Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

Turtle Love

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

If you love box turtles,  take a look at the current issue of National Wildlife magazine. In it, I tell the story of how I accidentally destroyed a box turtle habitat — a tiny bog I’d created behind my house — and have been trying to make amends with the peaceful little reptiles ever since.

I’ve made it my business to find out what box turtles like to eat, where they like to siesta on a hot summer day and how these creatures — among the longest-lived vertebrates — make it through the winter. I’ve done my penance in the library, reading scientific tomes on box turtle fecal contents and other engrossing subjects. I’ve learned not only that gardeners can help ease the plight of box turtles, which are gradually disappearing from landscapes across North America, but that they have a lot to offer us in return, beyond the usual bromides about the virtues of patience and perseverance — like getting rid of slugs and other garden pests.

The article is illustrated with some amazing box turtle photos, too.

It Pays to Grow Green

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

The old saying “money grows on trees” may not be literally true, but a sustainable landscape comes close. New studies demonstrate that environmentally friendly gardening practices not only can decrease utility and maintenance costs but also increase property value.

Plants: Dumb Blondes of the Biosphere?

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

If they think of them at all, most people see plants as domestic accessories, with all the awareness of a Marcel Breuer Wassily chair. Gardeners and other plant lovers tend to see plants as horticultural eye candy, flaunting their pretty flower heads solely for our pleasure. Until very recently, even most scientists assumed that plants are essentially passive—rooted in place, taking whatever moisture, nutrients, and sunlight chance brings their way. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that the word “vegetable” is used to describe people with brain damage so severe they have no discernable awareness.

A trove of new research, however, is demonstrating that plants are far from botanical automatons. To be sure, researchers have found no signs of Socratic logic or Shakespearean poetry in the plant kingdom. But there is so much new data on plant intelligence—including abilities like sensing and, yes, even learning, remembering, and recognizing kin—that the investigation of plant intelligence is suddenly a serious scientific endeavor.

The latest case in point: You know the perennial debate over the role of nature vs. nurture—heredity or the environment—in the development of a human being? Studies have shown that, depending on their distinct personal experiences, identical human twins can have a different chance of getting a disease. Well, it turns out that in this respect plants may not be so different from people.

In a new study, University of Toronto biologists found that genetically identical poplar trees—clones—responded to drought differently, depending on the nursery the plants were obtained from. They took cuttings of the poplar clones from nurseries in two different regions of Canada and regrew them under identical climate-controlled conditions. Half of the trees were then subjected to drought. Since the trees were regrown under identical conditions, the researchers predicted all the specimens would respond to drought in the same manner, regardless of where they had come from. But low and behold, the genetically identical specimens responded differently to the drought treatment, depending on their place of origin.

Malcolm Campbell, one of the study’s authors, called the finding “quite stunning.” “A tree’s previous personal experience influences how it responds to the environment,” he said. In other words, the trees “remember” where they came from.

Discoveries such as this have the potential to transform the public’s view of plants. In fact, they’re helping to transform our understanding of the nature of intelligence itself.

They also have practical implications for gardeners, landscape designers, and foresters: The “memory” of previous experience discovered in this study could help determine how plants from a particular nursery will respond to conditions in a particular landscape. It may also help predict how certain plants will respond to climate change or other environmental stresses.

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.

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.

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.


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.

Long Live the Green!

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Where else but England would a Museum of Garden History be located in a church?

Rainwater HOG

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

If you’re looking for an alternative to obtrusive rain barrels and expensive cisterns, check out Rainwater HOG, a system of 47-gallon plastic tanks with a sleek, 71″ x 19.5″ x 8.5″ profile that can fit along narrow passages, under decks, or in other underused spaces. The modular design enables you to add on capacity and even put the tanks in multiple locations. Only drawback, as far as I can tell — they’re made of virgin plastic, with no recycled content.

The Carbon Footprint of Gourmet Dirt

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

An interesting story by Joel Achenbach in today’s Washington Post is, on its face, about how the price of potting soil has soared in the past year due to the high cost of the fossil fuels used to manufacture, package, and ship the stuff. But read between the lines and the story is really about how a once humble material has been transformed into an upmarket mixture of largely unnecessary components from across the continent and around the globe — and about how gardening (or at least the kind practiced by many Americans), an activity by definition assumed to be “green,” is anything but.

Bob LaGasse, who represents soil and mulch manufacturers as executive director of the Mulch and Soil Council, explains that consumers demand these high-priced designer mixtures, which a South Carolina-based producer calls “potting soil on steroids.” (Bob LaGasse also happens to be executive director of the Garden Writers Association, representing the people who recommend potting soils and other horticultural products to consumers.) 

It’s virtually impossible these days to find a bag of potting soil that isn’t loaded with synthetic fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer, as David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University, has pointed out, is the typical gardener’s biggest contribution to global warming. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizer is extremely energy intensive. And the use of nitrogen fertilizers (whether synthetic or organic) releases nitrous oxide gas, which in Wolfe’s words “has 300 times more global warming potential per molecule than carbon dioxide.” Yet American gardeners have been hoodwinked into believing that applying fertilizer to their plants, whether in containers or in the ground, is as fundamental as brushing their teeth.

In addition to organic matter, from composted clam shells to pine bark, which could just as easily come from local sources but is often shipped from far away, the typical bag of potting soil is also likely to contain perlite transported from the Greek island of Milos and coconut coir from Vietnam, if not peat moss “vacuum-harvested” from Canadian bogs. Then the concoction is packaged in plastic bags, which are piled up and shrink-wrapped on wooden pallets for shipping to nurseries and superstores. In short, the amount of embodied energy and greenhouse gases associated with a bag of potting mix is mind boggling.

All for a few petunia plants likely to end up in a dump after the first frost.