There are two kinds of people: those who pay for plants, and those who get paid to plant. To investigate what it’s like to be one of the lucky latter, we spoke to Aubree Keurajian, a senior botanist at Davison Environmental, and an advocate for repopulating the East with native species through her project, Ungardening. Wait, she wants to undo gardens? Read on…it’s not so much about horti-cancel culture.
How it all started:
I have a degree in systems ecology from Cornell, so after I graduated I did what most people in my field do, which is do fieldwork for a couple years before going back to academia. I realize I didn’t want to go back to academia. I moved back to Connecticut. My parents were doing work in the yard and I talked to the guy who was doing the wetland survey, and he got me a job at Davison. We mostly do botanical surveys. We work 80% with municipalities, examining the power lines, so when we encounter any rare plants, we have to survey for them. It’s super fun to be protecting these plants.
A typical day:
For a field day, I usually aim to get out right after rush hour. I walk up and down the power lines, identifying all the plants then locating them with a GPS tracker and writing up a report. Recently, I was looking for bur oak and arborvitae. I had no idea the latter was native. You see them all over the place in residential areas it’s sometimes called northern white cedar. The symmetry is just gorgeous. It was a moving moment to see things I only see in suburbia out there in the woods.
Some awkward moments:
It’s always interesting working in the intersection of nature and people. Whenever we have to interact with landowners—sometimes they’re super nice and sometimes they’re confused about what’s going on. Some people believe the utility lands are private lands and they get territorial. [Before we approach a private residence,] we’re given notes on whether or not they have a good relationship with utility companies. I’m checking on [areas with] power lines and a lot of human activity, and I’m looking in forests surrounded by development. Just because you’re in the suburbs doesn’t mean there aren’t rare plants.
Why she’s sticking with it:
I was thinking I was going to go into academia but after meeting enough professors and realizing they’re in the lab doing analysis, I realized I don’t want to do that. It’s important to have ecological baselines so we know what’s going on in the world. [Academia] moves very slowly, so I wanted to work with homeowners.
Most of the land east of the Mississippi is privately owned. Regulations have no sway so you have to get work on an individual level. What’s keeping me going is how excited people are about it. By far, the demand for plants is way bigger than the supply, so it’s very exciting. I thought I’d be a seed and plant producer, but the consultation is about identifying the native plants. I do talks and plant identification walks and people love it. It’s all on Zoom now, but in the past I did things on public land.
Toughest parts of the job:
The basic [invasive] plant removal is such a challenging and tedious project. That’s why I love finding ways to eat them and use them. When you’re down on your hands and knees, you notice everything that’s not invasive. You see the remnant natives among the invasive. [Identifying plants is] like learning a language. If you know one romance language you hear another one and notice those roots. You don’t know the exact word, but you know roughly what it means. A plant is like a sentence. Leaves are adjectives. Stems are nouns. You can read the landscape.
People love focusing on the color of a flower, but what shape they are is more important. And something can look like a tree because it’s happy there, but something looks like a shrub because it’s not. Also, just because something is native doesn’t mean it’ll love your yard. I love going on a map, seeing what has the same elevation and what grows there and taking it to another’s yard. I’ve seen sad attempts at planting mountain laurel on a stream bank and it died.
Favorite native finds and a warning:
Hartford climbing fern: it’s a vine with hand-shaped fern leaves. And something that we have in Connecticut are a lot of wild orchids. We have true orchids. Yellow fringe. White fringe. But they’re often threatened by poaching. People try to replant them in their own gardens. It’s illegal. A lot of our native plants have strong relationships with other plants in the system. If they pluck it up and put it in turf grass it’s not going to survive.
How people can support this work:
I have a website (ungardening.org) and I also post on Instagram. The biggest thing to do is to start questioning your yard. [Ask yourself] why am I doing the things that I’m doing and how can I be doing it differently? Watch how many birds are in your yard right now, and then start having a baseline for what changes happen as you start doing more things to your yard.
So what’s ungardening exactly?
Some of our traditional yard-maintenance techniques damage the environment beyond us. In order to move forward and heal our planet we need to “ungarden” our gardens. In some instances I’m pro-herbicide for autumn olive and phragmites. Sometimes, like chemo, you have to use a harsh cure to fix something. Doesn’t mean we should use it all the time. It can be abused. Follow the directions carefully, or cut the stem and apply the herbicide directly to the cut stem so you don’t spray over everything so it’s controlled, kills the root and won’t translocate. What sets apart humans from animals is our culture is part of nature and interacts with it. A lot of our invasive plants only [exist] because of colonialism and imperialism—that’s something that’s not a part of the conversation. I have an hour-and-a-half talk about the concept of weed.
Personal projects in progress:
I am renting a new house…so I’m really excited to start a vegetable garden. I spend all my time with native plants, but I love taking care of things that give me food. I’m really terrible with house plants, especially succulents. Just because one plant doesn’t want to live for you doesn’t make you a bad plant person, though. You shouldn’t feel like a monster. Sometimes it’s literally the air in your house.