Earth-Friendly Techniques for a Changing Climate and a Crowded World
Our world has changed drastically since J. I. Rodale founded Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942. Even in 1992, when Rodale first published Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, we were just beginning to understand some of the global issues that are the topics of daily media reports today. We had heard about the threat of global warming, but many of us weren't paying attention yet. We didn't grasp the speed at which species could become extinct when their habitats were destroyed (or how quickly humans could destroy habitats). We were just figuring out that some popular garden plants, such as English ivy, could spread into woodlands and outcompete the wildflowers and other native plants. Gardeners in arid regions had begun worrying about water conservation, but overall, North American gardeners and homeowners were routinely lavishing water on their large, closely clipped lawns.
Here in 2009, nearly everyone has heard scientists reporting on--and politicians arguing about--the best way to respond to melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and other large-scale problems related to climate change. Underlying these concerns, we're also wondering how the world's natural systems can cope with the world's ever-increasing population: less than 2.5 billion in 1942, about 5.4 billion in 1992, and 6.6 billion in 2008.
One response is an exciting and inspiring interest in "green living." People are seeking ways to reduce their "carbon footprint" (the total amount of greenhouse gases produced to support their lifestyle) in order to slow the rate of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere. They're becoming more conscious of saving our precious clean water and more concerned about slowing the rate of habitat destruction and species extinction.
Green living can involve some tough decisions, such as cutting back on your driving to conserve gasoline and finding ways to use less electricity and fossil fuel in your home. For many of us, the easiest and best place to start living greener is in our gardens, where making environmentally friendly choices is often downright fun. For example, you'll discover the pleasure of growing some of your own food. You'll enjoy choosing and planting shrubs, trees, and groundcovers that help shelter and support wildlife, and you'll find that they'll accomplish other useful purposes as well, such as cooling your home in the summer and providing privacy as more homes and people crowd around you. You'll feel a sense of accomplishment when you plan and install a special garden to divert rainwater into the soil instead of into the polluting pathway of stormwater drainage systems. Maybe you'll even decide to plant a stand of fast-growing trees or bamboo to offset some of the carbon you produce in your day-to-day living.
Because organic gardeners have an attitude or philosophy based on respect or reverence for living things and natural systems, there's a natural link between traditional organic farming and gardening and a wish to grow and live "green": It's the knowledge that everything we do--in our gardens, our homes, our communities--has an impact on everything else. Every choice we make to use resources wisely, whether it's water, soil, organic matter (yard waste), paper goods, energy, even money, is part of our total impact on the environment around us.
In this chapter we'll cover many of these green issues and suggest steps you can take for more earth-friendly gardening. We don't have all the solutions, and we probably haven't even named all the problems yet. But as organic gardeners and environmentally concerned people have always done, we will do our best to take care of Nature and learn from the design of her natural systems.
Starting a backyard vegetable garden, choosing plants for a perennial garden, or planting a small grouping of trees and shrubs may not seem related to global climate change or environmental issues such as disappearing rainforests. But many scientists believe that home landscapes can be part of the solution to these complex problems. As the saying goes: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
For example, many gardeners who continue to use chemical pesticides do so because they think that the small amount they buy and use doesn't have any significant impact. But overall, U.S. gardeners spend more than $11 billion in just one year on pesticides. And acre for acre, home gardeners apply more pesticides to their lawns and gardens than U.S. farmers do on their fields. If every U.S. gardener decided to go organic, what an amazing difference that could make! And if every gardener decided to launch a green gardening effort as well, the impact could have exciting and world-changing potential.
As Local as It Gets
Choosing to buy and eat locally produced food is one of the best-publicized suggestions for helping to reduce our carbon footprint. The logic is easy to follow: Buying and eating spinach, lettuce, or tomatoes grown by a local farmer is a green choice because it saves the fossil fuel cost of shipping that produce from across the country (or across the world).
