Is Weedy the new Wild?

We are fighting a war against alien invaders…and we’re losing. But there is increasing doubt as to whether the invaders are really our enemies. If treated right, could they actually become our friends? Is it time to rethink our attitudes about weeds?

A Pretty Good Piece of Turf

Whether it’s native species we have no liking for, or exotics we cannot tolerate, weeds cost us a lot of time, money and aching muscles. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, especially since reading ‘The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World’, by Emma Marris. At first, the words post-wild world made me cringe—but I discovered I really liked much of her approach to the future of nature on planet Earth.

I won’t do a book review here—that has been done already by others—I’ll just discuss what I like best about the book, from a nature-lover/non-scientist point of view.

Marris challenges our current approaches to dealing with the growing problem of invasive species, which are generally accepted as the Number One threat to biodiversity. She makes some compelling arguments, using examples of conservation biology from around the world, and in the end—although she does not provide a clear plan for moving forward—she does lay out the general direction of what may be our best to save nature.



Marris goes to great lengths to convince us we need an attitude shift in thinking about conservation goals. Rather than focusing on an ideal of ‘pristine’—anything we consider non-native—we should be aiming toward a planet that is bursting with nature: diverse, thriving, and best of all, surrounding us in our daily lives. Nature is not just confined to the grand, magnificent National Parks and preserves. It should be all around us, every day. It won’t always be native species, though. We will need learn to exploit the potential of exotic species to contribute to biodiversity. She provides examples of biologists who are working in this area.

Appreciation for Nature on all levels

It’s not just the cute and fluffy parts of nature that merit our attention—it’s all kinds of nature. Rather than focusing only on preserving pockets of nature we value as ‘pristine’, we should aim toward a planet-wide blend of functioning ecosystems with a diversity of species. It includes preserving the wilderness we have left and doing what we can to control the worst invasive offenders, but also paying lots more attention to the spaces in between wilderness areas. They may not be magnificent or even very pretty by some standards. They might be buggy or look messy, overgrown or weedy. But if they are tended right, they will be rambunctious.

Exotics are everywhere – and it may be impossible to get rid of them. Do some of them have potential to add to conservation efforts and biodiversity?


Being “gardeners of the planet”

If people embrace the idea that nature should be everywhere—if we demand it—then we can vastly increase the total acreage devoted to conservation. She envisions every patch of ground—no matter how small—in cities, towns, and open spaces, being ‘gardened’ to have conservation value. Some can be left to go pseudo-wild (which may lead to interesting surprises), some can be tended more carefully, some may be more geared toward food production or recreation, but little spaces added together can amount to a huge net gain for conservation. They can serve as refuges for smaller, yet very important species, and as connectors to larger areas like parks and protected nature preserves. The value multiplies when communities cooperate with one another, making a kind of large ‘garden plan’ geared toward sustaining biodiversity. The deeper we get into global climate change, the more important this type of cooperation will be, but it is also a great opportunity to build community and for people to feel they are taking positive action.


Where to spend the money

As always, money is the biggest problem. My greatest fear about this book is that people might use it as an excuse to simply stop funding conservation at all, or discredit ecology entirely. A great deal of her book demonstrates how our efforts at controlling invasive species are often ineffective, both scientifically and economically. But, it’s taken us so long to get this far—to convince people to care about things like preserving habitats, endangered species, and global climate change. If we’re failing…then why keep trying? Why not just pave over everything and be done with it? Marris points out that the money we’re spending now can be more effective if we spend it differently, which makes sense…if enough people agree to try.


It all comes down to open space

Boiling it down, it’s land—not simply ripping out invasive plants—that is the key to a rambunctious future. And not just large tracts, but basically every square foot that is not paved or covered with a structure. We need to concentrate population growth in already developed areas, preserve more open space, and use all of our land better to encourage biodiversity everywhere, not just in parks. We all need to become gardeners of new, rambunctious nature.


What do you think?

Do you like the idea of rambunctiousness? Can you live with weediness? Would you like to see a world with nature spilling out from every spare inch? Can you live with some untidiness and share your area with small creatures, even if they are bugs? Have you read the book…what was your reaction?


To read an excerpt from the book:


A short interview with Marris and some interesting comments:


A longer interview with Marris from the Nature Conservancy Blog:


An essay by Marris featuring Seattle’s Schmitz Park:


Did you know we’ve officially entered a new Geological Epoch? To learn about the Anthropocene:

4 thoughts on “Is Weedy the new Wild?

  1. I haven’t read the book but I’m familiar with Conciliation Biology and Dr. Scott Carroll’s work and views. I fully support his environmental research and I think he explains it very well also. I think that he may encounter a lot of opposition, unfortunately, because he goes against what’s been traditionally held as being true for so many years. Just as there are “conservatives” in politics, there are also the environmental “conservatives”. I’m against any type of purism of ideas. And I think Dr. Carroll’s work is very revolutionary because ‘invasives’ are indeed creating more biodiversity, and “natives” will have to eventually depend on them. Many, but MANY people are against his views; but I believe they are true.

    • I haven’t heard of Carroll’s work, but I’ll check it out. I’m interested in the topic, because it’s going to be so very important in the coming decades. Thanks for the info!

  2. You’ve made me remember once when I was a naturalist at Mount Saint Helens, trying to tug out a huge %$#@! invasive Scotch broom out of the ash in the hope that natives would take its place–and one of the scientists laughing at all my effort, since resistance was futile; the Scotch broom would win out. I still thought the fight was worth it.

    I dunno, it makes me sad to think of the tough, hardy invasives driving out the more tender locals–bullfrogs over Pacific treefrogs, barred owls over spotted owls–diversity lessened. (Tho I see Marris is focused on plants; still, animals follow their food plants, eh?).

    But this also reminds me of folks reclaiming open, empty space with “seed bombs.” I wrote about them here: Definitely a happier image…

    • I should send you this book, Pat, I’d love to hear what you think – my summary is way too brief to do justice.
      I read the first 75 pages prepared to want to rip it to shreds, but she really does make some excellent icon-busting points, and ultimately, an optimistic look forward — which is the most important thing of all.
      The whole point is to make sure there are enough green and wild spaces left, important especially for the smaller animals.
      I was initially attracted to this subject by watching the ‘vegetation management’ of my favorite local Seattle park over the last 2 decades. At first, I cringed to see whole sections of forest understory being ripped out, but I told myself that rebuilding the native plant community would take time. Well, now it’s 20 years later, and I am not convinced that what we’ve done has helped. From my un-scientific viewpoint, it looks like all we’ve done is rip out understory, replant in a very limited way, and replace forest understory with mowed lawn. Plus, the heavy equipment needed for the work tramples and impacts the park, and constant mowing disrupts small creatures. All in the name of removing dreaded invasives. I question whether this helps wildlife at all.
      Marris points out examples where conservation biologists have found in research plots where the plant community was left alone, wildlife eventually manages to adapt to the new plants, and biodiversity actually increases – if given enough time. In other plots where they removed and replanted, the initial disturbances to the habitat were so great that wildlife was displaced, never to recover.
      The most-repeated example is the southwest willow flycatcher (how many times I have illustrated this bird – clinging to its little willow-nest!) thought to be dependent on riparian willow habitat which is heavily invaded by tamarisk, which is targeted for removal all over the SW US – a hugely expensive and disruptive task. But, in places they left alone, willow flycatchers did better…the birds eventually learned how to nest in tamarisk. It surprised a lot of people.
      It’s lots of food for thought. Read it! We need your input!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *