Noah’s Garden

Sara Stein and her husband moved into a property that most realtors would describe as “having enormous potential for improvement” and proceeded to “improve” it, clearing brush, mowing, and doing the things that most of us do when we garden. After a few years, they noticed that the quail and pheasants were gone. So was most of the other wildlife. And in time they realized that they were the cause of these disappearances. They had taken away the homes and protective cover of the small creatures.

Noah’s Garden is the narrative of the author’s work to restore her 5-acre lot in upstate New York to something resembling native vegetation. It turns out that restoring a habitat involves a lot more than just planting some native species and calling it good. Habitats are interactive systems, and having the right native species for the area in the right numbers and the right combinations are all important.

In this small book, Sara Stein tells how to preserve enough of nature to keep some of its wonders alive. Noah’s Garden is not a scolding rebuke against “foreign” plants in the landscape, nor against any particular type of landscaping at all; though she does enlighten the reader with an insightful critique of why the typical suburban “blandscape” is so hostile to wildlife, pointing out that sprawling suburban landscapes have been enormously destructive to native habitats as they are displaced by the monocultures of lawn and easy-care shrubs and trees.

The good news in Stein’s book is that she believes that the suburbs and native habitats can co-exist, and lays out some plans for them to do so.

This book may well change the view from your patio. Stein writes convincingly of the necessity of good stewardship of the land stolen from prairies and forests to make our backyards. She documents her own journey from being a conventional American gardener to a naturalist, ecologist and native-habitat restorer. Along the way, there are lessons to learn. Here’s one of them:

“How much water does it take to quench a butterfly’s thirst? Give a dove a bath? Provide a laying place for toads? No more than a puddle.” But where are the puddles? Where are the dirt roads that you splashed in during your youth? Probably paved over with excellent drainage. The sad truth is that we’ve improved away our toads, doves and butterflies. (And when is the last time you worried about running barefoot in the backyard because of all the honey bees on the clover?)

Restoring natural habitat requires that we learn from nature. The value of this book is that the author provides some of that education with a good bit of humor and a bunch personal experience. Read the book and, when you are finished, dig into Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home for even more ideas on how to make your space on our planet a better place for all God’s creatures.

Rambunctious Garden

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Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

According to author Emma Marris, rambunctious gardening is proactive and optimistic; it creates more and more nature as it goes, rather than just building walls around the nature we have left. In this precocious look at our role in the natural world (past, present, and future) Marris walks a thin line between debunking (or at least rationally considering) the various approaches to “saving nature” and advocating for a more thoughtful approach. Using wide-ranging examples the author describes an increasing awareness in the field of ecology that the traditional goals of conservation are not only unachievable globally but also too narrow. She defines those goals as largely focusing on preserving pristine wildernesses by turning back the clock on them to an arbitrary “baseline” date before modern civilization and “non-native” species, arrived.

Marris’ argues for a more adult and more hopeful view. She argues that the whole notion of “pristine wilderness” is really untenable in practice since humans have always altered the ecosystems around them and that nature is everywhere, constantly in flux. She makes this argument by describing visits to several leading-edge conservation projects and honestly analyzing their goals and likely outcomes. While she admires the motivation and efforts of some of the best-known environmental activists, she objects to their hard-line public approach to conservation and argues for a more nuanced approach — one that does not assume that all human influence on the planet is bad. In the author’s view, the “all or nothing” approach of those who want to revert to a more pristine world only sets us up for a lifetime of mourning what has been lost (and likely cannot be regained).

Instead, the author prefers to adopt a mindset that considers the gardener a net plus in our own ecosystems. As a gardener, you are increasing the diversity of plant species on your property. If you work at it, the soil ends up more nutritious and rich than when you began. You can also garden for many different goals: to support wildlife, to increase the diversity of your property, or to give precedence to natives over exotics.

Gardeners are on the front lines of this battle. There are people who want exotics and people who don’t. That’s not to say that some plants aren’t real headaches—even “invasive”. But nature will generally sort itself out, though in some places gardeners will need to work harder than in others. But putting it back the way it was is largely a futile quest. Better to understand that change over time is always part of the equation and do what we can to move that change in a positive, more hopeful direction.

This is not a ‘how to’ book. It won’t necessarily help you get exactly the ‘look’ you are going for in that new bed you are digging for next year. But it will give you a better idea how you fit into the created world around you and help you take a more hopeful view of what you do in your own space as a gardener.