Another Earth Day is coming up. And, yes, it can be easy to question whether all the work we are doing is enough in the face of so much bad climate and biodiversity news. There is still so much land being harmed all around us with noise and poison. Of course, it’s no surprise that we might be eco-anxious. Nevertheless, I am feeling optimistic this Earth Day…it is the 10th birthday of the launch of Perfect Earth Project and there is so much to celebrate.
For one thing, the media has really caught on to the urgency and importance of our message. Each week I see a plethora of stories about reducing lawns, leaving leaves, and planting natives for biodiversity. There are pollinator groups forming—and growing—in most communities. These groups are filled with passionate people who are learning about nature-based land care and sharing their knowledge with others. They are putting pressure on landscape professionals to learn about plants and provide nature-based services. Where garden centers fail to provide native plants, they hold native plant sales. They are posting beautiful photos of their wild front yards to help drive the aesthetic of what a good garden looks like. They are saying: We don’t have to wait for ordinances or laws to change. We can do this now, together. We can make a huge difference. And, for sure, they are making a difference.
Every single one of us can make a difference. On our own or with a group, we can build habitat (food, shelter, water) in our gardens, learn the names of native plants (especially keystone species) and the birds and insects they attract, and then plant them, at our homes and in our communities. We can let plants grow to their natural shapes and leave deadwood for the bugs and birds. We can be highly attentive to soil, and water properly as we enter a future of shortages. We can practice doing no harm.
I will remain optimistic. Because those of us who are doing this are doing something amazing. We are changing the way we relate to nature in how we relate to our land. We are CARING for the land. We are making landscapes that are full of life. We are, most of all, building resilient humans, who will face the future with nature on our side.
Book: In her latest book Love Nature Magic, Maria Rodale enters fearlessly into a world governed by natural forces. Her adventures are weird, insightful, humorous, and unforgettable.
Quote: "We are stardust / Billion-year old carbon / We are golden / Caught in the devil's bargain / And we've got to get ourselves / back to the garden" —Joni Mitchell “Woodstock”
Image of students planting a pollinator-friendly habitat, courtesy of Pollinator Pathway
I like learning about things that are obvious once I know how to look for them—things that were often common knowledge in the past. In spring, birds are telling stories about where they choose to raise their young, stories based in logic, with a dash of magic. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1) Birds don’t actually live in nests.
Well, I guess it depends on your definition of live. Birds lay eggs and raise their young in nests. But once the kids have flown away, the parents either renest with a new brood that season or abandon the nest for the wild. The nests you are probably imagining right now are most likely found hidden in a dense leafy shrub or in the canopy of a tree, where they provide shelter from weather and camouflage from the sharp eyes of predators. Different birds have different nesting strategies (form, technique, and material).
A simple cup-shape is the most common nest type. You can find them in any number of places, such as along branches in the tree canopy, perched in tree forks, or nestled on ledges.
2) Not all birds make nests.
Or, rather, not our idea of a nest. Some birds can get by with just a depression in the ground called a scrape nest. Scrapes are popular nest types for terrestrial birds (birds that prefer grasslands and open habitats that lack trees), such as shorebirds or tundra species.
Other birds are cavity nesters which take advantage of holes found in place like dead tree trunks. Some line their place with coziness, but many just lay their eggs in the space as is. There are varieties of Owl that return to the same cavity for many years to raise their young, building up a “nest” from their own poop and their kids’ poop, too. When they’re not raising kids, these Owls roost on a branch near their cavity. You can sometimes spot them by finding their pellets beneath the trees.
There are also platform dwellers (Ospreys and Eagles), mound nesters (Mallard ducks), tunnel makers (Belted Kingfishers, Atlantic Puffins), pendant builders (Baltimore Orioles), and those who chose no nests at all (Chuck-will’s-widow). It all depends on what quality habitats are available where they live.
3) Most birds don’t re-use their nests.
