Archive for April, 2009

Travels With Harley

Friday, April 24th, 2009

(And Donnie and Merle.) Tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn I’m off on a retro-style road trip to the Great Plains with my hubby and our two collies to watch the redbuds bloom. Internet access may be unreliable, so my apologies if you don’t hear from me. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Regenerative Design: The Next Big Environmental Thing

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

“Earth Week” is as good a time as any to reflect on the environmental movement and how it’s evolved since the first Earth Day in 1970. Back in those days, the toxic smog spewed from chemical factories that lined the New Jersey Turnpike was so thick you could barely get from New York to Delaware without a gas mask. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Paul Ehrlich predicted that exploding human population growth would lead to mass famines and planetary disaster. In its report Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome said people were devouring natural resources, particularly oil, so fast that the days of economic growth were numbered. The old Sierra Club motto that people who enter natural areas should “take only pictures, leave only footprints” captured the prevailing environmental view that humans are “unnatural,” ecological outlaws, predators on a planetary scale.

Early environmentalism resulted in some landmark laws and considerable environmental clean-up. But twenty years later, ecosystems were still declining rapidly, and we still were faced with climate chaos, not to mention a mass extinction episode that could rival anything in the three and a half billion years of life on earth, including the demise of the dinosaurs. As a public relations strategy, gloom and doom got old real fast, and in the past decade or so, a more positive approach has become environmentalism’s mainstream face—the quest for sustainability. As a guiding philosophy, sustainable development certainly beats misanthropy and apocalypse. But LEED Platinum buildings and Priuses can get you only so far, and sustainable design, at least as currently conceived, won’t lead to true sustainability anytime soon. By settling for a higher recycling rate, more fuel-efficient cars, or less water consumption, we’re just making things less worse.

Five years ago, in an influential presentation, David Schaller, sustainable development coordinator in the EPA’s Denver office, called this a “cruel, zero-sum game that we are destined to lose in the end.”  No wonder there’s still talk about austerity and apocalypse, he said: “There is an austerity all right, but it is an austerity of imagination. All of it is fueled by the premise of scarcity in nature. I propose that there is an abundance to nature that, in our ignorance and even arrogance, we are only beginning to fathom.”

Any gardener who has contemplated the act of photosynthesis knows that life on earth is no zero-sum game. Plants are able to pluck sunlight out of thin air and transform its energy into the food that all animals, including us, need to survive. Through photosynthesis, plants are constantly renewing the planet. The business of nature is quite the opposite of scarcity and limits. It’s the creation of diversity and complexity, and also increasing consciousness. Although it’s been interrupted on a handful of occasions by episodes of mass extinction, the increase in the diversity and complexity—and consciousness—of species since life began is astonishing. Okay, so we humans have been misguided. But we are as capable of evolving and growing as the rest of nature. In fact, as the quintessential self-conscious species, we have a key role to play in the future of the earth.

The number of people in the world long ago overwhelmed what nature could accomplish via the plodding, incremental, and unconscious process of biological evolution encoded in our genes. Human thought and imagination, by means of cultural change, are now subsuming the far slower process of biological evolution. And in the past few years, a new way of thinking called regenerative design has been bubbling up into our collective consciousness. While the highest aim of sustainable development is creating things that do no harm, regenerative design recognizes that people can be a positive ecological force—that we have the potential to create more diversity and abundance on the planet than would be possible without us.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that we humans, who are almost singlehandedly responsible for climate change and the current extinction crisis, could ever become promoters of biodiversity and abundance. But as a gardener I know that from one single species of wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean we’ve created not only a multitude of cultivated cabbages but also a multitude of cauliflowers, and broccolis, and kohlrabis, and kales, and Brussels sprouts, and collards, and more. And in some ways we’re producing ever more diversity, ever faster. It took centuries for us to create the many vegetable varieties from that single species of wild cabbage. But in a matter of decades, we’ve developed enough new daffodil varieties to support an entire garden industry.

Of course, under our influence there’s also been a rapid evolution of invasive weeds. We need to learn how to distinguish between horticultural practices—and other practices—that enhance diversity and abundance and those that degrade and destroy them. We can do this by studying the natural patterns and processes that over the millennia have transformed the planet from a barren hunk of rock, to a green globe cloaked with lush ferns and giant conifers, to the world of multicolored floral ebullience we know today. That is what the native landscaping movement has been about. And permaculture. There are also glimmers of regenerative design in the Living Building Challenge, which is poised to surpass LEED as the gold standard for ecological building. In the words of the Cascadia Green Building Council, where the Challenge originated, a living building “is as elegant and efficient as a flower.” It doesn’t just use less energy, water, and other resources but rather generates more energy from renewable sources than it uses, captures more rainwater than it needs, and actually adds to the abundance and beauty of a place.

