What is this blog?

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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What is this blog?

Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Not at all.

Some people think that natural yards look messy, unattractive, and unmaintained. They take pride in mowing their lawns and pruning their shrubs, thinking that by doing so they are showing that they care for their property, and that this in turn makes them a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good American.

But a recent book argues that America’s Founding Fathers were themselves devoted gardeners, and that the way they gardened – the way they thought about plants – bore little resemblance to the beliefs and habits of many Americans today.

Here is one particularly striking paragraph from Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, written by Andrea Wulf, and published in 2012:

“By the time Jefferson became president, many trees had been lost [in Washington DC, which at the time was still more of a wilderness than a city]. Most shocking of all, those on the grounds of the White House had been felled by Federalists* after the accession of the Republicans, one observer noted, ‘out of spite to them who cherished it.’ Enraged by Jefferson’s election, so the rumor went, his rivals had ordered the ancient trees to be cut down as a parting gesture, knowing how such vandalism would wound the new president, who regarded tree-felling as ‘a crime little short of murder.’ Jefferson was so furious at this unscrupulous destruction that shortly after he moved into the White House, the author of the Declaration of Independence was overheard making the rather surprising comment, ‘I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling.'” (page 148)

(*Jefferson was a member of the Republican Party, as it existed in his day. The opposing political party – of which departing President John Adams was a member – was called the Federalists.)

And here are some other fascinating facts from the book:

Many of the most important figures in the founding of America had strong feelings about the importance of gardening. The first four presidents of the United States – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – all couldn’t wait to retire from politics and go back to working on their farms, vegetable plots, and ornamental gardens.

The “Founding Gardeners” understood the importance of nature. The fourth President, James Madison – the person after whom Madison, Wisconsin is named – was the first major figure to publicly call for an end to deforestation in America.

In the opinion of the “Founding Gardeners”, conventional yards are un-American. Jefferson and Adams, while serving as ambassadors in Europe, observed that many people there were turning away from a formal style of gardening, seeing straight paths, pruned trees, and geometrical hedges as too dictatorial. These landowners thought that a free people should embrace a more natural look in their gardens. In other words, Americans who value independence and democracy should show it by letting garden plants follow their natural life courses.

The “Founding Gardeners” believed that native plants make America great. At his estate at Mount Vernon, Washington planted trees and shrubs from all over the thirteen states, but he did not allow any plants from Europe in his gardens. And, while some Europeans disparaged America by saying that the wildlife there was inferior, Jefferson sent samples demonstrating that the New World had bigger animals and more beautiful plants.

Being a good American means having a yard that reflects the natural plant communities of America. Being a good American means letting plants have their own life, liberty, and pursuit of vegetative happiness, rather than constantly imposing our own will on them.

America invented the idea of national parks. Having nature in our yards shows that we share the longstanding American values of respecting and conserving our natural environment.

Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Is it like this everywhere?

As described in several recent posts, people who don’t like naturally-growing plants often try to shut down people who do by claiming that liking nature is strange and wrong. Sometimes this claim shows up in the form of the argument “It’s like this everywhere.” That is, every town insists on frequently-mowed grass and harshly-pruned trees, and anyone who doesn’t agree with this consensus on how to treat plants is just an odd person with a fringe opinion.

But it isn’t true that it’s “like this everywhere”.

In most other countries, lawns have never been a common feature of residential yards. Even in the United States, where lawns achieved a level of popularity never seen anywhere else in the world, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. Communities all over the country now encourage native plants. Increasingly, Americans towns and cities are banning lawns.

The habit of pruning shrubs into geometrical shapes – a hallmark of American gardening in the 1970s – is hardly universal either. In Sweden, gardeners do sometimes prune shrubs. But they don’t let their aesthetic preferences overrule the needs of other species. If a Swedish gardener finds a bird’s nest in a hedge, she’ll leave an oddly-shaped lump on the bush rather than harming the nest in the pursuit of a perfectly straight line.

It is also untrue that people all over the world casually destroy trees whenever they find the trees a little inconvenient. In the city of Curitiba, Brazil, property owners cannot cut down trees in their own yards unless they get a permit first – and the permit always requires homeowners to plant two new trees for every one that is destroyed. Rather than making it easy for residents to complain that they don’t like their neighbor’s native flowers, Curitiba’s leaders instead have created a dedicated phone line for people to report that someone is killing a tree without a permit.

