PRFCT Perspectives

Tagged with "Sustainability"

Robot Mower

Mowbot and Me

February 13, 2024

Edwina von Gal's Radicle Thinking

Does the world need another garden gadget? Well . . . I have so many new tools pitched to me, all promising to do a better job. Ugh, so many disappointments—and so much more garbage. But, I am intrigued about a new one that has real promise. It’s a new way to mow that is winning over hearts with the environmentally conscious and the lawn care industry: Little robotic electric mowers, or mowbots, that are programmed to mosey around yards, cutting the entire lawn every day or two.

Think of the legions of trucks and trailers loaded with large, loud mowers that invade our neighborhoods weekly. Then, imagine them gone—totally gone, along with their noise, gas guzzling, and emission spewing.

Then think about all the fossil fuel saved not only by switching to electric but by eliminating all the trucks and trailers needed to transport massive machines to every lawn and then haul grass clippings to the landfill where they emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

And now think about how much time your landscaper would save by renting a robot or two to you and operating it remotely. Instead of riding a noisy, polluting machine around endlessly in circles and breathing its fumes, your landscaper could take a quiet moment to hear the birds and bees on your property and make a better home for them.

Now, imagine healthier grass. Tiny daily cuts from a mowbot are so much less stressful to your lawn than weekly big bites. As a result, your lawn will have fewer weeds because stress-free, happy grass will outcompete them. Plus, you’ll have healthier soil: Those tiny clippings are ideal fertilizer, and the tiny mowers don’t compact the soil.

Yes, it’s better for our ecosystem to have as little lawn as possible, but we all like to have some to play on, and that patch of lawn needs mowing. Why not reduce the size of your mowers, too? An added benefit … less stress for us . . . feeling less annoyed about those people who haven’t reduced their lawns yet, but have switched to mowbots. At least they are making less noise and doing far less harm to our planet.

Landscape professionals I know are convincing me that mowbots are worth trying, worth adding another gadget to the world. Do you have experience with robotic mowers? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at info@perfectearthproject.org

Note: Perfect Earth does not endorse any particular robotic mower companies, nor do we receive any compensation for saying we think they may have great potential.

New Gig86 From Getty Images
Riding Mower NewGig86 from Getty Images

FACT: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 17 million gallons of gas are spilled each year refueling lawn and garden equipment—that's more than the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez disaster.


FACT: Every year in the U.S., we use 1.2 billion gallons of gas and 100 million gallons of diesel fuel to power lawn mowers. One hour of operating a typical mower equals the emissions of a typical car driving 500 miles. (U.S. Department of Energy)


FACT: During the summer months, grass clippings can account for nearly half the weight of the waste collected in some communities. (University of Idaho)


FACT: Grass clippings contain about 4% nitrogen (N), 0.5 percent phosphorus (P), 2% potassium (K), plus small amounts of other plant nutrients. (University of Illinois) Leaving small clippings on your lawn reduces the need for additional N by up to 50%. (Cornell University)

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This is part of a series with Gardenista , which ran on November 16, 2023.

Photo: Westchester County Parks and Recreation curators and interns wild collect Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds in a county park. This beautiful blue-green, fine-textured grass is a larval host for a mix of skipper butterflies and is attractive to birds.

“A seed contains the past and the future at the same time,” said the poet and writer Ross Gay, in a recent interview in The Nation. Hilltop Hanover Farm, a Perfect Earth Project partner in New York’s Westchester County, understands this firsthand. Through their native plant seed initiative, they are preserving the past by cultivating the plants that have been growing on this land for millennia, while sowing a resilient and biodiverse future.

Native plants have become a buzzy topic in recent years, and not just for their good looks. People are beginning to understand how vital they are to a healthy and robust environment. “Highly biodiverse ecosystems are more resilient and adaptable; they improve the soil, prevent erosion, protect against flooding, lower temperatures at the ground, and clean the air,” the farm writes on their website. “They are also beautiful.” But to provide the greatest benefit, restore depleted lands, and give insects, birds, and other animals the food and habitat they really need, we must look beyond the plants that are native simply to North America, and be sure to include species local to our specific regions. Hilltop Hanover is doing just that, led in their work by Adam Choper, the farm’s director, and Emily Rauch, the native plant programs manager. The farm is part of a newly formed group called Local 59 Plant Network, a seed collective formed to grow and collect valuable local natives of the Northeastern coastal zone (ecoregion 59) for conservation and restoration in Westchester County, NY, and Fairfield County, CT, and to preserve them for the future through the Northeast Native Seed Network. “We’re working together as a collective to figure out supply chain issues, find out where the gaps are, and find a way to get the seed out into the world,” says Choper.

