The sight of flowers blooming, branches budding new leaves, and songbirds singing this season inspires many to take up a trowel and carve out their own outdoor oases, but despite the aesthetic appeal of greenery, green gardening practices don’t always go hand in hand with the vistas we’re used to viewing.
“I’ve become more aware of the environmental value of various plants and the destructiveness of others over time,” shares Sally Johnson, phoning from her tenth-of-an-acre yard she’s transformed to host more than 200 species of flora and fauna. She interrupts her train of thought every so often to describe the quarreling swans and geese she’s observing or a cardinal on the feeder. “Increasingly people want to do the right thing.”
A master gardener and founder of Ecoastal Design based in Riverside, Johnson performs site consultations with a focus on native plants, stormwater challenges, and climate change resiliency. “If they’re coming to me, it’s generally because they’re interested in increasing the environmental value of their property while maintaining something that’s also attractive to look at.” Her work extends to public spaces, too, like a project planting a native pollinator garden at Vintner Playground along the East Bay Bike Path, transforming an area infested with invasive species into a thriving (and beautiful) habitat.
Sustainable growing embodies a range of practices both simple and transformative, from the basic acts of not using chemical-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to re-landscaping lawns into native plant habitats. Heather Evans, a former marketing executive who launched the Dear Avant Gardener blog, shares a surprising fact: “5 percent of all of the pollution in the country, according to the EPA, is from lawn mowers” and other garden equipment.
Frustrated by the abundance of online advice promoting trends damaging to the environment, the Bristol resident channeled her research and writing skills into Dear Avant Gardener, offering guidance for rewilding yards and greenspaces.
“Ecological gardening is about establishing and managing a plant community that thrives naturally in an area and once established, it requires relatively little work and inputs,” says Evans, whereas traditional American horticulture stems from colonialism, when European settlers brought over ornamental species, but often to the detriment of wild, ecologically valuable species once abundant in the region.
Sowing the Seed
The movement toward prioritizing native plants naturally starts with the seeds. The RI Wild Plant Society recently launched their five-year ReSeeding Rhode Island plan to make wild seeds native to Ecoregion 59 (the Northeastern Coastal Zone encompassing our state) more available, though the work of harvesting native seeds has been culminating since 2010 when field botanist Hope Leeson coordinated RI Natural History Survey’s biodiversity effort Rhody Native.
“Genetically native plants are local to a specific ecoregion. The seeds of these plants are wild collected and contain the representative genes present in the wild populations of the region,” explains Leeson. “The first propagated generation of the collected seed is used for habitat restoration or diversification in order to maintain as much of that genetic diversity as possible.” The phenotypes expressed in these plants – such as physical traits and flowering times – ensure optimum adaptive potential and that other native organisms, such as pollinator bees, are able to interact with the new plants propagated from wild seeds.
The Rhody Native initiative created a local model for reintroducing genetically native plants in habitat restoration and garden diversification. “There is much more awareness now of the importance of native plants for ecological reasons, as well as an understanding of the value of genetically diverse seeds,” says Leeson.
URI Master Gardeners programming also leads with the broader ecosystem in mind. “Native plants serve as the basis of the food web,” says state program leader Vanessa Venturini. “There are countless examples of the interconnectedness of nature. By selecting species of plants that are native to our ecoregion, we can help improve the survival of the other living things around us.”
Beyond the Hedgerow
Sustainable landscaping isn’t just about native flora and home gardens; when it comes to city greenspaces, Providence-based Groundwork RI employs a many-pronged approach to equitable public spaces and creating job opportunities in the environmental services sector.
“The landscaping we do is not the usual ‘mow and blow’ lawn care people typically think of. It isn’t keeping a lawn perfectly manicured and green year-round to try and look like the English countryside,” says executive director Amelia Rose. Partnering with local experts in the field, they uplift practices like planting that fights erosion, keeping green infrastructure installations in good condition, stormwater management, incorporating native species, and low-input agriculture.
Through job training funded by EPA Brownfields Job Training Grant, Groundwork RI collaborates with other agencies to work with unemployed or underemployed adults, justice system-impacted workers, and anyone seeking new opportunities – and many who graduate from the program are hired by Groundwork RI to continue the work.
In the same way that eco-gardening supports insect life – which Evans of Dear Avant Gardener emphasizes is the basis of our terrestrial ecosystem – sustainably built environments serve as essential human habitats. “Creating and preserving green space is really an act of community-building,” says Rose. “It helps people feel glad to live in the community they’re in, creates places for people to gather and socialize, and to cool off in hot summer months.”
Echoing the rewards of rewilding, Evans shares that on an aesthetic level, the eye becomes attuned to the more authentic look of wild plants over time. “Abandon what you’re doing to force your yard to be perfect. Mow less. Leave leaves on your garden beds, stop using pesticides and fertilizer,” she says. “I think an important part of the aesthetic experience of an ecological landscape is that it’s alive; the buzzing bees, butterflies, and birds are all part of it.”
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