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Tending the Earth: A Gardener's Manifesto
by Lorraine Johnson
June 18, 2006

TendingtheEarth.jpg (160003 bytes)When I meet a fellow gardener, I often ask: why did you start gardening? The responses are as various as the gardeners themselves, but I've noticed themes that recur. Over and over (and in different ways), people tell me that they garden in order to connect with the world: with the soil, with plants, with wildlife, with the people who live in their communities...
In some ways, it might seem strange that connection is at the heart of gardening. After all, in our gardens many of us are immersed in the quietest, most contemplative, most private spaces in our lives, and we go there to retreat from the world.
Yet even in the protected private place of the garden, there are profound connections that we make between ourselves and the planet. The practises we use to maintain our yards--the watering and fertilizing and pest control techniques, for example--all have an immediate (and sometimes major) impact on the local environment. Our plant choices likewise affect the world at large--enhancing biodiversity, providing habitat for wildlife, etc. Even in the social, cultural or political realms, our gardens can have an impact on the world--helping to foster a sense of community, for example, or bringing people together...
It is these broad connections between ourselves and the world that I wanted to explore and celebrate in Tending the Earth: A Gardener's Manifesto, telling the stories of gardeners who are trying to make the world a better place through their gardens. In the following excerpt--the Action Alphabet--I've tried to ground this vision of our gardens as places of positive environmental and social change in practical actions we can all take to make the world better, one garden at a time.

Now, a taste....

Chapter 10

An Action Alphabet

Contact information for groups mentioned here and throughout the book can be found in the Source List.

Allergies: One of the fears people have about wild or naturalized gardens is that they somehow aggravate allergy symptoms. However, Thomas Leo Ogren, author of Allergy-Free Gardening, argues that ôit is the manipulation of [native] plants by commercial horticulture that has, and is, causing most of the huge increases we are now experiencing with allergy problems.ö He also identifies part of the problem in the monoculture overplanting of male, pollen-producing street trees by municipal planners. (The female trees produce seed, seed pods and fruit-considered 'litter' and hence often avoided in municipal street plantings.) If you suffer from allergies, read Ogren's book for tips on what species to use and how to garden in the least allergy-aggravating way.

Allotment Gardens: If your community does not already have an allotment gardening program, encourage it to start one (talk to your local councillor), so that people without space can garden. Any public park is a candidate.

Backyard Certification Programs: Turn your yard into certified wildlife habitat. The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System of Canada, for example, helps turn landscapes (homegrounds, schoolgrounds, golf courses, business and corporate properties) into places that welcome wildlife.

Balconies: Even balconies can provide meaningful habitat. The Songbird Project in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, initiated the Gardens of Babylon Challenge and encouraged people to transform their balconies into bird-friendly habitats. Information on plants that attract birds can be found from nature organizations such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the Canadian Nature Federation or local naturalist groups.

Biodiversity: Biodiversity, short for biological diversity, refers to the variety and variability of life as expressed through genes, species and ecosystems. Everything is based on the world's genetic capital, and when we lose parts of the whole we are diminished - often in ways we can't even anticipate. The garden writer Lois Hole, for example, tells a story of an undergraduate student from the University of Guadalajara discovering an unknown species of teosinte (a wild Mexican grass from which modern corn is descended) in the cloud forests of the Sierra de Manantlan; this teosinte had genes resistant to seven of nine major corn diseases (for five of the seven, no other sources of resistant genes were known). This particular teosinte grows in only three small areas of Mexico, with a total area of less than 200 hectares (494 acres).
In the spring 1998 issue of Cognition, Jerry Heath suggests ways that gardeners can directly benefit the diversity of the global gene pool in backyards: use organic maintenance techniques (and thus encourage diversity at the soil level); build a community of diverse interrelationships (not just a diversity of species but a diversity of connections between species); plant heritage varieties; use open-pollinated varieties, not commercially developed hybrids; include wild elements; mimic natural systems.
Good sources of information about biodiversity include the Canadian Biodiversity Institute and the Association for Biodiversity Information.

Community Gardens: Work with others to create neighbourhood community gardens. Candidate spaces include parks, abandoned lots, corporate grounds, hospital grounds, seniors' centres, community centres-basically anywhere. Find out if your city or town already has a community gardening network in place by contacting your local councillor or a horticultural society. (The February/March 2001 issue of Canadian Gardening magazine has a comprehensive list of community gardening groups across Canada.)

Compost: One of the best things you can do for your soil is to add compost-spring, summer or fall. If you don't already have a compost bin, contact your local councillor to see if your community has a free or subsidized program of compost bin distribution. A good source of information about composting (okay, I'm biased; I co-wrote the book, with Mark Cullen) is The Real Dirt: The Complete Guide to Backyard, Balcony and Apartment Composting.

Concrete: Consider whether or not some non-porous, concrete surfaces in your outdoor spaces could be transformed into porous surfaces through which rainwater could percolate. Is a gravel pathway possible, for example, or a driveway with open bricks?

Design: Match plants to the conditions you have rather than trying to fight those conditions. This requires that you spend time learning about your habitat: how much sun it gets (or doesn't) when and where, what areas are wet or dry, the soil type.

Ecological Restoration: Support (maybe even volunteer with) groups that are working to restore local natural areas. Such groups can be found through local environmental networks or through the Society for Ecological Restoration.

Fertilizer: Ask yourself if you really need to use synthetic fertilizers, if they're worth the environmental cost. Good alternatives to synthetic fertilizers include compost and composted manure.

Floral Emblems: My friend Catherine hit the nail on the head when she said, 'I think it's an absolute scandal that there aren't any trilliums in Queen's Park.' The white trillium is, of course, the floral emblem of Ontario, and Queen's Park the provincial seat of government. Why shouldn't there be a symbolic bed of each province's emblematic plants on legislature grounds? For those gardeners feeling particularly patriotic, why not consider growing your provincial emblem? This might be tough for Newfoundlanders, since the pitcher plant requires a very specialized growing environment (a bog, essentially) and is not readily available from commercial nurseries, but for other provinces and territories, it's an idea to consider. Saskatchewan's floral emblem, for example, the Western red lily, is becoming rare in the wild-there's a project (the Western Red Lily Project, coordinated by Nature Saskatchewan) to survey its occurrence in the wild. And you don't have to stop with floral emblems; each province has a provincial tree, too. Quebec even has a provincial insect, the white admiral butterfly.

Grass Clippings: A 1990-91 study by William Dest of the University of Connecticut compared two lawns, one with grass clippings removed after mowing and the other with grass clippings left to decompose in place. He found that the lawn with grass clippings was much healthier, with 45 percent less crabgrass, up to 66 percent less disease, up to 45 percent more earthworms, 60 percent more water reaching grass roots and 50 percent reduced need for nitrogen fertilizer.

Grow a Row: Consider growing an extra row of veggies for a local food bank. For information on the national Plant a Row/row a Row program, contact the Composting Council of Canada.

Guerilla Gardeners: Far be it from me to encourage illegal activity, but . . . use your imagination. There must be a place or two in your neighbourhood that could do with a little surreptitious greening. I know people who cast seed along back alleys, and they haven't been arrested . . .

Heritage Plants: Consider this next time you go to the store or peruse a nursery catalogue: in 1900, more than 7,500 different varieties of apples existed in North America. Many of them weren't commercially profitable so they were lost from large-scale production; many of them have been lost entirely. Since 1900, more than 86 percent of known apple varieties have become extinct. Their loss is more than a taste-bud issue: we've also lost their particular gene complexes, and this is a biodiversity issue with all kinds of potential economic consequences. Take the stringless bean, for example; 99 percent of modern green beans are stringless, yet just one gene in beans determines stringlessness. If a disease attacked that gene, where exactly would we find a bean without the stringless gene?
We might go to gardeners, for starters, particularly those wonderful backyard growers who are struggling to keep heritage varieties in production. They're not in it for the money; they're in it for diversity, for keeping our history of cultivation alive. One grower, Dave Ackerman of Upper Canada Seeds, even writes in his catalogue, 'If you truly want to grow a garden but are short of cash don't let that stop you. Please write to us and we'll do what we can.' There's a volunteer network of backyard gardeners growing heritage varieties, Seeds of Diversity, and I guarantee that one look at their seed-exchange catalogue, with its mouthwatering descriptions of sometimes bizarre varieties (purple tomatoes?!) will have you clambering to join. Call it 'foster parents for plants' or a hedge against genetic erosion-whatever, it's good work.