How we treat plants is a choice, not a universal law. Compare the stories of two countries: Japan is a densely-populated island nation with few resources, yet two-thirds of it is covered with forest. In part this is due to Japan’s climate and topography, which favor rapid tree growth while making logging difficult. But it is also largely due to choices, made over centuries, to value and protect forests.

Conversely, Australia’s climate historically made it the least-forested continent. Yet, today, Australia is logging its forests at one of the highest rates in the world, losing 100 trees for every one that is replanted.

We can choose to treat plants as living beings, not as yard decorations. We can choose to treat them as members of our communities, rather than as our personal property, to be destroyed whenever we decide we don’t like them anymore. We can choose to value what plants do for us when they’re alive, instead of only calculating what they’re worth when they’re dead. And we can remember that plants are important not for what they look like, but for the vital roles they play in the ecosystem.

It’s not “like this” everywhere. And it doesn’t have to be like this where you are, either.

Is it like this everywhere?

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

People often toss around the words “appropriate” and “suitable” to describe where they think nature belongs. Nature is “appropriate” in city parks. Nature is “appropriate” in faraway wildlife refuges. Nature is “inappropriate” in people’s yards.

We should be asking these people why they think it’s “appropriate” to deprive others of a healthy living environment.

It’s a fact that some neighborhoods have more nature than others. In particular, affluent neighborhoods tend to have more street trees and more green space than poorer areas of the same town. Now, of course, there are lots of reasons why rich people are doing better, in all sorts of ways, than those who are less financially advantaged. There are also reasons why wealthy neighborhoods are greener: for example, those with money and status are more likely to demand that these kinds of amenities are created and preserved.

Presumably, the well-off would not be demanding more trees and parks if they thought these things were bad for them. But the more important point is that there are direct links between more greenery and being better off. Experts say that access to nature tends to move people towards healthier patterns in their exercise routines, transportation choices, and diets. Nature also reduces stress, moderates temperature, and combats air pollution. When people don’t have access to nature, they don’t have access to these important benefits either.

It’s fairly obvious that people who have nature right outside their front doors have more access to nature than people who have to travel some distance to experience healthy plants and plant communities. People who have more access to nature and all its benefits are more likely to actually receive those benefits.

The city of Madison recognized this when it said that destroying trees in some neighborhoods and not destroying trees in other neighborhoods would be unfair to the residents of the de-greened areas. It was exactly because of this unfairness that the city decided to work harder to protect trees.

In saying that it’s not fair for some people to have more trees and some people to have fewer trees, the city of Madison was expressing that trees have value. Nature has value. And so, to return to the original point – why would it be “inappropriate” to have valuable things on our property?

Nature belongs in every neighborhood – in the form of pocket parks, street trees, and natural yards – for the same reason that every neighborhood should have fire hydrants and nearby places of employment and access to public transportation. These things make our lives better. Anyone who says otherwise is not acting in your best interest.

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

What is solastalgia?

We’re all familiar with nostalgia: the sadness we feel when thinking about places we love but don’t visit anymore. Solastalgia is nostalgia’s dark cousin: the sadness we feel when looking at places we once loved, but which have been irreparably transformed from how they used to be.

Maybe you can think of a specific moment in your life when solastalgia suddenly set in. Maybe when you were a child, the forest or field you played in was bulldozed to make room for more houses. Maybe you went to a favorite creek one day, only to find it had just been paved over. Many people who consider themselves environmentalists describe just such an experience as a defining moment in their lives, the time when they first understood that natural places matter and must be actively preserved.

Maybe solastalgia has set in for you more slowly. Maybe as you drive around your town, you say “That used to be farmland, and that used to be farmland, and that used to be farmland.” But the housing developments and strip malls sprung up one at a time over decades, and there was no specific day when you realized that the character of your community had changed.

Or maybe your family has lived in the same home for generations, and by talking to your parents and grandparents, you can trace a slow history of the surrounding hills being gradually deforested and then blasted apart for mining operations. The view from your house is no longer what it was when your ancestors settled in this spot, and you’ve lost something that you valued about your corner of the world.

