Jane Goodall on New Gardens for a Changing World

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This is an excerpt from Jane Goodall’s new book Seeds of Hope.

Gardening is changing. Until recently, modern landscaping and gardening was oriented more toward maintaining lawns and decorating beds with flowers and shrubs. In order to keep the grass green and exotic decorative plants alive, gardeners relied on liberal doses of water as well as chemical fertilizers, pesticides and “weed killers,” such as Roundup Ready.

At one time a young man was paid, one day a week, to help Olly with the garden at The Birches. We did not realize that he was using herbicide on the lawn to get rid of moss and other small weeds, as well as a particularly vicious pesticide to deal with the snails and slugs. When we found out, we were horrified. About six months after we dispensed with his services, we heard, for the first time in several years, the bang, bang, bang of a song thrush smashing open snails against a rock. Gradually other birds reappeared, and now the whole area is protected for conservation and the use of chemicals strongly discouraged. So many people are concerned about the terrible environmental degradation of our planet, and so often they feel helpless and hopeless in the face of all that is wrong. The most important thing, as I am constantly saying, is to think about small ways in which we can make a difference — every day. And people lucky enough to have gardens can truly make a difference by maintaining the land in an environmentally friendly way.

Right now the biggest new gardening trend in the United States is the elimination of fertilizer-​dependent and water-​draining grass lawns. Instead, gardeners are discovering the joys of creating more environmentally friendly habitats with native trees and plants — those that have been living in the area for hundreds of years and are adapted to the climate.

My botanist friend Robin Kobaly is an advisor to people who want to grow drought-​tolerant gardens with native plants in the Southwest. She says that people are especially enthusiastic about native plants when they live in arid areas, but even in other parts of the country, where there’s more rainfall, gardeners are getting sick of the amount of water it takes to keep grass lawns green. At the moment, gardening with drought-​tolerant native plants is just a popular eco-​conscious trend. But soon, five to six years from now, Robin believes, “it will be imperative for everyone to change how they landscape and garden as the overriding reality of the lack of water becomes apparent.”

Jane Goodall on Environmentalism

This new gardening movement not only reduces water waste but also provides an attractive habitat for the local wildlife. Last month Gombe videographer Bill Wallauer wrote to tell me about how he and his wife, Kristin, were transforming their “typical ridiculous American lawn” into a native plant habitat for bees and other insects and birds and a whole host of small creatures.

Bill put in a stream, a pond and a wetland for water-​loving plant species. He created two areas of high-​wildlife-​value shrub species, planted numerous coneflower and aster species and is propagating native grass.

“My favorite spot is our beautiful native-​woodland-​wildflowers area, which has species like wild ginger, wild leak, and trillium,” he recently wrote to me. So far he has recorded 37 bird species in their “tiny little backyard.”

I have to say that while it may seem small to him after the wilderness of Gombe, it is clearly rather large compared to the postage-​stamp-​size gardens that most people have — if they have a garden at all. But even the smallest of gardens can make a difference for the wildlife that is struggling to survive. Almost everyone I meet wants to save wild animals and insects, but they often don’t realize how important it is to preserve the anchors of the wildlife community — the native plants.

Dance of the Honey Bee

In urban areas where the gardens and yards are often small, some communities are joining together to create wildlife havens. There is, for example, the “Pollinator Pathway” in Seattle — where a group of neighbors have transformed the scruffy strips of grass in front of their homes, between the sidewalk and the street, into a mile-​long bee-​pollinator corridor, planted with native plants that attract and nourish bees. Other neighborhoods and individual properties are havens for migrating birds. Robin tells her gardening clients, “Think of your garden as a gas station for migrating birds, a place where they can fill up their tanks — they can’t migrate if they don’t have fuel.”

It is exciting to think that our gardens can be part of a growing effort to restore health to our planet. To this end, enormous efforts are also being made by young people all around the world through the JGI Roots & Shoots program.

Excerpted from Seeds of Hope by Jane Goodall,  © 2014.  Excerpted by permission Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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