Invasive Exotic Plants: Most of the exotic plants we grow in our gardens are fine additions that bring pleasure and beauty; unfortunately, though, some invasive exotic plants bring trouble. Of concern are those species that move out of garden confines, take over wild habitats and displace the native components of the vegetative community. We've seen it happen with purple loosestrife, Scotch broom and Norway maples, and the effect of such invasive exotics is enormous. Forty percent of the species on the U.S. Department of Interior's endangered or threatened species list are at risk primarily because of non-indigenous species. A 1993 study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment found that in the United States, 4,500 non-native species have established wild populations, and about 15 percent of these cause severe harm; when the OTA looked at just 79 of those species, they documented $97 billion worth of damages. In Canada, approximately 21 percent of our 4,153 wild plants are exotic species.
It's important that gardeners educate themselves about the invasive exotic species that are wreaking havoc in natural areas so gardeners can be sure that they're not contributing to the problem through their garden plant choices. (As the garden writer Colston Burrell puts it, invasive exotics are not simply like the party guest who never leaves-they're like an obnoxious guest who also starts climbing the curtains.) Local naturalist groups may be able to provide guidance; as well, the national Invasive Plants of Canada Project has an excellent website with detailed information.

Join: I'm a big proponent of ogling other people's gardens and picking other people's brains. One of the best ways I've found to do this is to join organizations. Whatever you fancy, whether it's something broad and general like wildflowers or super-specific like geraniums, chances are there's an organization of like-minded enthusiasts. A local horticultural society is a great place to start.

Knowledge: I'm also a big proponent of sharing information. Actually, I have to admit that, in my case, it's not so much sharing as a one-way street of receiving information. This I do by eavesdropping on the fascinating conversations that go on in various garden-related Internet listservs. Sometimes the information is hopelessly over my head (my favourite example being the following posting on the Washington Native Plant Society discussion group: 'Good morning. Are any of you familiar with the glume-lemma-awn ration used in H&C to differentiate between Festuca rubra var. littoralis [listed as 3, 4.5, 5.5, <1 mm] and var. rubra [3.5, 5.4, 7, 1.5-2]?'); but at least the information is always shared with good humour (the answer posted: 'Don't let those grass i.d. questions keep you up at night').

Labels: If you're doing something a bit unusual in your front garden and the neighbours are getting nervous, don't underestimate the value of putting up signs or labels. Let people know what you're up to. Even something as simple as a sign that says Wildflower Garden will tell others that your landscape is intentional. And if you're gardening organically, why not put up a sign saying so-spread the word.

Lawns: Lawns are perfect for all kinds of activities, and few plants other than turfgrass offer such sturdy groundcover. However, one such plant is clover. Ironically, many gardeners go to great lengths to eradicate this tough nitrogen-fixer from their lawns. A national campaign, 'Consider Clover,' was launched in 2001, urging the use of clover lawns as an eco-friendly alternative to chemically dependent grass.

Mulch: One of the best ways to control weeds and conserve soil moisture is to mulch your garden. Good mulching materials include compost, straw, cocoa shells, wood chips and dead leaves.

Native Plants: The history of horticulture is full of rejection of the common in favour of the far-flung. It's as if we don't see the beauty that surrounds us, and instead seek it out elsewhere. Plant collector Dan Hinkley has a telling anecdote in this regard: in 1997, he toured Japan, looking for a wild Japanese hydrangea (H. sikokiana), which he expected to find in nurseries and in cultivation; instead, he found the native American H. quercifolia: 'No one we talked to had even heard of sikokiana. They had no interest in growing it because they had this very exotic, much, much more exciting hydrangea from America.'
In the last decade or so, though, there has been increasing interest in gardening with native plants. The benefits are both environmental (native plants, if matched to conditions, tend to require less supplementary watering and no pesticides, and they attract wildlife) and personal (they connect us to our home places). Groups such as the North American Native Plant Society are good sources of information about how to include more natives in your landscape.

Naturalization: Along with the growing interest in native plants has come the burgeoning movement of naturalization. Groups devoted to naturalizing schoolgrounds, in particular, have sprung up across the country-Evergreen, based in Toronto and Vancouver, was one of the first. Many groups are also naturalizing parks and other community spaces, and they're always looking for help.

Organic: One of the most effective and immediately positive things you can do in your garden is to go organic. And there is loads of information out there to help you do so. The Canadian Organic Growers, for example, is a national organization with local chapters and is entirely devoted to organic growing. Rodale Publishers of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, produces dozens of informative books full of useful, how-to information.

Permaculture: Australian Bill Mollison coined the word 'permaculture' in the 1970s, a conjunction of 'permanent' and 'agriculture.' Permaculture is an ecologically sustainable design philosophy that advocates basing our gardens on the diversity and resilience of natural ecosystems. Observing patterns in nature (for example, the relationships between plants, the way that waste becomes a resource, the cycling of energy) becomes a guide for the design of cultivated systems. If this sounds vague and hard to pin down, the classic permaculture symbol of the 'Three Sisters' may help. Following the permaculture philosophy, corn, beans and squash (the 'Three Sisters') are planted not in isolation, but rather in a mutually beneficial relationship: corn, a heavy feeder, is planted with beans, a leguminous plant that fixes atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. The beans are supported by the strong stalks of the corn, and squash vines provide a protective mulch for the soil. The three plants support and benefit each other. To learn more about permaculture, see Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison, The Permaculture Way by Graham Bell or Permaculture in a Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield.

Pests: We're a rather insect-phobic culture. We see a bug and immediately think, 'Bad, gotta get rid of it.' The thing is, the vast majority of insects in our gardens are actually beneficial, performing myriad useful services-breaking down and decomposing organic materials, for example. The few that are likely to cause problems, such as earwigs, aphids and slugs (okay, a gastropod, not an insect), can all be dealt with easily enough and without resorting to chemical means: rolled-up cardboard to collect earwigs (then drown them), soapy spray to kill aphids, beer traps for slugs. Numerous books outline organic recipes for pest control; many of the best are published by Rodale.

Plant Salvages: When a natural area is developed, for housing or roads, for example, the plants are often destroyed. This is a tragic waste, particularly when so many naturalization projects are begging for native plants. One way to save the plants is to organize a plant rescue or plant salvage. A number of groups do this work-the North American Native Plant Society in Ontario, for example, and the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society in Victoria. You can also organize a rescue dig on your own or with a local organization. You'll need to get written permission from the landowner.

Question: The garden is a zone of personal expression and, as such, a perfect place to question conventional wisdom. The colour experts say pink and orange clash? Tough, if you like them together. The taste police say Queen Anne's lace is a common weed? Side with the butterflies, and dare to disagree. Actually, you may decide that you favour the conventional rules-whatever, the point is to decide, consciously, and that means you need to question, not slavishly follow, 'rules.'

Rain: Collect it, use it, make every drop count. Disconnect your downspout from the city sewer system and either install a rain barrel or direct the downspout into the garden.

Rooftops: Not everyone is up to a full-scale greening of their rooftops, but for the adventurous it's something to explore, particularly if youÆve got a flat roof. The Green Roofs for Healthy Cities coalition publishes an excellent journal, The Green Roof Infrastructure Monitor, available from The book Roof Gardens by Theodore Osmundson is also a good place to start.

Schoolgrounds: Kids spend from a quarter to a third of their school lives outside, yet when we think about the typical schoolyard, we see a barren landscape of asphalt, maybe some playground structures and a grassy field for sports activities. As Ottawa educator and schoolground naturalization advocate Ann Coffey says, 'For years schoolgrounds have been used as tot lots, as a place to store kids for the day.' What if, instead of designing schoolgrounds for surveillance and mowing, we designed them for learning? Outdoor educator Ted Cheskey points out that we've erased the concept of mystery from schoolgrounds, yet curiosity is precisely what drives learning.
More than 1,000 schools in Canada have embraced the concept of 'outdoor classrooms,' extending the curriculum into the schoolyard by creating gardens and naturalized landscapes where kids can learn, hands-on, about nature. Some projects are as simple as planting trees, others are more complex. Centennial Public School in Hespeler, Ontario, for example, has built a berm with Plexiglas walls so kids can climb in and see roots grow. St. Stephen's Elementary School in Halifax has a cranberry bog on the property-the St. Stephen's Community Bog Project. Sir Robert L. Borden Business and Technical Institute in Toronto even has resident chickens in their schoolyard.
Not only do such projects enhance the learning experience, enrich the physical environment and encourage ecological awareness; they also help make schools safer, reducing incidents of vandalism and aggression. All of which leads to the question: Is there a school in your community that needs a garden? If yes, contact Evergreen for their many helpful resources to get you started.

