Gardeners Save the World!

“Gardening is unique in its universal appeal and its transformational power. Without plants and more planting, we are all in trouble. Although we are not traditional garden designers, we think we can demonstrate ways that anybody could make a small difference and broadcast, not only the beauty, but also the functional importance of horticulture through both traditional knowledge and the latest in growing innovation”

                          —Tom Dixon in Gardening Will Save the World

     No matter how many springs have passed, the explosion of growth and flowering explodes upon one’s consciousness.  After the sleep of winter, it always comes as a surprise.  The sheer exuberance of life is both joyous and uplifting. Even those with no horticultural aspirations can sense its power.  Who can resist it?  Each season, each month, brings its own delight.

I consider myself blessed to have spent my life with plants—as a home gardener, as a student, and as an employee in the horticultural industry.  My entree was through the world of bonsai—perhaps a strange point to begin.  Tatsuo Ishimoto’s Book The Art of Growing Miniature Trees Plants and Landscapes hooked me.  It was the idea, expressed in the opening pages, that these trees depended upon those who care for them, gave me a sense of responsibility, and I pursued it.  My interest was encouraged by an elderly nurseryman who took time to talk to me.  He had worked in nurseries since his mid-teens and was a fount of information.  From bonsai I went on to annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees—all of the components of a complete garden, and to the design and planning of my garden and those of others.

     I grew up across the street from the aptly named Recreation Park in Long Beach, California.  At that time my father worked there as a gardener.  I learned from him by example as he applied the same skills in our home as he did in his occupation.  I am also indebted to him for passing on to me a book from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Trees of Santa Barbara, which was my education in the rich variety of introduced species which are key components of the Southern California landscape.  I have read and re-read it over the years and never tire of its descriptions and accompanying photos.  Visits to Santa Barbara allowed me to see many of these subjects in person.  Many pleasurable childhood days were spent wandering through the park, which included picnic areas, golf courses, baseball fields, tennis courts, lawn bowling, a casting pond, and more.  A very early memory has stayed with me.  At the age of 4 or 5 my mother bundled me up in rain gear and we walked the fairways, our feet sloshing through the wet grass, carpeted with the blooms of English Daisies and surrounded by sea gulls who had landed to wait out the storm.  As a teenager I learned golf.  For me, playing was more than the game—there was enjoyment of the landscape of the course. 

     I read years ago that 40 mature trees were needed to counterbalance the emissions from one car.  Today, on a planet increasingly threatened by global warming, the importance of trees increases as they form what are called carbon sinks, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.  There is considerable emerging research on this vital topic, and I am only scratching the surface here.  Carbon retention is improved by the size and the health of the tree.  Although a mature tree grows more slowly, it captures more carbon.  Even in death a slowly rotting tree retains carbon in its tissues.  Organic material—the mulch and litter on the forest floor—does this too.  Furthermore, new research shows that a mixed forest captures more carbon than one of a single species.  (Is this also true for urban landscapes such as city parks?)  Can only trees perform this function?  Not only can grass do this too, but while some forest stands lose their carbon holding efficiency, grass has an advantage.  When a tree burns, its stored carbon is once more released into the atmosphere, whereas grass which has burned still retains significant carbon in the soil.  Carbon retention occurs in both natural and urban settings, so all growth benefits the planet.  The ocean, too, is a carbon sink, but is becoming too acidic to be optimal for sea life.  Additional land capacity is needed to take pressure off the oceans.   

     In addition to carbon capture, there is transpiration.  Moisture must be returned to the atmosphere to feed the precipitation cycle.  Lawns may be vilified as wasteful and superfluous, but they are living, breathing transpiration factories and fill a vital role.  Large stands of crops can actually create their own weather.  Pam Knox writes, “When I lived in Wisconsin, we blamed the hottest, most sultry days of summer on the corn in Iowa, which was pumping a lot of water vapor into the air. Now there’s a study published in Geophysical Research Letters that takes a scientific look at how the climate in the Corn Belt is changing due to the agriculture there. According to the research, the area of major corn production is cooler and wetter now than it was earlier in the last century when overall ag production was less.  The scientists attribute that in part to transpiration of corn, which puts more water vapor into the air, providing fuel for showers and keeping temperatures lower. It is also due to increases in irrigation in recent decades, which pump additional moisture into the region.”  One acre of corn can release 4,000 gallons of water per day.  Water conservation is important, but it is equally important to keep that water in circulation.  The ecosystem is a sort of economy, and like its fiscal counterpart, the only benefit that it affords comes from being kept in circulation.  The alternative is that the environment, and the economic system, becomes a Sahara.

