Posts Tagged ‘native plants’

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.

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.

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.

Linking Food & Native Plants: “Double-Duty” Beauties

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Lisa Symons writes that she’s managed to get her friends to dig up their lawns by using the idea of “double-duty plants—those that are edible and loved by wildlife,” such as sunchokes (Jersulalem artichokes) and maximilian sunflowers. “There are so many of these useful and beneficial plants,” she says. “A good list is in Toby Hemenway’s permaculture book Gaia’s Garden.”

Linking Food & Native Plants: The Hybrid Yard

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Tom Springer writes:

To me, the logical approach (although certainly not novel) is to combine the two: promote the use of manageable and hardy native plants that are attractive, make for good landscaping, and are also edible! Service berries, gooseberries, wild strawberries, wild blueberries, and hazelnuts are some examples.

He points out, too, that native trees often seen as “weeds”—such as sassafras and hackberry—can be pruned and shaped to make attractive shade trees, and that these species are not hard to find, even locally. 

He suggests that we resist the temptation to be purists:

To really make this mainstream, I think we have to forgo the notion that most people are going to quit having a yard entirely, or pull out their tulip bulbs and grandma’s favorite lilac. What we’re really talking about is a hybrid yard, where people more and more get comfortable with natives. If we could increase by just 25 percent the amount of natives planted across a community, what a difference that would make! And, having natives that you can eat—and readily use for cut flowers, as is the case with prolific natives like black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers—seems like a great way to get started.

Enlisting the help of a landscape designer at a local mainstream nursery would make all of this a lot easier, says Tom. It would be a big help for people just getting interested in natives if such a person could draw up a basic landscape plan that includes plenty of native plants. ”Once they have a plan in hand,” he says, “people can fill it in as the seasons come and go, whenever they get the money or energy to plant more.” 

Linking Food & Native Plants: A Landscape Designer’s View

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Douglas Kent, one of the country’s leading sustainable landscape designers, weighs in:

You are certainly right—natives make excellent  companion plants, attracting beneficials if not pollinators, or repelling unwanteds. Cal Poly’s Center for Regenerative Studies, where I teach, uses a lot of natives to enhance their food production.

Ripping out a lawn to plant food is not an environmental movement, though. It’s economic, or at least economic symbology. The best Tom and Nancy could do is to frame their position in those terms—natives will reduce costs (pesticides and water) and increase productivity. The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden is seizing this trend and has designed, but not yet installed, an edible native garden (grape, miner’s lettuce, elderberry, currant, etc).

Getting people to rip out their lawns is completely  different (I’ve tried to understand and change this for the last 25 years). People that hold onto their lawns are not gardeners, and don’t want to be. Requiring no special care, lawns only need $100 a month and a service of mowers  and blowers. Interestingly, studies show that most beginning gardeners start by growing veggies, then evolve to more sophisticated styles of gardening, like natives, over time. Tom and Nancy should rejoice—food is a gateway.

Considering that agriculture is the number one destroyer of native landscapes, Tom and Nancy should not lament the food movement—what better use for urban/suburban landscapes than to protect those truly wild places. 

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.