Nostalgia makes us sad because there is no going back, even if we can physically return to the place we love. The creek where we played as children may still be there, but we just can’t experience it the same way as adults. We can walk the halls of our old high school, but we can’t recreate the good times we had with our friends.

Solastalgia makes us sad because what we loved is gone, irretrievably. We can’t go back to the neighborhood woodlot to stand in the cool shade and remember the adventures we had there when we were young, because the woodlot is now a treeless private yard. We can’t take our children cycling on country roads and show them our favorite vistas from when we were their age, because those roads are now busy city streets, unwelcoming to cyclists, and the views of farm fields have been replaced by gas stations and convenience stores.

The world, including natural environments, is always changing. But in recent times, change is occurring fast enough that we can see it happening over a single lifespan. We feel sad about how things are because we personally remember how they used to be.

When change is positive, we may reminisce about what things were like before, while also appreciating how they are now. But when change is overwhelmingly negative – when cookiecutter suburbs march across endless acres of what used to be healthy nature – we’re left with a deep sadness about what we’ve lost, while having little offsetting happiness about what we’ve gained.

Like biophilia, solastalgia often gets brushed off as a kind of illness, even though it’s perfectly normal. Nowadays, solastalgia is increasingly recognized as a real and legitimate form of grief. While biophilia is characteristically accompanied by action to repair the distressing circumstance, the defining feature of solastalgia is that the damage cannot be undone on any timescale short enough to help the sufferer feel better. If you are experiencing severe solastalgia, a counselor may be able to help.

What is solastalgia?

What is biophilia?

Very early on, That Blog wrote about how people are inherently drawn towards other living things, including plants and animals. The English language (via Greek) has helpfully provided us with a word for this: the term biophilia, which literally means love of life.

Not to be confused with joie de vivre – happiness about everything that’s good in our own lives – biophilia describes the care we feel towards all the other living beings we share our planet with. In particular, it refers to a kind of empathy for the non-human.

Biophilia is why we enjoy watching animals. It’s why we like walking among plants. Biophilia makes us wants to nurture flowers in our yards, adopt a cat, and pass laws to protect endangered species.

Importantly, biophilia is a normal part of the human condition. Most people experience it. Though some people try to cast wildlife lovers and treehuggers as strange, or even as unhealthily concerned about “useless” plants and animals, we should not be intimidated by this. Instead, we should ask those people why they don’t have normal feelings of respect and care towards other inhabitants of our world.

Normal, healthy people also experience feelings of intense distress, even grief, when we witness other life being harmed or destroyed – when we hear about how animals on factory farms are treated, when we see pictures of trophy hunters showing off their kills, when forests are destroyed by wildfires, and when healthy urban trees are “removed” – a frighteningly euphemistic term – to make more space for buildings and cars. Then, normal, healthy people experience a strong urge to do something to help offset this destruction of life. They may feel a desire to donate to a wildlife charity, or to sign a petition telling major restaurants to get animal abuse out of their supply chains. But most particularly, people feel compelled to do something hands-on: to plant trees in local parks, to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center, or to tear out their barren lawns and fill the space with a thriving plant community. All of these feelings and actions are collectively known as urgent biophilia.

If you or someone you know is suffering from urgent biophilia, don’t dismiss it as being odd, or as being overly sentimental. Act on it. As our world moves deeper into a crisis of diminishing wildlife populations, disappearing forests, polluted oceans, and a dangerously unstable climate, people acting on their natural instinct to repair our only home may be our best hope of minimizing the damage.

What is biophilia?

Where is deforestation happening?

When we think about deforestation, we think about the Amazon rainforest: iconic images of towering jungle trees being cleared to make room for ranching operations, and statistics about how many football fields per minute are being lost.

We may also think about the Canadian boreal forests, huge swathes of which are being leveled so that fossil fuel companies can extract the tar sands oil that lies buried beneath them.

And we may think of America’s Pacific Northwest, where it seems that environmentalists and loggers are constantly at odds over whether old-growth trees should be harvested for commercial use or preserved to provide wildlife habitat and inspire awe in each new generation of humans.