     Richard St. Barbe Baker was the twentieth century prophet of reforestation, traveling the world as advisor to many countries (and to President Franklin Roosevelt) to replenish the magnificent groves of trees which had been lost to exploitation.  His name belongs with his predecessors: Henry Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs.  This quest was not aesthetic alone—it was a matter of our survival on this planet.  The recent destruction of these resources created the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which was fortunately recovered by the replanting strategies he formulated and supervised.  The Dust Bowl, he noted, had taken only two decades, whereas the destruction which led to the Sahara Desert had taken hundreds of years.  Let the Sahara be a lesson to us all—it is our fate if we do not heed the call to preserve and expand the planting of trees.  A garden, even a small garden on a limited scale, can do its part to create an ecology supportive of life.

      Life in the garden, labor and all, rarely ceases to yield its rewards.  It is refreshment, it is re-creation, and most important it has a purpose.  Imagine a multitude of gardens stretching coast to coast and around the world.  The gardener forms a partnership with birds. Every garden should have a bird feeder, where our flying friends can gather.  Birds find food and shelter, pollinators gather sustenance on their journeys and benefit the flower and fruit production of the plants they visit.  A strong array of human-made gardens plays an important part in knitting the natural world together.  A network of gardens with pollen-producing plants can form pathways for bees and for the endangered migrating butterfly population.  Gardening is clearly not a vain and unproductive pursuit.  The garden (and the gardener) forms a vital link in the survival of the ecosystem. 

     Thanks to the hybridizers, a steady array of new varieties appears on the market year after year.  And this is not to say that older favorites are left behind.  A devoted community of seed savers preserve heirloom flowers and vegetables and encourage their continued propagation by home gardeners.  Seed banks form a repository lest this genetic heritage vanish. If the threat posed by a growing monoculture of food plants is true, this may be our best defense.  No one wants a repeat of the Irish Potato Famine, no laughing matter.

     For nearly 20 years I worked in a wholesale nursery.  Now it is not required that a job be fun, but if it is, so much the better.  I was thrilled when offered a position to be part of something I loved.  It was hard work, but I can say it was also fun.  My job title was Sales Representative, but in those early days we sold and then delivered what we sold.  This included selling directly off the truck, which did wonderful things: it quickly re-supplied the retail account, buyers could see exactly what they were getting, additional sales were generated by the impulse buying from the stock available on the truck.  Nurseries, even those of chain stores, had local management, who could make quick decisions on purchasing and ad programs.  This, unfortunately, was anathema to corporate buyers who think that everything must be centralized, controlled, and pre-planned.  This was the culture which was to follow the energy (and just plain common sense) of those early days.  I call the change B.C. (Before Corporate Domination) and A.D. (After Domination).  Today’s gardeners are all poorer for it.  Am I right?  Well, corporate domination has brought us more limited selection, importation of plant pests which did not exist when growing was more local, decreased motivation (and education) of nursery personnel, poorer care of plants in the retail setting, and so on.  I finally pulled the plug.  As Sales Manager 19 years later I held a meeting and fired myself.  But don’t cry for me.  For the ensuing 18 years I worked in adult education, which included the Green Gardener certification course, where many of my students went on to develop their own landscape businesses.

     Garden design and planting is an exhilarating task, and the garden may assume many different forms.  In the warmer zones, the garden may resemble a lush tropical paradise.  I remember visiting Cypress Gardens, Florida and wishing to replicate it (minus the flamingos) in my Southern California home when I lived there.  Palms, Cannas, Papyrus, Bouganvillea, Poinsettia, Ginger—add their special charm, especially when massed together in combination plantings. 

     The studied “naturalness” of the Japanese garden has been written of by many, including the writing and photography of the aforementioned Tatsuo Ishimoto (in The Art of the Japanese Garden).  It has a long history, going back more than ten centuries.  To the skills of horticulture it adds specific and unique design elements.  Its creativity includes the frequent conversion of an extremely limited space into one which creates the impression of an expansive natural area.  Excavation may be used to create valleys, hills, and islands.  Rocks are used extensively, both as accents and placed in rivers and ponds (either with water or with the use of sand and pebbles to simulate a water feature).  Lanterns and fountains are common, as are fences and gates (or living screens of Bamboo and hedge shrubbery).  Fences and hedges not only isolate the garden from the surrounding neighborhood, but divide the internal space to create the impression of increased depth by employing curiosity.  Breaking the garden into separated views, the skillful designer creates this feeling of spaciousness.  Fully grown trees and shrubs are frequently transplanted to provide a mature impression in a short period of time.  In Japan it is common to transport large trees, rocks, lanterns, and more over long distances to their final destinations.  It is considered well worth the effort and expense.  

