Landscaping for Heaven or Hell on Earth
Director of Outreach and K-12 Education, Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants
What kind of landscaping embodies the love and stewardship that are expressions of a spiritual way of life? Native and edible. Native, because it honors creation and is the foundation of the food web, feeding the pollinators, birds and other creatures that deliver essential ecosystem services for people and planetary health. Edible, because it makes food for people. Native and edible landscapes are steps toward heaven on Earth, providing sustenance for people and wildlife while acknowledging the awesome complexity of life and how everything is connected.
What kind of landscaping adorns most homes and places of worship? Ornamental non-native landscaping that feeds neither people nor wildlife, landscaping that is typically water and chemical intensive, depleting fresh water supplies to little purpose, contaminating soil and water with petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and contributing to oceanic dead zones. Ornamental non-native landscaping is short-sighted and, however unintentionally, models the ignorance and hubris that are killing life on our planet.
It is time to recognize the wrongdoing at the heart of ornamental non-native landscaping and to make amends. It is time for people to extend the love and respect they show for one another to the land that surrounds their homes and places of worship.
Landscaping native is integral to caring for creation. Native plants require no soil amendments, fertilizers or pesticides and, once established, use a minimal amount of supplemental water. Furthermore, native plants are habitat. Without native plants, 9 out of 10 species of leaf-eating insects die. Butterflies, for example, because caterpillars are leaf-eaters. Caterpillars are the main food of baby birds, and birds provide ecosystem services such as watershed protection, reforestation and natural pest control, which are essential for us.
It is our sacred duty to protect and support creation, not destroy it through the vanity of the superficial, misguided aesthetics of ornamental non-native landscaping.
Since 1970, bird populations in the United States have dropped 60-90% primarily due to loss of habitat. The precipitous decrease in birds is emblematic of the decline in species across the Earth. The extinction rate is now 1,000 times faster than the normal background extinction rate.
Every home and place of worship should be an ark to help save creation, an ark of native plants through which people may re-establish native habitat throughout their communities. With much of the land in the United States devoted to urban and suburban uses, imagine the support of biodiversity that could occur. Imagine the pollinators, birds and other creatures that would find refuge and benefit our edible gardens. When orchards and fruit and vegetable gardens have native plants nearby,yield increases due to the many different kinds of pollinators supported by the native plants.
Native and edible landscaping is a way to care for one's community and the miracle of life. It is a way to counter the food desert that large parts of our urban and suburban areas have become, both for people and wildlife. It is a way to model the mindfulness, respect and right action needed to help heal our beautiful struggling biosphere. It is a way to practice the deeply spiritual understanding that all of life is connected. It's also a way to rebel against the conceit that we can kill life on Earth while preserving our own souls.
Society has gained consciousness in so many other areas, making strides against the evils of racism, poverty and the lack of educational opportunity, but that consciousness has still, for the most part, not extended to how we landscape. We have a duty as a society to strive to create utopia on Earth, and many of our religious institutions have been at the forefront of support for civil rights and economic justice. That utopian ideal must extend to care of the Earth itself. There is no better place to start than where we live, worship and pray.
A few years ago in Pasadena, California, Throop Unitarian Universalist Church converted its lawn to a primarily native and edible garden, modeling food production for people and wildlife and support of biodiversity and ecosystem health. We should all emulate this beautiful, affirming act of reverence for life.