Shopping at a farmers' market or subscribing to a local CSA (community- supported agriculture) farm are great green choices, but the greenest choice of all is to start growing some of your own food. No matter where you live--city, suburbs, or country--your green gardening efforts should start with a vegetable garden or berry patch. Convert some of your lawn to a vegetable garden (which will also cut down on the need to use fossil fuel for mowing). If you don't have a lawn, grow veggies and small fruits in containers on your patio or deck. Urban gardeners can grow food crops on the rooftop or in a community garden. This encyclopedia is packed with information on growing vegetables, fruits, berries, and herbs organically. Choose something you love to eat, and get started!
Even if you need only a small garden to feed yourself, you don't need to stop your food gardening efforts there. Call a local food bank in your area and ask if it runs a program of collecting fresh seasonal produce. It's a satisfying and worthwhile way to combine your green gardening efforts with service to your community.
In the United States, urban and suburban sprawl is the greatest cause of species endangerment and extinction because widespread, ill-planned development is destroying vital habitat for plants ranging from cacti and orchids to wildflowers and native trees and shrubs. And it's not just plants--habitat destruction is also creating problems for insects, birds, amphibians, and many other kinds of wildlife. Worldwide, up to 600,000 species have become extinct in just the past 50 years. Some projections warn that if this rate of habitat destruction continues, we could lose half of the earth's species by 2050.
The most threatened habitat in the world is tropical forestland, which makes up only 6 percent of the earth's land surface but is home to an estimated 50 to 90 percent of all species. Even though tropical forests are a long distance from your garden, you can notice one effect of their destruction in your own yard--fewer migratory songbirds. Many songbird species are in decline due to loss of their winter habitat in Central America and South America. So global loss is local loss, and in the long run, what we do locally has global impact as well.
The common theme of natural habitats in most regions is biodiversity. If you want to replicate natural landscapes and help with habitat, you will combine different kinds of plants that grow compatibly together and benefit birds, butterflies, and other animals. Most natural habitats include groups of trees and shrubs surrounded by perennials, including grasses and groundcovers. A successful habitat garden provides homes for creatures ranging from tiny parasitic wasps and fast-flying hummingbirds to toads, squirrels, and perhaps even a red fox.
Here's how to get started:
* Analyze your site to decide if it's most suited for a woodland, prairie, wetland, oceanside, or desert plant and animal community.
* Choose native trees and shrubs, or other site-appropriate species that benefit wildlife. Plants with berries are often the best choices. Include both evergreen and deciduous plants.
* Cluster the trees and shrubs in islands or wide borders and hedgerows around your property. Start with just one plant cluster, and work over time to create an entire landscape of naturalized plant groups.
* Cover the areas around the tree and shrub clusters with perennials and grasses. Choose plants that spread (without becoming weeds). Use annuals to fill in while the groundcovers are spreading. Remember diversity--plant a variety of species.
* Encourage pollinators and other beneficial insects by choosing many kinds of flowers to provide pollen and nectar. Select flowers that bloom at different times from spring through fall, as well as some that offer generous seed heads toward autumn.
* Provide water in as many ways as possible--birdbaths, fountains, streams, water gardens, and dishes of water or shallow pools at the soil level. All creatures need water, and birds are drawn to the sounds of water splashing or dripping. Be sure you arrange to keep the water available in the heat of summer and all through the winter as well, since your habitat will be a year-round home for many species.
* Allow plants to grow naturally. While it's appropriate to prune out the occasional diseased or rubbing branches, a natural landscape is not the place for sheared shrubs. Contrary to classic pruning advice, a few crowding, overlapping, and touching branches on trees and shrubs is natural and desirable. The goal is to provide shelter and safety for many creatures.
* Tolerate the litter. In nature, leaves, fruit, and needles fall, cover the ground, and eventually decompose, adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Let that happen. (The exception here is diseased or pest- infested litter, which you should destroy rather than leaving in place.)
* Allow some logs to lie and snags (dead trees) to stand. Dying or dead trees or shrubs provide food and homes for many kinds of creatures and are part of a natural system. Where you can tolerate an untidy look, leave them in place--a pileated woodpecker showing up for an appetizer may be your reward!
* Make a brush pile. Perhaps the back of your property is suitable for brush piles. Especially if they are built upon large logs or rocks (so small animals or ground birds can scurry under), brush piles provide dining, safety, or places to raise a family.
