by Mike Van Der Puy
On the border of my lot stands a mature evergreen bush that holds little aesthetic appeal for me. At six feet high and about eight feet in diameter, it does function to some degree as a windbreak.
Its primary function, however, is serving as the equivalent of Starbucks to many sparrows. They come here for daily chitchat, protection from the weather and protection from that hawk watching from the nearby maple. The sparrows have not permitted grass to thrive at its base since this area is used as a convenient communal dirt bath.
Even though I don’t find this bush beautiful, I cannot in good conscience cut it down. Cutting down the bush would break the harmony of this little avian habitat.
Earth Day is this Friday. When activist John McConnell originally proposed the idea of Earth Day to the United Nations in 1969, he called upon society and industry to work in “harmony with Earth’s natural systems.” This is a good time to remember that we, as gardeners, can help the environment and improve the quality of life on earth.
Working in harmony with Earth’s ecosystems is not a simple task, and often involves trade-offs and sacrifice. We can unwittingly harm the environment. For example, according the Environmental Protection Agency, polluted run-off can result from everyday activities, such as the application of fertilizers and pesticides to lawns and gardens. Total run-off from urban areas (including motor oils and pet waste) is the largest contributor to the pollution of estuaries, and the third largest polluter of lakes.
Improving the appearance of our yards to enhance the value of our homes is a legitimate goal.
At the same time, we cannot forget the possible environmental effects on our immediate surroundings, or the long-term, distant effects. Let’s remember that people are part of the environment, and what we do affects others.
How can we plan gardens that aim to stay in harmony with the environment and help others as well? Here are some suggestions:
Consider planting a berry bush for birds only, without any intention of eating the berries yourself. I chose red currant. It took a couple of seasons for the birds to appreciate my offer, but once they discovered them, the berries disappeared quickly.
If you plan for a bumper crop of tomatoes, onions, zucchini, beans or squash, consider offering the excess to a local food kitchen. Perhaps you could organize your neighbors or church group to make a larger impact. (Editor’s Note: Friends of Night People helps the poor, including families, and is always looking for donations of fresh produce.)
Think like an ecologist.
The first rule of ecology is that “you cannot do only one thing.” Do your best to understand the unintended consequences of what you are doing, in addition to the intended effect.
When you plan your landscape, take into account ecosystem services such as flood control, wind abatement and food and shelter for wildlife.
Act like a steward.
Gardeners, if they fancy themselves as stewards of the earth, cannot adopt an attitude of doing as they please. Ignoring the needs of others is a big part of what leads to social injustice and many environmental problems.
Rather than asking what you want, ask what needs conservation or protection (soil, water, habitat, etc.). Ask yourself, “Where are the stewardship opportunities for the ecosystem in my backyard?” Try to think more in terms of facilitation and less in terms of control.
Practice some green gardening techniques such as composting and crop rotation to reduce your dependence on purchased fertilizers.
Expand your concept of beauty.
Gardeners often strive for a homogeneous lawn punctuated with colorful, non-native plants, but that comes with an ecological cost.
Considering the natural goodness and wonder of something as simple as a honeybee feeding on a clover flower, would a few clovers in the lawn really be so bad?
Move up the waste management hierarchy.
Landfill is the least desirable method for waste management. More desirable methods, going up the scale, are incineration, resource recovery, recycling, reuse, and reducing consumption (the best).
Use your creativity and imagination to repurpose unwanted landscaping supplies rather than sending them to the landfill.
Garden for biodiversity.
Haven’t seen a bluebird, monarch butterfly, goldfinch, firefly or chipmunk in a while? Do some research on what attracts them and try to get one or more to return to your backyard.
Focus on the preservation of native plants rather than exotic, non-native ones, as the latter will require more resources and effort to maintain and may contribute to the loss of native species.
To learn more, I recommend the following books: Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sara Stein and Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth by Bill McKibben.
Mike Van Der Puy recently retired as a research chemist after working extensively on commercially significant products with enhanced environmental performance. He is currently pursuing interests in gardening, ecology, sustainability and music.
How do you keep the environment in mind as you garden? Please leave a comment!