Resilient Plant Communities

In a recent column, I referred to a book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes. Rainer and West present landscape design ideas that are worth applying in home gardens, and indeed in all kinds of gardens. Their ideas are intended to result in gardens that are “more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

To review that recent column, visit ongardening.com, click on “Essays 2017” and then “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes.”

The ideas presented in this book ring true to nature and good sense, and require planning and knowledge of specific plants to put into practice.

This column cannot replace reading the authors’ thoughtful review of familiar landscaping practices and groundbreaking recommendations, but w can consider their essential messages.

Rainer and West indicate that good planting design results from harmonious relationships of plants to place, plants to people, and plants to other plants.

The first of these relationships recalls the “right plant in the right place” axiom, which often refers to locating the plant where it will have the soil, exposure, and moisture that it needs to thrive. To these aspects of place the authors recommend locating plants in the grassland, woodland/shrubland, or forest environment that is their natural home. A garden, as a built environment, should look and function like a “distilled version” of one of those archetypical landscapes.

Consideration of the relationship of plants to people addresses the visual appeal of the landscape. The authors state that plant communities need not be limited to a naturalistic style and can exist within any other style. There are too many garden styles to list, but the basic idea is that the gardener can develop any preferred style and still maintain the plant’s relationships to place and other plants.

Rainer and West feature the relationship of plants to other plants and write about the “levels of sociability” of plants. In nature, some plants grow as individuals, or in groups of various sizes, or in large areas. For example, plants that tend to grow separately from other plants would be candidates for containers, and some plants propagate across vast numbers in large fields (see photographs of this year’s superbloom of wildflowers).

The authors recommend combining plants in interlocking layers, as they occur in natural plant communities. This approach allows plants to support each other, form a diverse and lush garden (as distinct from swaths of a single variety), and provide natural mulch that retains moisture and blocks entry of weeds and invasive plants. They categorize plants in four layers:

  • structural/framework plants — trees, shrubs, upright grasses and large leafed perennials that form the visual structure of the planting (10-15% of the total)
  • seasonal theme plants — mid-height plants that dominate the scene when in bloom, and provide supporting companions to the structural plants when not in bloom (25-40%)
  • ground cover plants — low, shade-tolerant plants that cover the soil, control erosion and provide nectar (50%)
  • filler plants — short-lived species, e.g., annuals, that fill gaps and add short seasonal displays (5-10%)

The authors describe this plant community approach collectively as resilient gardening. The benefits include growing healthy plants, minimizing maintenance (always a popular objective), and providing a systematic approach to developing an attractive, full grouping of plants.

I have been vaguely dissatisfied with a garden that separates plants from other plants by mulch. Developing layered plant communities will require reviewing plants already in place, searching for new plants for the needed layers, and allowing time for growth. The authors have not provided tidy “recipes” for plant communities because there are too many possible variations, including personal preferences, to put in a book. Instead, they have left the design process to each interested gardener.

Enjoy your garden, and consider learning about—and developing—resilient plant communities for your garden.

Communing with Nature

Good gardening practices almost always equal “working with Nature.” That is simply because natural processes have emerged after many eons as the Earth’s flora and fauna developed strategies for successful survival and propagation.

We write “almost always” from an excess of caution: it would be safe to say “always,” except for the use of the slippery term, “good.” The term “best” would also be debatable.

Still, all gardening practices that are beneficial for air, water, soil, plants and animals turn out to be time-honored, natural practices.

Not surprisingly, these practices are also beneficial to the gardeners, because we are also members of the animal kingdom, and tool-users as well.

Some of the gardener’s benefits are physical: everyone can gain health from exercise that is appropriate to one’s age and ability. Some are economic, providing either an inexpensive form of recreation or, for those with backyard nurseries, supplemental income.

Most benefits, however, are psychological, generating positive feelings, mental peace, and the release of “happy hormones,” e.g., serotonin and dopamine. Admittedly, the latter benefit could be called a physical benefit, but it affects the psyche.

Working with Nature, therefore, works best for gardeners and literally everything in their surroundings. This concept can and should guide the gardener’s response to questions that arise in the garden. “What would Nature do about [insert gardening issue here]?”

This concept also works in reverse. Many commercially motivated gardening practices might appear to save time or increase productivity, but they often create harm in the long run, and sometimes even in the short run.

The worst of these practices involves bringing synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides into the garden. Non-toxic, effective organic products are readily available and should always be preferred.

