GARDEN THERAPY: The Nature Wars – December 2015

Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

The Nature Wars is the title of a book by Jim Sterba, who was one of the speakers at The Growing Deer Debate, a very informative symposium on the ongoing deer issue organized by The Catskill Forest Association. I also recently attended a talk at the Andes Roundtable by David Bartlem, an Andes resident and landscape designer with an emphasis on eco-friendly designs. He spoke on the issue of the native plant debate, including what invasive species (mostly non-plant) are doing to our local environment. Firstly, it is wonderful that we have such great local resources and folks willing to organize and present such eloquent and qualified speakers to raise awareness and educate us on these important issues. I was inspired by the speakers, but mostly discouraged by the content of both of these presentations. The subject matter of these two discussions was quite different, but what they had in common that stands out to me is how dramatic and unintended is the impact of both human beings and globalization on our local environment. Jim Sterba’s “nature wars” are more about battles between people over how to deal with nature. Yet it also seems to me that nature is at war with itself in a new way, intensified by the effects of our shifting economy and globalization.

Being a landscape designer and gardener, I pay a lot of attention to the landscape, both here in our neck of the woods and wherever I might be. I notice how things change on the roads I frequent in the Catskills and when I travel I bask in the differences of the plant communities and general feel of the landscape. Our beautiful Catskill region is amazing in its outstanding beauty even in the face of a plethora of marauding invasive species and over-browsing of a deer population with limited food sources in the wild. When travelling I often inquire about the invasive species situation so that I can differentiate what I am seeing. I have slowly come to believe, mostly based on my recent experience with Ecuador and Mexico, that areas without a large number of invasives species have more beautiful and harmonious landscapes. They seem to have plant communities that go together and play nicely with more beautiful combinations and groupings, with fewer plants crawling all over each other creating a sense of chaos. The Galapagos, for instance, I know has managed to edit out non-native species. The landscapes there are unbelievably stunning, and the vegetative layer looks like a perfectly executed master plan by an amazing designer.  Yes, nature, or whatever you choose to believe in, is an amazing designer and as regions evolve over time, it creates a unique, incredibly beautiful and balanced environment.

Since man (yeh, yeh, yeh, I know that we are a part of nature)—largely due to advancements in technology— has so quickly changed the landscape through farming techniques, resource harvesting, forest fire control and world travel, evolution just can’t keep up! Our environments are left with serious ecological imbalances, plant and animal species from all over the world duking it out, with the exotic species having the distinct advantage, not having experienced in their new habitat the natural checks and balances over millenia. I know that nature will prevail and evolve over time (a lot of time!) and restore balance if we allow, but it saddens me to see our landscapes going through such rapid and unseemly growing pains. It also makes me so sad to know that our ash trees are probably all going to be gone soon and that other tree species are in danger of a similar plight.

This summer I went to check out a potential new client’s property that had been left without human intervention for quite a few years. What I found was amazing.

Deer browse on Arborvitae.

Deer-damaged arborvitaes

There were arborvitaes and other shrubs mangled to the height of the deer browse line, Tartarian honeysuckles and barberries crowding around every tree and fence, where they hadn’t been mown in several years. I noted crown vetch on the banks and spreading, and Bishops weed in other areas. There was a fenced area around a pond that actually had some viable native plants, but everything else was eaten by the deer or was an exotic species that the deer find objectionable.

I don’t want to be all doom and gloom here.  We are where we are and there are lots of folks out there working to control the situation and to find solutions to these serious issues.  What I am reacting to more than anything else is the aesthetics, and my desire to keep the character of our landscapes.  Our world is still beautiful and it is still very practical to make beautiful landscapes by choosing the right plants and controlling the invasives on your property.  We can create habitat for the deer by clearing areas in the old growth forest to allow light and generate new growth.  There are things that can be done.  I would love for folks to raise their awareness, become more educated and help in the small ways available to property owners.~

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.