Roots and Shoots: What We See

Joe pye weed makes lovely shadows and patterns in the snow. (Photo by P. Doan)

Staring out my dining room window at the 7-foot tall brown stalks of Joe pye weed where the birds hang out next to the feeder, I wonder about all the ways people interpret this view and activity.

What I see is a native plant in a working landscape serving a purpose in every season.

Someone else will see a dead plant that should have been cut down after it bloomed. Another person will see birds making a mess on the patio. Yet another will see a weed disrupting the lawn.

Our way of seeing the landscape around us influences what we plant, what we call “beautiful” and ultimately the ecosystems that thrive and survive as the climate emergency becomes more urgent.

On that note, here are some ways that my way of seeing was represented in Roots and Shoots in 2019.

Most frequently asked question

Readers whom I spoke with or who emailed about issues had the most questions related to lawn care. The questions covered the gamut of weed management to fertilizers and bare patches. While we plant acres of grass, we don’t know much about it.

Lawn care starts with healthy soil and a species of turfgrass well-adapted to the site conditions. Studies repeatedly show that more chemical fertilizers are used on residential lawns than on commercial agriculture and water pollution is the result. Algal blooms make headlines around the country as increased nutrient pollution comes from the phosphorus and nitrogen we put on our lawns and fields.

Feathery milkweed seeds leftover from summer blooms are graceful in winter. (Photo P. Doan)

Most discussed topic

Climate change and what gardeners can do it about it has usually been the underlying theme of these columns from the first printing nearly 6 years ago. My conviction that our personal landscape choices make a difference in the climate emergency has only grown stronger as more studies demonstrate the connections.

While there’s no doubt that urgent large-scale action is necessary, there’s a whole movement about using our yards as havens for pollinators, birds and wildlife. The three main takeaways here are to stop using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides; work with native plants to support ecosystems and wildlife; and reduce your carbon footprint by using electric tools.

Top 5 Things to Do in Your Yard in 2020
  • Create a pollinator island of native plants that bloom in spring, summer, and fall.
  • Reduce your lawn by 20 percent.
  • Make a rain garden to hold storm water on your property and reduce run-off.
  • Plant a tree.
  • Make a compost pile for your kitchen scraps and other organic waste to use as a natural fertilizer on your garden.

Most important resource to respect

Water — when, where, how much — will define our experience of the increasing climate threat. In a purely provincial sense, even though New York’s weather predictions within climate change show increased precipitation, it’s coming in more extreme forms, like heavier downpours, and less frequently, meaning that drought periods are more frequent and longer.

Designing landscapes for greater water retention and less runoff can replenish the groundwater table and build community resilience against both flooding and water shortages. Successful gardening practices will be less water reliant, drought-tolerant and rely on plants that can handle extremes of both temperature and precipitation.

Most misunderstood resource

Soil. It’s not just the dirt beneath your feet but a living, breathing, nutrition and mineral filled, carbon-capturing, ecosystem that supports all plant life which supports all human life. We’re losing our top soil, which took hundreds of years to form, 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished. A single rainstorm can wash away a millimeter of bare soil. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up quickly, especially for a farmer.

We can protect and improve soil through plant choice and practices like mulching. Plants can actually build up soil health through their root systems and during decomposition.

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