Wednesday, March 30, 2016

An Ethical Being Has A Choice

As an ethical being I make choices based on instinct as well as critical thinking that displaces myself (puts me in the shoes of others). Do I stand up for equal pay and equal rights, do I alter my perspective to gain empathy (and power) to see someone else's situation and how they might feel or suffer? How can we do this with other species? We do it with pets. We do it through touch, sight, and sound -- yet we continue to sequester ourselves from wildness and even the echo of wildness. We build housing subdivisions and cover perceived empty spaces with lawn, then douse those lawns with weed & feed while hiring companies to spray; we do this at schools, churches, business, roadsides, and parks. We are covered, soaked in, and made of toxic chemicals we've added to the environment. Our landscapes hum during every hour of daylight for up to eight months a year with sound and air pollution as we cast dominion over earth, helping ourselves lose empathy by seldom seeing more than a robin or a swallowtail. Right now the tv is poisoned with commercials for achieving the perfect green lawn -- a place not suited for children or pets, a place devoid of creating critical thinking or creative engagement so it stunts social and personal development. 

As an ethical being I continually reframe my perspective to include more of the animate, living world as I experience it -- but I have to experience it. What happens when wildness is absent from our daily lives? We perceive our lives as less fulfilling, our jobs as more cumbersome, our homes as having less value. When wildness is absent it takes longer to recover from illness, test scores drop at schools, and we become narrow-minded individuals who grow comfortable with complacence, never knowing what's absent. Kids growing up today see 35% fewer butterflies than their parents did 40 years ago and 25% fewer mammals, birds, and amphibians. 

As an ethical being I see that plastic floating in the oceans now equals the weight of every living human on the planet. I see coral bleaching as oceans warm, reducing biodiversity while fisheries collapse and the ability of ocean currents to cool our planet diminish. I see half of North American bird species set to be extinct by century's end. I see that we have so altered the world nothing is left untouched by us, and the echo of that realization is as much a haunting indictment of deep emotional power as it is an opportunity for great empowerment. If we can so negatively recreate the world, we can so positively work to help it heal. 

As an ethical being I make choices every day that directly impact the world around me, and that also subconsciously accrue in my mind and heart just like pesticides and plastic fragments. The more I expose myself to the reality of my actions the more I take control of my life. I am a wild creature. I am unique in the level of evolution I've attained to be able to think on multiple levels at once, to consider emotional and physical variables in the same thought, to weigh action and reaction, and to form and reform an ethical response that guides my belief system grounded in the world I perceive, study, deeply feel, and ultimately honor.

As an ethical being I have infinite power to be more than my biology and to evolve beyond what's given to me by my culture. As an ethical being I have freedom to experience wildness as the reason I exist. As an ethical being I make a difference in my home landscape, connecting birds and butterflies to the larger world beyond the fence, and in turn, waking myself and my species to an equality that transcends us but also begins with us. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

What's a Garden Designer? What's a Landscaper?

A garden designer is different than a landscaper. Most commonly when we want a new garden we go online and look up "landscaper." A landscaper is a very loose word and can mean any number of things, from a company that does a basic / carbon copy design for new foundation beds then does the install work, to a company that performs a landscape design that's artistic and unique to your home. Most landscaping companies have design and install wings, as do many garden nurseries -- where the variable often is will be in the quality and skill of the designers themselves doing site visits and drawing up plans.

A garden designer is someone, in my mind, a step up from a landscaper or landscaping company. They'll meet with you on site and discuss the nitty gritty, just like a landscaper, and come up with a  hardscape and plantscape plan, just like a landscaper. I believe the difference is in TLC as well as artistry. A landscape designer will likely have fewer clients in a year than a landscaper; the latter tends to make money on quantity of jobs. This is not to say a landscaper can't or won't give you a highly personalized or artistic design. Landscapers might be more likely to give you a design with overly-planted specimens and lots of mulch as a major design element -- the kind of stuff we see too often in front of businesses.

Then there are garden designers like me who focus almost exclusively on plantscapes, or, designing the planting plan itself. I'll consult with you and the contractors / landscapers you hire to do the hardscape -- patios, sidewalks, grading, walls, etc -- but I work with the plants in relation to the hardscape features. This means you'll hire a crew to install the plants, and I'll work with that crew to insure proper install.

I obviously take it a step further by focusing on native plants, which can be used in formal and informal designs. I'll carefully match plants to every micro climate in your landscape (trust me, you have many), being obsessively particular in matching plants to soil, light, drainage, exposure, etc. And I'll give you a design that focuses on lower maintenance long term -- one that uses plants as a living, green mulch, eradicating the need for wood mulch and improving wildlife habitat and environmental function. I also won't just use what's available or in stock at local nurseries -- I'll search far and wide to find the right plant for your landscape, one that fits the design aesthetic as well as wildlife value and performance over time. I also provide complete plant lists with wildlife value (what uses them, when, and why), as well as annual maintenance info for each plant and the overall garden.

So, there you go. Thought I'd toss this up on the blog and maybe someone would find it helpful as spring gets revved up. :)

If you'd like a consult, or want to dip your toes into an online class or mini trial garden, link here. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Garden Ethics in Colorado

This past weekend I spoke to some employees at Denver Parks and Recreation about naturalistic and native urban garden design, then headed to Pueblo for the Western Landscape Symposium to talk garden ethics. For this introvert it felt like a whirlwind trip. While in Colorado I visited some prairie dogs at a state park, took in art at the Denver Art Museum, and saw vintage aircraft at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum (I'd never seen a B29 -- wow). So, yes, I have eclectic tastes. :)

Denver Botanic Gardens
The WLS was humbling. I still can't figure out why people invite me, or even want me to come speak at their conferences -- my wife says I have impostor syndrome, because I also feel this way about garden design, but less often about writing (maybe it's because I've been writing for 22 years). Are Midwesterners inherently self effacing?

After my keynote address I had more people than I expected come up to me or stop me in the halls -- again, humbling. You want to talk to me? You enjoyed what I said? Really? One person said they'd never thought of gardening in the terms I put it -- ethics, climate change, extinction, empowerment, activism, social responsibility -- and now they were going to garden differently. Another said his wife had been working on him about the ideas I presented, and he thanked me, saying he was going to give in to her. A woman told me I kicked the audience's ass, and they needed kicking, and was thrilled to be kicked even as it stung a bit.

Finally, another woman came up to my table to purchase a book; I asked her what she thought of my talk and she said nothing. I looked up and her eyes were red, then she muttered something like "you really spoke to me." I can't remember what she said exactly, but after seeing her tears I felt like nothing else needed to be said. Ever. I've never had an experience quite like that. I taught college English for 15 years and many times students would break down in my office as we worked on an essay, me trying to push them to get at the deeper truth, the deeper story of their lives that would empower them in the class, and hopefully, beyond the class.

As a writer I don't often get to see how, or even if, my words make an impact. The one thing speaking does is help me more fully experience with others what it is I mean, what we mean, gardening during the anthropocene when the entire planet is a now a garden we have forcefully constructed and must now manage (and it's beyond us to manage it responsibly, I think, let alone economically feasible). I am exhausted and thankful for the long weekend -- just as I feel after taking a prairie hike or writing an essay.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Native Plants Don't Turn Back the Clock

That's the phrase I often hear -- we can't go back. The implication is that any sense of restoration using native plants and native plant communities is folly; the world is much different now than before we altered it, and the ecology of place no longer resembles the past. And this is true -- we've totally remade the world, from corn fields to parking lots to acidic oceans to 400ppm of carbon in the air. But here's the best response I've ever heard to the above critique:

"Contrary to claims by advocates of fostering and molding novel ecosystems, modern restoration ecology does not attempt to recreate the past; rather, the goal is to re-establish the historical trajectory of an ecosystem before anthropogenic influences derailed it.... There is no evidence that any particular ecosystem cannot be restored in the sense of modern restoration ecology; the impediments are economic and political, not scientific and technological... The contention that novel ecosystems are inevitable and perhaps desirable encourages any tendency to delay prevention and redress of various harmful environmental impacts rather than to undertake new approaches and to devote new resources to long-term solutions to environmental problems."-- Daniel Simberloff (read his complete piece here)

A small restoration -- but it will only ever be a prairie echo
Folks who may be uncomfortable with native plants might be uncomfortable with what they represent, which is a full awareness of our heavy hand on the planet and our emotional and mental inability to overcome the grief associated with immense and even overwhelming loss (we are in the 6th extinction). The first response when confronted with massive levels of grief or loss is to protect ourselves via anger, denial, and a refusal to open up our wounded hearts again -- or as one might call it, expansive thinking or emotional awareness beyond ourselves. When someone uses the critique that we can't go back, that native plant gardens are backwards thinking or a fool's errand, we must understand that this perspective comes from grief, not malice or ignorance or even arrogance. Opening our hearts to other species, gardening more selflessly and with humans a bit more in the background (or at least equal to other species) is hard to do -- we think control will save us from further grief and environmental harm, but it will only prolong it.

We seek control by gardening with plants we find pretty but wildlife don't, plants that have no evolutionary history with soil life or fauna around them, let alone other natural processes and communications. We seek control by saying that plants which local wildlife can't use, that play no role in the latent natural ecosystem, are still working ecologically in some way (often because a non native bee is gathering pollen, or a generalist butterfly is gathering nectar, or robins are nesting in the layers of a forsythia shrub border). Too often in garden and landscape design the focus is largely on, or at least disproportionately, the appearance of landscapes for humans -- no matter how beautiful we make them for us, this does not by default guarantee beauty for other species or wild processes.

Our gardens must reveal a new, deeper sense of beauty, one that embraces the concept from more than a single species' perspective. We must allow our mind and hearts to grow and to hold in one total perception of place the web of all life as we celebrate the healing that urban gardens can give us. When we do this, we'll be happier and healthier in the near and long term.

Shortgrass prairie in northwest Nebraska
We can't go back in time, this is true -- but to overcome the emotional anguish of the anthropocene (that term given to the geologic epoch where humans reshape the world), we can't retreat even further from the knowledge of the planet and assume ours is superior; we have to dive headlong into an understanding that we do not know better than all life around us and the evolution that brought the largest abundance and diversity of species the planet has ever seen. We still have so very much to learn, and it's ok that we don't know it now -- maybe that's faith, a belief in a world beyond ourselves (even as that world is all around us). When we humble ourselves in the face of nature we bring ourselves back into nature -- and the novelty will be that we've come back home in peace and health. How can gardens humble us? How can gardens help us overcome environmental grief, despair, and anguish? How can gardens make manageable the overwhelming problems we face due to climate change? The smallest garden is a doorway to the greatest growth needed in all of us -- the world is not for us, but we can be for the world. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Not So Beautiful Gardens

The way we speak about gardens is primarily as human-centered pieces of art. We use grandiose words praising the evocation of a place on our senses, privileging form and texture and color at every turn. We objectify nature for what it can do for us -- even in "natural" gardens. Beauty is not primarily what a plant is, but what a plant does; this level of beauty is far deeper and impactful, leading us into an experience of designed spaces that awakens the ethical in us as we also garden for life and environment. When we can look at a plant beyond our immediate senses -- when we can call upon our greatest gifts of intellect, inquiry, and compassion -- we'll soon realize that beauty as we've known it pales in comparison to beauty as we've forgotten to live it.