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Changing Gardens During Challenging Times
by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

Recently I attended a number of different lectures and workshops all focused on specific important subjects, (i.e. sustainability). Combining that information with news of the economy and climate change I concluded that they are all interdependent. They each interact and have the potential to change how we design gardens. While the challenges are enumerable, gardeners and landscape designers can make a difference in their impact. This is a time that as Joseph P. Kennedy said “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”.

Garden elements respond to the times-like Victory Gardens during World War II. Today’s world has challenges our parents and grandparents never dreamed of. Who knew we would be tackling things like climate changes? Did anyone know that oil-a natural resource- would have the potential to turn our world up-side-down?

The economic challenge we face is enormous. Under the economic umbrella are three hard-hit basics: food, shelter, and jobs. Food continues to become more costly. Fuel issues may minimize our access to food. We have had food scares that cause us to worry about the safety of our food. Weather changes could reduce supply. Shelter has become an increasingly large problem. We have an uncertain housing market, prices are sliding, and foreclosures are increasing. People are uncertain about the future-with or without a job.

Climate changes are more noticeable. Warmer or colder weather, more severe or extreme weather affect our ability to predict weather accurately, thereby affecting agricultural productivity. Extreme weather also affects our energy resources.

Our resources are diminishing. Fresh water on every continent is becoming more valuable. The phenomenon of ‘peak oil’ is becoming more real. Trees, our ‘planet’s lungs’, are another retreating critical resource. We are challenged with maintaining biodiversity as we see species of flora and fauna become extinct and invasive species spread. The interaction and interdependency of all living things to their environment becomes more obvious and more precious.

As we experience job loss or increased workload, less income or just less money to spend, and more, our stress increases and affects personal health. It will be more important than ever to stay fit and eat nutritious food. We are challenged with keeping our lives balanced within what feels like the center of a tornado.

Despite all of these challenges, there is much we can do with gardens to counteract and minimize these problems. Opportunity is knocking on our garden gate. There are at least five ways to tackle our challenges within a garden.

Solution #1
To help maintain biodiversity, we can increase our use of native plants. The use of native plants will help establish wildlife habitat and decrease our need for additional resources, like water and fertilizer. Keep in mind that what is native today, may not succeed-in a world of global warming-tomorrow. How will climate change affect climate zones and the range of native habitat? Mother Nature has her own ideas about biodiversity, too. She is an expert at spreading seed via wind, plants, water, animals–you name it, and she uses it. Even without our input, diversity will change over time. We were not on the planet when dinosaurs disappeared. Although it would be impossible to keep nature static, we should try not to kill off other species, either. It is not necessary to have all native plants in a garden, but we should take responsibility for using non-invasives, when we use non-native plants. Another benefit to planting natives is to discover the native edibles that would enhance our food source, as well as that of wildlife.

Solution #2
You can have your cake and eat it too. The ornamental kitchen garden is not a new concept, but it has not been particularly wide-spread either. Now is the time for this type of garden to come into its own. What if the only place you had space or sun to grow edibles was a front yard? How would you make it beautiful all year long? Mixing ornamentals in the kitchen garden and edibles in the ornamental garden can be of great benefit to both, besides creating a beautiful garden. We need to balance the amount of food we grow with other plants to maintain a healthy diversity of plants, too. Ornamentals have the power to entice beneficial insects that will help eliminate pests and pollinate plants. Using biological controls also prevents the need to use synthetic pesticides and herbicides, minimizing the need for a depleting resource, oil. The same is true for using organic compost versus chemical fertilizers. The power of permaculture, or mimicking nature as a basis for growing crops, will inspire new ideas for our 21st century victory garden. It is a way in which we can all become more self-sufficient if food sources are unreliable, unavailable, or too expensive. An added benefit of growing our own food is improved nutrition. An equation to remember is: healthy soil=healthy plants=healthy us. Even the beauty we create in a garden feeds us – literally. It enhances beneficial chemistry within our bodies. If we can not have our own garden, the next best thing is supporting our local farmers and purchasing their organically-grown food.

Solution #3
Beyond what our gardens can do physiologically is what they do for us psychologically. Living proof of the phrase “gardens feed our souls” is the supportive environment of a healing garden that provides patients something beyond doctors’ capabilities. Just think what a garden can do for healthy people! A garden space with meaningful design includes spaces to maintain our calm and inspire us to create. A well-designed garden should create the desire for us to be IN the garden. There we have an opportunity to connect with nature and ourselves. Stay connected and stay fit by ‘working out’ and maintaining a garden.

Solution #4
While the term ‘sustainability’ still lacks a suitable definition, most of us grasp the concept: leave our planet in at least as good condition as we found it. Our ‘green dream’ includes things like collecting rainwater, managing stormwater on site, reducing our use of water and other natural resources, harnessing natural energy, composting waste, using organic methods and materials, and using tools that keep our environment healthy. In short, we need to responsibly renew, reuse, and recycle, It is a little like putting our planet on a detoxification program.

Solution #5
Being cooperative is a fifth solution to our challenges. One of the ways that has most impressed me is that even a gardener who cannot grow an abundant variety can create a co-op with neighbors who can grow the varieties they can not. Each will grow what they can grow best. Then they share the wealth. Community gardens are another great cooperative venture. Besides sharing the bounty, we can share our knowledge. Just being respectful of ones neighbor and their right to sunshine is a way to cooperate. Many of our fruits and vegetables need a minimal amount of sunshine to succeed. Sunshine is also the key ingredient if we want to garner solar power to our use. If we practice the cooperative effort of ‘respectful tidiness’, then we shouldn’t need fifty-foot tall evergreen hedges.

No matter what kind of challenges we face, there are always opportunities. We can choose to look at it as a glass half-empty or a glass half-full. I suspect that we will discover benefits to the adversity we face. I know that I will be rethinking garden design and will garden like my life depends on it.

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