Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Once in a Lifetime: This Is Not My Beautiful Lawn

 Lawns and the Nitrogen Cycle
The Emerald City
The other week my friend Wil said, “a weed free, well-kept green lawn is a work of art.” I couldn’t help but agree. That kind of lawn, the kind that appears in depictions of paradise and on real golf courses is indeed a work of art, and science. A “perfect” lawn is a truly human artifact, a triumph of elegance and simplicity, using machines, chemicals and Poa pratensis in its making.

Yet the statement troubled me, and keeps troubling me. For one thing, Wil—son of Mennonite farmers, University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener, founder of the children’s vegetable garden at a local park—doesn’t have a lawn. His inner-ring suburban house is flanked in back by a patch of stalwart prairie plants and in front by an edible landscape of seasonal vegetables, mixed, a la the French potager, with herbs and pollinator-attracting flowers, which I had the privilege of helping to lay out. This installation caused a stir in the neighborhood. People driving by occasionally stop their cars to get out and look. If you visit Wil, when you leave, you’re likely to take home lettuce, basil, radishes or chard, or all four, depending on the month.

“You may ask yourself”

The Des Plaines River
For another, “Once in a Lifetime,” that old song by the Talking Heads (covered many times since), lately has kept running through my head. “You may ask yourself, what am I doing here?” its ironic, existential critique of modern life goes, and I’m asking myself yet again, in part because I have just reread the very succinct, very troubling article, “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” published last year by Nature just prior to the Copenhagen debacle. Briefly, the article states that of nine important, interrelated planetary boundaries that safeguard life on earth, the two most egregiously overrun at present are biodiversity (loss) and, together with the phosphorus cycle, the nitrogen cycle, which has been “significantly perturbed…[through] human processes.” This involves removing inert nitrogen gas from the air and reintroducing reactive forms of nitrogen into the environment. The authors name familiar culprits: fertilizer production and use in industrial farming, with subsequent release of nitrous oxide (a significant greenhouse gas) into the air and pollution of waterways.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

An Excellent, Timeless Book

Anyone interested in gardening with native plants, especially in the Midwest, should read The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening, by Wilhelm Miller. Originally published in 1915, it was reprinted in 2002 by the University of Massachusetts Press, with a valuable, contextualizing introduction by Christopher Vernon.

Wilhelm Miller was a horticulturalist, ecologist and writer. He associated with Chicago's great prairie school architects and landscape designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Jens Jensen. He also knew the brilliant ecologist Henry C. Cowles. In fact, Miller originated the terms "prairie school" and "prairie style," still in use today, that describe the distinctive style of architecture and landscaping originating in Illinois at that time. Miller was also the first head of the University of Illinois "Division of Landscape Extension." Many people today are familiar with the U. of I. Extension educational services, including those provided by U. of I. Extension Master Gardeners. Other states have similar programs.

This short book, published by the University, was offered "free to anyone in Illinois who will sign a promise to do some permanent ornamental planting within a year." Like all the best gardening books, it offers inspiration and instruction, well illustrated with the work of Jensen and others. It includes recommendations for farmers, as well as city dwellers and suburbanites.

To Miller, ornamental planting meant using native plants extensively, understanding plant associations, and basing design on the natural prairie landscape. At the time this was nearly revolutionary--and even today remains something of a minority view among the public and in the horticulture industry. Since that time, thousands of books have been written extolling naturalistic design, conservation and the use of native plants, but it is all in place right here. His principles are still current and his lists of plants still useful. I've been making a list of proposed species for a hedgerow project and was surprised to find most of them in this book. Maybe I should just copy his list and save myself some work!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Two Experiments: Slow and Sustainable

I.  In which plants and insects from far away contribute to my home office

Pines in Karelia
     “What you doin’?” asked the three-year-old who lives next door. I was standing on my front porch wielding a paintbrush.
     “Finishing my shelves.” I showed him my brush.
     “But I don’t smell anything,” his mother said as they went by.
     “Hah!” I thought, exactly the point.

A stint of house/cat/garden minding had brought in a little extra cash, and I decided to use the proceeds to finally set up my home office. No longer for me a life of migrating in search of a place to work within my own house!

Mostly this involved commandeering what had been my son’s room but now functioned as a sort of storage and staging area for my daughter. Heartlessly, I removed her belongings and arranged an old desk, chair and my laptop. What should I purchase? Bookshelves, of course. I decided on some rules: inexpensive, sustainable, and easy to assemble/disassemble. The last because, after having lived in this house nearly half my life, rooted as an oak tree, I may need to decamp on short notice. You never know.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Strengthening the Biotic Community

From Wild Ones
Update: this post has been crossposted at Energy Bulletin under the title "Gardening is about more than vegetables." If you haven't visited it, Energy Bulletin is a portal for energy and sustainable living news from worldwide sources under the auspices of the Post Carbon Institute.

