What is the point of gardening in support of pollinators, birds and wildlife habitat, when the natural world is on the verge of becoming strange and unfamiliar, if not unlivable, to so many species?
Climate change is the most serious problem of our time. Its consequences will dwarf the impact of our current economic troubles. Oddly, the crisis feels sort of remote, so one popular approach to the subject is to just not think about it. In the face of frightening evidence to the contrary, many in this country have chosen to believe those who say, “Relax. It’s no big deal.” The number of respondents in a nationwide poll who think climate change is a serious problem has fallen from 77 to 65 percent, in the last four years.
Some believe, as the US Chamber of Commerce recently claimed, that there’s no need to worry anyway, because populations can adjust to warmer climates via a range of “behavioral, physiological and technological adaptations.” No problem! We could make those pesky, heat-trapping atmospheric carbon dioxide molecules spiral off the planet by shooting laser beams and radio waves at them. We could add more reflective pollution to the atmosphere by spraying clouds with saltwater, or by flying jets with old-fashioned, sulfur-laden fuel. Or maybe should just soak up more CO2 by fertilizing the oceans with iron particles to increase plankton growth, or by inventing some really really fast-growing trees. These ideas, amazingly, are actual solutions proposed by serious scientists.
Alternately, some people accept that climate change is happening, and maybe even believe that it’s serious, but they’ve concluded there’s nothing they can do to slow or stop it. They feel that the only solutions now will have to come from government or industry.
I don’t buy these any of arguments. Even apart from the 40-degree January days we’re currently experiencing in western Massachusetts, record high temperatures and catastrophic weather events in the decade just past would be evidence enough for me. Even if we privileged Americans can adapt via whacky and expensive solutions (more air-conditioning, yay!), what about the millions of people, and thousands of other species, who don’t have that option? Even if it’s true that we need big solutions and dramatic policy shifts from our governments, it is also true and that we can do many things ourselves to help make a difference.
Are you saying: “Yeah, yeah, support renewable energy, buy efficient appliances, insulate my attic, shrink my carbon footprint, duh, I get it, and I’m already doing everything I can. And anyway, why are we talking about climate change in this garden blog?”
I’m completely in favor of sustaining wildlife, conserving water, reducing lawn, boosting soil quality, growing local food, etc. After all, these efforts have been a major part of my work for the last 25 years. But they are all starting to seem like pretty small potatoes, compared to the really big job of dealing with climate change. Sustainable gardening and landscape design, as they are currently practiced, don’t do enough to help solve the coming crisis. We who claim to work in support of the natural world should be doing more. We should be putting tremendous effort toward reducing atmospheric CO2. How?
We should intentionally design all gardens and grounds so that they – and we who create, maintain and inhabit them – consume less energy.
Now, I need to say right at the start, I’m not talking about just shading a house in summer and deflecting cold winds in winter. No. Those are fine ideas, but there are hundreds of other things we can do to save energy in our landscapes (a few of these are listed in my recent post “Peak Oil Landscape Design“). Actually, garden-book author Ken Druse claimed in a recent interview that Energy-Wise Landscape Design presents thousands, not hundreds, of actions we could take.
So, I repeat, if our concern is to care for the natural world, our real task right now should be simply to focus our attention on saving energy as the most important consideration in every garden and landscape decision we make.
It’s really very simple. We can create landscapes that increase energy savings in a building, and we can create landscapes that consume less energy in themselves, apart from any building. Here are 10 easy, energy-wise ideas:
1. When planting trees, start with smaller ones. They’ve been grown for a shorter time in the energy-intensive nursery setting, and they’ll likely survive better than larger trees, minimizing further energy expenses to care for (or possibly replace) them.
2. Remember that the south and southwest yards in most landscapes are often the hottest spaces (unless they’re shaded by trees or other buildings), and realize that lawn grass is hotter than any other kind of ground cover. So, to help cool the house, minimize lawn directly outside south walls.
3. Instead of buying bagged mulch, which is packaged in plastic bags made from petroleum, and which is transported to your garden center and then your property by burning fossil fuels, buy only local materials, or make your own mulch. Or use less mulch by converting a part of the property into a woodland grove, where you can just let fallen leaves stay where they fall (and if you position the grove properly, it might also help cool your house or patio).
4. Provide shade over paved surfaces that receive a lot of sunlight, and try to design and build these hard surfaces so they’re pervious, so rain can soak in and help cool the ground (in addition to recharging groundwater).
5. Design an entirely lawn-free landscape; reduce (or stop?) all mowing.
6. If you can’t do without lawn, at least allow a portion of every property to become a semi-wild “conservation patch,” where nature provides most of the maintenance energy.
7. Design every major component of a landscape to serve multiple purposes, to get the most benefit from every investment in materials, energy and effort. Build things to endure for decades or generations, to minimize the energy later needed to repair or replace them.
8. Make hard-surface areas as small as possible, because all paving products are manufactured with huge energy-inputs. And design these spaces to fit the site with minimal earth-moving.
9. When working to conserve water or creatively manage storm-water, remember that half of all the water we use each year is consumed by thermoelectric power plants to generate electricity. So reducing your demand for electricity will have an even bigger impact than simply harvesting rain or switching to drip irrigation.
10. Think about the whole landscape as a system for saving energy. If you advise others about what to do in their gardens, emphasize the energy-saving benefits of your recommendations, to raise awareness.
These are just a few ways to create landscapes and gardens that will save energy while also being beautiful and teeming with wildlife. We who call ourselves sustainable, environmental and ecological gardeners and designers, we are the ones who should be leading the way in this movement. We should be choosing energy-saving actions in all our work. We should be showing our friends, neighbors and clients how to do it.
Admittedly, compared to the colossal scale of the climate crisis, these efforts might still seem like small potatoes. But just because we can’t solve the whole problem is no excuse for not doing anything at all. And just because climate change is already upon us is no reason not to work toward minimizing it in the future. So I wonder: if we don’t actively focus on energy conservation in our landscapes, are we like those cheerful musicians who fiddled an elegant tune while the Titanic tilted into the sea?
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