Another avoidable and unnatural practice is the use of power tools in the garden, with gas-powered devices being the most problematic. The most common of these are gas-powered leaf blowers, which contribute faster than cars to climate change and air pollution and disturb the peace that we value in our gardens and neighborhoods.

The usual arguments favoring leaf-blowers include (a) our desire for tidy surroundings and (b) the operator’s interest in making the surroundings tidy as quickly as possible.

We should acknowledge, firstly, that Nature is not tidy. When trees drop their leaves in natural surroundings, the leaves decompose in time and add nutrients to the soil. When trees drop their leaves on pavement, we perceive untidiness. This suggests that we should plant trees only where their leaf drops would be beneficial.

If that is unrealistic (many people like street trees and patio trees), we should use manual methods to remove dropped leaves. Rakes and brooms work quite well, and in capable hands can be as efficient as leaf-blowers, and certainly much easier on the environment and our psyches.

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping demonstrates an alternative to leaf blowers. Photo by Dan Coryo, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping demonstrates an alternative to leaf blowers. Photo by Dan Coryo, Santa Cruz Sentinel

For these reasons, many communities have already banned gas-powered leaf blowers, including Carmel and Santa Barbara to our south, and Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Menlo Park to our north. The Santa Cruz Coalition for a Healthy and Safe Environment (CHASE) has launched a petition favoring a local ordinance to ban these unnecessary and harmful tools. Check it out at http://preview.tinyurl.com/kvgws3d .

 

Soil is the Solution

A crucially important trend in climate change news focuses on soil.

In the United States, the greatest contributors to climate change have been the energy and transportation sectors, so federal responses have focused on emissions that result from burning fossil fuels. The resistance to regulated changes has come from private interests with business models that depend on fossil fuels (and politicians that support them).

The U.S. priority on fossil fuels makes sense, and it engages a good fight, but it’s not the entire story.

For at least the past ten years, public interest organizations have been pointing to Nature’s plan for moderating climate change. That plan depends on forests and soils, both of which are very good at absorbing and storing (sequestering) carbon.

Climate change has been accelerated by cutting down vast areas of forest to free land for agriculture. The negative effects of deforestation have been recognized, and initiatives (never enough) have been launched to control this practice and let the trees do their work.

Nature’s plan also as been compromised by agricultural practices, beginning with deforestation and continuing with a variety of poorly conceived land-use and land-management practices.

The good news on this front is that almost all the countries that have joined in the Paris Climate Agreement have stated that they will improve agricultural practices in their efforts to curb climate change.

According to the World Resource Institute, agriculture contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and, with land-use changes, 24 percent of net emissions.

Agriculture is not as important as a climate change factor in the U.S. as I developing countries, but it’s still a significant contributor. California, which has a huge role in agriculture, has recognized this reality and initiated the Healthy Soils Initiative, discussed in a recent column (see ongardening.com/?p=2680) .

In this regard, California has been well ahead of the federal pace: U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended that farmers voluntarily adopt carbon-capturing practices, but has done little more in deference to policies on energy and transportation.

In more good news, the U.S. position is changing, In December of 2016, the National Science and Technology Council (NTSC) released the report, “The State and Future of U.S. Soils: Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.” The NTSC is “is the principal means by which the Executive Branch coordinates science and technology policy across the diverse entities that make up the Federal research and development (R&D) enterprise.”

To see this report, visit www.whitehouse.gov and search for “soils.”

In related actions, on January 11th, Regeneration International, a coalition of consumer groups, launched its “Soil is the Solution” briefing for members of Congress. A team of experts will seek opportunities to talk to our elected policy-makers (or their staffs).

Also, on January 19th, Former Vice President Al Gore will unveil a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” his 2006 climate-change documentary. The new film surely will emphasize the role of agriculture in climate change. The sequel will debut at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be released in theaters later in 2017.

Efforts to control climate change must begin with large-scale actions, but they are also appropriate for home gardeners. We all have a stake in the future!

Future Uncertainty

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, we enter a historically extraordinary period in which a single political party controls the House, the Senate and the White House.

“Control” should be taken with a grain of salt, because little is absolute in our nation’s capital.

While absolute control doesn’t happen in Washington, the political arena does have constants. During the past several years, a great constant has been the confrontation between opposing perspectives.

