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'Rooted in Place' Digs Deep

'Rooted in Place' Digs Deep

By Felix Carroll

Listen in to some of the great thinkers and doers in the world of ecology and gardening, and this is what you’ll hear: Our notions of beauty and responsibility are evolving (to say the least). Welcome to the great transition!

What’s this transition look like? In part:

  • Less green-toupee lawns and more native plants that serve multifaceted purposes beyond their own splendor.
  • Less emphasis on land conservation as a sole solution to saving the planet, and more attention paid to the possibilities for ecological redemption within the landscapes we’ve already abused.

Berkshire Botanical Garden held its 8th annual “Rooted in Place” ecological gardening symposium on Sunday, Nov. 13, with the theme "Seeding Community in the Garden." Amidst some grim realities, four speakers came equipped with time-tested prescriptions for what ails us.

+ + + Did you miss Rooted in Place this year? Not to worry! Recordings of the event are available  until Jan. 1, 2023. Simply register here. + + +

The daylong event, at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School in Lenox, Mass., drew a crowd of professional or otherwise serious gardeners and landscape designers from throughout the region. For many of them, neat and manicured monocultures have long fallen out of fashion. They consider themselves converts, swayed by the increasing cadre of native plant evangelists — most notably Doug Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home, The Living Landscape, The Nature of Oaks, and Nature’s Best Hope.

BBG volunteer Rosey Bonner of Stephentown, N.Y., said she came to the symposium having already mostly forsaken non-native plants whose demand for space and water come at the peril of the complex natural web required to sustain native plant and animal life.

The yearly symposium, she said, helps guide her own gardening. 

"I walked away not only with new ideas, but more importantly, inspired to look at gardening from new perspectives," she said. "I will definitely look at nature more as the force that should shape my gardens, rather than garden spaces that I manage and organize my plants to fit into my design."

Indeed, what she heard on Sunday was this: Arguably the most powerful, positive impact humans can make is within the developed landscape itself, said Annie White, an ecological landscape designer based in Stowe, Vt. In her talk, “Ecosystem Approaches to Landscape Design: Building Resiliency Through Community,” White noted that in Vermont, “we have over 800 lakes and ponds with 1,500 miles of shoreline. Over half of that is developed in a way that’s detrimental to water quality.”

She said, “There’s so much need for this type of ecological landscape design, and so much need right now to come in and restore the landscapes that we've already degraded.”

Restoration inevitably includes a reintroduction of native plants — nearly all of which are beautiful, require little or no upkeep and attract insect and/or bird species integral to a healthy ecosystem. 

“So much of what I'm doing is sharing information, sharing fun facts to get [property owners] excited, recommending books, recommending articles,” White said. “And for those of you who are not designers here but just home gardeners, you know that the more that you can do to increase your own knowledge is also going to help inform the decisions that you make on your own property.”

Noting Tallamy’s works, White said, “I think we have developed a much greater understanding of why native plants are so important, and the interactions and the broader ecosystems between native plants and our native insects and how it supports a whole food web.”

One “fun fact,” a tangible bit of information that can sway her lakeshore clients toward more thoughtful approaches to their property, is that 40 percent of freshwater fish protein comes from insects that have dropped into the water from native plants on the shoreline. 

Elijah Goodwin, deputy director of ecology at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Tarrytown, N.Y., noted how the United States uses its land. For instance, cropland comprises more than a fifth of the 48 contiguous states. Pasture and rangeland cover an area the size of most of the Western U.S. And combined, the country’s cities and towns cover an area about the size of the Northeast.

“There’s been a lot of bad news,” he said, referring to the human impact on the land. Noting a recent report from Cornell University’s “State of the Birds” report, he said, “We have lost three billion breeding birds since 1970. That’s a loss of one in every four birds in the U.S. and Canada. Pretty depressing statistic.

Moreover, he said that the World Wildlife Fund recently released a study that concluded wildlife populations have lost, on average, 70 percent of their population since 1970.

He added, “There are some clear studies out there that show insect diversity and abundance is declining drastically, and maybe even catastrophically.”

Setting aside land for conservation preservation “is absolutely wonderful,” he said, but that’s not enough. “We need to start rethinking how we do human landscapes,” he said. He shared successful practices underway at Stone Barns Center, including removing the use of herbicides and pesticides and establishing nesting habitat for native birds. 

Such practices, he said, always have a positive effect beyond just a single species. For instance?

“A family of tree swallows will eat 10,000 insects per day,” he said. “So we have livestock out on these fields, and fly pressure can be a huge factor on stress from the cattle and also can be a vector for disease transmittance. … We’re doing [the native birds] a favor, but they're doing us a big favor by keeping those flying insect populations down.”

He and other the speakers agreed that, whether in housing developments, large estates, golf courses, cemeteries, or the huge swaths of land beside our roads and highways, if we were to replace the common practice of manicured lawns with alternatives that utilize native plants and taller grasses, we could have a huge impact on biodiversity. 

That concept is near and dear to speakers Wambui Ippolito, a horticulturist and landscape designer based in New York City and Kenya, and Page Dickey, an author and garden designer based in Falls Village, Conn.

In her talk, “Growing in Weeds,” Ippolito condemned “the taming of nature” and “the insanity of control” through domineering and, at times, pompous landscape design. In contrast to her own childhood in the largely untamed land of northeastern Africa, she spoke of her own daughter’s upbringing in New York City. “She doesn’t know what it is to walk home in nature or to play in mud that has been there since time immemorial,” Ippolito said.

She noted the good intentions behind many public spaces in New York and beyond. “But where does it come from?” she asked. “It comes from the need to organize, the need to corral, the need to stop, to have a wall. But why?”

Dickey, in her talk, titled, “Bringing Meadows into the Garden,” agreed that our managed land, including our yards — however large or small — can and should serve as ecological opportunities. She advocated replacing manicured lawns with taller grasses and other plant life, particularly those that attract pollinators and native birds.

“We are so lucky in the Berkshires and in northwest Connecticut where I live to be surrounded by fields,” she said. “But I think most of us can admit that in our yards, we have too much lawn.”

She said, “I think what happens is, in a lot of urban and suburban areas, everybody does what their neighbor does. And then the person who doesn't mow and has a meadow is sometimes ostracized, but I think that's getting to be less and less so as people realize what life a wild patch of garden on their property brings.”

Thaddeus Thompson, the interim executive director of Berkshire Botanical Garden, closed the day by encouraging attendees to pay closer attention to the inner workings of nature.

“Some of what we have to do is just learn to be humble — to listen to what the land is telling us and nature wants, and to learn that it's not just about us,” he said. 

See our schedule of upcoming classes at Berkshire Botanical Garden.

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