We alter our environments to suit our needs. It's an unavoidable fact of being. We will build, we will grow, we will use. It sounds bleak, but it doesn't need to be. We can mindfully change the way we build, grow, and use. One of the most simple, small scale changes we can make is the way we use the land around our homes. There are many ways we can use the landscape sustainably, and provide benefits to ourselves as well as the environment around us.
Xeriscaping is the practice of landscaping in a way that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental irrigation in the garden. It is increasingly common in arid climates, and many cities now encourage it through policy or economic incentives. Succulents, cacti, and native plants are often used in xeriscaping, as they have very low water demands. Many of these gardens are also decorated with non-living features such as rockwork and sculpture.
In dry areas, the primary benefit of xeriscaping is reduced water demand. Xeriscaping can also reduce the effects of urban heat islands--locations which, due to the presence of concrete and asphalt, become hotter and retain heat longer than the natural environment. Native trees and shrubs provide shade during the day, and limit the amount of heat retained in buildings and walkways under them.
Conservation-minded gardeners have been using native plants since the late 1800's. Man's progress has both reduced the range of native plants and choked them out via introduced species. What better way to make amends with nature than by gardening with native plants?
Carefully selected native plants are just as beautiful as their exotic counterparts. As an added benefit, they are already adapted to the local climate. This means less supplemental watering and less fuss in bad weather. Planting natives makes a low-maintenance, eco-friendly space around the home.
Natives can serve many purposes beyond beauty. Some plants may be well-suited to living roofs, swales, greywater filtering, or medicinal purposes. As a result, their use may reduce electricity bills, water runoff and pollution, and the effects of overeating.
Humans have a vested interest in protecting things they can connect to. The simple presence of a garden and the resident wildlife that may wander into it are shown to have a positive effect on people's interest in nature and concern over biodiversity. Children in particular may be inspired by laying in a garden, watching ants crawl through the dirt and hummingbirds flit from flower to flower.
Recommended Reading: Organic Gardening – Working with Nature to Grow Your Food
As it happens, the presence of these spaces has a positive effect of native wildlife, too. As human efforts have divided up formerly wild places, animal populations become isolated and migration routes may be cut off. This can lead to a lack of genetic diversity, and an inability to cope with drought or other environmental conditions.
Fragmented as they are, gardens and planted walkways provide micro-corridors through which smaller animals can safely travel. This provides increased foraging opportunities and prevents communities from becoming isolated by human development.
Lush, green lawns are almost universally loved in the Western world. Regrettably, they are a beautiful waste of resources. The water and space that grows a lawn could be used to grow food instead. Which is better for the home and the community: a vast empty green space, or a lush edible garden?
Urban agriculture is booming in back yards and community gardens alike. The positive impact on people is measured in many ways: increased food security, connection to how and where food grows and its impact on the environment, and civic pride are just three examples. Parents of picky children should also note that kids who have invested effort in growing a garden are generally more interested in eating the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor.
Gardening As Therapy
The very act of gardening has been proven to promote wellness. It doesn't matter what sort of gardening is taken up. Whether a person works at xeriscaping a desert home or plants a row of carrots, the act of being outdoors and working the earth is effective at reducing stress and improving mood. It is beneficial to everyone, but has been used to help war veterans, psychiatric patients, and even the elderly. Gardening can be done cheaply, with a minimum of supplies, and can be made accessible to almost anyone.
While no single person and no single garden can save the world, it's easy to measure the impact of a million xeriscaped gardens in the desert in a dry year. It is inspiring to think of the empowerment of a hundred community gardens in poor, urban neighborhoods. It is hopeful to imagine one child in her backyard counting butterflies and asking, having never thought of it before, what she can do to help the Earth thrive. Imagine if everyone planted such a garden.
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