Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Urban Prairie & Healthy Living

It's vitally important to me that we create landscapes that do more than just look pretty to one species. In a world of climate change and extinction gardens need to be filtering water, sequestering carbon, adding to biologic diversity, and helping wildlife complete their life functions. While I strive to design spaces that look beautiful to us and that work with their owner's lifestyles, I'm also designing gardens that echo prairies -- stylistically and functionally. If we can bring a bit of the prairie into our daily lives, perhaps we'll be more likely to learn about and restore wider swaths beyond the garden fence. Tallgrass prairie is as effective at scrubbing CO2 from the air as the Amazon rainforest, yet far more threatened -- and the wildlife that need it still exist, even if on the margins of our man-made world. The tallgrass supports pollinators crucial to our food supply, absorbs and filters up to 9" of rainwater per hour (think about that in an urban flood scenario), amends and enriches soil, and provides a truer sense of the region than monocultures of corn destined for feedlots or gas tanks. 

If what we see every day in urban centers is lawn and the occasional foundation bed of a few types of common shrub, we'll assume this is landscaping, that this is natural and the ideal. But if what we see is native diversity teaming with butterflies and birds, not only will our physical senses be intrigued and enlivened, but also our psychological and emotional senses. Study after study shows kids with a schoolroom view of nature, combined with play in wilder-based spaces, have increased test scores, are more creative, work better in groups, and have fewer emotional problems. Patients in hospitals with views of trees and flowers recover quicker. Neighborhoods with mature street trees and established garden beds have increased home values and less crime. Yet the majority of our urban and suburban areas are mostly in lawn, one step up from concrete (maybe).  

 I drive around town with images in my mind superimposed on what is actually out the window. I see streets edged in prairie grasses and spits of flowers with butterflies dancing above them, families stopping along the sidewalk to watch the artful play. I see business parks with benches and paths weaving through prairie mowed once a year. I see planters downtown filled with native plants calling home wildlife we never knew existed or thought extirpated. I see highways into town flushed with color from spring into autumn. I see homes dropped not into a 19th century park-like setting of weekly-mowed lawn, but a prairie-like setting of drought tolerant natives that mitigate the need for storm drains, fossil fuel use, and toxic pesticides / fertilizers that pollute our bodies, soils, and drinking water. 

In the world you live in, what do you see? What are you doing? How can we do more and welcome all of us home into the places we love or want to love even more? Is your landscape a place to know your home better by welcoming the lives of other species?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Justice & Beauty in Landscape Design

I've been thinking how hard it is to be an activist, community builder, and businessperson all at once. While all three require great passion, it's the amount and type of passion that can be both a turn off and turn on depending on who's receiving the information. While I consider my garden design business part activism, it's also about creating stunning and workable landscapes for lots of species.

It's true that I see garden design as a political and ethical act. Recently an event was held in Pennsylvania, the Landscape Architecture Foundation's New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future. One of the speakers is quoted as saying "Justice and beauty must be found together in the landscape," and another "landscape architects must coordinate their actions to fight climate change, help communities adapt, bring artful and sustainable parks and open spaces to each community, preserve cultural landscape heritage, and sustain all forms of life."

Needless to say this was stunning to hear LAs speaking like this, and it hit home with my personal and business goals. The main reason I design 100% native plant gardens is because I see it as an act of defiant compassion -- our gardens are wildlife refuges that connect us to our lived places, awakening us to a humble, connected, honorable relationship with other species; species who have as much right to exist as us. And as research continues to come out about urban green spaces reducing crime, as well as the psychological benefits for kids and the environmental benefits (carbon sequestration, mitigating run off, cooling heat islands, cooling our homes, insulating our homes), I wonder why it's taken us so long to shed some of our hubris.

Last night I came home in the late evening to nearly every other house in my neighborhood with underground sprinklers running. Folks mow their crop -- which isn't eaten or even brewed for beer -- one to three times a week. Lawns are selfish. In fact, so many of our plant choices are selfish; if a plant is not a host for pollinator larvae, attracting diverse wildlife that use it, or part of a co-evolved and useful community above and below the soil line, then its primary purpose is simply to look pretty for us. That's not gardening.

How can our landscapes be wildlife refuges and do some good for ALL of us who share this world, who need one another? We are told that planting a tree is not for us but the next generation; shoot, planting a milkweed or aster or mountain mint is not only for us now, but for the many generations of wildlife that will use them this year -- not to mention subsequent years.

Our gardens are a protest for all the ways in which we deny other lives. Our gardens heal our minds and our hearts. Our gardens make us smarter, more creative, more sympathetic, and help us have greater amounts of empathy for everyone, human and avian and insect. What does a thin foundation bed full of boxwood and hosta say about us? What about a corporate campus with acres of lawn? Or roadsides repeatedly mowed so pollinators and nesting birds can't reproduce? How much less money it could take to manage these areas with wildlife-friendly landscaping and maintenance techniques. How beautiful humans and other species would find our world if we stopped declaring ourselves superior through our displaced landscapes.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

My Forthcoming Book on Garden Ethics

I'm pleased to announce that my new book, A 21st Century Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, will be released by New Society Publishers in the fall of 2017. I'll be hard at work drafting this puppy over the next seven months, channeling Leopold, Carson, Wilson, Williams, Sanders, Jensen, etc.

It's my hope that this philosophical work -- using lots of research on ecology, horticulture, psychology, and more -- will open some floodgate in how and why we garden in a time of climate change and mass extinction.

And because posts with images get picked up more, have some Ratibida columnifera:

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Heal the Earth, Break Your Heart

Politics won't save us; having our hearts broken will. Touch the natural world before you take another step today. Sit down in a place that echoes the wild. Don't jump up when a spider comes crawling across you leg -- watch it keep going in its own time, which is really your time. Don't turn in apprehension when you hear a rustling in the grass or a tree -- have faith in this place you are becoming. Remember that for a time we are privileged to be congealed, walking parts of what's around us -- the soil, the sun, the air, the water. When we stop being who we are, we stop being fully alive.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Seedheads Jazz Up the Garden

When designing a landscape don't forget the awesome power and beauty of seed heads. This is pasque flower (Anemone patens), and while the seed will soon fall off, countless other plants hold on to their gifts long into winter. Every time I design a garden I'm always thinking what that vista will look like in the cold, how will wildlife use it, how can I get people outside to look at these plants when they are still useful and still beautiful. Every season the garden is alive. Every moment is one for deeper understanding of our world and meaningful connection with the ebb and flow of nature. Prairie up.