Archive for March, 2009

What You Think: Linking Food & Native Plants

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

You came through for Tom and Nancy! For the next few days, I’ll be blogging about some of your ideas on how to build on the interest in local and homegrown foods to promote native plants.

On Friday, I suggested that one way might be to use the growing number of farmers markets to spread the word through a “love local food?/ help a pollinator/ grow native plants” campaign. I also noted that it might be possible for supermarkets like Whole Foods that sell organic food to participate by promoting and selling native wildflowers instead of just cut tulips and the like.

Robbin Simmen, head of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s GreenBridge project, one of the biggest and best community horticulture programs in the country, responded:

I like the idea of encouraging retailers of food to sell native flowers. GreenBridge did this a couple of years ago with the Sustainable Gardening project where we reached out to the community gardeners who grow flowers to sell at the East New York Farms! market and asked them to grow Echinacea and Rudbeckia. They loved it because these plants are so bright, drought tolerant, and easy to grow, plus it’s an extra piece of interest for the shoppers to learn that they’re buying native plants.

Robin noted that another way to make connections between native and edible plants is to spread the word about native food plants. For example, she said she’ll be speaking on edible landscaping with native plants at the Brooklyn Food Conference on May 2nd. In her words, she’ll “be plugging blueberries and paw paws for human consumption, and lots and lots of native species for wildlife, the point being not to forget wildlife in our drive to feed ourselves!” 

Tom and Nancy Need Our Help!

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Three cheers for Nancy Small and her husband, Tom! When they retired in 1996, the two indefatigable former English professors began turning their half-acre yard in Michigan into better habitat for wildlife. Three years later, they founded a chapter of Wild Ones, the organization that promotes native plants and natural landscaping, and a couple of years ago, they established the Michigan Climate Action Network. But now, says Nancy, who emailed me the other day, they’re stumped and hoping we can help them out:

“Neither Wild Ones nor the environmental movement as a whole,” she writes, “have had much success in getting people to tear out their lawns in order to put in native plants for wildlife (or to reduce carbon emissions), but it’s beginning to sound as if people can hardly wait to get rid of their lawns in order to grow their own food” (which, as she points out, is a lot more work, and harder work, than growing native plants!). So Nancy and Tom are trying to build on the work of Michigan State University researchers who have demonstrated how native wildflowers, by providing pollen, nectar, and shelter to the pollinators and other beneficial insects that are critical for healthy agricultural systems, can help farmers increase crop yields. They’re asking us to put on our thinking caps and help them come up with ways to use the current interest in organic, local, and homegrown food to promote the notion that food plants and native plants are essential partners in a healthy landscape.

I told Nancy that one way might be to use the growing number of farmers markets to spread the word through a “love local food?/ help a pollinator/ grow native plants” campaign. Heck, we might even be able to get Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural foods markets to promote and sell native wildflowers instead of just the usual decapitated roses or tulips. So whaddaya think? Email me, and I’ll send your ideas (or even your words of encouragement) along to Tom and Nancy. 


Thursday, March 26th, 2009

If you read my previous post about online “social spaces,” you know I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Maybe that’s why I think there’s something ridiculous about iPhorest, the brand-new IPhone app (the cutesy iPh prefix, for starters). Sure, it’s for a good cause: After downloading the software for $4.99, you plant a virtual tree. For each virtual tree you plant, the Conservation Fund will plant a real-life native tree—starting with the restoration of vulnerable wildlife habitats along our own Gulf Coast. So far so good.

It’s what you have to do to plant your virtual tree that gives me pause. After you download the app, you have to do a digging motion to make the hole, plant the seedling, then shake your phone to create a rain storm, so your seedling will start to grow. You keep repeating this until your tree is full sized.

There are enough people walking around my Manhattan neighborhood while jabbering on their hands-free cellphone devices, or worse, with those bizarre Bluetooth gizmos clipped to their ears. I can just see all the iPhone users in Central Park engaged in some weird form of iKung Phu as they plant their virtual cypress trees.

Okay, so I’m being grumpy. But apparently, the iPhorest idea originated at a TED conference. TED is supposed to be about inspired ideas from the world’s leading thinkers and doers. Nice try guys. But I’d be more inspired if you could come up with an app that automatically plants a tree every time we turn on our iPods or boot up our MacBook Pros. Now that would reforest the world in a hurry. 

Veggie Trader

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Yeah, I realize that social networking is the great revolution of Web 2.0 (coming on the heels of Web 1.0, which brought us online commerce). And yeah, I realize that some web networks can be professionally useful. But, please, the competition to accumulate the most “friends” is something I thought I’d left behind with high school.

Veggie Trader, on the other hand, is an online community I can believe in. When you get to that point in summer when the thought of eating another zucchini quiche whipped up from your backyard squash patch makes you nauseous, you just post a listing on your excess produce and note what you’d like in return, then wait for a response. You can also browse by zip code to see what’s available in your area.

Of course you can also donate the extra harvest to local food banks through programs like Plant a Row for the Hungry.

When Not Buying Is the Most Powerful Impulse

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

If you spend as much time perusing green blogs and websites as I do, you can’t help but have noticed how many of these sustainability-touting enterprises are predicated on the usual orgy of consumerism, albeit with a green face. I realize it’s hard to make a living off of electronic publishing, guys, but really, how many green buying guides, organic body butters, and 100 percent bamboo arm warmers does the world need?

A few weeks ago, when I linked to Lance Mannion’s entertaining rant on retooling our economy built on “the buying and selling of toys and gizmos and lots of other useless crap,” I wondered how we would make the transition to a sane and sustainable economy. I got a glimpse on Saturday when I read John Hockenberry’s Metropolis essay on where we find ourselves right now, when nonbuyers are driving the market and not making a purchase is the most powerful impulse in the global economy.

Since the 1950s, Hockenberry points out, design and marketing have been all about “creating aspirational narratives with the aim of getting people to make purchases.” Things clearly went berserk. Global capitalism became “a frenetic quest for personal identity through brands and objects, before finally turning into an extreme ideology of shopping as a form of geopolitical defense. When George W. Bush famously urged Americans in 2001 to buy in response to terrorism, the aspiration ceased to be personal; it became a full-fledged nationalistic ideology.”

But now the aspiration is to buy nothing, whether because we’re exhausted, fearful, or broke. So Hockenberry speculates about new narratives and new design strategies for a time when no product is the best product. Hints: “one-for-life” tools, tech gadgets that can be infinitely upgraded with a minimum purchase, and truly durable appliances whose external colors and textures can be cheaply personalized or updated.

Carbon Neutral Monday

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

I couldn’t care less if Angelina Jolie becomes the next octomom. I care a little bit more about the latest pictures of George Clooney, but not much. Yet every couple of months for years when I’d go get my hair done I’d still get sucked into consuming all the schlocky celebrity garbage in the magazines lying around the salon. This year, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to bring better reading with me to the beauty parlor. So for the next couple of days I’ll be blogging about a few of the things I read on Saturday when I went to get my hair cut.

To continue Friday’s burning question, I’ll start with Richard Conniff’s interesting piece in environment 360. Coniff uses the recent opening of Kroon Hall, the new home of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, as a jumping off point to ask whether it is feasible to achieve carbon neutrality, “the architectural Holy Grail in the age of global warming.” (At least architects acknowledge that this is the ultimate goal. Landscape designers haven’t even gotten to that point yet.) Ultimately, he concludes that it’s possible to get “damned close,” but even Yale will have to purchase offsets to mitigate the emissions they could not design out of the building.

Surprisingly, Coniff seems a bit miffed by the fact that the biggest carbon emission savings came not from “sexy new technologies” but rather from very traditional design strategies like orientation for passive solar heat gain, careful shading, and making the most of daylight. (Duh?) But he does a good job of pointing out how flaws in the U.S. Green Building Council’s current LEED system lead to “certified green” buildings that are anything but energy efficient (and therefore not even close to carbon neutral).

And he does a great job of exploding the myth that going green just doesn’t pay: “In practice, the green premium may add 2 to 10 percent to construction costs. But the green label added 10 percent to the sale price for Energy Star buildings and 31 percent for LEED certified buildings,” according to a recent University of Reading study.

Carbon Neutral Landscapes?

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Listen to landscape architects and other members of the “green industry” these days and it’s apparent they think they’re addressing global climate change just by going to work in the morning. Gardeners think the same way. After all, growing plants is the essence of landscaping, and plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. That makes gardening the ultimate green activity in an age of global warming fueled primarily by this greenhouse gas, right?

Um, wrong. From the choice of paving materials to the use of fertilizers and the amount of embodied energy involved in pumping and distributing water used for irrigation, gardens are part of the problem, not the solution to our climate woes. Is it possible to create landscapes that are carbon neutral or, even better, that function as “carbon sinks”? I explore this question here.

Will the White House Plant a Row for the Hungry?

Friday, March 20th, 2009

If she hasn’t already, Michelle Obama should consider donating a portion of the White House harvest to local food banks. As tough economic times take their toll, the lines are growing longer at food pantries and soup kitchens across the country, and donations reportedly are not keeping pace with demand. Since 1995, American gardeners have donated more than 14 million pounds of herbs and vegetables to feed their neighbors as part of Plant a Row for the Hungry, a program run by the Garden Writers Association. Want to know how you can get involved? Read all about it here.

Kale is Cool!

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Today, 23 fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C. will help MIchelle Obama dig up the new 1,100-square-foot White House vegetable garden. In an interview, the First Lady said she hopes to help make it cool for kids to grow and eat fresh fruits and veggies. The students from the Bancroft school will also help plant and harvest, and they’ll get to cook what they pick with the chefs in the White House kitchen. Of course produce from the patch will also be used for Obama family meals and formal dinners.

The  plot will be located on the South Lawn, in a spot visible from E Street, just below the Obama girls’ new swing set. For now, spring veggies like spinach, snap peas, and lots of lettuce will be growing in the garden. There’s a separate bed for raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, and others for rhubarb, mint, and kale and collards. Wanna see what else is growing? The New York Times has the scoop, including the complete garden plan and a view via Google Earth.

Let Them Eat Cukes

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

The word is out—there will be a vegetable garden at the White House, overseen by Michelle. Obama Foodorama has the details.