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.
As the number of monarch butterflies continues to decline, scientists have calculated that more than 1.8 billion new milkweed plants need to be planted in order to provide monarchs with enough places to lay their eggs and recover from the brink of extinction.
“‘To put that in context, that’s more than three milkweed plants for every man, woman and child in the United States,’ said Karen Oberhauser, professor and conservation biologist in the University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.”
The good news is that milkweed – the only plant monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on – is easy to grow. The milkweed family contains over 100 species. Wisconsin alone has native milkweed species that will grow in wet spots, dry spots, sunny spots, and shady spots. Milkweed is able to thrive in roadside ditches and along the edges of farm fields, and was once so abundant across America that many cities labeled it a noxious weed and forbade property owners to plant it.
Now, attitudes towards milkweed are changing. But attitudes are not enough. If we want to protect monarchs before it’s too late, we need to actually plant milkweed in our yards – and lots of it.
Any native plant nursery should have local milkweed species available as plants and seeds. Right now is the perfect time of year to add some to your garden.
Two weeks ago, the City of Madison made a change to how it will handle emerald ash borer (EAB).
Previously, the City had decided that it would not give any ash trees that were already unhealthy a treatment to protect them from EAB. What the City did not make clear to residents was that any tree located under a power line would be considered unhealthy, regardless of what condition it was actually in.
In thinking about the impact that this decision would have, the City realized that older neighborhoods in Madison, which have overhead power lines, stood to lose a lot of trees, while newer neighborhoods, in which the lines are underground, would be able to keep their trees. Recognizing the immense value of trees to nearby residents – due to trees’ ability to clean the air, reduce flooding, moderate temperatures, increase property values, and so on – the City concluded that it would not be fair for some neighborhoods to lose a lot of trees while others are able to keep their trees.
Based on this conclusion, Madison’s Common Council voted that ash trees under power lines should be treated to protect them from EAB, provided that they meet the City’s other requirements for treatment.
The full text of the resolution can be read here.
An important distinction in natural gardening is between native plants and non-native plants. A native plant is one that has evolved in the region where it is planted, and which typically has developed important relationships with other plants and animals in that region. A non-native plant is one that is planted far from where it evolved. It often contributes little or nothing to the local community, because the animals in its new home cannot eat it, or may not recognize it as a potential food source.
A cultivar is a type of plant that didn’t evolve anywhere. Rather, a cultivar is the plant equivalent of a domestic animal. The same way that modern cows never existed in the wild and are the result of careful breeding, cultivars have been bred from wild plants to bring out desirable characteristics.
The characteristics that are desirable to people, however, are often of no value to wildlife. Double-flowered cultivars, for example, are considered especially attractive in a garden. These flowers are worthless to pollinators, though, because they are mutant plants that have a second row of petals instead of having the structures that produce pollen and nectar.
Nativars are cultivars of native plants. Well-meaning gardeners seeking to support wildlife are often tripped up by nativars, which are advertised as native plants, but which can be as useless to pollinators and other animals as cultivars of non-native species.
Cultivars and nativars can be recognized by the names on their tags. Plants should always be labeled by their scientific names, which help gardeners ensure they’re getting the right species. A plant that has a second, English name in quotes after its Latin name is a cultivar or nativar, not a true species.
The rusty-patched bumble bee recently became the first kind of bee to be added to the endangered species list.
This bee used to range widely, from Minnesota to Maine, and as far south as Georgia. Now, it’s only found in isolated pockets.
One of those pockets is in Madison, Wisconsin. The Arboretum reports that they still have rusty-patched bumble bees, though many fewer than in the past.
The fact that there are still some left, though, means that residents of Madison can help the bees, allowing them to increase their numbers and begin to spread back into areas where they used to be found.
Unlike some bees, which rely on specific kinds of flowers, bumble bees can gather food from many different plants. Adding plants to your yard that flower throughout the season, and avoiding the use of pesticides, can help bumble bees. Rusty-patched bumble bees also need a little bit of bare soil in which to build their underground nests and lay their eggs.
Bumble bees are different from honey bees, which are a non-native, domestic species. Many well-intentioned people who are worried about pollinators try to help by taking up beekeeping. As some have put it, being concerned about pollinator decline and putting a beehive in your yard is like trying to address declining bird populations by getting some chickens. Adding more hives of honey bees to an area can actually decrease the quality of the local habitat for native bumble bees, because it increases competition for the resources that bees need.
“A Ghost in the Making” is a short documentary about the rusty-patched bumble bee. A segment in the middle of the film focuses on Madison’s Arboretum.
Fall has arrived in the northern hemisphere, and leaves will soon be changing colors. We’ve all heard why they do this: the green color is created by chlorophyll, a substance key to photosynthesis, and when the chlorophyll is lost at the end of the summer, leaves reveal their true colors.
Now, some scientists think this story is wrong. They believe that, instead, trees actively work to create their brilliant fall colors.
Why would trees do this? One challenge plants face in life is being attacked by insects. To combat this, plants produce a variety of chemicals that deter insects from eating their leaves or burrowing in their bark.
Just as chlorophyll creates a green color in leaves, some of these insect-deterring chemicals create bright yellows, oranges, and reds. The more chemical a tree stores up, the more vibrant the colors.
In the same way that a male bird puts on showy colors in spring to prove that he is a healthy mate, trees display dramatic autumn hues to tell insects, “I’ve invested in defenses against you; don’t bother trying to attack me.”
Colorful fall leaves may therefore be not only a defensive strategy, but a method of communication – providing further evidence that plants are intelligent.
Habitat is an area where a plant or animal can live.
Whether or not a particular area is habitat depends on which species’ perspective you’re looking at it from. For example, the ocean is habitat for a whale, but is not habitat for a squirrel.
To count as habitat, an area must provide for a plant or animal’s needs. For example, habitat for a bird must include water sources, appropriate food, safe shelter, and a place to nest. Habitat for dandelions must include plenty of sun.
Lawns count as habitat, since by definition grass lives in them. However, few other species can meet their needs in or around a lawn. Overall, lawns are not very good habitat.
Natural yards provide better habitat by inviting in many plant species. These plants, in turn, provide much of what an insect or bird needs to call a place habitat.
Habitat loss is a major factor in species extinctions. Hundreds of North American bird species, as well as popular insects like bumblebees and monarch butterflies, are in decline. If we exchange poor habitat in our yards for better habitat, we can increase these species’ chances of survival.