The farm employs Lindsey Feinberg, a dedicated seed collector, to cull 18,000 acres in the county by hand. Feinberg follows the Seeds of Success Protocol set forth by the Bureau of Land Management, taking no more than 20 percent of a population so as not to deplete any one species. Ideally, she’s gathering from 250 different plants of the same species. “Instead of just harvesting once, our seed collector makes multiple passes on the same group of plants to capture early, mid, and late maturing seeds,” explains Choper. “And she’s not just collecting the most floriferous, or biggest, strongest plants, but also the less showy, smaller ones, as well as color variation within a plant. Genetic diversity is the key.” This focus on diversity is vital for handling weather extremes, disease, and other disasters, as well as planning for climate resilience. “It will ensure the future of a species,” he says. The more diversity, the more possibility a plant will survive.

In the fall, the team also harvests from their native seed production plots. “We lay out the seeds on tarps in our dairy barn for a couple months to dry,” explains Rauch. “After two or three months, we start hand rubbing them to remove the chaff and winnow out the seed.” The farm recently acquired a state-of-the-art seed-cleaning machine, which will make the whole process faster and more efficient. The seed is then stored carefully, to be planted next year or banked in a mid-term storage facility. The seeds we store should be viable for 2 to 10 years. “This way, we’re ready to go if something happens.”

Today, the farm has 30 native species in cultivation. “We don’t just focus on what I call ‘the romantic pollinator plants’, like milkweed, which everyone already knows and loves,” says Choper. “We also want to encourage people to grow the keystone species that might not be as showy, but are no less important, like the Purpletop grass (Tridens flavus), which is good for restoring wetlands and is also beautiful.” (See below for a selection of some of their favorites.)

Their seed mission comes full circle this winter when they will team up with their neighbor Muscoot Farm, another Westchester County Park and Perfect Earth partner, to plant out a new septic field with seeds grown and cultivated at Hilltop Hanover to create a thriving and beautiful ecotypic meadow—ensuring a vibrant future for generations to come.

[Photos courtesy of Hilltop Hanover Farm, unless noted]

Solidago Speciosa Seed Plot

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) is one of the keystone species Hilltop Hanover grows in production. This fall-blooming beauty can reach six-feet in height and is a favorite of birds, who love to eat their seeds.

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“We’re trying to find sustainable ways to grow native plants without using plastic,” says Feinberg. The team has been trialing more sustainable methods, like cardboard and this OMRI-listed paper mulch, which will break down over time.

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Hilltop Hanover Farm is “dedicated to the development and advancement of sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship, community education, and accessible food systems for all.” They donate a minimum 10% of the produce grown on the farm to food pantries and soup kitchens in the area and also share native plants with other organizations in the region. “Here, cold frame boxes house germinating trays in summer and overwintering plants in the winter,” explains Feinberg.

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The farm crew helps harvest seeds of Coastal Plain Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium) by hand.

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A volunteer cleans Clematis virginiana seeds. Learn more here about volunteering opportunities at Hilltop Hanover Farm.

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Photo by J. Meder - The farm grows Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), a deer-resistant, rhizomatous prairie grass with golden flowers, which hosts the pepper-and-salt skipper butterfly and provides nesting materials for native bees.

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The farm sells their seed-grown native plants at their farmstand throughout the growing season. Fall is an excellent time to plant. They’re open Thursday through Sunday, 10-4.

Here’s a selection of favorite keystone species they are growing for seed production at the farm:

Danthonia Spicata Poverty Oat Grass Plant

Photo by Prairie Moon Nursery - “An attractive, low growing, tufted grass with seeds that mature in the early summer, poverty-oat grass (Danthonia spicata) tolerates a wide range of habitats but prefers poor, dry soils in open woods,” notes Feinberg. This grass can serve as an alternative to turf grass on dry lawns with moderate foot traffic, where it can be interplanted with other groundcovers.

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“Silverrod (Solidago bicolor) is the only white goldenrod in our area. It’s found in rocky, open oak woodlands. is a good pollinator plant that serves to increase species diversity on dry restoration sites,” says Feinberg. Here, it has gone to seed.

