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What we can do: gardening to save half the earth

Creative habitat with native plant gardening

I once designed a landscape for clients who wanted their property to blend in with the oak and hickory forest surrounding them. They’d read an article in the local paper about my advocacy for native plant gardening and liked the idea. This was at the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, which is blessed with glorious native shrubs. We had a great time working with beautiful viburnums, vivid oakleaf hydrangeas, spicy bayberry, sweet-smelling clethra, native azaleas, and a lovely native rose.
 
A couple of years later, after listening to me give a talk on native plants, a woman who lived in the same neighborhood came up. She told me that her neighbors felt sorry for my clients, who had “spent all that money and ended up with something so wild looking.” A landscaper told me the same thing. He would drive prospective clients around to see what they preferred. He liked what I had done and kept hoping to find someone who agreed. They never did. Too wild, they would say, about the landscape pictured above.
 
So a new housing development carved out of a forest that began at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation 11,000 years ago ended up with house after house with the same design: lawn to the street with a kidney-shaped area of varying size containing one or two non-native trees. These were underplanted with a frill of non-native — and sometimes invasive — shrubs. Some would then box themselves in with a wall of unspeakably dull privet hedge. Though not invasive in the acidic soil of eastern Long Island, privet is taking over forests in many other states across the country.
 
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Photo by David Clode via Unsplash

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Photo by David Clode via Unsplash

I am not easily discouraged and, by and large, found the experience fascinating. I began to appreciate the theory that our landscape choices reflect our evolution on the savannas of East Africa. Deep in our consciousness, do we associate open grassland punctuated by small areas of trees and shrubs with safety? We can see our predators. So we are forever mowing down and hacking back the wilderness that we find threatening.
 
More immediate history has played a powerful role. After (and since) World War II there was a huge push to build houses and suburbanize farm fields and woods throughout the country. To soften the stark, boxy neighborhoods developers chose trees and shrubs for speedy growth, regardless of where they came from. Many of us grew up with a landscaping language that saw native plants as weeds. Native plant gardening was a laughable concept.
 
The archetypal post World War 2 suburb: Levittown, New York. Photo by Mark Mathosian via Flickr

The archetypal post-World War 2 suburban development: Levittown, New York. Photo by Mark Mathosian via Flickr

 
No more native hedgerows, filled with flowers and berries, birds and bees. Now hedges were all the same, uninteresting plants, shaved into a box. Rhododendrons, pulled out of the woods and marched along the fronts of houses, were then pruned so hard they never bloomed. Flat slabs of lawn became sacrosanct, lined with fast-growing birches and aggressive maples. When we wanted something unusual, or more colorful, we imported delicate red maples from the forests of Japan. Or dragged blue spruces out of the mountains of Colorado. When they didn’t prosper in the heat of our summers, we sprayed them with poisonous compounds. We got those from chemical companies that had flourished during the war and now needed new markets.
 
It didn’t take long for a landscape that grew out of a hodgepodge of interests to become the norm. So much so that a woman who tried growing vegetables in her front yard in Detroit was taken to court last year. There is no reason on earth to essentially pave our yards with mown grasses that can’t survive without excess water and chemicals. And yet we have so accustomed ourselves to it that it’s the law in certain places. It is, as the Zen masters say, a story we tell ourselves. And we can tell ourselves a different one.
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri, by Betsey Crawford

Cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri

And must. If we are going to save half the earth to protect the biodiversity that every creature on the planet depends on, we need to change our landscaping story. We need another language. Satellite images tell us that lawns cover over 40 million acres in the lower 48 states. Half of homeowners also garden, which means we have upwards of 65 million gardeners. Allow them each an average eighth of an acre and homeowners in the US alone control up to 50 million acres of land.
 
Activists and organizations, with good reason, tend to focus on projects like saving the vast Amazon basin. But it’s also vitally important that we preserve, create, and connect local habitat everywhere we can. Mercifully, as gardeners, we don’t need to deal with the competing interests of eight separate countries. Or 400 indigenous nations. Or corporations itching for access to petroleum, minerals, beef, or palm oil. We can grab a shovel, put some plants in the ground, and make an immediate difference.
 
But it depends on the plants we choose, and the reasons we choose them. If we are growing for biodiversity, we have a rich and rewarding path ahead. Butterflies, birds, bees, moths, and other beings will discover our gardens. But it’s not what we’re used to. It may not be tidy. It goes through seasonal transitions. It’s more unpredictable. You leave your leaf litter on the ground to foster nutrition and manage moisture. There are bugs, and they are so crucial we need to aim for more of them, happily living in the leaf litter. In other words, it’s wild, or should be. We can organize and tame it, shape the landscape, choose and place plants to create beauty. But our fellow creatures need us to embrace wildness, no matter how urban our environment.
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on the aptly named butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on the aptly named butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) in Osceola, Missouri

Birds and bugs have evolved over eons to adapt to the native plants they eat and nest in. And that’s what they need to survive. The monarch butterfly larva eats milkweed. That’s it. If there are no milkweeds, there will be no monarch butterflies or any of the other 11 species that specialize in milkweeds. Beautiful and fascinating plants, milkweeds’ lovely flowers turn into extraordinary seed pods. Once opened, thousands of silky threads float their attached seeds through the air. But milkweeds are not conventionally pretty. They’re a little wild looking. Those silky seed threads could land in the lawn! You would be hard pressed to find milkweeds in a nursery selling plants to the general public.

Creating habitat with native plant gardening:: common-milkweed-seedhead-asclepias-syriaca-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus) seed pod and seeds

If there are enough open meadows and wetlands, there will be enough milkweeds. But as we destroy more and more of those, it’s left to gardeners to keep milkweed available for monarch butterflies. After we build and pave our neighborhoods, it’s up to us to use native trees as street trees to support the hundreds of life forms they shelter. Instead, we use pear trees imported from Asia. They grow upright for many years, so don’t need a lot of pruning. They provide a profusion of white flowers when everyone is desperate for a sign of spring. They aren’t susceptible to being eaten by our insects, so harbor no life at all. From a highway department’s point of view, they’re perfect. From a biodiversity standpoint, they’re a disaster.
 
Plants produce toxins to protect themselves from too much predation. Over millions of years, local bugs have evolved enzymes to neutralize those toxins. When you introduce a plant that insects didn’t evolve with, they can’t eat those toxic leaves. This may seem like a win for gardeners and planners. But not feeding your insects means you’re not feeding birds, lizards, frogs, small mammals, fish. You’re not allowing butterfly larvae to mature. Insects that we depend on to break down plant and animal detritus — thereby returning nutrients to the soil all life depends on — die out. First flowers and then whole plants disappear because there are no pollinators. Naturalist E.O. Wilson calls insects “the little things that run the natural world.”
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a gorgon copper butterfly (Lycaena gorgon) on California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Gorgon copper butterfly (Lycaena gorgon) on California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

The idea of gardening for insects may seem alien in a world full of products to exterminate them. But nature has been at this way longer than we have. If insects consistently defoliated plants, there would be no photosynthesis, no plants, no animals, no us. The caterpillars munching your oak leaves are themselves likely to be eaten by birds or parasitized by wasps. If they make it past such hurdles, not much will get eaten before it’s time to spin their cocoons. Introduced aliens, like gypsy moths and Japanese beetles, can do a lot of damage because they have no natural predators. That’s the problem with all non-native species, animal and plant.
 
Over 5000 non-native plant species have taken over vast swathes of our natural world. It’s such a mess that in many places the only way to preserve the natural ecosystem is to first reclaim it. Eastern deciduous forests are being smothered by bittersweet and mile-a-minute vines. Autumn olive is choking Utah’s great river canyons. Wetlands are disappearing under the seductively pretty haze of lythrum’s magenta flowers. Some plants, like the melaleuca that is destroying Florida’s Everglades, were brought here to do what they did. Developers wanted to drain the swamp to contain mosquitos and allow building. A few invaders arrived by accident. Others, like the oats and annual grasses that have taken over the hills of California, were grown for fodder. The eucalyptus and pampas grass spreading along the west coast were among many, many plants brought here as novel ornamentals.

 

Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) feed exclusively on plants in the Aristolochia family, the pipevine plants. Not only have they evolved to deal with the toxins of this family, but by ingesting them they make themselves toxic to prey. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) feed exclusively on plants in the Aristolochia family, the pipevine plants. Not only have they evolved to deal with the toxins of this family, but by ingesting them they make themselves toxic to prey.

The same sad trajectory is true for plant diseases and insects. In British Columbia, I drove past mile upon mile of boreal forest destroyed to the horizon by an Asian beetle. We are losing our native ash trees to the accidental importation of emerald ash borer. An early casualty of imported plants was the complete destruction of the eastern chestnut in the nineteenth century. When the European chestnut came here it carried a fungus to which it was resistant. The native one was not.
 
It’s a very complex problem, made even more so by unpredictability. Lythrum became a garden stalwart in the mid-1800s. It bloomed in back yards for 100 years before it became invasive. We don’t know why some plants reach invader status after such a long time. It may be genetic. Plants and insects evolve over time. One genetic switch may bring a dramatic change.
 
Early on, no one foresaw the damage alien plants would do when they were free of the constraints that kept them in bounds in their native homes. But we know now, and know that we can’t predict which seemingly desirable aliens will turn into invaders. So we are faced with not only an ecological problem but also a moral one. In his excellent and heartfelt book, Bringing Nature Home, entomologist Doug Tallamy asks a thought-provoking question. We go to great lengths to quarantine and prohibit diseases that affect humans and farm animals. “Why are the native plants that sustain us and our native animals less worthy of protection?”
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening:: another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri

Possible answers bring us back to the stories we tell ourselves. The dream of the west, and now most of the world, has been dominion. The earth is ours to subdue. Humans, or at least a select subset of them, are the undisputed lords of creation. Other humans, animals, plants, minerals all exist for the benefit of those with money and power. This is the driving force behind the destruction of the Amazon rainforest today. A milder but still deadly version drives the landscaping trade. New and more exotic plants, more lethal insecticides, billions spent on millions of acres of grass two inches high.

 The alternate dream isn’t new. It’s the dream our human consciousness emerged from: the deep knowledge that we are intimately related to everything on earth. Literally related: we share 45% of our DNA with plants and 60% with fruit flies. We share with insects the same enzymes, muscle fibers, neurons. Our hearts and brains do pretty much the same things. Our digestive and reproductive pathways are similar. Insects communicate, form communities, and work together, as we do. With infinite care, evolution has woven a web of interdependent beings to create the lush and beautiful planet we live on. Yet we are severing those miraculous bonds with increasing rapidity. All because of stories we tell ourselves about what progress or prosperity or happiness or aesthetics should look like. When we grab our shovels and replant a place for the abundance of life we are re-tying our links to the diverse world around us. And we are changing those stories.
 
White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

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Treasuring bees, saving the world

Bees love tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) shown with a bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

The invitation came from Susan Friedman, whom I met on the weekend with Joanna Macy, and whose native plant gardens were part of Retaining Paradise. The Work that Reconnects workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in Oakland, a more or less rectangular open space created by combining the yards and gardens behind a collection of houses. During the weekend the bees swarmed, meaning that the queen, responding to pressures in the hive, led a large number of her subjects out to form a new one. For an afternoon, thousands of bees hung in a mass on a sturdy tree branch, while scouts went looking for new sites. In the meantime, a beekeeper on someone’s speed dial was called to put the swarm into a new hive box and take it to another farm. 

This extraordinary event led Susan, already thinking about having a hive on her property, to find a class on beekeeping. Though it had never occurred to me to do such a thing, when she asked me if I was interested I immediately wrote back, ‘Of course.’ So there we were, on a hot June Saturday, in a demonstration garden a couple of blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall. Our teacher, Mark, was an utterly engaging bee geek, who punctuated his opening talk with continual delight at the intricate, fascinating life of the bees he is clearly passionate about. 

Bees love prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas

Though I had no expectations about my fellow students beforehand, I was surprised at how young everyone else was, starting with Mark. We were a small group, but still, the idea that there are six young, urban professionals interested in spending a golden summer day learning about keeping bees was very heartening. Because keeping bees is, in it’s broadest sense, keeping the world. 

Bees were here with the dinosaurs. The relationship between bees and flowers is 130 million years old. Starting in the paleolithic era, cave drawings all over the world include scenes of figures climbing ladders to get honey, buzzed by a swarm of bees. People have written about their fascination with bees and the joys of honey ever since the alphabet was invented. But they may not survive the world we have created. And we may not survive without them. 

Bees love camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Mark took us through the basics of hive life: the development of the queen and her prodigious task of laying up to 2000 eggs a day. The myriad, unceasing tasks of the female workers who do all the work of the hive. They tend the queen, feed the young, forage for and store nectar and pollen, make honey, create wax, clean house, vibrate their wing muscles to regulate temperature. All lives are brief: queens can live for five years, though are considered productive for three. Workers live about a month and a half. The far fewer male drones, whose only job in life is to fertilize queens from other hives, die in this task or by being ejected from the hive at the end of the summer. So, to keep the hive going, new life needs to be constantly fostered.

Their work ethic is prodigious. One pound of honey means that 10,000 bees have flown 75,000 miles in short segments, visiting up to 8 million flowers. A good forager will have brought back a total of 1/4 teaspoon of nectar in the course of her life. She’ll also bring water, and pollen collected on her bristly hairs or in pouches on her legs. As she flies from flower to flower in search of nectar, she leaves some of her pollen load on the next flower she visits, and picks up more, performing the crucial task of pollination as she goes.

Beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower right are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae. You can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups at the bottom right are for drones. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Bees on a beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower leftt are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae, from which will emerge adult bees. At the top center, you can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups along the left hand frame are for drones.

The highlight of the class was donning bee suits and opening the hives. Bee boxes with portable wooden frames of comb long ago replaced the round, impenetrable beehives that meant bees had to be killed to harvest honey. We pulled out the hanging frames and watched the bees at work. Mark suggested dipping the end of a twig in the honey and holding it to the bees’ heads. The tiniest imaginable red tongues zipped out to lick it off. He showed us the queen, which he had marked with a green dot.

All this time the bees were very calm. We were well covered, though I was soon unconcernedly pulling my gloves on and off to take pictures. But after a while the bees began to buzz and fly more dramatically, the result of getting too warm on that hot day, and anxious about the well-being of their tribe. So we closed the boxes again.

Bees love wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

Our class was not about native bees. Beekeeping is devoted to the imported European honey bee, Apis mellifera, whose communal lifestyle and behavior make it a mobile pollinating force for agriculture, and a prolific source of honey. But all bee populations are excellent pollinators, some native ones far more so than the honey bee. All are losing ground dramatically. In the last 120 years, we’ve lost half of our native bee species. There is no one cause, and the problem, though far more acute now, was first noted in 1860. 

Even then, loss of habitat to growing urbanization and industrialization, along with widespread clearing for agriculture, were among the culprits. Since World War II, intensive farming has done away with the old hedgerows between fields, full of varieties of wildflowers and brambles. Vast fields of wind-pollinated grains have no flowers for bees to forage. Vegetable farmers largely harvest crops like lettuce and radishes before they flower and go to seed. That leaves fruit and nut trees, and vegetables that develop from the ovaries of flowers, like squash.

