Dear Delightful Readers,
Spring has sprung. Leaves are leafing — up to 20 days early this year in the Southeast and 20 days late in the West. And American yards are a-changing — reflecting a garden revolution for our post-wild world.
Growing up in New York City, I associated spring with the smell of dog-doo exposed by melting snow — in a good way. I now know that Americans are more likely to associate spring with the smell of new-mown lawn. The 1978 “pooper scooper” law changed New York spring forever. And now a garden revolution is decreasing both the amount of mowing and the amount of lawn. Eventually, the buzzing of newly awoken bees and butterflies will be a more powerful madeleine than lawn mowers — at least I hope so.
A new way of thinking is emerging. It does not seek nature in remote mountain tops, but finds it instead in the midst of our cities and suburbs. — Planting in a Post-Wild World
What’s good home landscape design today? As Business of Fashion editor Imran Amed says, “Good design is sustainable design.” Here’s my summary of what’s in and out.
Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in a comment. And, as always, send your landscaping questions to me at DearAvantGardener@gmail.com.
— The Avant Gardener
P.S. Regular readers, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription so I can reach more people interested in the art and science of ecological landscaping.
Why, How, Wow!
Curb appeal — out; yard as sanctuary — in
The pandemic’s forced focus on home encouraged people to experiment with backyard birding, pollinator gardens, and food forests.
More than half of those we surveyed said they felt isolated, anxious and depressed during the early days of the pandemic. Yet more than 75% also found immense value in gardening during that same period. Whether done in cities or out in the country, gardening was almost universally described as a way to either relax, socialize, connect with nature or stay active. — The Conversation
Irrigated lawns — out; drought tolerance — in
Droughts, especially in the West, have led to watering bans and paid lawn replacement programs. Only a third of the country receives enough rain, even in a good year, to supply the 55 inches of rain a traditional turfgrass lawn requires.
Under a state law passed last year that is the first of its kind in the nation, patches of grass like this, found along streets and at housing developments and commercial sites in and around Las Vegas, must be removed in favor of more desert-friendly landscaping. — The New York Times
Maximizing sunlight — out; shade gardens — in
Drought, warming temperatures, and the environmental cost of air conditioning are driving interest in shady refuges. Myriad plants naturally thrive in the understory. The popular misconception that most plants need full sunlight to thrive probably originated from experiences with lawns and agricultural crops, both of which generally prefer full sun. Still, descriptions of native forest plants often say they do best in full sun — strictly true if the goal is maximizing individual plant size, which mine is generally not.
Pesticides — out; beneficial insects — in
Honey bee colony collapse got people’s attention. Then a 41 percent decline in global insect population spurred concern about a sixth great extinction, comparable to the one that killed dinosaurs. The primary drivers of insect die-off are habitat loss and degradation, pesticides, and climate change. Turns out those insects we’ve been killing are, per E.O. Wilson “The little things that run the world.”
[Insects] are to terrestrial food chains what plankton is to oceanic ones. Without insects and other land-based arthropods, E.O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard entomologist, and inventor of sociobiology, estimates that humanity would last all of a few months. — The Guardian
Exotics — out; natives — in
The insect die-off is finally curbing Americans’ love affair with exotic (i.e., imported) plants, which still dominate the nursery trade. Credit entomologist Doug Tallamy for sounding the alarm through bestselling books like Nature’s Best Hope and his grassroots Homegrown National Park movement.
The majority of insects eat only native plants – the ones they have shared a long evolutionary history with. Most insects are unable to eat plants that evolved on another continent. Doug Tallamy’s research shows that non-native ornamentals support 29 times less animal diversity than do native ornamentals. And when these same ornamentals escape our gardens and run amuck in our natural areas, they reduce insect biomass by 96%. — Homegrown National Park
Avian flu — out; keystone species — in
Experts no longer advise removing backyard bird feeders to protect songbirds from avian flu, because transmission rates are low. However, many bird lovers have learned that planting natives can provide fruits and seeds for songbirds. And even more importantly, planting caterpillar host plants provide vital food for nestlings.
Most of North America’s terrestrial bird species, some 96 percent in fact, rear their young on insects rather than seeds and berries (Peterson 1980), and we are learning that in most of those species, the majority of those insects are caterpillars or adult moths. Caterpillars are so important to breeding birds that many species may not be able to breed at all in habitats that do not contain enough caterpillars (Narango et al. 2018). — Nature’s Best Hope
Mulch as decor — out; leaf litter — in
When did sparsely planted mounds of mulch become a thing? And who thinks they’re beautiful? (Don’t get me started on mulch volcanos, which kill the trees they surround.) Mulch beds make the work of “mow and blow” crews fast and easy, that’s it. In contrast, densely planted beds with leaf litter and decaying wood among them provide caterpillar pupation sites — and are beautiful.
More than 90 percent of the caterpillars that develop on plants do not pupate on their host plants. Instead, they drop to the ground and pupate within the duff on the ground or within chambers they form underground. . . . Replace the lawn under trees with well-planted groundcovers appropriate to your area. . . . Replace store-bought mulch with natural leaf litter wherever you can. — Nature’s Best Hope
Tilling the soil — out; no-till — in
Research is proving tillage — i.e., plowing the soil — detrimental to agriculture. More than half of American farmers have adopted some form of no-till. As often happens, home horticulture is following agriculture — in this case, for good reason.
Farmers who minimize tillage across their operation may reduce soil erosion, maximize water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling, build organic matter, and strengthen resilience to disaster events or challenging growing conditions.
Based on the latest data, they may also use significantly less fuel than with conventional tillage and reduce their associated carbon dioxide emissions. – USDA
Organic fertilizer — out; right plant, right place — in
Like tilling, many traditional horticulture practices — even organic ones — turn out to be counterproductive. Amending soil with organic matter, topsoil, and fertilizers is another example. Amendments encourage weeds and can super-size native plants, causes them to flop over.
The truth is it's far smarter to plant species that are adapted to the existing character of your soil. This sort of “one size fits all” soil preparation recommended by traditional horticulture is not only labor and resource intensive, it creates a situation that promotes virtually every kind of weed. And the compost, manure, or topsoil you import is likely to bring with it seeds and roots of invasive plants. Typically, a far smaller assortment of weeds is adapted to the more specialized character of your existing soil, which makes their control much easier. — Garden Revolution
Cultivated varieties — out; evolved species — in
The growing popularity of native plants has led to intensive breeding of cultivars (aka, “nativars”) for traits that appeal to buyers. However, savvy home landscapers interested in supporting wildlife seek out harder-to-find “straight species.” That’s because cultivation may unintentionally breed out what insects and birds require.
[Annie] White’s research revealed that ‘Fan Scarlet’ and other similar hybrids, however, provide only a fraction of the nectar energy a hummingbird requires. In other words, attracting hummingbirds to a garden with these particular nativars can be considered unproductive at best and cruel at worst, drawing them in with the promise of a full meal only to offer up a half-empty plate. Unfortunately for hummingbirds and other creatures, most nurseries sell only cultivars (such as the Lobelia hybrid ‘Fan Scarlet’) rather than wild-type plants. — Wild Seed Project
Pulling out weeds – out; cutting weeds – in
Pulling weeds out by the roots is a hard habit to break! It’s so damn satisfying.
This may satisfy your need for vengeance, but if the weeds are growing among competitive native plants, disturbing soil in this fashion only creates opportunities for more weed invasion and promotes the germination of dormant weed seeds in the soil. The garden ecologist cuts weeds off at the base, repeating as necessary to prevent them from setting seed and weakening them so that native neighbors can crowd them out. — Garden Revolution
Gas mowers – out; no mow May – in
Starting to mow later in spring and mowing less frequently also benefits insects. It also decreases air pollution, especially if you switch to an electric mower. Inefficient gas mower motors account for an astounding 5 percent of all air pollution, according to the EPA.
The start of the growing season is a critical time for hungry, newly emerged native bees. Floral resources may be hard to find, especially in urban and suburban landscapes. By allowing it to grow longer, and letting flowers bloom, your lawn can provide nectar and pollen to help your bee neighbors thrive.
Mowing less creates habitat and can increase the abundance and diversity of wildlife including bees and other pollinators. — Bee City USA
Maintaining — out; lazy landscaping — in
Traditional horticulture aims for stasis — babying individual plants and decrying self-seeding and aggressive spreading. In contrast, managing an ecological landscape means monitoring changes, accepting some and responding to others. Revel in the aliveness and the changes — preferably from an Adirondack chair while drinking coffee or a cocktail.
Want to know if spring this year is early or late where you live? Use this app at the Washington Post.
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Omg yes! I am so ready for the IN list 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽💚