We’re pleased to welcome The Green-Wood Cemetery as the latest partner in our Pathways to PRFCT program, a network of diverse public gardens and parks managed for health and well-being, beauty, biodiversity, and sustainability.
Located on 478 acres in Brooklyn, NY, this National Historic Landmark is a sanctuary in the city—for both humans and wildlife. Under a canopy of more than 8,000 trees, the cemetery is a resting place for luminaries such as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, journalist and politician Horace Greeley, and the first Black woman doctor in New York, Susan Smith McKinney Steward. It’s also a cherished oasis of peace and beauty for New Yorkers and visitors alike, and thanks to a dedicated team of horticulturists, who are working to create a climate-resilient landscape, it’s a haven for birds and other wildlife, too. Birdwatchers flock there during spring and fall migrations.
As the horticulture team adapts to our changing environment, they’ve adopted four initiatives focused on trees, invasive insects, meadows, and grasses:
Green-Wood’s collection of trees showcases an array of native oaks, hickories, American beech, tulip, sweetgum, and sassafras trees (including one of the oldest and largest in New York state). To help protect these “veterans,” some of the oldest in Brooklyn, Green-Wood practices retrenchment pruning, which mimics a tree’s tendency to reduce its canopy as it matures. They are also diversifying their native tree population, and planting hundreds of bare-root trees, which tend to be stronger and healthier, more energy efficient, and easier to plant.
To further protect their trees, Green-Wood has joined forces with the US Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture, and New York State Department of Environmental Protection to identify and track invasive insects. The collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service led to a discovery of a new beetle species in 2019. The same genus as the emerald ash borer, this beetle feeds on stressed beech trees and trees of the Rosaceae family. Through their invasive insect scouting program they are taking steps to help safeguard our urban forests.
They are also actively converting acres of traditional lawn into native meadows, which provide food, shelter, and breeding ground for wildlife. Last year, they teamed up again with Larry Weaner and Associates (the firm has designed other meadows at the cemetery) to create more than an acre of “experimental memorial meadows.” Divided into six sections, each one is seeded with a different mixture of native grasses and wildflowers. The horticultural team will closely monitor the new expanse, collecting data on the life cycles of each plant species, the number and variety of weeds that appear, and note the overall aesthetic to “identify plant species and their combinations that thrive with minimal maintenance and do not obstruct the monuments.”
Climate change heavily impacts urban environments, causing higher temperatures, frequent extreme rainfalls, and longer periods of drought. As a result, the growing season for turfgrass is longer, which means more mowing, while invasive warm-season grasses are rapidly spreading. Working with experts in sustainable grassland management and turf at Cornell University, Green-Wood is incorporating new seed mixes with slower-growing and drought-tolerant varieties, adjusting the frequency and height of mowing, and reducing soil disturbance.
We look forward to following Green-Woods progress and learning from these and other initiatives.
Green-wood’s urban grassland initiative focuses on 403 acres of turfgrass. Photo by Art Presson. Top Photo by Stacy Lock.
Radicle Thinking by Edwina von Gal
We do love beech trees: American, European, copper, weeping. They are all magnificent. Their impressive size and gnarly solidity stand out for permanence and imperturbability. But, they are not invulnerable. Along with the many challenges all plants are facing, beeches have more than their share of problems, including phytophthora fungus, beech bark disease, and now the mysterious and deadly beech leaf disease.
While phytophthora fungus and beech bark disease are fairly well understood and treatable with non-toxic natural processes, beech leaf disease has all of us PRFCT land care types thinking hard about what to do when beloved trees become afflicted. The cause, now identified as a nematode (microscopic worm), is not well understood. As a result, no one knows the best way to control it. The main option being offered to treat it, though, is a chemical fungicide called Broadform, which is highly toxic to people and pets and lethal to beneficial organisms. It is so toxic that New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had to make a special dispensation to allow its use for residential ornamental plants. And, yet no one knows if it will even be effective. Is it worth it to bend our resolve and put our children and pets in harm’s way to possibly keep a treasured tree holding on until we know more about the disease and have better solutions? I don’t know. I can only suggest that people make their own decisions based on as much unbiased (no income potential) input as possible until we learn more. I will update you as I find out more about this disease.