What most of us don’t think about is urban areas. But American cities are losing trees at an alarming rate. One study found that between 1975 and 2006, Minnesota’s Twin Cities region lost 14% of its forest cover. Percentage-wise, that’s actually more tree loss than the Amazon rainforest experienced over an equivalent period.

And a study published this past spring estimated that urban areas of the United States, taken as a whole, are losing 36 million trees a year. That’s net loss – the total decrease in the number of trees after adding back newly-planted trees. Dividing up the data by state, the researchers found that in recent years, only three states have seen a net increase of urban trees, and then only by tiny increments.

As explained in an earlier post, that’s a problem because trees in cities aren’t optional. When there aren’t enough trees around to absorb stormwater, clean air, moderate extreme temperatures, and give people a little relief from the stresses of modern life, providing all of those services through other methods ranges from expensive to impossible. The end result is that we pay more in taxes and get back a lower quality of life.

We can reverse this trend. First, we can demand that our local officials respect and protect our urban trees, instead of damaging or destroying trees that pose minor inconveniences. Second, we can actively work to plant a healthy next generation of trees. No matter how well we care for mature trees, they will eventually die. When that happens, it is too late to plant a replacement tree – it could be decades before the new, young tree is able to provide benefits equivalent to what its adult predecessor was doing. Instead, we need to nurture an urban forest in which every canopy tree has a younger companion nearby, ready to quickly take over the older tree’s duties when its life inevitably comes to an end.

Where is deforestation happening?

Is global warming good for plants?

Some people deny that global warming is happening. Others agree that it is happening, but claim it isn’t a bad thing. People in this second group often say that global warming isn’t bad because all that extra carbon in the air will promote plant growth, which will benefit agriculture and the environment. Is this true?

Not really.

As described in the last post, plants do need carbon to grow, and they like having more of it around. But, they like extra carbon a little too much.

Let’s explore why by looking at humans and sugar.

Humans like sugar. We generally think of sugar as a bad and unnecessary thing that makes us fat. But, in fact, humans need sugar. In the past, sugar was rare and hard to find. Because sugar was important for human nutrition but difficult to get, evolution fitted us with a sugar craving that drives us to search energetically for this nutrient, and consume it whenever possible. This worked great until the modern age, when sugar became abundant and readily available in our dietary environment. Our biology hasn’t yet learned that it should tell us to eat a certain amount of sugar and then stop. And so, unless we manage to exert a lot of willpower, we end up eating too much sugar, and we get sick from it.

A similar mechanism is at work in plants. A plant’s biology tells the plant to absorb as much carbon as possible. This is very good for the plant as long as the amount of carbon the plant can realistically absorb is not greater than the amount of carbon the plant really needs. However, if a plant was able to absorb more carbon than it needed – for example, due to rising carbon levels in the atmosphere related to global warming – then the plant would happily gorge itself on the extra carbon. In a classic case of too much of a good thing, the plant would then become sick.

This is not just theoretical. Studies have found that plants that binge on carbon really do become unhealthy. Just like humans who eat too much sugar produce body fat that isn’t good for them, plants that absorb too much carbon produce abnormally high levels of starch. And while these plants are getting vegetatively flabby, they store less protein in their pollen.

This means that the plants are not healthy, their pollen does not contain the nutrients that pollen-eating animals need to be healthy, and the parts of the plants that humans eat are similarly lacking in nutrients that humans need to be healthy. Far from being a boon to agriculture, global warming puts plants on a junk food diet that is bad for everyone.

And that part isn’t theoretical either. Studies on how plants react to excess carbon haven’t just been done in the lab. In the US, plants living in the wild have shown a marked decrease in the protein content of their pollen since America began industrializing in the 1840s. That decline has been most severe over the past six decades, when America’s carbon emissions were increasing dramatically.

Global warming is a serious problem that we are running out of time to solve. At this point, we cannot decrease our emissions steeply enough to avoid disastrous warming on our planet. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to not only reduce our emissions, but also actively work to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Humans have not yet invented technology that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. Fortunately, nature has. We call that technology plants.

Global warming will not benefit either humans or plants. But if humans and plants work together, we still may be able to solve this urgent problem.

Is global warming good for plants?