Monday, January 10, 2011

Sustainable Horticulture

As I mentioned in my last post, I was at a master gardener technical update ( a fancy term for a one day conference/seminar) regarding sustainable horticulture. A reader, One from Onenezz, very thoughtfully asked me to elaborate further on the subject and so I will do my best.

"After the establishment of sustainable agriculture in the early 1980s it was some time before the emergence of Sustainable Horticulture (as sustainable production horticulture) at the International Society of Horticultural Science's First International Symposium on Sustainability in Horticulture held at the International Horticultural Congress in Toronto in 2002. This symposium produced "conclusions ... on Sustainability in Horticulture and a Declaration for the 21st Century". 

It is the...
... design, construction, operations and maintenance practices that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
by attempting to:

...protect, restore and enhance the ability of landscapes to provide ecosystem services that benefit humans and other organisms.   (The Sustainable Sites Initiative)

To the best of my knowledge sustainable horticulture is another way of phrasing various other 'green' terms we have come to hear about over the years. In essence it is a philosophy of how we should be living our lives in harmony with the natural environment. With sustainable horticulture we are looking at gardens and landscape in particular but not exclusively. 

Ever since the creation of cities the majority of populations lived in the rural areas of any country worldwide. Up until the 19 century 80% of the population lived in the country, today that 80 % now lives in the city. Imagine what changes have occurred in the last 200 years. We have gone from living in small separate communities with nature all around  to enormous land grabbing cities, with people living in such close quarters and nature trying to survive in the nooks and crannies that are left to them.
Living in large cities is hard and stressful. Noise, pollution, crime are part of daily life. The worst of the cities are concrete jungles. Neighborhoods exist with little green space, schools have few or small windows and their playgrounds are concrete slabs. How do we expect children to grow up living in a box with no access to anything natural. According to one statistic raised at the conference, 40% of neighborhood crime decreases if children can see a tree outside their window. An amazing figure ! How do we create the access to more natural areas for these children?

Part of the idea of sustainable horticulture is to find ways to allow to allow animals large and small to survive in the cities and the more natural areas left to them. We forget that animals migrate, have territories, build communities. They, like us, need food, shelter, water. We are upset when the raccoons  invade our garbage and our koi ponds, when the mice get into the house, when a hawk scoops up our small dog or cat. There is a need to look more closely at how are cities and communities are built with animals in mind. One idea is the need to create animal corridors in the cities and corridors linking cities and towns. If we want to continue to live with animal life we must provide space for them to move freely and place to live safely. What value to do place on animal life? 

Water. Some places in the world are in constant drought. The ice caps are melting and the arctic north is greening  and not in a good way. Floods are happening frequently elsewhere. While the effects of global warming are difficult for the average person to  alter we can make better choices in our communities. New systems of preventing water runoff to the sewers are just starting to be implemented, the use of rain barrels for the average homeowner is on the rise, downspout runoff can be transformed into small bog gardens or diverted to cisterns for future use. Consider what is in the water that runs off your property into local streams or lakes. How can we clean it before it reaches these areas?

Another part involves plant life. For a decade now we have been on the green bandwagon (and rightly so) and trying to get back to nature or finding ways to make our gardens more natural. The question arises, What is natural? Are gardens planted with native only plants natural? What do we think about all the new plant cultivars or hybrids that are introduced every year? Are they natural? How do we deal with invasive plants in our national parks, city gardens, and our home gardens.
The trend is to encourage native plants in your gardens and I am a firm believer in this. Growing natives makes sense although it is not foolproof. What garden is truly natural? As master gardeners we must be aware and make others aware that planting natives is not foolproof. We must steer away from the holy platitudes that they are tough, need less water, fertilizer etc. While this is partially true, ask yourself, is the soil in your garden untouched from centuries past? Can we expect all native plants to survive easily where the topsoil has been removed, where pesticides and herbicides are used, where the soil has been trampled on and compacted over time? The use of natives is important but there are many wonderful alternatives to suit "the right plant in the right place". 

