In my 18 years of designing gardens and landscapes, these are some of the most important things that I have learned:
- Make as few changes and long-term plant choices as possible before spending at least a year getting to know the existing space and plant community. So many possibilities are lost because we hurry to do the work that feels urgent to us on our personal timelines.
- If you are transitioning from an existing perennial ecosystem to a different perennial ecosystem, plant annuals in the space for one or two years as a transitional buffer so the established species don’t resurge and overwhelm the new ones. This approach minimizes the need for heavy labour or fossil fuel powered disruption and for extraction or transportation of soils and other materials.
- If you are transitioning from bare soil or a low diversity system (turf, monoculture etc.) to a complex, perennial system, plant a mix of annual species for at least a year to help revive the soil biology before planting the perennials.
- For both of the previous points, arborist wood chips, or some other form of organic matter that is usually considered waste, is your friend. A nice thick layer of coarse, carbon rich material will kick start the fungi growth that builds soil carbon and improves both water-holding capacity and drainage. Lay it down in the fall, if possible, and plant the annuals right through it next spring.
- Start with native species. There are so many more than you might expect based on what you are likely to encounter in a stroll through a garden center or a perusal of seed catalogues. There is a very high likelihood that there is a native species that will suit the space you are working with, meeting both your needs and the needs of other species that also have a right to thrive in that space. A lot of defaulting to European and Asian species is nothing more than cultural momentum.
- Include species that feed humans. We need to eat. We can either have that need met by a complex system that we can help to tend, cycle organic matter back to and respond to by adjusting our seasonal consumption, or we can have that need met through a food system that has become distressingly fragile and exploitative of humans, animals, ecosystems and soils. -This is where non-native species often have the best reasons for being incorporated into your local ecosystem.
- Accept that some plans won’t have expected outcomes. Some species that seem like appropriate choices at first will end up not thriving in some settings without a level of intervention that is harmful to the ecosystem. If something simply isn’t suited to the space, look for alternative ways to get your underlying need met.
- Be flexible but plan for the long term. Check climate forecasts for your area and consider the lifespan of the species you are planting and their capacity to survive, or thrive, in the high and low temperature ranges, or changing rain patterns, that are expected in the coming years and decades. There is lots we don’t know about future growing conditions, but we can include the bits that we do know in our decision making.
The Micro-Nursery Project
Or: Justifying buying all the seeds by making locally native plants more accessible to more gardeners with a minimal ecological footprint.
~~~- I hosted a live Q &A related to this blog on January 22, 2021. The recording can be found at the end of this post.~~~
Beyond the excuse of growing all the plants, there really is a bigger issue that I’m picking away at with this project.
As a lot of people who decide to plant a pollinator garden find out, sourcing native plants often feels more like a scavenger hunt than a typical shopping trip. Leads about where different species can be found are often shared in social media groups. Directions include things like ‘You can find the [as in just one] rack of native plants in the corner with the vegetable starts’ or, ‘These three species of native shrubs can be found at this garden center and this other one got a tray of trilliums today but they are selling out fast!’ and then there is the whole ‘cultivar’ and ‘native to where’ rabbit hole.
Given how many plants are sold every year in this city, it shouldn’t be this hard to find species native to this province.
And, if you dig even deeper, questions about how were they grown (heated greenhouse? pesticides? concentrated fertilizers?) where were they grown (shipping?), where the seeds came from, where the plastic pots and tags will end up etc. start to come up.
All of which makes trying to take care of pollinators a considerably more fraught undertaking than it seemed at the start.
All this, along with conversations with others working on the issue of local native plant availability, led me to ask: How much can I reduce the ecological footprint of growing plants while also making native plants accessible to as many people as possible?
I’m also fairly strongly of the opinion that saving the world should be a feasible day job so part of this is about whether a micro-nursery can be financially sustainable as a part time or add-on activity.
I don’t have the answers to everything, but this is what I did in the first year
A question to ask when choosing plants in a heating climate.
Summers are getting hotter. As I’m writing this, BC and Alberta are experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, with actual temperature readings in the upper 40s. This spring in Ottawa, Ontario included temperatures in the mid 20s before the middle of April.
This is a trend that we’ll be living with for some time to come.
Trees planted now, if they can withstand the coming heating and extreme weather, will be experiencing this trend for far longer than you or I will.
How can we help improve the chances that the trees we plant will be around for decades to come?
I recently gave a talk on shifting from cold thinking to warm thinking when it comes to how we approach systemic challenges, especially from a climate and ecosystem perspective.
I also talked about moving from a model where western science extracts Indigenous knowledge in an effort to find solutions to one where the accumulated information from western science is brought into Indigenous relationship systems.
I'm pretty happy with how it came together.
The PDF of my presentation, which includes click-able links, can be downloaded here: