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Marin IJ Articles

Holistic approach to landscaping

  • Dave Phelps
  • SOMETIMES, GARDENERS don't get the credit they deserve. The true complexities of the landscape systems are, as you delve deeper into most of them, beyond anyone's understanding.

    Our gardens involve so many systems of such complexity, from technological and structural to ecological and regulatory.  Their implementation and management can have such vast implications to our
    health and quality of life that the terms "gardener" or "landscaper" deserve a more thorough recognition for the tasks and responsibilities involved.

    It becomes obvious that gardening as a hobby or a profession touches on such wide-ranging areas of study that it can be both humbling and inspiring. How gardens and landscapes are managed, taken in a cumulative view, can have huge implications on our quality of life and life on our planet in general.

    We have to assume that landowners and land users as a whole want to do the right thing and be good stewards — promoting fertility, diversity, health and social good while leaving their lands better off than when they got them. Resources and energy need to be conserved, pollution  eliminated, and funds applied strategically for the most return on
    investment. Our responsibility to the generations to come depends on us being a "part of the solution" and not adding to the planet's problems. To
    that end, a holistic view must be taken when dealing with the land.

    Let's take a look at some of the interrelated systems involved in gardening:

    Ecology: The ecological aspects of the garden range from the migratory patterns of birds and mammals and their habitat needs to the ineffable web of life in the soil and the activity in the rhizosphere surrounding plant roots. Biological diversity and stability is determined by plant selection and maintenance practices.

    Geography: Our ability to grade the land and manipulate watersheds — as well as our move to switch from drainage systems to infiltration systems — can improve both our storm water and groundwater situations.

    Geology: The underlying bedrock and its weathering into soil is affected by our ability to change soil texture and structure. Our actions either can promote soil generation and protection or can lead to compaction, erosion and loss.

    Succession: The evolution of the soil, plant, habitat systems determine soil organic matter and acidity over time. This affects which plants and habitats can thrive in a given area. The woodland plants that have evolved in mature soils have problems when forced to survive in younger soils that would normally support annual grasses.

    Climatology: The microclimates created or modified by our cumulative garden practices affect the greater climate and can determine levels of wind, rain and temperatures over large areas.

    Entomology: Our use of pesticides along with our plant selection and maintenance practices has far-reaching effects on insect populations by determining the availability of hosts, foods and competitive
    populations. Whether we affect habitat, pollinators or predators, our
    interaction with the world of insects, arachnids and crustaceans has
    far-reaching implications.

    Sociology: It has been proven that gardens have a strong influence on the human psyche and health. From the nuts and bolts of negative ions, clean air and beneficial microbes to the promotion of social interaction, individual introspection or even the creation of beauty, the promotion of interactions with nature plays ever increasing role in how people feel and behave.

    Mechanical: Anyone who has gardened in California knows, or at least is aware, of the complexities of the delicate nature of maintaining efficient irrigation systems. The rapidly developing technological advances in irrigation systems make material selection and upkeep a moving target. Programming can have huge effects on plant and soil health and pest
    populations, not to mention our precious natural resource, water. Likewise,
    lighting and sound systems are increasingly complex systems to install and
    manage and yet they offer environments in our mild climate that promote the use and enjoyment of our outdoor spaces beyond our homes and structures. Pools, outdoor kitchens, and spas, to name a few other possible mechanical systems, likewise affect our quality of life but add layers of complexity to the selection, installation and maintenance of the modern landscape.

    Structural: Decks, retaining walls, arbors, steps and paths help direct and create our experience of a garden space. These structures can involve masonry, carpentry and even metallurgy, as well as concepts of architecture, engineering and local building codes. Accessibility standards also are involved.

    By recognizing the intricate web of interactions within the garden setting while striving to expand our awareness of the different systems and our understanding of them, we become better at making informed decisions involving their design and management. By placing value on qualities
    such as imbedded energy, sequestered carbon, social benefits, or habitat
    potential, we get a better context from which to make better decisions.

    As we strive to become more eco-literate and act locally for our collective global good, while still balancing our budgets and quality of life, we increasingly appreciate the role of the conscientious and knowledgeable gardener. We also, as gardeners, develop an increasing and healthy
    sense of awe, of humility, and of respect for the complexity of our environment and the lasting affects our actions have upon it. If we think holistically and view our actions in the greater context we can become a part of the solution.

    You can learn more about sustainable landscape management on Nov. 18 at an upcoming workshop in San Rafael. Robert Perry, author of "Landscape Plants for California Gardens," will speak and sign books. The workshop will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Pickleweed
    Community Center at 50 Canal St. in San Rafael. CE hours for DPR, ISA,
    Bay-Friendly and Master Gardeners apply. For more information, call 499-4204.