Cultivating global green thumbs
- Published: January 26, 2012
For many, yard work can be a chore. For Nadia Malarkey, the care and cultivation of her backyard labyrinth of trees, vines and plants is perennially a joy. At their best, gardens can be places of respite, connection and, above all, environmental stewardship. But common landscape practices can damage trees, kill soil life and pollute waterways. So the local garden designer has teamed up with an arborist and two organic farmers to share the secrets to creating beautiful, biodiverse, carbon-neutral natural landscapes free of synthetic chemicals.
Over the next month, their free educational series on environmentally friendly landscaping will cover the principles of garden design, alternatives to lawns, soil care, tree maintenance and more.
It begins Jan. 30 with a talk on the “lowest layer” or foundation of a garden — healthy soil, compost and the carbon cycle — by Doug Christen of Smaller Footprint Farm and John DeWine of Flying Mouse Farms. Malarkey of Garden Design, will then speak on designing a “middle layer” of plants, shrubs and small trees to create unique ecological spaces on Feb. 13. Bob Moore of Green Canopy Group will discuss tree stewardship on a session on the “upper layer” of trees on Feb. 27. All presentations run from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Antioch University Midwest PNC Auditorium in Yellow Springs and are free of charge.
“The challenge today is how to restore the ecology in a way that’s still aesthetically pleasing,” said Malarkey, a professional garden designer of 16 years. “We can be a restorative force, not just destructive.”
The series grew out of discussions between Moore, a certified arborist, and Malarkey about today’s abysmal landscaping practices. Trees are planted too close to sidewalks and roads, leaving roots struggling for soil and buckling the surrounding concrete. People mulch too closely to tree trunks and use ground up tires that leach zinc into the soil. Plastic weed barriers disrupt water infiltration. Nurseries sell diseased trees. Trees are weakened when their tops are cut off to clear the way for power lines. Chemical pesticides and fertilizer kill microorganisms and worms in the soil. Amidst lawn monocultures, native bird and plant species lack habitats to thrive.
But by designing for the long-term health of trees, selecting the right species, replacing patches of grass, prioritizing maintenance, eschewing chemicals and emphasizing biodiversity, homeowners can be good stewards of their environment and community, Moore and Malarkey said.
“In our daily lives, it’s not possible to become carbon neutral because of our lifestyles,” Malarkey said. “Where you can have an impact is your backyard. It can help you become carbon negative,” she said, explaining how an oak tree, planted in the right place and maintained properly, can sequester carbon for 80 years.
But those who nurture large swaths of green lawn should not be ashamed. Lawns are not all bad, the horticulturalists assured.
“Lawns create a negative space, a juxtaposition,” Malarkey said. “It’s a calming space to the eye.” But there are 25 million acres of lawn in the U.S., higher than any other irrigated crop. So monoculture lawns should be balanced with biodiversity in order to support wildlife, she said.
“It’s more interesting if you at least rip some of [the lawn] out” for biodiversity, said DeWine, who has a PhD in ecology. But more important for the soil is how lawns are treated, he said. Lawns that are given compost and mulched by leaving the grass clippings in place can have good soil.
Most problematic are the practices used to maintain a “perfect” lawn — among them the frequent dousing of the land with chemical pesticides and fertilizers , some of which ends up in local waterways. About 90 million tons of pesticides and fertilizers are dumped on U.S. lawns every year, according to Malarkey.
Chemicals can also be harmful to the abundant life in the soil, DeWine said. He and Christen will talk about how the microorganisms, fungi and other living creatures in soil and the cycling of nutrients within the soil support healthy plant life.
Meanwhile, Moore will direct attention to the upper canopy of large trees. Of local concern is Yellow Springs’ mature canopy of trees, which if not properly maintained can fall on power lines and buildings during severe weather in what are known as “arborgeddon” events. Making sure that construction projects don’t damage roots, pruning trees while they’re young, planting the right species and not “topping” trees, which can weaken and kill them, are all strategies that will be explained during his talk.
Moore is a plant broker of 11 years who has delivered trees to TV’s Judge Judy and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. He will also share tips on buying plants and trees from nurseries and provide resource lists on the best local companies during his session.
Meanwhile, Malarkey will focus on the largely underused middle strata. Whereas lawns punctuated with large trees are the norm, the middle canopy can be used to support large amounts of wildlife. Birds are particularly vulnerable to loss of habitat, Malarkey said. About 200 of the 800 North American bird species are at risk, she said.
One contentious issue to be discussed during the series is the planting of non-native species. While it is important to provide refuge for natives and to avoid planting invasive species, non-natives can be good choices for local gardens, the horticulturalists said.
“If they are proven safe, non-natives are fine,” said DeWine, as long as invasives, which can take over an area and spread out of control, are avoided. After all, most food crops grown locally are non-native species, he said. Especially ravenous invasives in this area, such as honeysuckle, garlic mustard and euonymus, should be eradicated from lawns whenever possible.
There are other benefits to the environmentally friendly approach. It may help homeowners avoid long, strenuous hours of yard maintenance, according to DeWine, who said he believes that once perennial systems are established, they can take less maintenance than what is required to keep a lawn trimmed.
Designing and nurturing a garden can be an inspiring personal experience that feeds the soul, Malarkey added. She quoted British garden designer Russell Page as saying, “Green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart.” And caring for our yards can affect more than our own lives and our local ecosystem.
“This is a planet we all want to save,” Malarkey said. “Whether it’s organic, permaculture, native species … if everyone just takes care of their yard, we can make a difference.”
For more information, contact Malarkey at 937-767-8681.