It all comes down to capacity and energy resources. Small birds often make their nests from delicate materials that don’t weather well. While some of them will reuse their nests to raise another brood or two in the same season, they almost always build new ones the following spring. Starting from scratch reduces the possibility of ectoparasites (mites, lice, etc.), which can negatively impact the health and survival of chicks. It also helps avoid predators who know the locations of the nests from last season. Big birds, like Bald Eagles and Ospreys, who can carry large branches and twigs, will return year after year to the same nest, adding to the old one and making it larger over time—unless another bird steals it first.
4) What about Birdhouses?
For cavity nesting birds, birdhouses replace lost habitat, like standing dead trees. So the answer is yes, birdhouses are good. In fact, they have helped restore populations of Eastern Bluebird and Prothonotary Warblers. They are even better when they are cleaned out each spring to reduce the populations of mites and other pests from the previous breeding season which can harm the newborn chicks. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, the birds will only select the ones you do right.
Birds likely to use birdhouses (nesting boxes): Wrens, Bluebirds, Titmice, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Owls.
5) What about the way YOU nest?Your garden lifestyle is intricately connected to the life of birds. Think about it from the birds’ perspective and relate it to your place.
- Leave a dead tree or two, for food (insects) and nesting opportunities.
- Plant shrubs in groups. Dense clusters of varying heights provide options and protection.
- Plant natives with lots of fruit.
- Resist the urge to prune shrubs. Instead let them grow into their original natural shapes: tall, short, dense, twiggy.
- Leave a matrix of habitats including places on the ground that you don’t mow or “tidy up.”
- Make habitat piles with fallen twigs.
- And yes! Put out some birdhouses.
6) What to Plant?
Shrubs and small trees that provide great food and nesting areas. Most of these fruits are delicious for you too, but most often than not the birds will get them first. Don’t worry about insects, birds will eat them too. In fact, caterpillars are the primary food for their young. Here are some of my favorite native trees and shrubs:
- Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
- American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
- Chokeberries (Aronia spp)
- Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
- Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- American holly (Ilex opaca)
- Shad (Amelanchier canadensis)
Learn about the keystone plants, like oak trees, which support more than 400 species of insects and are vital to bird survival, in your area by visiting The National Wildlife Federation. Here is the list for the Northeast: Eastern Temperate Forests.
With thanks to Chris Gangemi and Matt Jeffery.
To learn more about birds:
Book: Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh is a little handbook of consciousness to guide your relationship with your land. When you see it this way, you just can't use harmful practices.
Quote: “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art anybody could ever want.” – Andy Warhol
Podcast: For the Wild: TIOKASIN GHOSTHORSE on the Power of Humility. Thought provoking ideas about our relationships to nature and "saving the earth.” Try going outside with these ideas in mind.
American Robin on her nest, photo by wwing from Getty Images Signature.
In November, I wrote about why it is so important to keep biomass (organic matter) on your property and some easy creative ways to manage various types such as branches, leaves, grasses, and garden clippings (Closing the Loop, Part 1).
The way to make the bulk of your biomass into free fertilizer is composting. It is the best-known way, and the most misunderstood.
Composting is simply the act of decomposition; like aging, it is inevitable, just do nothing at all and your various landscape stuff will eventually break down into the ground; that is what happens in the wild. If composting is so easy, and so important an environmental act, why doesn’t everyone do it?
In the managed landscape we like to play a role in how and where the decomposing happens, so we make compost piles. Anything organic can go into a compost pile, and if you just leave it, you will, eventually, absolutely have compost.
But, without some assistance, the process will be slow, and, depending on what you put in there, it could attract pests. In an informal survey of young homeowners (courtesy of my niece April) the amount of work required, the amount of space needed, and the possibility of smells and rodents came out as the top reasons why people don’t compost. But do not worry, these are all very easily overcome.
You really should be composting.
Composting relies on microbes, which can do the job with oxygen (aerobic) or without oxygen (anaerobic). Home composting is aerobic; the key components for happy, hungry microbes are the right balance of air and water. Happily, microbes are very tolerant. If they aren’t getting the right balance, they just slow down.
