Built Environment and The Ethical Gardener

We forget, sometimes, how blessed we are these days. Times have been tough, sure, but it’s been nothing like it was in the 1930s.

I spent some time in the last week watching Ken Burns’ series The Dust Bowl, a PBS series airing again at the end of April,detailing life in the “Dirty ‘30s” for the southern plains in the United States, a decade in which “black blizzards” of dust storms blew so high and hard that dust from Oklahoma fell as far as 300 miles off the east coast of the USA in April, 1935.


Greenery, temperature, air quality

Today, we know that the Dust Bowl conditions were made far worse from bad farming practices, from trying to grow things where nature dictated only grasslands should be. Nature wants what it wants where it wants it.

We know a lot of things about nature today that we didn’t a hundred years ago.

We know now that plants and trees clean the air. Think of them as nature’s HEPA air filter. Better than that, they eat the carbon dioxide that helps to cause climate change, and they breathe out clean oxygen, which we desperately need.

Trees stabilize soil erosion and help prevent flooding. One tree can hold up to 300 gallons of water.

Greenery lowers the air temperature, too. On a hot day, the difference between the concrete jungle downtown versus the real forest jungle is phenomenal. Many people haven’t had the blessing of knowing what it’s like in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest where I live, but you breathe better, it’s moist, it’s cool. On a hot day, it’s an amazingly refreshing place to be.

Greenery choices and local eco-systems

Plants attract insects, and insects feed birds. If we don’t have the right plants for attracting insects, they don’t get pollinated. At that point, it starts affecting the food supply.

Everywhere you look, we’re removing nature, putting construction projects in its place, and then we put nature back. But are we putting the right nature back?

A big problem with the nature-out-nature-in mentality of the modern home development is that there’s this weird prestige that comes from having exotic plants and trees. It may look good, but they’re a part of destroying the unique ecosystems that vary place to place.

Greenery and our built environment

And are we putting enough nature back? When we look at new developments and new homes, there are usually a few plants added back, but never to what it was before. If we’re interested in maintaining a humanity-and-nature balance, then we need to invest more in our yards, put more green life around us, and help filter the air we breathe, and ensure rainwater get reabsorbed back into the landscape, rather than running down the storm drain. This is why cities like New York are leading the way on green roof technology. All concrete and no green does not make a balanced urban environment.

So we’re looking at two problems, one being easy to solve: put more nature back so we’re righting the balance again. The other is trickier, but just as critical: Replanting native plants that are indigenous to your area.

Built environments and native plants

As they’ve written on the Native Plant Society of Northeastern Ohio’s website:

Unfortunately, native plants, a vital part of the natural web of life, are being lost at an alarming rate. Removing a certain native plant from the landscape will likely remove the insect that feeds on that plant, which in turn may eradicate the bird that feeds on that insect. And this is just a simplified example. The loss of a species can quickly escalate to affect an entire ecosystem. To paraphrase Paul Ehrlich, author of Native Plants: Relationship of Biodiversity to the Function of the Biosphere, removing native species from an ecosystem is like taking rivets out of an airplane wing; it is impossible to know which one will be the last one that was holding the whole thing together.

This is why it’s imperative that homeowners be a part of the solution. Don’t just plant trees and shrubs, make sure at least 75% of your garden containts plant-life that’s native to your area.

Cacti in the backyard

How to get started as an ethical  gardener

In fact, if you consult a horticulturalist or responsible nursery, you should be able to design a garden to attract the kind of local wildlife and birds you like.

The natural world is a mystery we’re not even close to understanding yet. A hundred years ago, farmers began tearing up grasses on the southern plains in order to plant wheat. What they didn’t know was, they were tearing up their only defense against power dust and windstorms that could, and would, alter their way of life for more than a decade. Some argue the damage is done and the southern plains will never be what they once were, and they point to Africa’s Sahara Desert, once a rich grassland.

As we build our homes, aren’t we doing this on a small scale? Don’t we have an ethical obligation to replant some of that which we removed? Is that not a gift we can give back to the planet for giving us this great little slice of it to call home?

You can be a part of the solution. Look into native plants of your region, and see how you can contribute to clean air, a safe food supply, and healthy water supply just by really thinking about the stuff you’re putting in your yard.

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