     I have visited many public gardens, including Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C  Here the formal combination of shrubs, annuals, and perennials are a great source of inspiration.  Many fine historical examples exist in this country and abroad.  Considering all of these styles, I literally wanted to create them all.  My current garden (though too far north for tropical foliage) is what may be considered a combination design.  You really can (almost) have it all!

     Some gardeners are blessed (though they may not think so) by living in a forested or otherwise untamed area.  There are strategies for integrating garden design and planting using the wild surroundings as a frame.  Some employ the use of herbicides to clear areas for cultivation, despite their poor reputation.  The truth is that they start to break down almost immediately upon contact with the soil and are converted by soil bacteria into usable compounds. This is a more radical departure from traditional gardening, but rewarding in its own way.  Furthermore, the design possibilities are suggested by what nature has provided.

     Not to be overlooked is the topic of organic gardening, which is not only beneficial but labor saving.  Organic Gardening and Farming magazine was the reading material of my youth, and has been a source of information (and inspiration).  In addition J. I. and Robert Rodale, the magazine’s founder and editors, there is one other significant name: Ruth Stout, the prophetess of mulch, mulch, and more mulch, conserving soil moisture, re leasing nutrients, controlling weeds, and saving much additional work.  Her book, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back is still available today.  Organic methods have grown in popularity and proven effectiveness.  This includes fertilizer (“feeding the soil and not just the plant”) and non-chemical pest control.  This is now called integrated pest management, or IPM, and is an important part of the pesticide certification process.

     Nursery catalogs are pure inspiration, pointing the way to the expansion of the gardener’s planting choices.  I have not been able to part with several of them from many years ago, including a torn and dog-eared mail order catalog from the late, great Earl Ferris Nursery of Hampton, Iowa, which survived into its fourth generation.  Its last president and his wife finally went into retirement in the “A.D.” environment of the chain stores, but there are still nurseries out there who ship bare root plants to your doorstep.  Just look them up online.

     Another faded memory is the culture of Fuchsias.  Their popularity grew throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, but the 1980s invasion of the fuchsia mite was the death knell for  many of them.  The more disease-resistant varieties are still out there but are far more limited.  My Fuchsia collection these days consists of beautiful color pictures in several books, but they carry wonderful memories.  Among my possessions is a 5 year pin from the American Fuchsia Society, based (I believe) in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where I once had a membership to keep up on growing techniques and the old and new varieties cultivated by its members.  A name here: Victor Reiter, Jr., was a key developer of numerous popular varieties from the 1940s until, shall we say, the end.  I maintain a database of his Fuchsia varieties, mostly in memory of his work.  Many have vanished, but there are still growers out there who work to recover those cultivars of an early time.  Reiter was not only regarded for his Fuchsias alone.  When I visited him in his garden on Stanyan Street in San Francisco, I was greeted by a working garden of attractive and unique plant forms.  My current garden includes a Flowering Maple, or Abutillon, named for him (or as he named it, “Vie en Rose”, a delightful orange-pink) and Red Flowering Thyme, which is the closest I have been able to come to Reiter’s Thyme, with its compact form and deep rose flowers.  The Fuchsia cultivars are no longer with me.

     Visiting parks, botanic gardens, and nurseries is a singular pleasure.  For me it never gets old. I visited (and continue to visit) every retail nursery I can.  Their appeal is that the display constantly changes through the seasons.  New varieties appear, increasing my “vocabulary” of horticultural knowledge and providing suggestions for future planting.  If the nursery employees are knowledgeable and are dedicated gardeners themselves, I benefit from our conversation.  here is always something new to see and learn.  All of these, “man-made” though they may be, adds to the tapestry of the natural ecology.

     To sum up, the gardening life is far more than an individual pursuit.  I trust that I have made the case for its vital role in making our earth a better place.  Rest assured that you are not doing this for yourself alone—you are working for the planet, you are working to benefit God’s creation.  Gardeners can help to save the planet, and perhaps themselves as well.

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