by Derek Burch

Public Enemy #1

Gardeners, and their co-conspirators, the nursery industry, must sometimes feel that they are seen as the front rank of the threat to the natural ecosystems of the world. Blamed for badly chosen introductions a hundred years in the past, and reviled for these plants' invasive ways - when it is development, drainage and land clearing that has given some plants the opportunity to begin their escape and uncontrolled spread.


It is true that in one sense, gardening can work in direct opposition to conservation. Gardening and farming, by their nature, modify the natural surroundings to meet practical or aesthetic goals as defined by mankind. One of the joys of gardening, in fact, is discovering how to make a plant thrive far from its natural home.

Let's set aside the excesses in "modifying" nature that are thrust at us every day. How can anyone feel that devastating the Amazon rainforest for the sake of a few years of cattle farming can possibly be justified? Or the years of overcropping of cotton lands that has drained the life from them? Or the breaking of the grasslands or overgrazing in midwestern and western states of the United States that reduced the resilience of the land and began a degradation that became tragic in a cycle of dry years. Or, closer to home for me in South Florida, the drainage and now overbuilding that has placed at risk the natural systems that make the area unique.These large- scale exploitations point out how little we understand about how the natural world works, and how serious our meddling can be.

If this sort of catastrophe is inexcusable, is the only safe alternative to make no intrusion at all into the natural world? Obviously that is impossible. We are a component of the living world, and must do what we can to continue to be a viable species.

The word "sustainable" has come into common use, and it surely the most important goal to work towards. It does not mean going back to the ways of a hundred or two hundred years ago: Man, the fecund species, has bred itself to numbers that make it impossible for most to live a self-sufficient existence. We are tied to mass-producing our food, and hauling it hundreds or thousands of miles to the population centers. We are doomed to a dependence on fossil fuels to make this hauling possible, and to the consequent pollution of our air and threat to the atmosphere. Who knows where this will lead.

But, back to gardening and the industry that supports it. How does the idea of sustainability come into play? A number of ways are obvious. First, and very important, is to resolve to maintain the fertility and condition of the soil on which we garden. There are some areas in which the organic content of the soil has been so low for so many thousands of years that a flora has evolved that manages without it. For the rest of us, I would like to see a resolve that nothing organic leaves the garden plot except the produce that goes to the kitchen, or cut flowers that are borrowed from the garden for a time. Everything else will compost. There is no excuse for bagging leaves to be hauled away, or worse, burning them (much as I love that smell from my childhood). No need to have small prunings picked up as trash when they can be cut into short lengths and go back under the shrubs from which they were taken. Tree work may generate branches that cannot be handled on a small lot, but once they are chipped, there is no better mulch for the plants that remain.

Next comes the resolve to put out as few harsh chemicals as possible. I firmly believe that plants in good health are less likely to be severely damaged, perhaps even less likely to be attacked, than those that are sickly. And how do you get strong plants? By starting with good living soil. Any chemicals that must be used need careful handling. Think beyond the confines of your garden, and realise that all liquids drain eventually into rivers and lakes or to the sea. Be sure that you add as little chemical pollution as possible - this is worldwide sustainability that starts at your fence line.

Finally, at least for this diatribe, let's get back to the choice of plants to use. Obviously great care is needed to avoid introducing and spreading anything that will become invasive, whether it comes from across the Pacific or across the county line. Choose plants that are well adapted to your growing conditions since these will need the least coddling to stay strong. Does this mean natives? Perhaps, if you are fortunate enough to live on a site that wasn't desecrated by a developer. But what if you live in a place that was so low that the zoning laws required that the whole area be filled? Or if it was just easier for the developer to bulldoze everything out (it always is!).There is nothing natural about those sites, and nothing native to them, so choose the plants that do well no matter how foreign or homegrown they are. Making a first selection of plants to use on the basis of their national origin is not good science, and certainly not good gardening.

So, are the gardeners of this world destroying the planet? They certainly each have the opportunity to mess up their own little patch, and enough tiny patches destroyed can add up to a major problem. We each need to garden wisely, following the principle of grouping things with like needs together, and restricting our indulgence in oases of things that "really won't grow here" to the size of very small sins against the environment. I don't want to be restricted in what I grow, but I have limited myself gradually over the years to the point at which I can say "do and as I do" not just "do as I say!" comes straight to my jugular if you would like to comment.

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