, it’s so easy to go to the garden center and be seduced by a pretty face, only to find out just how big a thug it is when it’s in our gardens. And it’s so true that we cannot count on the nursery owner to give us accurate information, so maybe I need you to help me set up that educational tour? Thanks for the offer :)


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