But there is another part of this story I am thinking about: the woolly beech aphid. Also known as the boogie woogie aphid, it is a fuzzy, sucking insect that lives on the underside of beech leaves and “dances” by raising its hind legs when threatened. (Watch them boogie down here.) It is harmless to all beeches, but a nuisance to humans because of the large amounts of clear, sticky “honeydew” produced. This gooey sap (aphid poop) drips on objects below (cars, benches, you) and then attracts an unsightly, but also harmless, dark “sooty” mold. Since these aphids don’t hurt the tree, I let them be, waiting for predators to show up and feast on them and reduce the goo. But this year I’ve been asking, where are the predators?
Right now, woolly aphids are far more numerous than normal, which is not surprising. When host plants become weak from causes such as disease, pests, like aphids, thrive because it is easier for them to get their sucking parts through struggling cell walls. Beneficial insect predators (lacewings, ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps) typically show up when aphid populations are large enough to attract their attention. They feast, multiply, knock back the aphids, and then move on when there isn’t enough left to eat. It can take a season or two for this natural, balanced prey/predator food cycle to complete.
The problem with this year’s woolly beech aphid infestation is not just that the beeches have been weakened by problems like beech leaf disease, but that predator population numbers are also alarmingly low. The ladybugs, lacewings, and other hungry friends just aren’t showing up. Can their dwindling populations be a consequence of widespread spraying for ticks and mosquitoes? All insecticidal sprays, even the “organic/natural oil” ones, kill. They don’t just kill ticks or mosquitoes. They also kill the bugs—butterflies, lacewings, bumblebees—we love and need. When people resort to chemicals to control pests, they destroy the food sources for beneficial insects, which eventually destroys the beneficials themselves. The cycle of natural pest control is broken.
My request to you is: Put down those insecticidal sprays. Nature, if given time, can take care of pests—if we can be patient and let them. There’s always something that will eat the pests we wish to control. Waiting and thinking before acting always brings new observations, insights, and a peaceful interaction with our natural world. While I’m waiting and observing, I will take my hose and simply wash off just the aphids on the branches that hang over my picnic table and leave the rest for the food web.
Quote: “When you surrender, the problem ceases to exist. Try to solve it, or conquer it, and you only set up more resistance.” —Henry Miller, A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller 1932-1953
Book: Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
Rebecca McMackin recently recommended this book. It is a seminal work, which opened the environmentalist conversation about indigenous land management practices and sustainability. A seriously thought-provoking history of land use and resource management, it raises so many questions about preconceptions of what was and what we are doing now.
Woolly Beech Aphid photo by Haruta Ovidiu, University of Oradea, bugwood.org
Perfect Earth continues to expand our Pathways to PRFCT program, a network of diverse public gardens and parks, managed for health and well-being, beauty, biodiversity, and sustainability. I’m happy to announce that Wethersfield Estate and Garden in Amenia, New York, is our newest partner. Conservation has been at the heart of the 1000-acre estate since it was established by the late Chauncy Stillman more than 80 years ago. He helped shape modern farming techniques by enhancing soil health, reducing soil erosion, and promoting water conservation. Today, the estate features an elegant Italianate garden with more than 20 miles of trails and over 400 acres of woodlands. Upholding that spirit of conservation, the horticulture team is now designing flower displays so there’s always something blooming for pollinators, planting more natives, especially keystone species, and removing invasives on the property. They’re also saving resources, limiting watering to establishing new plants and in times of drought, and retaining biomass on site. We’re especially pleased to welcome them because Perfect Earth's Toshi Yano helped revitalize this garden as their director of horticulture from 2019 to 2022, starting many of these methods. We hope you will visit to see the beautiful results of these nature-based practices.
Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo.
Radicle Thinking by Edwina von Gal
This post is about roots. It also marks the start of the new name for my Perfect Earth monthly posts: Radicle Thinking. The radicle, a root, is the first thing that emerges from a germinating seed, and the future of a plant depends on the radicle’s success. Seeds, miraculous tiny germs of life, are held in suspension until the world around them says, Okay, GO! A radicle then sets out to explore and engage with what it finds. It heads down into the soil to anchor the new plant, and then starts sending up water and nutrients so the plumule (the embryo’s shoot) can grow up towards the sun and start the true leaf growing process.
The radicle and the lateral roots that follow it form a root system of insanely intricate and mutually beneficial relationships with the microorganisms in the soil. These root systems form part of a two-way delivery system: nutrients and water from the soil flow up into the leaves, while sugar made from sunshine (photosynthesis) is sent down from the leaves to the roots to energize a vast community of busy soil-based lives. Roots+soil+leaves+sun = the essential building blocks of plant life.
My interest in roots and radicles makes me think about the fact that few of our commercially available plants are grown from seed. Most are cloned, propagated asexually by cuttings or tissue culture—they have no radicle. Instead, these genetically identical plants are created to meet the needs of the horticulture industry: easy to grow (compact, fast growing, unappealing to insects), easy to ship (short and tight “muffin-tops”) and easy to sell (big, bright flowers). These cultivars are often given cutesy, easy to remember, wince-worthy names, like “Incrediball”, “Pinky Winky”, and “Miss Piggy”. Many are patented, with the “inventor” getting a royalty for every plant sold. Specialty plant propagation of this sort has become very big business, encouraging lots of people to shop and plant varieties that would seem to be great for greening up the world. But how is it working for those plants and our ecosystem? We aren’t yet sure. Ecologically sensitive gardeners, especially native plant enthusiasts, are carefully watching to see how these plant clones will behave in the landscape, serve beneficial bugs and birds, and react to threats from things like pests and disease. Time will tell.
And what about the impacts of starting life without a radicle? Vegetative (seed-free) propagation relies on adventitious roots, which originate from stem tissue (not the radicle). They are fibrous, tangled, and often found circling the bottom and sides of the container in which they were grown. Can they do the same job as root systems with a radicle, formed by the natural process of seed germination? We know that asexually propagated plants will sometimes "revert" to their original species form, or otherwise grow out of the commercially driven traits that made them desirable to begin with. This is often not a concern for the breeders since replacing failing plants is good business. But it isn’t great for creating sustainable gardens, and it’s especially not great for trees, which are all about being around for a long time. I’ve been noticing clonal nursery trees, which have nothing but adventitious roots, showing signs of suffering as they age. Their fibrous, adventitious root systems have a tendency to wrap around and choke the tree (called girdling roots), which causes trees to die back a little at a time and weaken or even snap at the base. (Learn more about it here.)
Take a look at the trees in your yard, neighborhood, and community. How many of them were grown from seed right where they were dropped by their mother tree, assisted by her mycorrhizal network? Sadly, there isn’t much opportunity for this to happen in our managed lands.
So, if you find an acorn sprouting, save it. Try to plant trees grown from seed, no matter how small. Yes, it is a slow process, but think of them as your family. Don’t we love the process of raising our families from birth? The natural process of putting down a root and letting it grow is one that has evolved naturally and successfully for every life form. It connects us to nature and makes us happy and whole.
Resource: The Native Plant Trust's Go Botany is easy enough to hook beginners and deep enough to engage geeks. Learn how to identify plants and delight in the plant of the day.
Book: Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape , by Tom Wessels (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010)
Quote: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested." Stewart Brand’s statement of purpose, Whole Earth Catalogue , 1968.
Photo: Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) about two days after germination from seeds by BlueRidgeKitties.
Founded by renowned textile designer, author, and collector Jack Lenor Larsen (1927-2020), LongHouse Reserve is a 16-acre integrated environment in East Hampton, NY, devoted to the ever-changing interactions between nature, art, and people. It has committed to toxic-free gardening and embraced nature-based practices and programs. LongHouse empowers visitors of all ages to see and think in new ways, and to incorporate art and design into their lives, invoking an ongoing act of creation in a healthy space.
LongHouse is reaffirming and energizing its commitment to embrace nature-based practices, offering a place for respite and recharging in a garden that will flourish without chemicals or harm to nature. Their pesticide-free lawns are healthier for their visitors and the environment. LongHouse also has a closed-loop system, keeping all biomass on-site—look out for stick piles and sculptures made of plant material. In addition, they are helping the community reduce stress and anxiety by offering special programs that help visitors reconnect with nature, such as forest bathing in quiet wooded areas and gentle yoga on clover-covered lawns.
Photos by Philippe Cheng. Courtesy of LongHouse Reserve.