Heck, regenerative design already has its own Wikipedia stub. You’ll be hearing more about it.

Feel Good Friday

Friday, April 17th, 2009

I love stories about intrepid species on the brink of oblivion due to human activities who manage, with or without our help, to make a comeback. (In fact, I named my company, Blue Crocus Consulting, after one of these creatures, the Chilean blue crocus.) That’s why I love the story in yesterday’s Science Daily about Caloplaca obamaea, a species of lichen recently discovered on Santa Rosa Island, California by Kerry Knudsen, a researcher at UC Riverside. The species barely survived intensive grazing by sheep, cattle, elk, and deer. However, the livestock have been removed, and according to Knudsen, when elk and deer, both of which were introduced to the island, are removed, Caloplaca obamae is expected to fully recover.

Note the species name: C. obamae is the first species of any kind to be named in honor of President Obama. Knudsen discovered the species in 2007 while doing a survey on the lichen diversity of Santa Rosa Island. “I made the final collections of C. obamae during the suspenseful final weeks of President Obama’s campaign for the United States presidency,” Knudsen said. He wrote his paper on the species during the “international jubilation” over Obama’s election. And, he pointed out, the final draft of his paper on C. obamae, which was published in the March issue of the journalOpuscula Philolichenum, ”was completed on the very day of President Obama’s inauguration.” 

Lichens, which grow slowly and live for many years, are composite organisms consisting of a fungus and an alga living together. There are approximately 17,000 known species of lichen worldwide, approximately 1,500 species in California, and more than 300 on Santa Rosa Island—almost as many as higher plants native to the island.

More feel good: Knudsen has no academic degrees, but one heck of an interest in lichens. A retired construction worker, he volunteers in the UCR herbarium and has published more than 70 research papers in peer-reviewed journals.  

Greenest of the Green

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Kudos to the Shangri La Botanical Gardens in Orange, Texas, whose new interpretive center has been chosen as one of the American Institute of Architects’ Top Ten Green Projects of 2009. The Orientation Center contains an exhibit hall, theater, interactive children’s garden, classroom and exhibition greenhouses, and a water demonstration garden that shows how plants filter pollution from water, as well as a café, garden store, volunteer center, and administrative spaces. There are also several “outbuildings,” including a Nature Discovery Lab and pavilion, outdoor classrooms, a bird blind, and a boat house, deep in a cypress swamp. You can find lots of information on the LEED Platinum facility, including photos, on the AIA website.

Screw Earth Day?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Every year, as the calendar approaches April 22, the Grist staff gets cranky. This year they’re crankier than ever. Cranky enough to launch the Screw Earth Day!!! campaign: “You think this is a worldwide love fest? You think this is a bit of kumbaya for your karma? You think you can make up for a lifetime of excess in one day?”

More crankiness here.

Banking on Life

Monday, April 13th, 2009

To celebrate meeting its target of collecting seed of 10 percent of the world’s plants—about 30,000 species—for storage in the Millennium Seed Bank as insurance against extinction, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is celebrating with the exhibit Banking on Life. The exhibit includes Rob Kesseler’s amazing electron micrographs of seeds and pollen. A slide show of some of these bizarre and beautiful structures is here.

The Millennium Seed Bank is the largest wild plant seed bank, with over a billion seeds collected from around the globe. The second phase of the program will aim to conserve an additional 15 percent of the world’s plant species by 2020. The estimated £100 million needed to accomplish this still need to be raised. Here’s how you can help.

Pesticide Packin’ Mama

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Now at websites and box stores near you—”Gardening Mama” for Nintendo DS, which bills itself as the first video game about gardening. Gardening Mama is a spinoff of the popular “Cooking Mama” series for young girls (a little old-fashioned sexual role playing, anyone?) that stars an adorable anime head with stubby arms and a cute Japanese accent. Now, just in time for spring, Mama is venturing out of the kitchen and into the garden. Instead of chopping vegetables she’s pruning branches. Instead of sprinkling salt and pepper, she’s pouring on the fertilizer—all with simple touch screen controls. Like Cooking Mama 2, Gardening Mama is also a competitive sport—you can play multiplayer challenges with friends to see who can blow clouds out of the sky the fastest, or douse the most insects with their pesticide sprayers. 

Not being a big video game person, I’m not the best person to judge Gardening Mama’s technical merits. But after playing around on the Gardening Mama website for a few minutes, I can say that the game could keep chemical gardening alive and well for the next generation.

Slow Gardening

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Okay, so I’ve been slow to add my two cents on “Slow, Easy, Cheap, and Green,” the piece on Felder Rushing’s adorable brand of “slow gardening,” which appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. But slow is the name of the game, right?

If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. Felder is a hoot. The self-described “lounge lizard,” who hosts a weekly radio show on Mississippi Public Radio, is the bad boy in the otherwise boring world of “garden communicators.” Picture Jerry Garcia with a pitchfork, kicking back among his plastic pink flamingos and recycled tire planters when not driving his “container garden on wheels,” a beat-up brown-and-white Ford F150 pick-up truck with a garden planted in the back. The effect is circa 1966 commune, with the sweet scent of Cannabis wafting through the air.

Felder is the leading proponent of slow gardening, which of course was inspired by the slow food movement. The idea is to stop stressing out about the lawn. Pass up Echinacea ‘Mac ‘n’ Cheese’ ($21.95 a pop), or anything “NEW!” from the White Flower Farm catalog. (“I’m not into the latest and greatest,” Felder told the Times reporter, speaking of the dowdy ornamentals like gladiolas and dusty miller that fill his garden.) Channel your inner Dale Chihuly by creating bottle trees with Bud Lite bottles from your last barbecue. Grow lettuce in pots, instead of in the ground, for easy maintenance. (Best line in the article: Felder’s quip that “lettuce is embarrassingly easy to grow. I grew some in a hanging basket last year. All it took was a squirt of vinaigrette, and I didn’t even have to bend over to eat it.”)

I was just warming up to this vision of the good life when, in a most unfortunate bit of timing, Rick Griffin, a local landscape architect who, we learn, helps Felder with garden design, arrives on the scene. According to the Times, “The men stood in the garden, debating a design element to fill space around an art installation made of three large glass circles.”

Oops. Maybe Felder’s idea of gardening isn’t so laid back after all. I mean, forget about the gladioli and the container garden on wheels. If you really want to slow down, plant a native wildflower meadow if you have sun, or some native woodland shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns if you have shade trees on your property, then let nature take care of most of the maintenance. To keep yourself out of trouble, plant some fruits and veggies, preferably in containers or raised beds, by your kitchen door. And/or some potted flowers by the patio to attract butterflies and other pollinators for free entertainment all summer long.

Native Plants: A Green Industry View

Monday, April 6th, 2009

As anyone looking for native plants can attest, the selection available at the typical retail garden center is still pretty pitiful. According to Garden Center Magazine, last year 10 percent or less of the plants at about a third of retailers nationwide were natives. Only a fifth of all garden centers said that more than 50 percent of their plants were native. Why? What do wholesale and retail nursery owners think about the market for native plants and the best way to make it grow? 

Thanks to Robert F. Brzuszek and Richard L. Harkess, researchers at Mississippi State University, we have a snapshot of what they think, at least the nursery owners in six southern states. The two developed an email survey and sent it to members of the Southern Nursery Association. The survey results and recommendations are in the latest issue of HortTechnology, the journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science.

When asked why they carry native plants, the nursery owners cited client requests (25.6%), followed by ecological reasons (17.8%), the plants’ adaptability to difficult site conditions (16.3%), and their low maintenance requirements (13.2%). They said they believe customer interest in native plants is increasing and—native plant advocates take note!—they are very interested in finding more effective ways to market them. Among the ideas they came up with: Develop better information and more sources of information on native plants for the general public, especially specific marketing campaigns and point-of-purchase information. They also said that presentations and displays at nursery trade shows could help growers and retailers learn more about natives.

Sounds like native plant advocates and nurseries should put their heads together.

 

Linking Food & Native Plants: You Have a Friend at NRCS

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Mark Ludwig of Sand Lily Farms writes:

You will be glad to know your local Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are both promoting field borders for farms and natural landscaping at home. There are cost share programs for field borders of native plants with guidelines for native pollinator and predator promotion and protection. Many counties have native plant sales and promotional events.

On its website, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (or NRCS, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) describes simple and inexpensive ways farmers and gardeners can increase the number of bees on their land. Some of these, such as “exercising care with pesticides,” are no-brainers. Others are less obvious, like minimizing tillage to protect pollinators that live underground for most of the year, and allowing leafy crops like lettuce to bolt (flower) if possible to provide additional food for hungry pollinators. The NRCS website also has links to local Conservation Districts around the country.

Mark wasn’t the only person who reached out to offer ideas on resources and networks that could be useful for forging links between native plant and local food advocates. A couple that were mentioned repeatedly were Fair Food Matters and the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation program. And don’t forget all the great information on the best native plants for attracting beneficial insects based on research at Michigan State University.