Anyone who spends any time online in the various social media groups is familiar with discussions — arguments even — that can arise from any number of hot-button topics. But, surprisingly, some of the most heated conversations are centered around a few topics related to gardens and gardening.

Whenever the subject of native plants comes up, we often see a contentious debate arise over their use versus that of exotic plants — and by “exotic” I refer to anything not native to your location, not necessarily something from the tropics. Many exotic plants are quite suitable for growing in this zone, like Rugosa roses for example. While it is true the very act of “gardening” disturbs the natural world around us, we have learned there are ways we can mitigate the interruption of that environment our gardening creates. Planting native trees, shrubs and perennials is one way to make amends for our presence. Native plants are the best for providing food and habitat for native wildlife. Problem for many of us is they are not the best for providing foods for people.

And if you’ve had much experience with native species you soon learn that they can be very, very site specific. While native species are usually more resistant to disease, weather and insect issues, they can be quite fussy about where they are planted. Pay close attention to the plants you select for this purpose, and try to match their native settings with comparable locations in your landscape. Just because they are hardier than some of the exotics available, that does not mean they are all bulletproof. Put one in the wrong location and you’ll see.

While on this topic of native versus exotic, it is important to realize that nearly every fruit, vegetable and grain we grow in our gardens is an exotic species. So to have an entirely native landscape, it would have to be one that excludes most vegetable varieties and fruits, like apples. peaches, plums, cherries and so on. I have witnessed many a rabid online argument over the necessity to only grow native species by people who, at the same time, were nurturing fruit trees and vegetable gardens of what are actually exotics.

To feed the birds or not to feed the birds, either way a bird feeder often attracts other animals you might or might not want around. Photo courtesy of Lynette Walther.

Another sensitive topic is cats in the garden. This is possibly the most emotional of all issues that put people at odds. The fact is housecats are natural-born killers. It is entirely in their nature to hunt. And some owners argue it somehow damages their pet to not allow that nature to play out. However, housecats are well-fed predators that hunt for sport, not to survive and feed their young like our native predators do. Simply put, housecats are not part of nature here. They are no more a part of our environment than a lion or a hippo would be.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scrolled through online gardening groups and saw the common complaint of the “neighbor’s cat(s)” that spray cars and buildings, dig up and defecate in children’s sand boxes and vegetable or flower gardens. Some of the complaints about the “neighbor’s cat(s)” involve their predation of birds at bird feeders (more about bird feeders later). Housecats kill billions of songbirds and small wildlife here every year, and most cat owners have no idea how deadly “Puss” actually is, simply because they do not follow their pet around every minute of every day. Often the online comments seek solutions and sometimes those suggestions are rather violent. Violence against cats is one reason to keep them indoors, as is the danger of death or injury from other animals or vehicles, disease, fleas, ticks, poisoning and even catnapping.

Which leads us to the simple fact responsible pet owners keep their cat(s) indoors all the time and out of the garden for the health and safety of their pet, and out of respect for their neighbors and wildlife, as well. A supervised outing on a leash or even better, a fresh-air “catio” are good solutions for any cat. The upcoming nesting season would be a good time to start.

Recently we’ve heard about Avian flu being detected in both wild and domestic bird populations here and elsewhere. Whether it is Avian flu or any of a number of other diseases, the topic of bird feeders must address the spreading of disease. Not many people disinfect their feeders on a regular basis, which could help to prevent the spread of disease. Feeders can and often are the vector points for avian diseases.

There’s that, and there is the issue of feeding wild birds to begin with. Many would argue in itself feeding is unnatural and unnecessary. However, the destruction of habits by development or farming has led to the demise of large numbers of birds, as has the use of insecticides, removing yet another food source for birds which could serve as an argument for the necessity of feeding birds today. But there is another wrinkle in this issue, namely, bird feeders inadvertently attracting rats or bears or other wildlife. In some areas this has condemned many a bear that became dependent on a food source that has put them in conflict with humans.

Love them or fear them, harmless snakes are actually your best garden pals. Photo courtesy of Lynette Walther.

In addition to bird feeders attracting unwanted wildlife, our vegetable gardens themselves often attract wildlife, and in turn attracts predators. In most cases those predators are actually acting to our benefit, but if one of those predators is a snake, then another conflict arises. Garden group inquiries often seek help in killing or otherwise “getting rid of” snakes. My own mother never met a snake she wouldn’t try to kill — and she killed a lot of snakes. No matter how I pleaded with her to spare the garter snakes, she would not entertain the presence of any serpent in her presence. She was wrong, allowing our native predators to solve some of our problems is a win-win for both us and them as well.

You can see how gardening arguments can go way beyond whether you say it “toe-MAY-to” or toe-MAH-to or “po-TAY-to” or “po-TAH-to.” No doubt you’ve encountered others. Seems finding common ground these days eludes us, even in the garden. Indeed, consider yourself warned.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are in Camden.