Seniors: We can learn so much from the wisdom and experience of those 'of a certain age' and maybe we can also help seniors who might not have the physical abilities to look after their yards and gardens any more. If only there could be a connection, some magic wand that hooked up people who don't have gardening space with those who have too much to handle. In Vancouver, there is such a magic wand, not just for seniors but for anyone who has garden space they do not have the ability, time or know-how to tend. Coordinated by Rae Blewden, Neighbourgardens was launched in 1999 and matches landowners with landless gardeners. By 2001, Neighbourgardens had matched almost 1,700 gardens and gardeners throughout the Greater Vancouver Regional District and launched vegetable gardening classes for able-bodied and disabled people, including those in wheelchairs.

Soil: Healthy soil is the foundation for a healthy garden, and healthy soil is alive. You can contribute to the health of your soil through three simple practices: adding compost, mulching and gardening organically.

Tree Planting: Although it is not always a good thing to plant trees (planting red pines in a rare remnant of indigenous prairie, for example, would be a loss, not a gain), there's no shortage of places that could do with some committed, thoughtful tree-planting efforts. There are a number of national organizations that promote tree planting-the Tree Canada Foundation, for example-and many municipalities have local projects, which can be found through environmental organizations or your councillor. A couple of particularly visionary local projects include the Elm Recovery Project at the University of Guelph Arboretum (a long-term project to propagate Dutch elm disease-resistant elm trees and eventually plant them out in Ontario) and Victoria's Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society's project to plant Garry oaks.

Urban Habitat: Even something as simple as planting native plants in a garden in the city can contribute to the creation of urban habitat. My backyard, which is full of native meadow plants such as ironweed, butterfly milkweed, monarda and culver's root, is a veritable butterfly motel all summer. The North American Native Plant Society has information on growing native plants in Canada.

Vacant Lots: Look around your community and see if there might be some vacant lots worth pursuing as possible community garden spaces. You'll need to contact the owner and get permission, and it's a big job to coordinate, but the benefits can be huge.

Water: Make every drop of this precious resource count. Water in the early morning on windless days. Use spot watering methods rather than indiscriminate spraying. Consider planting drought-tolerant species. Water the garden, not the pavement (argh).

Weeds: A few simple things would go a long way towards reducing our dependence on herbicides. Pull weeds as soon as they appear, before they go to seed, and mulch the garden to keep down weeds.

Wild Collection: It would be a bitter irony indeed if all the current interest in native plants were to contribute to the pillaging of wild areas. Leave wild plant populations where they belong-in the wild-and instead either buy your native plants from reputable nurseries or raise them yourself from seed collected prudently from wild sources. (The North American Native Plant Society suggests no more than 10 percent from any one healthy population is a good guideline for wild seed collection.) Reputable nurseries are those that guarantee their stock is not collected from the wild. Ask nurseries if they will make this guarantee, particularly for those species often wild-dug, such as trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits and dogtooth violets.

Wildlife: To attract wildlife to your garden and create a meaningful habitat, you'll need to provide food, water and shelter. The needs of wildlife species vary, but one thing that doesn't vary is that wildlife make use of native plants. For example, if you plant native meadow species, the butterflies will show up, guaranteed. If you leave seed heads on native plants over the winter, the birds will show up, guaranteed. A number of organizations produce helpful information about providing wildlife habitat in your garden: Canadian Nature Federation and Canadian Wildlife Federation, for example.

Xeriscape: Xeriscape gardening is all about making wise use of water resources. Techniques include planting drought-tolerant species, 'zoning' the garden according to plants' watering needs (all heavy water-feeders together, for example), and using efficient irrigation methods. There are a number of good books on the subject, such as Sara Williams' Creating the Prairie Xeriscape and Jennifer Bennett's Dry-Land Gardening.

Youth: Not only does it make common sense, but (in my least favourite phrase) 'research shows' that children who are personally involved with nature and spend time in natural settings are more likely to grow into adults with environmental values, awareness and concern. One of the most positive things we can do for the future is to ensure that the children and youths in our lives have an appreciation for, love of and knowledge about the world of nature. And one place where we can encourage this is in the garden, either in our own backyards or in schoolground naturalization projects.

Zzzzz: Relax. Enjoy. Take pleasure. Give pleasure.

Printed with permission of Penguin Books Canada from Tending the Earth: A Gardener's Manifesto by Lorraine Johnson. Available in all leading bookstores. 

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