This blog seeks to answer questions about sustainable gardening for those who are not familiar with the practice. The author holds a master’s in environmental science, works as a journalist, and practices a combination of permaculture and native plant gardening in Madison, Wisconsin. Leave your own questions as a comment on any post, and they will be answered soon!
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We all know that birds go south for the winter. But where exactly is “south”? For many of our favorite birds, it’s countries like Brazil and Ecuador. Species that travel up and down the western hemisphere are called Neotropical migrants.
What this migration pattern means is that people in South America, as well as Central America and the Caribbean, enjoy many of the same birds that we do. If we all want to continue enjoying these colorful visitors, we all need to be responsible about providing them a safe place to stay.
Our southern neighbors steward these birds’ wintering grounds – the place birds go to find plentiful food and hospitable temperatures when northern regions become too cold and snowy. We, in turn, care for the birds’ breeding grounds – the area where they nest and raise their young.
At both ends of their migration route, birds need food, water, and shelter. If these are not available, they will either be unable to raise their next generation, or they will fail to survive the winter. Either way, people all across the Americas will have fewer birds to brighten their yards.
What we do on our own property may seem like a matter of personal preference, or, at best, a subject to be negotiated with our immediate neighbors. In fact, whether our yard provides a safe home for wildlife, and whether it produces other ecosystem services, impacts friends on other continents. It’s important to keep this in mind as we decide how to care for our land.
When we think of birds nesting, we often picture something like this:
In fact, most birds do not build their nests on high tree branches.
Some birds nest on the ground, taking cover in tall grass.
Some birds, called primary cavity nesters, peck a hole in a tree and build their nest inside it. Other birds seek out holes used by primary cavity nesters in previous years. These birds, known as secondary cavity nesters, are the species that will use birdhouses.
And many birds nest in shrubs. They look for dense vegetation, three to six feet above the ground, that will provide a safe place to raise their babies. It is exactly this shrub layer that is missing in an undervegetated yard. When appropriate places to nest are not available, birds may not nest at all, putting the survival of their species in jeopardy.
A shrub layer is not difficult to establish. Young shrubs can be planted near each other – accounting for their mature size – to grow into a dense grouping. In a few years, they will provide a place for birds to nest, as well as flowers for pollinators, privacy screening for people, and a host of other benefits.
“Overgrown” means that a plant is bigger than someone thinks it should be. Like “weed”, it is a completely subjective term. Objectively, plants do not get bigger than nature intended them to be. A plant that is growing enthusiastically is a healthy, happy plant.
Getting bigger than nature intended does happen to people. We call that obesity. Though the obesity rate in the US is now 35%, many of those who are not obese mistakenly believe they are. Persistent exposure to images of supermodels has caused us to mistake malnourishment for a healthy weight, and to see a healthy size as obesity.
Similarly, persistent exposure to lawns has caused us to see a system in which grass is no more than an inch or two tall, and shrubs grow in tight, compact forms, as just right. In fact, outside of areas with especially harsh conditions, like deserts and high mountains, such a system is seriously undervegetated.
We live on a planet full of life – not just some life, but abundant life. Nature squeezes life into every available space. When we visit a healthy prairie, forest, or wetland, we see plants of all shapes and sizes fitting together to fill the entire area.
By changing our frame of reference to recognize abundant plant life as just right, we can fill our yards with healthy vegetation, and stop fighting with plants to prevent them from growing.
We all know what sustainability is – living in such a way that we could continue to live that way indefinitely. Sustainability, though, is a zero-sum game, equivalent to spending exactly as much money as you earn. Sure, you could live on that budget indefinitely. But by doing so, you don’t put anything into savings to protect yourself against an emergency or to pass on to your children.
Some experts are now saying that we need regenerativity – a way of living that takes less than all of the sustainably-available resources, in order to build up our ecosystem savings account. For example, we need to plant enough trees not just to replace what we cut down, but to increase the size of forests. We need to take few enough fish from the ocean that those who are left can reproduce and increase their total population. That’s living regeneratively.
There are two main ways to live more regeneratively. Just like with our finances, we can decrease our expenses or we can increase our income. In ecosystem terms, we can use fewer resources – by reducing our energy consumption, eating lower on the food chain, and eliminating single-use disposable items from our daily lives – or we can mindfully help the Earth be more productive, by using compost to build soil, gardening with native plants that support pollinators, and taking care of trees to maximize their ability to clean air and water.
Last year, Earth Overshoot Day – the day on which we have used as many resources since January 1st as the Earth will produce in an entire year – was August 8th. This year, it fell on August 2nd.
If we were living sustainably, Earth Overshoot Day would be on December 31st every year. If we lived regeneratively, it would fall sometime in the next year. Our world’s resources would continually increase, allowing our children to live the same way we do and enjoy thriving ecosystems on a healthy planet.
Xeriscaping (from the Greek xeros, meaning dry) is an approach to gardening that specifically focuses on conserving water.
Xeriscaping is growing in popularity in the Southwest, where water is scarce and native plants have evolved to tolerate long dry periods. These drought-resistant species include cacti, as well as other plants with adaptations like waxy coatings on their leaves to reduce evaporation, spines to deter thirsty animals, and wide-reaching root systems that can absorb lots of water in a rare rainstorm.
Xeriscaping is about more than just choosing plants that need little water, though. It can also include arranging those plants in and around swales that funnel rainfall towards roots, making maximum use of the water that’s available. Water can also be channeled into rain barrels or cisterns – people in the driest regions of the country, receiving just 2 inches of rain per year, can store over 1,000 gallons of free water by collecting what falls on their roof.
While Wisconsin does have a native cactus, xeriscaping doesn’t necessarily mean limiting yourself to the plants with the lowest water requirements. Instead, it means planting species that can thrive with just the amount of water that comes to them naturally as rain – in other words, planting natives! We create the need for watering when we fill our yards with non-native species adapted to rainier regions.
As explained in the last post, an “average” plant needs an inch of water a week. But how should that be distributed across the seven days?
In general, plants prefer to receive water in big doses, rather than in little sprinkles. Don’t worry that the plant won’t be able to absorb and store a lot of water all at once – a mature tree can take up hundreds of gallons in a heavy rainstorm.
A good rule of thumb is to water the plant, wait a minute for the water to sink into the ground, then water the plant again. If the second dollop of water isn’t quite fully absorbed after another minute, then the soil is well-saturated, and the plant has plenty of water.
If a rainfall provides half an inch of water, there’s no need to rush out and provide the other half-inch right away. But it’s not necessary to water a little bit every day, either. Plants are more than capable of dealing with a somewhat irregular watering schedule.
Plants should be watered when they need it.
How do you know when a plant needs water? An “average” plant needs an inch of water a week. Of course, some plants can get by on much less, while others need to be constantly wet. Knowing the plants in your garden and the different site conditions they require will tell you how much water they need each week.
But that is not how much you should water them. If it has rained recently – or if it’s expected to rain soon – subtract the amount of rainfall from the amount of supplemental water you give your plants. Your local weather forecast may tell you how much rain your area has received lately. Or, you can set an empty tin can in the ground as a simple rain gauge. (You can also use the can to track how much supplemental water you’ve given nearby plants.)
If your plants are watered automatically by a timer system, be sure to turn the system off when the plants have already received enough water from rainfall! Too much water can harm a plant, just the same as too little.