* Consider the animals you do not welcome. That could mean deer--if so, avoid plants they prefer and choose those they rarely eat. If you are worried about rats, be sure your birdfeeders have catch trays so seed will be less likely to drop on the ground. Embracing diversity doesn't mean you give up all control over the territory; you just have to be smarter than a rat! You may need repellants, barriers, or fences, for specific reasons. True ecological balance is difficult to achieve, especially because your little habitat lies within an imbalanced world. But in most cases naturalized landscapes present few problems with pests of any kind.
Neighborhood Wildlife Corridors
When large tracts of natural habitat are broken up by development, roads, or even farms, it creates big problems for many species of wildlife.
Too small for comfort. Many wild creatures, such as the lovely wood thrush, can thrive only deep within large tracts of woodland. When those interior areas are reduced, populations of these woodland species decline.
Too much edge. Some predatory species that are not so desirable--crows, for example--thrive when there's lots of edge. (Edge is the boundary between two types of habitat, for example, woodland and open areas such as the cut- grass borders along a roadway.) As buildings, roads, and parking lots break up woods or meadows, the more vulnerable many species become to predators. (The incidence of road kills increases, too.)
Not enough connections. When appropriate habitat occurs only in isolated "islands," migratory mammals or birds may not be able to migrate successfully. This can lead to inbreeding and an imbalance in predator/prey relationships. Both situations produce weaker populations or eventual death.
Openings for invasive species. The more the plant life or soil of a natural area is disturbed (by digging, brush hogging, bulldozing, etc.), the more likely aggressive plant species are to invade. Purple loosestrife and giant hogweed colonize roadside ditches; Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose thrive where meadows have been cleared.
What You Can Do
Creating wildlife corridors is one way to counteract habitat loss in your area. These corridors allow wildlife to move from one large tract of habitat--such as a park, wildlife sanctuary, or undeveloped private land-- to another. They include culverts or overpasses when necessary so that animals can cross highways. Habitat biologists recommend that these corridors between major habitats should be at least 1,000 feet wide to accommodate many species. If you're lucky enough to live next to one of these existing wildlife corridors, you can be part of the solution by keeping your yard as natural as possible, preventing cats and dogs from roaming free, removing invasive plant species, and minimizing light pollution.
If you don't live next to a large-scale wildlife corridor, you can work together with your neighbors or local government to provide a smaller-scale sanctuary or corridor, which can still provide excellent habitat for wild creatures such as foxes and can encourage migrating songbirds. Imagine if everybody living along your street gave a 20- or 50-foot strip back to nature, and all those strips connected (some with water features too). That's a neighborhood wildlife corridor!
Another option is to lobby your local government offices to create a wildlife corridor or park. Start by finding out whether your community has a plan for providing "green space" and what it entails. Then, talk with local leaders and residents to help them understand that "green space" such as athletic fields and biking trails is not the same as wildlife habitat. By spreading the word, you may help convince local officials to set aside some "green space" as the kind of undeveloped natural area that will help preserve and encourage native plants and wildlife.
For more information about and plant choices for habitat gardens, see the Birds, Water Gardens, and Wildlife Gardening entries.
Even if your yard seems too small or too urban to provide much wildlife habitat, you can help to encourage a crucial wildlife population: native pollinators. With honeybees in ever more danger from disease, parasites, and threats like colony collapse disorder, our native bees are more crucial than ever to our food supply and to all plants that need insect pollination in order to reproduce.
Here's how to attract and nurture pollinators wherever you live:
Offer a flower buffet. Bees need nectar for energy and protein-rich pollen to raise their young. Plant a variety of flower types and colors. Favorite colors of pollinators include blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow. Plant annuals and perennials--some bee families prefer one over the other. Include native wildflowers, because they may be more attractive to pollinators than exotics. Observe your flowers, and plant more of whatever the bees seem to like best.
Copyright © 2018 by Edited by Fern Marshall Bradley, Barbara W. Ellis, and Ellen Phillips with Debor ah L. Martin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.