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

Book Cover Image
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.

Notes From An Accidental Tomato Farmer

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer

Book Cover ImageMy dad grew up on a farm, but I did not. When I was too small to help (or care very much about helping) I remember my dad having a garden with some vegetables in our backyard. But when I was eight, we moved to an eastern city without room for a vegetable garden, so what I learned about local food production growing up was largely drawn from the brief experiences my siblings and I had each summer as we visited grandparents in the midwest.

I still don’t have a vegetable garden, but I have experimented the past two or three years with growing some tomatoes. And this year I’m experimenting with some heirloom varieties—largely as a result of reading Tim Stark’s book Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Farmer. Though I didn’t grow up in a family that grew its own food in the backyard, I did grow up in Eastern Pennsylvania which is, apparently, a primo spot for tomato growing. Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994. Stark did not imagine he would be a tomato farmer. He started out as a management consultant and would-be writer. In 1996, he started growing tomatoes on a whim, growing hundreds of plants in his fourth-floor walk-up under fluorescent lights. That’s when tomatoes took over his life. After getting booted by his landlord, he took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania. “Farm” is putting it generously—at that time he had 2 acres dedicated to growing—land he did not even own. Twelve years later, he farms tomatoes like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Garden Peach and Hillbilly on 12 acres in Amish and Mennonite country not far from where I grew up. And what he grows on those acres get shipped every week to the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC. His tomatoes have made him a favorite of chefs throughout the city.

Heirloom is largely a collection of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan. What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer. And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days. Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses. “After 12 years of growing vegetables, I have learned to accept that every farming season presents a unique set of conditions that invariably prove to be, on the whole, less than optimal.” The stories are at once compelling and downright funny. But most wonderful is the beautiful description of the land and the soil, and tender portraits of the people who grow the food we eat.

And as for tomatoes, Stark says that it’s the ugly tomatoes — the ones that “tend to split and crack and get beaten up a lot” — that taste the best. “The uglier, the better,” he says. So this year, I’m trying to grow some real ugly ones!

The Brother Gardeners

Book Cover ImageI recently read that garden books and winter go together.  After the garden has been covered over – first by autumn leaves, then frost, and finally a dusting of snow – what’s left for a gardener to do until March but read? Perhaps that’s what Cicero had in mind when he said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

I agree. I’ve been reading because it’s too cold to garden! And one of the books I have discovered during this winter hiatus is The Brother Gardeners by British journalist Andrea Wulf. This book tells the story of a small group of eighteenth-century naturalists who made Britain a nation of gardeners and the center of horticultural and botanical expertise. But it’s the story of a garden revolution that began in America.

In 1733, the American farmer John Bartram dispatched two boxes of plants and seeds from the American colonies, addressed to the London cloth merchant Peter Collinson. Most of these plants had never been grown in British soil, but in time the American trees, evergreens, and shrubs would transform the English landscape and garden forever. During the next forty years, Collinson and a handful of botany enthusiasts cultivated hundreds of American species. The Brother Gardeners follows the lives of six of these men, whose shared passion for plants gave rise to the English love affair with gardens. In addition to Collinson and Bartram, who forged an extraordinary friendship just before the war of revolution, there is Philip Miller, author of the best-selling Gardeners Dictionary and the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose standardized nomenclature helped bring botany to the middle classes. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander are also followed as they explore the flora of Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia on the most celebrated voyage of discovery of their time, aboard Captain Cook’s Endeavour.

By focusing on these six personalities and telling their extraordinary stories, the author uncovers the roots (pun intended) of our modern approach to gardening without causing the reader to feel weighted down by the detailed historical research on the Age of Enlightenment and its impact on botany. Here’s the opening paragraph just to whet your appetite:

“On an early summer’s day in 1716, Thomas Fairchild went into his Hoxton garden, closed the door of his potting shed and set in motion a chain of events so momentous that in time no gardener would ever think about plants in the same way again. At the same time, it led Fairchild, a devout Christian, to live in fear of God’s wrath for the rest of his life.”

Throughout The Brother Gardeners, the author’s flair for storytelling demonstrated above makes this a most delightful book—and you don’t need to be a gardener to enjoy it.