Punch in the Gut

I stopped by the old place last weekend to pick up a favourite shovel I thought I had lost, and to visit with former neighbours/forever friends.

When I walked around the corner it felt like a punch in the gut. This was the scene before me:

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Scars of ripped out gardens and smears of green asphalt.

Four months earlier it looked like this:

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As painful as the scene was to face, the experience was an interesting lesson in the fragility and fleeting beauty of gardens. It also brought home to me how vulnerable the creatures we share our space really are to the human love affair with lawn mowers.

Gardening in the Face of Change

I know it seems like I have Bumble Bees on the brain, but I just read a very cool email from the Xerces Society and want to share it with you.

Their “Gardening in the Face of Change” message is a clarion call to anyone who has a patch of grass or a planter: Help bring back the pollinators. Habitat fragmentation – i.e. more lawn than garden and more house than lawn – could be a factor that drives many species to extinction in the next 30 years. Lord knows the last 30 years have been disastrous for creatures like the beautiful Yellow-banded Bumble Bee and the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee. The next 30 could see them disappear forever unless we do something about it. And yes, we CAN do something about it.
Bring back pollinators
Xerces’ Matthew Shepherd says the rest much better than I can.

“The Xerces Society’s Bring Back the Pollinators campaign promotes four principles that can be adapted to any location – grow flowers, provide nest sites, avoid pesticides, and share the word. Fill a window box with flowers. Add planters to a deck. Create a colorful garden border. Mix flowers with the vegetables in a community garden. Enhance the grounds of a school or church. You can do this is a city park, golf course, corporate or university campus, or farm.

Insect habitat doesn’t need to be big, but it should offer a mix of nectar-rich flowers and be free of insecticides. The importance of flower choice was underscored during a recent visit to a large show garden. There were acres of gardens but butterflies and bees were limited to a very few plants. Woodland skippers loved the Pacific aster, as did a variety of bees and flies. Bumble bees were happy on purple coneflower, English lavender, and catnip. Black-eye susans and sneezeweed were humming with all sorts of bees. In between, the brightly coloured bedding plants and flower-less shrubs were quiet, devoid of interest for passing bees.”

I know, I know. Bumblebees on the brain. And gardening. I hope it’s contagious.

Nature has been doing some volunteering of her own

I’m a volunteer with the Toronto Bruce Trail Club’s Conservation Committee, and I’ve been busy all summer growing native plants for a habitat restoration project. Meanwhile Nature is showing me up with some volunteering of her own. I was pretty thrilled to see Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) growing along the grass edge of the stream at the back of the property; they are spectacular and one of my favourite wildflowers.

That mystery plant I wrote about in June did turn out to be an orchid – a Helleborine. Apparently it’s non-native and can even be invasive. Just imagine… habitat overrun with orchids. I should probably be disturbed by that idea.

Invoking the memory of wildness

One of my favourite ecological thinkers, Benjamin Vogt, has written a beautiful piece that describes perfectly how and why my own style of gardening has changed and matured. I may never completely banish non-native beauties from my garden, but this quote resonates keenly:

A garden will never be wild, and the best it can do is echo or invoke the memory of what wildness is in our world of shrinking pollinators, songbirds, grasslands, and clean water. But every time I grow a native seedling – a Liatris, goldenrod, aster, or milkweed – I know something more: that my slow work in transforming my garden into an all native garden is a protest. It is a protest to all the ways in which we use this world and know are ethically wrong. For me, my garden has become a moral imperative, just as so much human art has been.

Read, and bookmarked for safekeeping, Benjamin. Well said.

The Ethics of Native Plant Gardening

 

The ignoble end of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

Just over 100 years ago Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died. The story of Passenger Pigeons captured my imagination (and sorrow) when I was a child, and – knowing that they would have filled the skies over my home today in Southern Ontario – it still does.

John James Audubon’s description of an immense flock of Passenger Pigeons in flight is gorgeously evocative:

I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a Hawk chanced to press upon the rear of a flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the centre. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.

It must have resembled this murmuration of Starlings on an unimaginable scale:

And what about this moving description, by a Potawatomi tribal leader named Simon Pokagon, in 1850:

“I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America,” he wrote, “yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”

In 1831 Audubon was convinced that “nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease”. And he was right – although it wasn’t gradual, it was catastrophic. Vast areas of the Passenger Pigeon’s habitat and the trees that supplied their food were cleared beginning around 1860. People harvested millions of Passenger Pigeons on an industrial scale. By1890 the bird that had darkened the skies for days on end was an unusual sight indeed.

As an aside, the botanist in me wonders what impact the dung produced by these flocks must have made on the soil ecology of forests and grasslands. I imagine we’ll never know how these ecosystems were affected, but it must have been far-reaching.

Extinction was an undignified and humiliating business. Errol Fuller, in this book “The Passenger Pigeon” wrote:

Martha was on her own, and she lived on in solitary confinement for four more years…. During this period of her life Martha got steadily slower and more infirm. At times she became so immobile that during busy periods her enclosure was roped off to prevent visitors from getting too close; otherwise they would throw sand and other objects to encourage her to move.

Poor Martha died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

More: Why the Passenger Pigeon went extinct

Now I understand how we got here

John Brookes spoke at the Toronto Botanical Gardens tonight. I’m glad I went.

Mr. Brookes is a distinguished garden designer with awards under his belt that include gold medals from the Chelsea Garden Show and a nod from the Queen in the form of an MBE. His services are in demand all over the world and he runs garden design schools in more than one country. He is described first and foremost as influential: One of THE most influential garden designers and teachers of the late twentieth century.

Phew.

Mr. Brookes began his talk by telling us that his work is inspired by patterns in modernist paintings. By the end I sadly concluded that the materials on his pallette are unhealthy – as unsustainable as the lead paints used by artists before anyone knew better. And I finally understand how the lawn became the default ornamental feature in yards all over the English-speaking world.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Brookes, but as he talked through slide after slide and the audience sighed, I grew quite uncomfortable. There was little in the way of “garden” in the designs, but he had warned us about that. Mr. Brookes stated up front that his gardens are for people, not plants; in fact, plants are quite far down on his list of important things in a garden.

But there were plants, miles and miles of plants – small city gardens, large estate gardens and everything in between – all one type of plant that formed the main design element in the midst of hardscaping: Mowed lawn.

There were also some ponds; artificial ponds, with hard edges and little to no vegetation, with grass borders mown short up to the edges. There was even a substantial lake covering a bed of what he suggested was rubber.

As each slide slipped by I wished there were a second speaker on the stage, an alter ego commenting on each slide with an eye to ecology. Pointing out that lawns are virtual deserts – devoid of habitat for pollinators and other creatures, outcompeting trees for water and nutrients, and demanding the chemical nurturing of fertilizers, pesticides, and gas-guzzling equipment. An alter ego who pointed out that creatures in need of wetland habitat need plants to hide in and feed, shallow sides and mud bottoms. Who wondered how many decades will it take for the rubber under that lake to break down and leach into the groundwater? Who viewed, with a critical eye, the large expanses of hardscaping impermeable to England’s ever-pouring rain.

When his talk ended I put up my hand and asked if he consciously uses lawns as a major design element and what could he imagine as an alternative. He said it was an English thing; he said grass is low maintenance (it’s not), and that it’s practical for kids and dogs. He thought maybe gravel might work, but maybe not – the expanses it would have to cover are too large; or perhaps (in all seriousness) artificial turf. I covered my face with my hands in dismay and he assured me that there are some nice ones available now.

I honestly believe he had never really thought about it before. It seems that for even the best garden designers, original thought on the subject ended in the 18th century with Capability Brown.

With all due respect to Mr. Brookes, surely garden designers of his stature – influential, shaping the next generation of designers, in a position to dictate the paradigms for good taste in landscape design across the world – surely they can do better. Gardens are not just for people. They are for people who live in a world in which 75% of its food relies on disappearing pollinators; in a world sustained by complex and interconnected ecosystems on a precarious edge; in a world in which the climate is rapidly changing due to human activity. In short, gardens are for people who want someone else to solve problems that start, but can end… in our own backyards.

The butterfly blame game

Noel Kingsbury recently posted a thought-provoking article about disappearing Monarch butterflies and the rush to blame Monsanta, GMOs, and (overly) intensive agriculture. I loved what he had to say:

I have driven around Iowa a bit… it is the quintessential Midwest farming state, and one where monarch butterfly populations and milkweed have notably fallen. And do I remember roadside to roadside crops? Every patch of ground covered in soya or corn? Er no actually. I seem to recall that like much of the rest of the USA there is an awful lot of mown grass. Vast areas of the stuff in fact. Alongside roads, around houses, offices, churches, shops there seems to be endless acres of this utterly useless vegetation. You can’t eat it, cows can’t eat it, wildlife can’t live on it, and it needs mowing all the time.

2014-monarchwatchNoel may point the finger at North Americans for our love affair with lawns, but I’m going to point it right back at England and a certain influential garden designer in my next post. En garde.

Read Noel’s blog post: Monarchs and Monsanto – a plea to think (and grow more milkweed and eat more insects).