Following this idea is the importance of invasive species. No matter where you live you are probably putting up a fight with some plant from another country or region of your own country that is taking over your garden. Tighter controls are needed when importing new plants to help avoid this problem. The same applies to the importation of beneficial insects for control of pests.
A lot has been in the news lately about pollinators and beneficial bugs. How can we attract them to our garden? How can we keep them safe ? Again the importance of native plants plays a large part here as they provide the necessities that our local insects, birds, animals need for survival whether it is food or shelter.

I have only touched the surface of this broad subject. It is extremely involved and of course quite complicated as everything in the world is connected somehow. It is because of the recognition of this connection and seeing what we are doing to our planet that conferences on horticulture sustainability are now taking place. I hope that I have raised questions to make you think. Think about what is important to you, how you want to live, how you would like future generations to live.

For more information please visit this website: Canadian Institute for Sustainable Biodiversity


  1. Wonderful information and I could only touch on the subject by saying so.

  2. Your post rather sums up our entire philosophy here. We didn't fence the property perimeter so that wildlife corridors could remain open. We don't use chemical sprays so we can continue to enjoy all of the wildlife, large and small, and help to maintain a functional, and thriving ecosystem. We're constantly battling invasive species, but slowly winning the war (I agree, we do need tighter controls in regards to plant imports and sales). We're only here for a moment in comparison to the trees, and the other species in residence here. If we can leave it at least as good as we found it, we'll have done well. If we can leave it better and healthier than we found it, much more the better.

  3. Hi Patty, I'm glad I came back to discover this post. I like the idea of animal corridors in the cities. At the place we used to stay, there were many monkeys around. Many people considered them as pests when in reality, they were living there first till their tree homes were cut down to make way for human houses.

  4. Patty, I've added a link to this post from my Nature Park post.

  5. Great post on a complex subject! You are right that as Master Gardeners part of our mission is to get this information out there and educate the public one at a time. It is an arduous job but one that will hopefully have an impact.

  6. Curbstone- With such a large property I can hardly imagine what battles you face daily.

    One- I am glad you returned. I am grateful for the motivation you spurred on. I am also thankful for the link.

    Karin- Thanks for stopping in. It is an overwhelming topic but as MG's we can add our bit that affect every day gardeners.

  7. There is so much here for consideration, and so many complicated answers. All I know from implementing and running an invasive plant removal program, if we don't hurry, it will be too late.

  8. An interesting post. My husband works near the Toronto airport and there is a small group of deer that are becoming trapped as the area around their wooded little ravine becomes developed. I often wonder what will happen to them. Closer to home, I see developers pressuring the nearby apple farms to sell their land as the city extends its boundaries. It breaks my heart!

  9. Great post! Sustainable Horticulture is so important now with so many concrete jungles around. But is always great to see so many efforts to get nature in our cities.

  10. Carolyn - I understand about invasive plant removal. It is tedious and never seems to end. In my garden I consider removing the garlic mustard as one of my yearly chores.

    Jennifer- What a problem. I wonder if anyone is doing anything about it?

    Fer - It is good to know people and groups are starting to think about it and are planning for it now.

  11. Agree with gardenwalkgardentalk, wonderful information. I really like the subject you talking here, but in many way people don't want to implement in the real world.

  12. Hi Patty, i am new here just looking for new blogs, and i am glad someone is spousing this thread here. These things have already been here in my head, so not new to me, i have an agricultural background as a profession, that's why. However, i am in another specialist group of postharvest physiology, actually i presented a paper in the Turkey ISHS Int'l Sympo, but sustainability must be (must) in every person's consciousness, and everyone must practice it in whatever way. If it is just indirectly, then conserve gas and energy, that is already a big individual's contribution. We should be doing a tremendous change for the world, if we want to save it.