Bees love western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

But even in places where such crops are abundant, as in the Central Valley of California, bees are rapidly losing ground. When they don’t kill the bees directly, pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids introduced in the 1990s, damage their nervous systems, impairing their ability to navigate and forage, thus weakening the whole hive. Any loss of vitality leaves bees prey to mites and fungi that can devastate the colony.

Monoculture is another issue. The almond groves in the Central Valley bloom for three weeks. Before and after, if there are no native hedgerows, and no flowering ground covers, there’s nothing to keep the mostly non-colony-forming native bees in place. The honey beekeepers load their hives onto trucks and move them to the next crop, a potentially stressful lifestyle that may also be impacting those bees.

Bees love red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

What would life without bees be like? From a human perspective, we would lose most flowers, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, tea. Our diet would consist largely of grains and meat from animals that eat those grains. Without clover and alfalfa, the dairy industry would falter, and beef prices would skyrocket. We would have lettuce for salad while the seed supply lasts, but no cucumbers or tomatoes, and no oil or vinegar. No jam or jelly, no strawberry shortcake in June, no pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. No lemonade or orange juice. Our most nutritious vegetables — like broccoli, carrots, onions, kale — would be gone.

Cotton clothing would disappear. Our gardens would be green. No more fields of wildflowers. The 20% of flowers pollinated by butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds would still exist, but butterflies are also disappearing. All ecosystems would eventually diminish as bee-pollinated plants died off in alpine meadows, grasslands, forests, wetlands, deserts. The ability of these systems to regenerate soil, filter water and clean the air would be impaired, endangering more and more plants. Eventually, all living things could be under threat.

Bees love smooth aster (Aster laevis) taken at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Smooth aster (Aster laevis) at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin

Thus the loss of bees is far more than a human problem. Because of the threat to agriculture, farmers and scientists the world over have been working to figure out why we’re losing bees and what to do about it. But though the solutions are challenging, and the sudden collapse of colonies devastating, it isn’t hard to figure out why bees are struggling. We’ve produced a planet that is inhospitable to them. And, as I wrote when contemplating the loss of lichen to climate change, a world that’s inhospitable to our fellow inhabitants may soon be inhospitable to us. 

Instead of trying to harness the bee to our needs, we would do better catering to theirs. If we create a world where they can flourish, chances are far better that we will, too. Among the answers: organic farming and gardening. Bee friendly hedgerows dividing farm fields and native flowering groundcovers among crops. Regenerative agriculture. Sustainable development. Preservation and restoration of habitat. Gardening with natives — the plants native bees evolved with — like the bee-loved flowers accompanying this post. This is the quilting together of restored habitat I wrote about in Retaining Paradise

Bees love strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado. There is a bee dedicated to pollinating cactus flowers.

In the end, it all depends on how we think about these things. We can choose to look at the world from a bee’s point of view, or a forest’s, or a river’s. Or from the perspective of an intact ecosystem. By and large, our culture and economy don’t support this way of seeing. We contemplate a meadow that took 4.5 billion years to evolve and see it as a potential shopping mall. We see driveways and houses and swimming pools. As understandable as this view might be, given our culture, and to some extent our needs, it’s destroying the world we depend on.

Without bees, flowers may never have evolved. Without flowers, and their nutritious fruits, we may never have evolved. We share over a third of our genes with bees. Our connections with our fellow beings, as with the planet we all arose from, are profound. What if instead of seeing bees as merely useful, or fascinating, or in the way, we could see them as kin? With such a shift in vision, gardening, farming, and habitat restoration become ways to foster the vitality of our cousins as well as ourselves. We become a vast extended family — flowers, fruits, bees, soil, water, humans — weaving the fabric of life together.

Bees love blue wild iris (Iris missouriensis) taken in Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Wild iris (Iris missouriensis) in Monticello, Utah

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