Perhaps you have heard that, according to a new scientific report (See Guardian article here), one fifth of plants face extinction, primarily because of human destruction of habitat, which includes logging, agriculture and building new infrastructure. As an ecological gardener, I take this news as a personal call to action, since my vocation is to help increase biodiversity, through gardening, teaching, and volunteering for conservation activities. When I heard that news, I thought of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold’s succinct distillation of his “land ethic:”

“A thing is right when it tends to strengthen the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Leopold’s statement has, in some circles, become something of a cliché, and in other places has been criticized either for not going far enough or for not leaving room for humans. (See this essay at the Yale Forum of Religion and Ecology). I believe its epigrammatic, prescriptive statement of the deep morality at the center of environmentally-ethical behavior applies not only to wild areas, or to landscape preservation and restoration, but like Michael Rosenzweig’s more recent concept of reconciliation ecology, applies equally to cities and suburbs. The land ethic, like nature, doesn’t stop at the garden gate and doesn’t go away because we “own” a piece of land. Recognize it or not, like it or not, we are part of the biotic community. Fortunately, many gardeners have a natural understanding of this. Yet it bears repeating.

My first, biggest gardening question is always, “how will my gardening help the biotic community?” which means the ecosystem and all the plants and animals—all the living things, including me —and the habitats they simultaneously live in and form. And I ask further questions: Am I making my garden so that it is of a piece with the surrounding native ecosystem (integrity)? So that it could function without me for a period of time (stability)? So that it not only pleases my human senses, but also those of bees or hummingbirds, and demonstrates elegance in the way the parts function together (beauty)? Even though I don’t know enough to understand even a tiny fraction of the millions of relationships that structure the biotic community--or to put it another way, all the inputs, outputs, flows and processes that form this complex nonlinear system--nevertheless, I strive to learn and act mindfully.

Attempting to answer these questions has led me to learn as much as I can about my place, this Chicago wilderness region that is my home—its natural and human history, its physical characteristics, its present inhabitants, human and otherwise—and to develop a deep and abiding love of the land. My answers to these questions, which frequently change as I learn, govern everything I do in the garden—from design and plant choices to cultivation methods and water management. The answers will be different for each gardener, depending on where he or she lives.

As a gardener, when I learned of the damage caused by synthetic fertilizer run off, I stopped using it and learned to nourish the living soil with compost. When I learned of the complex interactions among birds, insects and native plants, I stopped using pesticides and started planting natives; biodiversity increased in obvious, exhilarating ways.

But that report underscores a crucial concern of mine, of which some gardeners remain unaware: Even if you garden organically, but plant everything to exotic ornamental hybrids and/or vegetables, you are still reducing habitat, reducing biodiversity and negatively impacting populations of wild native plants on whom we and other creatures depend, even if their utility is not immediately obvious. This is something many otherwise sustainable gardeners seem to forget, especially in urbanized areas. Even some permaculturalists, because of their emphasis on human food plants from all over the world, can forget the local biotic community in which they live. We should all learn, as Douglas Tallamy suggests, to "bring nature home," or to leave a corner for Thoreau’s "necessary wildness."

Ever since I first read A Sand County Almanac as a young girl, the land ethic has functioned as part of my moral bedrock, strong as the dolomite of the Niagara escarpment that rings the southern Great Lakes, persistent as the cup plants that flourish in prairie remnants. It helps govern my beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and actions. That sense of moral concern hasn’t stayed in the garden, either; I’ve become mindful of how my entire way of life impacts the biotic community. It has led me, and my whole family, to carefully consider where and how to live. Long ago we decided to live close to public transport and have, over the years, gradually nearly ceased flying, become vegetarian, reduced our driving in favor of biking and walking, decreased our overall energy use, begun to eat more sustainably and locally, and on and on. (We do not, by the way, feel deprived.) In short, by attempting to live mindful of our places as members of the biotic community, we have re-examined and changed our lives. Have we done enough? Probably not, but we’re working on it.

The land ethic also serves, for me, as a moral context for any consideration of such things as overpopulation, peak oil (and resulting desecrations such as the tar sands), climate change, industrial agriculture, mountaintop removal, urban sprawl, and so forth. We humans have the right to live, to take our sustenance from this good earth, and inevitably what we do will have impact—yet we must always be aware that we are members of the biotic community with other species, who also have claim. What right do we have to wantonly destroy habitat simply for human convenience, what we imagine to be profit, or as a “necessary byproduct” of human civilization? As we destroy the biotic community we are destroying ourselves. If we were to behave as responsible citizens, we wouldn’t be in such a predicament. Old, old news—yet it, too, bears endless repeating.

There are many different expressions of the land ethic, embedded in the belief systems, cultural narratives, myths, and stories of many different cultures—it is a universal human understanding. I keep this version especially close to my heart because the man who formulated it understood, helped restore, and wrote movingly about the upper Midwest, my home landscape. Gardeners—including anyone with even the tiniest scrap of land or even a few outdoor containers—have a special privilege and responsibility to act on this understanding, and to actively help strengthen the biotic community. We have the power to do so in real, measurable ways; much depends on how we use that power, on whether we will act as tyrants or citizens on our own home ground.

Related Posts:
 Ecological Reality Is Not What You Hypothesize 
Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide
Two Classic Accounts of Living with Nature
Why We Should Garden with Biodversity in Mind