Bad Environmentalist?

Last weekend, I did something I thought I never would.

the mess I made with a chainsaw

I cut down a tree. What kind of environmentalist am I?! Have I been living a lie?

Old me surely would have thought so. Last year, however, I stumbled upon Doug Tallamy’s latest book, Nature’s Best Hope.

Because apparently I deleted the picture off my icloud, and I don’t want to take another

This book had me all like:

mind: blown

the entirety of my read.

Hear me out, this isn’t the environmental talk you expect

Don’t click over to find your various mind-numbing internet aggregate of choice just yet. I’ll try not to bore ya to tears while talking about the environment. First thing first–this book isn’t 225 pages of more of the guilt tripping, anxiety breeding version of environmental discussion we’ve been force fed since The Inconvenient Truth was presented to the masses in 2006. It’s not all that “If you used less of the plastic that the products you need ONLY come in, this wouldn’t be such a problem” nonsense that corporations spew so they won’t have to take responsibility for being amongst the 100 companies that create 71% of global emissions. It’s not telling you to stop doing something convenient without feeling any reward or seeing a needle move in a single direction.

Here’s a pic of me and Tobias. He didn’t do anything to help cut the tree down, but Elvis saw him taking the above pic of me and wanted to take some of his own. Tobias is older and more private, so I share about him on the internet far less than I used to, but this pic is definitely a recent favorite of us together.

Make a notable impact on the environment, and see the fruits of your labor quickly

This isn’t clickbait! This is gardening. But before you rush over to Home Depot and scour their gardening section, there’s more intention involved.

Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart–those big box stores do sell plants. Beautiful ones that your neighbors have that bloom for a show-stopping season. However, what I’ve learned, and what I’m sharing with you, is that not all plants are created equal. Most of those showy, low-cost plants are species that evolved in Asia, Europe, or South America. That doesn’t sound too bad–until you understand that a plant that evolved on a different continent cannot support the bugs, birds and various wildlife that evolved in the area that you reside. You see, while a bush of non-native origin could support five or ten species of bugs, a native equivalent could support five HUNDRED species of bugs.

  • The first trick is that you’ve got to plant native species of flowers, trees and shrubs in your garden.

“But bugs are gross”

Look, I get it. Some folks just aren’t into the creepy crawlies. But bugs are vital to our ecosystem. When bugs disappear, from lack of host plants (like I mentioned above) or pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use, other species go along with them. That’s precisely what has happened to birds in North America--nearly 3 billion birds have disappeared since 1970. That two-thirds of birds are now endangered species is partially due to climate change, but it’s also due to bugs, especially caterpillars, disappearing. Birds feed their nestlings thousands of caterpillars a week, not bird seeds.

  • Don’t use pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers

If you’re wondering how you’re going to maintain your envy-inviting perfect suburban turf grass…

You’re not. The goal is to shrink your lawn as much as you can and replace that turf grass with native plants, native grasses, native oaks, willows, and cherry trees that support abundant insect life.

  • Reduce the size of your lawn

Where does the tree come in?

To make room for native plants that benefit the ecology, you have to make space. This doesn’t mean you need to tear out all of the plants previous owners put in or take a chainsaw to it all. Invasive plants should all be removed, which differ depending on the area in which you live. Invasive plant species crowd out other species and take over natural spaces by reseeding our having sprawling leaves that block sunshine from other plants.

The chestnut tree I cut down wasn’t invasive, but it also wasn’t native and was creating a ton of shade in my streamside garden, where I plan to grow an ecological oasis. The lack of sun because of the chestnut was limiting, so it had to go. I’ve already planted a sweet pepperbush that the bees love in its place.

  • Remove invasive plants and non-native species to make room for native plants to thrive

Why planting native is the simplest impactful thing you can do to improve the environment

I’ve given you the down-low about bugs. Improving the ecology to repair the food chain is vital. But the environmental benefits don’t end at the ecological level. Since my love for bird watching led me to learn about native gardening (did I mention I purchased the book that inspired all of this from my local bird seed store?) I’ve been looped in to more information about ecology improvement through various Facebook groups, like Pollinator Friendly Yards, Native and Pollinator Friendly Plants of the Northeast, and Connecticut Native Plants.

It was through one of those resources that I learned about the Netflix documentary, Kiss the Ground. I’m not a TV or movie gal, my ADHD doesn’t like sitting for a long time and consuming media that way. I’m a book gal–I can read faster to keep myself engaged, but I can’t make a movie plot move more quickly. Regardless, over several attempts, I did get through the film and it was enlightening. It spoke more about creating an environmental impact on a global scale through soil management, and explained that deeper root systems allow for plants to absorb more carbon– a process called carbon sequestration that reduces carbon in our environment. The film was focusing on changing farming processes, but I also knew from my research that generally native plants have deeper root systems than non-natives, and far(!!) deeper root systems than turf grass.

Root systems of native plants
Invasive plants vs native plant root systems

In addition to reducing carbon in the atmosphere (which, we know is what causes global warming), root systems also influence the diversity of worms and microorganisms in the soil. The more diversity of microbes in the soil, the more rich it is and the better plants will grow in it.

Native planting improves the ecology and biodiversity above ground, from bugs to birds to mammals, it increases the microbes in the soil, thus enriching it, and encourages carbon sequestration, which will reduce climate change.

All you have to do is add more plants to your garden, or make room for natives to arrive through natural seeding processes. Even if you’re not a homeowner, you can add more plants pollinators love to your front stoop and petition the space you live to add more natives to communal outdoor areas.

It’s not easy, but it’s simple. I look at this picture and see the invasive plants I’ve learned and how I’m still surrounded by them. But I’ll be chipping away at the invasives on my property, encouraging others to do the same, and next up will be reaching out to local government to rid our open spaces and medians of these ecology killers.

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