Roots and Shoots: New Year’s Resolutions

Dandelions in December 

For much of the recent season, it’s felt I’ve returned to living in the Pacific Northwest and its entirely different climate. Grey and drizzly, damp and chilly – I could be in Seattle. 

The dislocation of unfamiliar weather brought up similar responses in my landscape. Blooming dandelions in the lawn, yellow pops of color on the forsythia, and parsley in a pot on the patio was happily green and growing until this week. 

Dandelions blooming in December

Dandelions blooming in December and signs of global weirding (Photo by P. Doan)

“Global weirding” is a phrase used frequently by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. She uses it to describe all the changes we notice and the extreme weather upending lives around the world. In her recent book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, she lays out her case for not giving up on lowering global emissions because we still have time before we tip into the worst-case scenarios. I’m with her in my heart but not always in my mind when facing down news headlines, as are many people. 

During a walk in the woods, frozen soil crunched under my boots. Soil saturated with rain and then frozen overnight from a 30-degree drop in temperature covered the bare areas of the path with icy crystals of dirt. The day after, it was soggy and muddy. Noticing just the simple interactions that surround us, there’s a lot of global weirding on display. 

Do we need resolutions this year? Personally I’m feeling like the ongoing grind of the pandemic and urgency over the climate crisis overwhelm any single efforts at self-improvement or goals to grow more flavorful tomatoes. It’s time to think bigger and more selflessly. What can I do? What can you do? Now, tomorrow, the day after that? Gardeners gotta garden, so let’s start there. 

This year garden with a simple mantra and be kind to your landscape. Kindness in the garden means thinking about what the garden needs and how it will thrive as an ecosystem. It doesn’t mean sacrificing your favorite ornamental plants or getting rid of your lawn (but it could if you’re ready). 

For example, if your landscape includes a lot of ornamental plantings and lawn, it doesn’t have much to offer a butterfly or a bird. Ornamental plants are there for show, not function. Even if they are well-adapted to our growing conditions, they are out of their native habitat and don’t benefit flora and fauna here in the Hudson Valley. 

Some examples of common ornamental plantings include forsythia, boxwood, most lilies, most hydrangea, hybrid species in general and most of the annuals that proliferate at garden centers in spring. We fall back on quick pops of color and hope for reliability when the deer don’t eat something. All of that is interesting and completely fine when in combination with other plants and shrubs that contribute more than beauty. 

Consider dedicating an area of the landscape to native plants that are both food sources and habitat for insects that pollinate plants. This includes bees, butterflies, moths and beetles, among others. They show up pretty quickly when there’s something for them and I love nothing better than a flower that attracts an interesting variety of visitors. What to plant depends on sun, soil and water. 

Organic approaches are a major part of being kind. Synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have far-reaching effects when misapplied and used instead of building soil health and alternative methods of insect and weed control. Chemical fertilizer use is higher in residential lawns than in agriculture, contributing to water pollution and harmful algae blooms. 

Younger people won’t even remember what a car windshield looked like after a road trip, covered in smashed bugs. Insect populations have declined sharply worldwide by all counts due to pesticide use and development. Instead of poisonous weed killers, try techniques like smothering, cutting and planting densely. 

If you’re not sure if your impulse to buy a certain plant or pursue a direction in the landscape improves upon the landscape in an ecological way, check out local resources like the Pollinator Pathway group and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Classes offered by local libraries, nonprofit groups and other gardeners can reveal other possibilities. I prioritize information from sources that are based on scientific research. For an online search, this means sites that end with .org or .edu. 

Let kindness grow in 2022.

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