WORK: You can do nothing and let your compost pile break down slowly or you can help with the air and water to make the microbes more active. Turning a compost pile keeps it aerated. Occasional watering keeps it from drying out. Covering with a tarp helps keep the moisture in but also keeps it from getting too wet. The more you work to keep your pile turned and the right amount of moist, the faster your compost happens.
Compost piles can be cold or hot. Hot compost heats up and kills off pathogens and weed seeds. It is faster than cold. It requires a carefully monitored mix of nitrogen, carbon, water, and oxygen. Sometimes compost heats up all by itself but creating a reliably hot compost is a lot of work. Hot compost is important for garden nerds and compost professionals, but as I think EVERYONE should compost, I focus on the easy version, cold composting. It is simple, it works. It closes the loop just fine.COLD COMPOSTING (it is logical, there are no mysteries):
- Air? If you don’t want to turn the pile, start with a layer of twigs and/or wood chips and add more fluffy stuff (leaves, small branches) between successive layers to provide airflow.
- Time? The smaller the pieces, the faster they break down. So, if you wish to speed things up, as well as reduce the size of your heap, run your mower over the leaves and chop up garden trimmings into smaller pieces before adding to your pile.
- Bulk? For large amounts of compost and faster results, use the 3-pile system (see below).
- Moisture? Remember the moisture: if dry, add some water and then cover the pile with a tarp weighted down with bricks or logs.
- Weed seeds? Make a separate pile for plants with seeds or viable roots. Don’t use compost from this pile in your garden beds until you are sure the seeds and roots have been there so long, they are dead. If you aren’t turning and your piles start sprouting, do your best to cut or pull the growth before it goes to seed. Or just keep heaping stuff on top to suppress growth.
- Rodents? Not a problem if you are turning your pile very frequently, but if that’s not happening, don’t put “food” (kitchen scraps) in the heap; use a rodent-proof closed bin system (see below).
- Smells? It is anaerobic decomposition that stinks. If your pile has enough air, it will smell earthy-good. Kitchen scraps add a lot of moisture and can get anaerobic/smelly (not to mention the rodent thing), so turn them a lot or used a closed bin system.
- Additives? What about adding manure or other inputs? This is only needed if you are growing produce like fruits and vegetables that require high fertility. If you are removing food from your garden, you need to replace what you have taken, that’s another story. PRFCT focuses on food for non-human life forms; they live, eat, poop, and die in your garden; that’s the closed loop.
- Sun or Shade? Warmth is good to keep the organisms going, but too much sun can overheat them and dry out the pile. Best (but not essential) to pick a spot that gets a bit of shade in the heat of the summer and sun in the winter.
- Done? Compost is ready when there are no big chunks. If you want to get fancy, you can screen it before adding to your plantings and throw any chunks back on the pile.
- Don’t? Put anything in that has been exposed to pesticides (pre-emergent herbicides, broadleaf killers, insecticides) which may kill the microbes and/or inhibit growth of beds where the compost is eventually applied. Best not to use pesticides in the first place.
- More Don’t? Avocado pits, corn cobs, citrus peels, dog and cat poop (except if on certain medications) – too slow to break down or too icky for an open pile but fine in closed bin.
- Piles: heap everything in one or more places that are convenient and let it go or turn as your time and energy allow. Push the pile aside at the edges to remove finished compost beneath. Very big piles will take longer (less oxygen) so best to spread them out if space allows.
- Bins: build enclosures to contain piles and help you look and feel organized. Warning – most prefab bins are squares and make it fairly impossible to reach in and turn; you need at least one open side to access. Although it is nice to have some air flow in your bin walls, avoid using wire cages, as your spading fork (preferred tool for turning) will get stuck in it – very annoying.