Under the new administration, that confrontation focuses on the struggle over the separation of power written into the U.S. Constitution. The incoming political majorities seem determined to reduce the power of the executive branch of government, meaning to constrain the president’s ability to use executive orders and the authority of administrative offices to write and enforce regulations based on legislation.

The lobbyists are out in great numbers, speaking on behalf of either public or private interests.

There are many issues on the table. A recent report in the New York Times observed, “The most powerful and ambitious Republican-led Congress in 20 years…plans to leave its mark on virtually every facet of American life…”

With that in mind, we examined the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s December 2016 report, Free to Prosper: A Pro-Growth Agenda for the 115th Congress. This 193–page report addresses many aspects of American life, and consistently calls for the reduction of federal regulation with the intention to “unleash America’s entrepreneurial, wealth-creating potential.”

In this column, we focus on issues related to gardening, a topic that easily includes food, so we will comment on only this report’s section, “Food Drugs, and Consumer Freedom.”

Due to space limits, we can only list the report’s food-related objectives:

  • Ensure consumer access to genetically engineered (GE) foods
  • Streamline (“fast-track”) regulation of (GE) plants and foods
  • Repeal the national standards for labeling GE foods
  • Oppose overregulation of food additives (particularly trans fats)
  • Oppose recommended limitation of sodium (salt) content of foods

This section also contains objectives to reduce or roll back federal regulation of (a) drugs, medical devices, and treatments, especially the new and experimental, (b) tobacco substitutes, (c) soft and pliable plastics (phthalates), (d) flame retardants (organohalogens), (e) online gambling, and (f) sports gambling.

Finally, this section recommends federal defunding of “activist research,” such as research on the safety hazards of BPA (bisphenol a) lining of metal food containers.

These are industry-sponsored objectives, not actual legislation. Their basic message is expressed in the report’s title, which translates to Make Money.

At the same time, consumer groups are vigorously organizing their defense of regulations that are intended to protect public health and safety. In California, the governor and attorney general are prepared to resist federal actions that would obstruct the state’s progress on several important issues.

The debate over the appropriate balance between public and private interests will continue during the coming four years, with an opportunity at the mid-point of this period to review the actions of some of our elected representatives.

Meanwhile, the political environment must be regarded as unsettled at best.

California’s Healthy Soils Initiative

This week, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture reported progress in implementing the state’s Healthy Soils Initiative. This matter might seem esoteric for home gardeners, but it’s worth our attention for several reasons that are listed below.

First, by way of definition, let’s review the initiative’s goals, as stated by the CDFA:

  • Improve plant health and yields —contain important nutrients that improve plant growth and yields.
  • Improve biological diversity and wildlife habitat — at least a quarter of the world’s biodiversity lives in the soil; healthy soils improve habitats and other natural resources.
  • Reduce sediment erosion and dust — improve aeration, water infiltration, flood management and resistance to erosion and dust control.
  • Sequester and reduce greenhouse gasses — carbon stored in soil reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • Improve water and air quality —affects the persistence and biodegradability of pesticides and other inputs.
  • Increase water retention — healthy soil has the ability to hold up to 20 times its weight in water.

These goals encompass a “basket” of interconnected issues: agriculture, an important part of California’s economy; biodiversity; erosion; climate change; water & air quality; and drought. These issues are concerns of several state agencies, all of which are engaged in the operation of this initiative. Promoting interagency coordination and collaboration, which is never easy, is among the principal actions to advance this work.

The state’s 2016 budget act includes substantial funding for the Healthy Soils Program. The CDFA has defined five primary actions for carrying out its responsibilities under this program. Its recent report of progress focuses on Action #2: the identification of sustainable and integrated financing opportunities for (a) promoting greenhouse gas reductions, (b) sequestering carbon, (c) increasing water-holding capacity of the soil, and (d) increasing crop yields. The CDFA has drafted a framework for this program and will be inviting public comments beginning in January 2017.

The Healthy Soils Initiative and Program clearly target California’s agriculture industry. Why should home gardeners find this work interesting?

  1. It addresses issues that are important for every resident of the state, and that require long-term, comprehensive strategies for effective action.
  2. Home gardeners could (and should) adopt their own Healthy Soil goals and action plan to pursue within their respective gardens.
  3. By adopting the Healthy Soils Initiative, California both acts constructively to improve the quality of life within the state and provides a practical model for other states and indeed for the world. Everyone has a stake in this program’s success.

The CDFA has recently updated its website for the Healthy Soils Initiative. This site offers complete and succinct information on this program. Gardeners should visit the site and consider how they could pursue an equivalent program in their own gardens. Unless the CDFA quickly produces a “Healthy Soil Initiative for Home Gardeners,” watch for it in this column. Your ideas will be welcome!

The Invention of Nature

California’s Board of Education has included five environmental principles for the curriculum:

  • People depend on natural systems.
  • People influence natural systems.
  • Natural systems change in ways that people benefit from and can influence.
  • There are no permanent or impermeable boundaries that prevent matter from flowing between systems.
  • Decisions affecting resources and natural systems are complex and involve many factors.

These very basic ideas certainly are important in learning about the environment.

These principles are an updated version of ideas that were expressed in the early 1800s by Alexander von Humboldt (1969–1859), who presented his views of how the forces of nature interact with one another and about the unity of nature.

At the time, Humboldt’s ideas were the leading edge of leading scientists’ understanding of natural systems. He developed these ideas by traveling extensively through South America and Central America, closely observing nature, and, significantly, learning from the wise practices of native populations.

Humboldt was one of the great polymaths of history. He was the earliest geobotanist, studying the geographic distribution of plants (also called phytogeography), but also made important contributions to meteorology, and geology. His greatest contributions are in the area called terrestrial physics, which deals with the dynamic interconnections that comprise natural systems.

A new book by Andrea Wulf describes Humboldt’s momentous journey through life in impressive and readable detail: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2016). The book is organized chronologically, in five parts.

Humboldt shared his extensive knowledge and advanced ideas through extensive publications, correspondence, and public lectures. His major work was Cosmos. Sketch for a Physical Description of the Universe. This five-volume work, was widely read and highly regarded, and added to his reputation as the greatest scientists of his era.

Humboldt conversed with many prominent people of his day and directly or indirectly influenced a long list of scientists, authors, and political leaders, too many to list here.

Today, Humboldt might not be known as well as some other early scientist. Author Andrea Wulf has commented that the truth of Humboldt’s views has become so widely accepted that the man himself has become less visible. Still, many admirers have honored him by attaching his name attached to more places and things than anyone else. These include a northern California county. An impressive list of these recognitions is available in Wikipedia’s entry for Alexander von Humboldt. (See also Wikipedia’s entry, “Humboldtian Science.”)

Andrea Wulf, who has also written about other historically important botanists, has provided a masterful, readable, and valuable account of the “formidable genius” Alexander von Humboldt. The New York Times named The Invention of Nature as one of the best books of 2015 and several additional reviewers recognized its quality, This book presents the fascinating story of a man who explained the natural context in which gardening is done.

Eco-culture at The Garden Faire

The Garden Faire, now in its 11th year, originally focused on the best practices of organic gardening, conserving our finite water supply and protecting our watersheds from chemical contamination.

The Garden Faire spreads out on Skypark's playing fields-300

Click to enlarge

The Faire continues to deliver these messages and has added broader perspectives that emphasize the overarching notions of sustainability and stewardship of the environment.

Another, more recent theme in the Garden Faire’s evolution focuses on the nutritional and healthful aspects of our food. Edible gardening predates ornamental gardening by thousands of years, and responds to our fundamental needs for sustenance, while ornamental gardening feeds higher levels of our consciousness. Edible and ornamental gardening are complementary and each is indispensable within its respective sphere.

The Garden Faire continues to change. This year’s theme, Cultivating an Ecoculture, explores ways that humans already partner with Nature and opportunities to strengthen that critical relationship.

To appreciate the timely importance of ecocultural ideas, consider the development of academic pursuits. At some early point in history, scholars categorized knowledge with the disciplines: natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts. They sub-divided each discipline into the numerous subjects we now encounter in formal education and splintered them further into courses within each subject.

The division of knowledge into academic disciplines responds to the human interest in managing and controlling nature and yields certain conveniences. Scholars can pursue specializations, schools can be organized into departments, courses and books can be labeled in ways that are widely understood.

Such arbitrary and artificial divisions also can lose awareness of the connectedness of biological and cultural diversity, and, indeed, of everything comprised by the diversity of life.

The academic disciplines are constructs, which depend for their existence on the minds of the persons who create them. They are not real objects, which are directly observable.

Today, as we are challenged by global issues of economic instability, resource degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change, our responses must be based on real objects, and on an integrative approach to conserving Nature alongside human culture.

In this pursuit, we can learn from the integrative approaches that indigenous cultures have practiced for millennia. These existing eco-cultures honor the unity of people with the rest of nature.

This brief article is not the place to enumerate specific eco-cultures of the world. For the present, it is sufficient to acknowledge that many groups, through many generations, have followed their instincts to achieve sustainability.

Working in harmony with nature is not a new idea. We see applications of that principle in gardening organically, conserving water wisely, consuming natural foods, exercising regularly to maintain body health. These are integrative practices that we can adopt readily as individuals.

As we increase the scale of human activities, however, and consider policies affecting groups of people, distractions and barriers come into play. The academic disciplines might not always support the connectedness of real objects, but they can serve as the basis of developing ecocultural practices. Indeed, many examples of cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary initiatives can be cited. More would be helpful.

The work that lies ahead involves applying ecocultural concepts widely, in many (perhaps all) areas of human endeavor. The work includes adapting successful practices from the distant past to succeed in today’s fast-paced, complex society.

This work begins with individuals who grasp the concept and help to shape policies that will help to sustain life. It begins with you.

The world needs many conversations to advance the ecocultural perspective.

The Garden Faire supports one of those conversations for the Monterey Bay area, together with expert speakers on eco-culture, as well as gardening, water conservation, and nutrition. There’s much more: garden-oriented exhibitors, small farm animals, a krauting party, yoga and both familiar and exotic music.

***

IF YOU GO

What: The 11th Garden Faire

When: June 18th, 2016, 9:00 to 4:00, music continues to 9:00

Where: Skypark, Scotts Valley – free admission

Information:

The Garden Faire, now in its 11th year, originally focused on the best practices of organic gardening, conserving our finite water supply and protecting our watersheds from chemical contamination.

The Faire continues to deliver these messages, and has added broader perspectives that emphasize the over-arching notions of sustainability and stewardship of the environment.

Another, more recent theme in the Garden Faire’s evolution focuses on the nutritional and healthful aspects of our food. Edible gardening predates ornamental gardening by thousands of years, and responds to our fundamental needs for sustenance, while ornamental gardening feeds higher levels of our consciousness. Edible and ornamental gardening are complementary and each is indispensable within its respective sphere.

The Garden Faire continues to change. This year’s theme, Cultivating an Ecoculture, explores ways that humans already partner with Nature and opportunities to strengthen that critical relationship.

To appreciate the timely importance of ecocultural ideas, consider the development of academic pursuits. At some early point in history, scholars categorized knowledge with the disciplines: natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts. They sub-divided each discipline into the numerous subjects we now encounter in formal education, and splintered them further into courses within each subject.

The division of knowledge into academic disciplines responds to the human interest in managing and controlling nature, and yields certain conveniences. Scholars can pursue specializations, schools can be organized into departments, courses and books can be labeled in ways that are widely understood.

Such arbitrary and artificial divisions also can lose awareness of the connectedness of biological and cultural diversity, and, indeed, of everything comprised by the diversity of life.

The academic disciplines are constructs, which depend for their existence on the minds of the persons who create them. They are not real objects, which are directly observable.

Today, as we are challenged by global issues of economic instability, resource degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change, our responses must be based on real objects, and on an integrative approach to conserving Nature alongside human culture.

In this pursuit, we can learn from the integrative approaches that indigenous cultures have practiced for millennia. These existing eco-cultures honor the unity of people with the rest of nature.

This brief article is not the place to enumerate specific eco-cultures of the world. For the present, it is sufficient to acknowledge that many groups, through many generations, have followed their instincts to achieve sustainability.

Working in harmony with nature is not a new idea. We see applications of that principle in gardening organically, conserving water wisely, consuming natural foods, exercising regularly to maintain body health. These are integrative practices that we can adopt readily as individuals.

As we increase the scale of human activities, however, and consider policies affecting groups of people, distractions and barriers come into play. The academic disciplines might not always support the connectedness of real objects, but they can serve as the basis of developing ecocultural practices. Indeed, many examples of cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary initiatives can be cited. More would be helpful.

The work that lies ahead involves applying ecocultural concepts widely, in many (perhaps all) areas of human endeavor. The work includes adapting successful practices from the distant past to succeed in today’s fast-paced, complex society.

This work begins with individuals who grasp the concept and help to shape policies that will help to sustain life. It begins with you.

The world needs many conversations to advance the ecocultural perspective.

The Garden Faire supports one of those conversations for the Monterey Bay area, together with expert speakers on eco-culture, as well as gardening, water conservation, and nutrition. There’s much more: garden-oriented exhibitors, small farm animals, a krauting party, yoga and both familiar and exotic music.

***

Tom Karwin is president of the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, president of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and a Lifetime UC Master Gardener (Certified 1999-2009). Visit ongardening.com for links to information on this subject, and send comments or questions to gardening@karwin.com.

IF YOU GO

What: The 11th Garden Faire

When: June 18th, 2016, 9:00 to 4:00, music continues to 9:00

Where: Skypark, Scotts Valley – free admission

Information: http:/ /thegardenfaire.org

Rediscovering Eco-cultural Gardening

Gardening is a very old activity. The word “garden” has its roots in an Old English term meaning “fence” or “enclosure,” and the earliest enclosed outdoor space discovered was created about 12,000 years ago.

We are still learning about gardening.

More accurately, we are rediscovering ideas that earlier gardeners understood thousands of years ago.

One of the earliest ideas, evidently, was that a fence keeps some hungry animals from the vegetables and (later) from the flowers.

The most basic principle for successful gardening is compatibility with Nature. We are advised occasionally that humans developed instinctive behaviors, e.g., Fight or Flight, at an early stage of our history, and evolved to thrive with a diet that consisted of a combination of foods that grew naturally in our local environment.

By the same token, plants and animals evolved over long periods to thrive in specific regions, together with each other. As a result of this co-evolution, we have interdependence between plants and animals that grow naturally within a specific environment. We even have interdependence between those plants and animals and certain aspects of the environment itself.

Ancient civilizations that understood these relationships intuitively gardened—and lived—in harmony with Nature. “Eco-culture” is today’s buzzword for the connection between ecological and cultural practices.

Some aspects of the environment appear not to interact with the plants and animals: the weather, elevation, and sunlight operate under their own rules, but the soil microbiota has close relationships with the flora and fauna.

Gardening is easiest and most successful when we recognize and respect these natural relationships. Good practices include gardening organically and growing plants that are native to the local environment.

The more recent history of gardening, however, has included many attempts to rewrite Nature’s rulebook. For example, as people traveled the globe, they added plants from exotic environments to their gardens and developed adaptive practices, including irrigation systems, greenhouses, and indoor gardening.

Also, as gardeners desired plants that would grow faster or larger, taste better, or look better, they developed hybridizing methods, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Such departures from Nature’s ways are often successful in achieving certain objectives, but they often have negative consequences, as well.

The clearest downside of attempts to “fool Mother Nature” is that gardening requires more time, energy and expense. If you find gardening to be burdensome, try converting to plants that are native to your environment.

When large-scale, commercial gardening (“agriculture”) adopts new technologies, the disruptions of Nature’s processes also grow larger in scale. Widespread applications of synthetic agricultural chemicals are damaging the soil biota, are poisoning the soil, killing birds, bees and butterflies, contributing to climate change and threatening our health.

Historically, ecological traumas began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated in the 1940’s (with at the start of World War II), particularly in uses of synthetic chemicals.

Today, a growing number of non-profit organizations are sounding alarms about these practices and advocating alignment with Nature’s ways. Consumers increasingly demand organic foods, and intuitively resist genetically engineering foods. These groups and individual gardeners are rediscovering eco-cultural gardening.

Our roots are showing!

More to come: links to consumer-oriented non-profit groups related to eco-cultural gardening.

Here’s a related article (with an inappropriate title), “The dirty little secrets of a Native American garden,” from the San Francisco Examiner.

Twelve Ways to “Plant-Mass”

An important guideline for amassing plants in your garden is to plant when seasonal rains will water the plants as the establish roots and prepare for blooming in the spring. So, a good time to add plants to your garden (or to find a late gift) is right now.

Here are twelve ways to succeed in that enterprise.

  1. Plan to fill an existing space in the garden. Impulsively buying plants that catch your eye in the garden center can result in specimens that are too large or too small for spaces that need filling, or won’t complement plants next to those spaces.
  2. Focus on plants that will add to your landscape style or theme. There are many alternatives to randomness in garden design. An explicit theme or style in your garden provides direction in the hunt for new plants, and adds coherence to the look of the garden.
  3. Choose plants that will thrive in your garden’s environment. Most important is your U.S. Dept. of Agriculture climate zone, but also consider elevation, sun exposure and soil type.

    Crassula argenta

    Jade Plant (Crassula argenta) in a one-gallon nursery can

  4. Select plants of an appropriate size for the spot where they will grow. A common error is to install a plant that will outgrow its location.
  5. Look for plants that are pest resistant. With fuchsias, for example, a good choice would be a variety been bred to resist the Fuchsia Gall Mite (Aculops fuchsiae), a pest that’s difficult to control.
  6. The logical corollary is to examine plants that you might buy to check for any evidence of “livestock.” The symptoms (e.g., chewed leaves, creepy-crawlers or their eggs on the underside of leaves) are usually unmistakable, but if you have any uncertainty, choose a plant that’s symptom-free.
  7. Similarly, look for plants that are disease resistant. Several varieties of roses are both beautiful and resistant to powdery mildew and black spot. Why would you want to struggle with those diseases?
  8. Again, before buying a plant, check for any sign of disease, or anything other than good health. Garden centers screen their plants diligently, to protect customers and their own reputations, but problems can be missed. This is most possible with amateur plant sales.
  9. More and more, gardeners prefer plants that are free of toxic synthetic chemicals. Growers are beginning to label plants that have been grown without the use of neonicotinoids (“neonics”), for example, which appear to be harmful to bees. If the label doesn’t give assurance, ask!
  10. To minimize your plant-buying expense, favor the garden center’s smaller plants. They should be well rooted, rather than freshly transplanted. In your garden, they will grow quickly to reach the size of more expensive plants.
  11. On the other hand, to achieve an immediate effect, favor the larger plants. You will be paying the nursery for caring for the plant for months or even years, but the results may be worth the cost. An added benefit is seeing a well-grown plant’s structure.
  12. Before buying a plant, especially one that fills its container more than others, check for healthy roots. Gently pull the plant from its container to examine roots for healthy color (usually white) and ample space in the container. Plants left too long in a container become root-bound, which can hamper their growth. On the other hand, such plants often could be divided into two or more for the price of one.

 

Positive Actions, Large and Small

I’ve written recently about ways in which gardeners could work toward reducing the impacts of climate change. For example, they could avoid uses of synthetic chemicals, cover the surface of soil with garden plants, mulch or cover crops, minimize tilling, and, most recently, avoid uses of gas-powered leaf blowers and other garden tools.

These practices, which generally align with organic gardening methods, could have beneficial, if small, effects on sequestering atmospheric carbon, cleaning up the atmosphere, improving soil health, retaining moisture, and other factors.

Such initiatives are important in slowing and eventually reversing the current disruption of nature’s carbon cycle: industrial-age agricultural methods have been causing about 40% of the climate change phenomenon, according to some reports.

We need those in commercial agriculture to pursue the large-scale work in these areas.

It is gratifying to know that California is providing leadership in this connection. A recent example, is the legislation to direct the Environmental Farming Science Advisory Panel to “provide incentives, including loans, grants, research, technical assistance, or educational materials and outreach, to farmers whose practices promote the well-being of ecosystems, air quality, and wildlife and their habitat, and reduce on-farm greenhouse gas emissions or increase carbon storage in agricultural soils and woody biomass, or both.”

The legislation (Senate Bill 357) also would fund these new incentives by drawing from a $2 billion fund already received from existing sources of greenhouse gasses (GHGs), as part of a “cap and-trade” strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This fund also supports other programs.

California Senate’s Agriculture and Environmental Quality Committees have approved this bill, and it seems poised for adoption by the full legislature, which returns in January from the current legislative recess.

Numerous agricultural and environmental organizations and land trusts are supporting this bill and similar actions. Supporting groups include the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) and California Climate and Agriculture Network (CALCAN; http://calclimateag.org/.)

An important turning point for California’s leadership in this area was the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which the state has since updated and complemented with a legislative actions and executive orders.

California’s encouraging work in the climate change arena continues in the midst of other significant and urgent challenges: drought, wild fires, water supplies, transportation systems and others.

Returning to our primary focus on gardens and gardeners, we note that these statewide programs provide research, inspiration and practical demonstrations that we can as individual actors, draw upon in adopting ecologically sound practices. We enjoy our gardens more when we know we are managing them responsibly.