Drive through any city, and you’ll see suburban houses with neat and tidy gardens out front, probably a decent number of tree-lined streets, and maybe some veggie plots. All looks pretty “green” in the environmentalist sense, right?
There are a number of problems with modern urban landscaping, and these issues are contributing to — not improving — habitat degradation, biodiversity loss, and surprisingly, air quality problems.
Let’s start with habitat.
(And yes, this includes those plants you have on your balcony)
Garden centres, nurseries, and landscaping contractors sell ornamental plants based on two factors: how easy they are to look after, and how pretty they are.
But unless those plants are ‘native’ to your region, they’re almost useless to your local wildlife.
(As is your veggie garden, because you work to keep those “pest” free. Which is reasonable, so let’s keep this about ornamental plants.)
Butterflies, for example, require certain host plants on which to lay their eggs and to eat as caterpillars. As adults, they need other plants to feed on.
Now, you might be thinking that no bugs is not such a bad thing, because who wants a lot of creepy crawlies around? And bug-chewed plants aren’t super attractive.
Well, all of the other plants that need pollinators (including food crops!) want those bugs around. As do all the birds, frogs, toads, and other insects that eat those bugs. And certainly all the creatures that eat birds, frogs, toads, and bigger insects need something to dine on too.
To put it another way, imagine if you were surrounded by buffets that either had completely empty trays, or were only filled with things that you were allergic to (or just can’t stand to eat). That’s what your garden looks like if doesn’t have any native plants in it.
Worse, some of the plants that are sold in stores can be ‘invasive.’ That is, they escape the garden and get established in the wild. There, they can sometimes flourish, outcompeting native plants and destroying habitat. They do this by seeds (which can be relocated miles way by birds or wind); cuttings or through a weed pull where the debris isn’t baked by the sun or composted into mush; through ‘runners;’ or rhizomes. So, even if that invasive plant looks like it’s behaving itself and staying put, it probably isn’t.
Which brings us to biodiversity loss.
If we’re losing bugs and the things that feed on them, we’re reducing the biodiversity of the ecosystem. What that means in plain English is that the whole system becomes a lot more fragile. When you have lots of different bugs, and plants, and animals, and birds, one single disease, or one food source reduction isn’t going to turn the whole area into a desert for you too. The fewer creatures you have in your system, the more vulnerable the whole thing is.
What was that about air quality? Surely plants, which are key to the carbon cycle, sucking down CO2 and breathing out oxygen, are good for air quality?
Yes, it’s true, we definitely need more plants, and trees especially, to put carbon back into the earth. But unfortunately, urban planners have been favouring male trees for a very long time (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/16/how-urban-planners-preference-for-male-trees-has-made-your-hay-fever-worse). This is because female trees tend to shed seed pods and fruit, which costs money to clean up and looks messy in the meantime.
But what do male trees produce? Pollen. Lots, and lots of pollen.
So, we’ve developed a situation where we have way more male trees, so way more pollen in the air, and fewer female trees to catch the pollen. Is it any wonder your allergies have gotten worse?
You Can Do Something About This!
That’s the bad news. The good news? This is something you can definitely fix.
Let’s go back to your garden. Figure out what you have already, either by asking gardener friends, snapping pix with the iNaturalist app or using Google Lens, and getting identifications. (You might also have receipts you can look at, or you could ask for a local landscaping company to come and do an audit.)
If you have anything that identified as invasive in your area, target that stuff immediately. Pull it up, cut it down, stick everything in black garbage bags, do the bags up, and leave them in the sun to cook for several days. (Be sure to clean up seeds as much as possible). You want to make sure there isn’t any live material or seeds or cuttings that could spread once you dispose of it. Once it’s thoroughly cooked, you could compost it, or if you must, put it in the trash.
Next, target anything else that isn’t native and consider replacing it. Here’s where you can make use of free resources like your local library, your local state or provincial environmental departments, gardening groups, and horticultural societies. Or you can even do a search online for the term “plants (or trees, or shrubs) native to my area.” In some districts, enthusiasts have started “plant this, not that” lists, which give you similar looking plants to the ones you want to replace.
You don’t have to do everything all at once, of course, as time and money will be considerations. But here again, check out the free resources. Many libraries have started “seed libraries,” where you can “borrow” seeds in the spring to start plants and then you harvest seeds from your plant to take back to the library. There are almost certainly plant or seed exchanges where you live too.
A few words of caution. Be careful of plants labelled “native” or “pollinator friendly” in nurseries or garden centres, because they might not be. For example, “butterfly bush” does attract and feed butterflies, but it’s originally from Asia, and has been declared invasive in several regions of North America. I always take a list of what I want to buy with me, using those hard-to-remember Latin names, so I know I’m getting the real deal. There are also now nurseries specializing in native plants, so check their reputation and then you can shop for everything there with confidence.
And, if you have pets, make sure you’re not planting anything that would be toxic to them in places they access. Your veterinarian can likely point you to a list of things that are bad for cats and dogs.
What About My City Plantings?
This is something you can influence too. Get together with existing gardening and horticultural groups, and start pressuring city hall to adopt more “allergy friendly” and “native flora” planting policies. As always, see if you can find a way to make it about tax savings, property values, and quality of life. You don’t have to like the system, you can learn to work it!
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