Prairie Moon Carex Lupulina Common Hop Sedge Plant 487x730

Photo by Prairie Moon Nursery - According to Feinberg, “Hop sedge (Carex lupulina), a keystone species of floodplains, marshes, and other open wetlands, has a number of ecological benefits, including shoreline stabilization, floodwater storage, and water filtration. It also provides food and cover for wildlife and insects.”

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Photo by Dogtooth77 - “An attractive rush found in swamps, marshes, and floodplains, Canadian rush (Juncus canadensis) grows rapidly and handles substantial soil compaction,” notes Feinberg.

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The unusual, large-flowered flat-topped white aster (Doellingeria umbellate) grows along swamp edges and moist thickets and is tolerant of flooding and stormwater inundation. “It blooms earlier than most asters, attracting a variety of bees and wasp species, including a number of specialist bees. It is also a host plant for the pearl crescent butterfly and the primary host plant of the Harris checkerspot butterfly,” says Feinberg.

Bridget Goodbody Star Img 2661 Crop Color

When Bridget Goodbody and her husband Neil Radey bought their house in East Hampton more than 20 years ago, they inherited a large expanse of lawn and a garden that looked “like it had been won in a poker game" (and it had been—literally). Like many people, they cared for it with conventional practices: mowers, blowers, and chemicals. But over the years they learned from Edwina and Perfect Earth just how toxic—and unnecessary—these practices are. First, they stopped using chemicals on their lawn. Then, about six years ago, they took their landscape to the next level: reducing their lawn by 12,000 square feet and filling it with a robust mix of native plants—from silvery-leafed mountain mint (Pycnanthemum) to fragrant sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) and huckleberry. “Planting all these natives has enhanced the beauty here,” Goodbody said. “There are bees, butterflies, and a lot more birds. Red-tailed hawks fly over whenever I go out and in the spring I look for flashes of bright red or yellow when the tanagers return.” Their dog Star heads out every morning for her daily walkabout, following the path around the house. “I like watching the seasons unfold. The garden makes me feel rooted and attached to this place in a much deeper way than ever before,” says Goodbody. “Having it is a way to care for one tiny corner in the world and make it a healthier place.”

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This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on October 20, 2023.

Photo: A detail of a planting in the Bosque garden, designed by Piet Oudolf. Oudolf created a horticultural master plan for The Battery in 2004. Rich with texture, color, and fragrance, the gardens are filled with perennial and native plants designed to be enjoyed year round.

For two decades, The Battery has been a model for public parks and sustainable horticulture in New York City and beyond, proving that what we work toward at Perfect Earth Project is possible—and beautiful: You can plant drop-dead gorgeous landscapes for biodiversity. You can care for these perennial gardens, which are designed by a world-renowned designer, without any toxic chemicals—and do it for decades. You can create and plant a playground to handle floods from ever-frequent storms. You can nurture old-growth trees. You can grow an organic farm right in the middle of downtown Manhattan and use it to teach and feed people. You can do all of this while welcoming millions of people 365 days of the year—for free.

The powerhouse behind The Battery is Warrie Price, the founder of the nonprofit Battery Conservancy, which “designs, builds, maintains, and activates” the park. It doesn’t surprise me at all when autocorrect changes “Warrie” to “warrior.” She’s been a beloved and fierce advocate for conservation and sustainable horticulture for decades. “I think we have done an extraordinary project that began so small, but then really took off because how can you not want to keep making things beautiful?” she says. “At The Battery Conservancy, we like to say we’re ‘devoted to wow.’”

Price shares her thoughts about The Battery.

How did The Battery Conservancy begin? How did this park come to be the beloved place it is today?

I was asked by Betsy Barlow Rogers to create a nonprofit for The Battery. The park had a master plan created by landscape architect Philip Winslow, who sadly died before the project could begin. But Betsy said make sure you’re in accord with it, because if you can't visualize, if you can't be excited to implement it, then it’s going nowhere. The master plan is the skeleton of the park, the guidelines. But there was no horticulture, no horticulturist on the team at the time, no playground, no bikeway, no urban farm. Still, it provided the guidelines, and we review it every time we make a change in the park. After reviewing and embracing the master plan, I created The Battery Conservancy. We started with the promenade. We hired Piet Oudolf, who was not well known here at the time. He created a master horticultural plan. I think his genius is bringing the natural world into this romantic environment. In 2003, Piet first designed the Garden of Remembrance after 9/11 to honor those we lost, those who made it home safe that day, and those who would come later. It was created by private funding and a whole lot of volunteer hands. We’ve been able to enjoy them for 20 years, but they’re now about to go through reconstruction with the changes to the park. [Oudolf’s other contributions include the Bosque gardens, woodland plantings, and the bikeway.]

I think from the beginning, I wanted to make the park its own destination, not just a passageway. It was important to me personally because of its rich heritage.

What do you need for a successful garden?

When you’re planning a garden, whatever type it is, you need two things to ensure its success: authenticity and a program for how you’re going to use it. First, you have to be authentic to the landscape. Take the time to understand the history of the land, its topography, geography, and soil. Then, the second thing you need is a program, visualize how you’re going to use the space. If you don't have a program, if you haven't visualized how you want to be there, enjoy it and be a part of it, you're going to have a failed garden.

Why are public parks and gardens important to city life?

Beauty never stops healing the soul, and gardens are beautiful: green gardens, multi-color gardens—all plant life. Also, public parks and gardens in cities are unexpected, so they're cherished. They get people to stop because there is always something of interest happening, especially in a perennial garden. When you come to The Battery every week, you'll see the gardens change and evolve.

Our goal at The Battery is to enhance life mentally and physically. When you physically walk through the gardens, you interchange with nature. Mentally there’s a quiet sense of what beauty does to get your mind concentrating on something. That's an additive to good health and a good feeling versus dealing with the stress and the problems that surround you in a very urban setting.

Why was it important to be toxic-free from the start?

I learned a lot about conservation from Mrs. Johnson. [Price was college roommates with Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President and Lady Bird Johnson (or Mrs. Johnson as she called her), and lived at the White House for a time. She helped Lady Bird Johnson found the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX, where she is also a founding director.] When we started the Battery Conservancy, I always thought, no pesticides, no herbicides. We’re small. We can afford to pull our weeds ourselves. We can think of other ways instead of chemicals. For example, we’ll use integrated pest management like beneficial nematodes instead of toxic sprays. Nature has remedies if you’re knowledgeable. We worked with Rutgers to pick the best turf blend for the lawn we do have. We love our nitrogen producing clover in the lawn. The parks department found our perennial gardens to be much more economical than cutting hedges and mowing lawns all the time. We have a slogan: plant our parks. We want to set a standard for both public park design and maintenance. The gardens here are the essence of what the park is.

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Thanks to the efforts of Warrie Price and The Battery Conservancy, cracked and barren blacktop was transformed into a perennial haven planted for biodiversity and beauty—and always taken care of without toxic chemicals.

What are you doing for biodiversity?

We’ve been working with Audubon NYC and now have more birds in the park than ever before. We leave seed heads during the winter and have planted different types of ornamental grasses and habitat. We’re a destination for migratory birds. They're so beautiful, and they bring such life. We're also a Monarch Waystation [A habitat designated by Monarchs International that supports migration and reproduction of Monarch butterflies]. We’ve planted milkweed. They also feed on Agastache and other flowers as they make their way south. We’re feeding them along the way.

We have also decided to support our native bees as much as possible. We will no longer be hosting European honeybee hives in the park because we know our native bees need uninterrupted space for themselves. Bees are great communicators of life. They give hope when you see their populations increasing.

We want everyone to “leave the leaves'' instead of throwing them away. They fertilize the lawn and become habitat for insects during the winter. And then of course, we’re toxic-free. We cultivate everything—our urban farm, forest farm, all the gardens, lawn maintenance—without chemicals and always have. We can all be conservationists.

What are the challenges of having a public park during climate change?

The evolution of The Battery is always about change. We have to adapt to the garden’s needs—and those needs change. I would say every 20 years the needs must be re-evaluated and adapted. We certainly see this now.
For a thousand years, there has been the relationship of landscape to water. As I mentioned earlier, we’re about to go through some changes. The promenade is being totally rebuilt. It will be elevated six feet to handle rising sea waters from climate change. There will still be the Gardens of Remembrance, they’ll just be different. They will be more like embankment gardens because everything will be raised up high and you'll walk up to the promenade versus down to it the way you do now. We hope the project will be completed by 2026.

We recently completed a playscape, which was designed after Hurricane Sandy, to flood and recover. Instead of ignoring this flood prone area, we reimagined it for play. We want to be a model for waterfront flood prone areas all over the world. Come talk to us about creating bioswales and reserve tanks under climbing structures and climbing mounds. Ask us about designing with salt-tolerant plants that like wet soil. A couple of weeks ago when we had a deluge of rain from a storm, the playscape didn’t flood. We don’t want municipalities to leave these areas dormant. We've learned a lot. We're now able to share that knowledge with others.

For so long this park was all about water gazing, to paraphrase Melville, and now it's a landscape about learning. It's a landscape to impart so much knowledge through our gardens, through our biodiversity, through our birds, through our bees. They’re all telling great stories. I think about the evolution of how we are today, how our “learning landscape” has evolved through our programing. This transformation, these 30 years of designing and rebuilding, we now have this transformed landscape of 25 acres, and gardens and horticulture—no pesticides, no herbicides have been a huge part. We continually say no to things that were very much part of traditional park management.

Do you have a favorite time in the garden?

I love the beginning of the morning. The light is so magnificent because it reflects off the waters. But then the sunsets are fabulous, especially now. I also adore being by the fountain in the middle of a warm day. I watch all the children playing surrounded by plants—the coolness of the shade and the refreshing water sprays. I’m happiest when I see the way people interact with the garden—especially the children. I think, you know, it worked. The people make the programs come alive. We’re free to the public and open 365 days of the year, 24 hours of the day. And the impact is so much bigger than just us. It's so much bigger than downtown. It's so much bigger than any other park. Gardens are beautiful. You can never underestimate the power of beauty on mental and physical health.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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The densely planted gardens are magical in fall.

Photos: Courtesy of The Battery Conservancy

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“All gardens are a form of autobiography,” writes Robert Dash, the late creator of the magical Madoo, a garden in Sagaponack, NY, (Notes from Madoo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000). The painter and poet wove an intricate story of art, exploration, and a reverence for the natural world when he created the two-acre garden more than 50 years ago. It features paths designed for “loitering”; structures painted in a panoply of colors: a lavender gazebo, sunny yellow arch, and robin’s egg blue bench; and a plant palette that spans the globe, including many native varieties. “Whenever possible, suitable native plant material is used—,” writes Dash, “plants that are garden-worthy and have decent manners, that is.”

For the past 14 years, Madoo Conservancy director Alejandro Saralegui has been the garden’s passionate steward. Dash was explicit that he didn’t want to “fix this garden in amber,” as he put it. “It must remain relevant.” Saralegui has been honoring his wishes, keeping alive Dash’s spirit of artistry and experimentation. “The garden is heavily planted and that sometimes calls for change,” Saralegui says. “It’s a remarkable legacy; we want to preserve and enhance it.”

Yet, one thing remains constant at Madoo: A deep commitment to organic gardening. “Madoo uses no sprays,” Dash wrote decades ago. It still doesn’t. In addition to being chemical-free, Saralegui follows an organic approach to care. “We allow plants to grow naturally, aside from the topiary, rake leaves into garden beds where they’ll decompose over time, and embrace native plants,” he says. He especially loves the garden’s mature, native trees, such as the fruiting pawpaw, or as Saralegui jokingly calls it, “the new cool Brooklyn kid tree,” or the stately Franklinia (“my pride and joy”), a rare bloomer that’s extinct in the wild but still grows in cultivation thanks to William Bartram, who saved its seeds hundreds of years ago. There is also an array of native grasses, Joe-pye weed, goldenrod, and spring-blooming Camassia, to name just a few native stalwarts that flourish in the landscape. Saralegui makes sure to leave the seed heads through the winter for wildlife. He also re-uses as much material as possible. The garden recently saved the original brick, for example, when they redesigned the rill, using it to line both sides of the new water feature. “We hope people go home, look at their gardens, and be inspired by what they’ve seen at Madoo,” says Saralegui. “And then bring a little magic to their own gardens.”

Madoo

“Organic formality” is how Saralegui describes the look at Madoo. “Strong bones keep the garden from looking like a hippy hangout,” he says. “The painted hardscape also brightens the all green landscape.” But as Robert Dash used to remind people, ‘green is a color, too.” Photos by Alejandro Saralegui.

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