- Configurations: If you have the space for lots of yard waste, and feel a bit more energetic, a 3-bin system is great – one space each for new, mid-process, and done. You can move the compost from bin to bin as it matures, or you can simply stop adding to a bin when it gets full and go to the next. Ideally, by the time the last bin is full, the first is ready for harvesting. That will depend, of course, on how big the bin, how much you add, and how often you turn.
- Closed Bins: rodent proof, odor free, space saving, self-aerating bins can take meat, fish, and dairy, and chunky stinky stuff. Turning is suggested but not essential. Most important is to add plenty of “carbon” (leaves, wood chips, sawdust, clean shredded paper, cardboard). For a very small property, one or two of these can be your entire composting system. I love my Green Johanna but have just purchased an Aerobin to test it. The problem with both is they are plastic and shipped from overseas.
- Contraptions: Rotating bins are another type of closed system now offered on most every garden retailing site. The concept seems solid: turning a handle is easier than turning a pile with a fork. The problems: 1) too small for most needs as they get too heavy to turn when larger. 2) At some point you need to stop adding material so you can finish what is in there. Buy, or make two or more of them. One of our respondents uses two barrels which she just rolls around. 3) Some require the purchase of proprietary “activator” pellets, which is contrary to the concept.
- Vermiculture: fun but fussy. Not recommended for those seeking low-maintenance options.
Compost is organic matter; every teaspoon can contain billions of microorganisms, ready to help your landscape thrive. Compost, however, is not the same as soil as it doesn’t contain minerals. Use compost to improve moisture retention and enrich soil, but not to replace soil. Compost is organic matter; every teaspoon can contain billions of microorganisms, ready to help your landscape thrive. Compost, however, is not the same as soil as it doesn’t contain minerals. Use compost to improve moisture retention and enrich soil, but not to replace soil.
If you turn your compost occasionally and maintain average moisture, it should be ready for use in 6 months to 1 year. Lazy version, figure on 2 years. Ready to:
- Fix bare patches in your lawn
- Top dress the entire lawn
- Add to soil when planting trees and shrubs
- Add to soil in raised veg beds
- Mix into new flower beds or scratch into old ones
- Let it be
Honor what your place produces; sending it to the dump uses fossil fuels for transport, generally involves dump fees, and creates methane (highly potent greenhouse gas) when it decomposes in the anaerobic landfill system.
Your yard does not produce garbage, it makes its own perfect food. It is free.
Quote: “This beautiful gift of attention that we human beings have is being hijacked to pay attention to products and someone else’s political agenda. Whereas, if we can reclaim our attention and pay attention to things that really matter, there a revolution starts”. Robin Wall Kimmerer, NY Times Feb 2023
Book: The Uninhabitable Earth , David Wallace-Wells
If you use a landscaper for the maintenance of your property, the beginning of the year is contract renewal time. Of course you are probably starting this year anxious about your health and the environment and you aren’t sure whether signing up for a weekly dose of noise and poison in your yard is the best thing to do. It just doesn’t quite feel right, which adds to your eco-anxiety. But instead of worrying more, you could use this moment to do good. Guaranteed good for the environment, and super healthy for you and your family.
You just need to ask your landscaper to do things a bit differently by switching to nature-based practices. He/she may not know how, and chances are, you don’t know either. So who does know? Sadly, there are very few nature-based landscapers, and there probably isn’t anyone better for you to hire than the one you have got. So unless they flatly refuse to try, don’t fire them. Let’s engage and train the ones we’ve got, and send the message out that this is the future of land care. It is healthier for them too.
Everything you need to get started is in our PRFCT LeafLet Basics of Nature-Based in English and Spanish. For a typical annual maintenance schedule, which you can use as the basis of your new contract, go straight to page 21 – review it with your landscaper. It should not cost more, there are no products to purchase.
What is nature-based? Here’s the nutshell: Healing, not Harming. Let nature do the nurturing.
- No toxic fertilizers or insecticides. Fertilizers overstimulate plants and make them susceptible to disease. The right plant for your soil, doesn’t need them. Insecticides are not target specific, they kill beneficial insects and soil organisms. You don’t depend on your landscape to eat, so why not share it with a host of wonderful life forms that could find refuge there?
- Retain, recycle and reimagine all biomass. Keep what your property produces (grass clippings, leaves, twigs, weeds, etc.) and feed it back to the soil. It is the food your place made for itself. Better than anything you can buy, and without the carbon footprint. (See PRFCT Lawn Basics for more).
- Plant at least 2/3 native plants. Plants did fine without us humans for eons, so if you plant the ones that evolved in your conditions, they will still be fine with very little from you. Plus, they provide just the right food and shelter for local birds and pollinators. (See 2/3 for the Birds for more).
- Avoid and remove invasive plants. Get to know which plants are invasive. (See the Invasive Plant Atlas for more). Don’t buy them. Remove and replace any you have already got. (See Beyond Pesticides for more).
- Water properly. Very seldom. Very deep. Over-watering is one of the most common landscape malpractices. It leads to a wide range of plant and soil problems and promotes tick and mosquito populations.
- Minimize pruning. Every cut is a wound. Plant with plenty of space for trees and shrubs to grow to their natural shapes. Leave deadwood and standing dead trees, unless positioned dangerously, they provide unique food and nesting opportunities.
- Relax and enjoy. Your landscape is not your living room; forcing it to be tidy, clipped, and fixed in time is “dead room.” Let it be alive; always changing and creating new surprising delights for you.
Keep in mind, your landscaper doesn’t necessarily know any more about this than you do. So make sure he/she understands that this is an adventure in earth friendly relationships and as long as they are willing to truly commit to the practices, you will be happy. It is a whole new way to relate to your land.
Hooray, eco-anxiety reduction in action! You are doing something unquestionably good for the earth. (Not to mention yourself, your family, and your pets). Once you get started, you will find there was nothing to fear. It is all fascinating, joyous, and beautiful.
If you encounter some problem that makes you want to give up, contact me: email@example.com
Suggestion: Watch as your nature-based landscape supports more and more birds and pollinators. Start recognizing and recording them on iNaturalist and eBird, and become part of a global network of citizen scientists.
Next month: Help me prepare for Biomass Part 2. Send me your composting concerns. If you aren’t composting, why not? If you are, what worries you? Write me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bonus: All you ever wanted to know about climate change.
Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris
I am writing this on Dec 21, the winter solstice. The shortest day, the longest night, the cusp of reawakening, the time of reckoning. The traditional time to share gifts to reinforce relationships and make sure that our future is bright. But, the gift thing is not what it used to be. Neither is the future.
Rather than the ancient version; thanking, praising, and gifting the earth to ensure that the systems that sustain us will be reborn as the days grow longer, we have turned our back on nature and share gifts between ourselves. Gifts that celebrate our ability to give, our personal resources. For mother nature, not much to celebrate: it’s all at her expense. Ouch, naughty, not nice.
Let’s do some seasonal reckoning. How is this working out?
We have achieved something no other species has managed to do: In our attempts to take total control over nature, we have “put nature firmly back in charge”* The result? We are facing some serious challenges.
Does this sound scary for the future of us? Yes and no. What if we look at it as a fantastic gift? What if Nature is handing us some plain language about being nice to her, hoping we will get the message before things get too messy, and step into the future with her? What if this is the message we will finally get? It is a very big gift. Can we reach out for it? Can we embrace the natural world, without fear, and with a dedication to cooperation? We have all we need to do it: reconnecting with the wisdom of the past and blending it with up-to-the-moment science. We probably can ensure our species’ health and happiness without harming earth’s complex systems.
The gift of the future is right outside your door. There is so much there for you, it’s all in how you take, and how you give.
Your year ahead. Naughty or Nice?
*with a nod to Marcia Bjornerud and Elizabeth Kolbert
If you need the naughty future spelled out for you:
A dense, delightful and endlessly surprising book, well worth the deep dive:
To ease your conscience about the gifts you feel obliged to give: