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Ecosystem Landscaping

The art of creating landscapes that are visually beautiful and 

that support biological diversity.

Ecosystem Landscaping

Wood Poppies, Stylophorum diphyllum, Native to moist semi-shaded woodlands

Our Leaf and Re-leaf Parties have been very successful!

A partnership between Columbia Families in Nature (CFIN) and Transition Howard County (Transition).

Fall 2015

This is the second year of Leaf Parties. We got the brainstorm two years ago that it's hard work to transition even a small section of lawn back to an ecosystem functioning area. But if friends joined together, like the old barn-raisings, or a Tupperware party, we could help each other, one garden at a time. So Transition’s Ecosystem Landscaping Committee and CFIN teamed up, and now 2 pollinator gardens planted last spring are growing, full of butterflies and bees and happy children.

We held 2 more Leaf Parties this fall. We gathered at the homes of two different CFIN members and worked together to prepare a portion of their lawns to be transformed into pollinator supporting gardens in the spring. We enjoyed tasty snacks, played with the leaves, and eventually got all the leaves up into the areas we will be turning into gardens. Paper and cardboard were laid on top of the grass and the leaves went on top of that, a process called lasagna mulching that will kill off the grass over the winter so we can come back for a ReLeaf Party in the spring and plant lovely native, pollinator supporting species.

Leaf Party 15-10-22

Fall 2014

In a project designed to help our community increase sustainable biodiversity and reduce watershed issues, last autumn we partnered with Columbia Families in Nature to host 'Leaf Parties.' The end goal of these events was to help a homeowner take a small piece of their property and transition lawn into native plantings for pollinators. 

Re-leaf parties

Two homeowner graciously volunteered to be our very first hosts, Bess Caplan and Kathy Avery. Since every party should be fun, we played enthusiastically in the autumn leaves. When the play time wound down we raked the leaves under the canopy of a tree, along with layers of newspaper and cardboard in a 'lasagne layering' technique successful in killing the grass. This is a form of no-till gardening that has the maximum benefit to soil microbes so that new plants can benefit from the already established soil microbial population. Tilling, turning the soil, kills the beneficial microbes and tears up tree roots, so we avoid this antique gardening practice.
We followed the garden preparation with an activity for the children and a workshop on Ecosystem Landscaping for the parents.
This spring we hosted "Re-leaf Parties" to plant the gardens. Over the winter Bess and Kathy designed their gardens and bought the plants. Columbia Families in Nature again joined us to dig the baby plants into their new homes. The children watered enthusiastically. 
Many neighbors stopped by to see what we were doing. Participants ranged in age from pre-schoolers to grandparents. Everyone learned something about the ecosystem. The most frequent comment was "That was so much easier and faster with so many hands helping!"
The gardens look lovely and we look forward to seeing the native plants grow and spread to fill the space prepared for them. We also look forward to seeing the pollinators return.
We are hoping that the activity goes viral and that lots of home owners choose to honor the ecosystem by returning a small part of their yard to ecosystem function. Like the old barn-raising's of years ago, helping each other makes the work easier. And there's nothing like family time playing outside and creating a beautiful space together.
We will repeat these parties starting in the Fall. If you would like to volunteer your yard please contact Ann at Click here for email. The activities are open to all. We welcome your participation even if you don't have kids.

Mulberry Pie, a sample Recipe for Biodiversity

By Ann Coren

 Have you ever eaten Mulberry pie? Have you ever tasted a native Maryland mulberry? They’re delicious, and they’re ripe now. If you plant a mulberry tree in your yard you are being both resilient and sustainable in terms of both climate change and biodiversity.

According to international scientists, we are at a tipping point in terms of biodiversity.  In May 2014 these scientists gathered at the National Academy of Sciences for the 7th Future Environmental Trends Conference focused on the theme “Ecosystems, Economy and Society: How Large-Scale Restoration Can Stimulate Sustainable Development”.  They stated that we are close to where we will be unable to restore enough ecosystem function to maintain current human populations.

Today, we are mismanaging our ecosystems worldwide.  Scientists predict that by 2025 there will be 2.4 billion people dealing with water scarcity.  Currently ¼ of the world’s population relies on groundwater that is non-renewable.  Most current wars are in areas of drought.  The demand for food is increasing, while climate change is reducing both yields and the nutritional value of the crops.  They are predicting food price riots, malnutrition, and mass migrations, many of which have already begun.  We have lost 75% of genetic diversity of our crops thus losing resilience to climate change. 

What does all of this mean for mulberry pie?  Two tenets of the Transition Movement are sustainability and resilience in the face of climate change.  But there are more issues than just climate change affecting our ability to be sustainable and resilient.  The following issues describe challenges for us locally.

Water – In Howard County we get our water from a watershed that could have future fracking upstream.  We also have a public that is uneducated about water issues, such as lawn chemicals washing off into our water sources or medicines flushed into our water sources.

Mulberries are native (the purple ones), they have deep root systems that help create healthy groundwater and reduce runoff.

Food – We rely on food crops that are not native to our ecosystem.  Thus it takes more water, fertilizer and care to bring those crops to the table than if we were to relearn how to use native crops.  Due to agribusiness we have lost much of the biodiversity of our edible plants.  We farm in monocultures, rather than biodiverse food forests.  Most food in the grocery stores is shipped from long distances contributing to the carbon footprint.  Could you build a food forest in your yard?  One of my happiest childhood memories was picking mulberries off the trees in my yard and popping them into my mouth.

Landscaping – Our current suburban landscape practices, the lawn and non-native ornamental plants, have little ecosystem function, therefore not supporting native pollinators making us further dependent on honey bees, a domesticated animal that is also at risk.  The ornamental plants are homes to insect invaders, such as the tiger mosquito and the stink bug, that are hard for us to live with.  Ornamental plants and non-native crops such as Bradford Pear (not edible) and dandelions become invasive, choking out the natives that could sustain us through difficult times.  Native mulberry trees, Morus rubra, host nine species of native caterpillars including the lovely Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa.  True, the mulberry tree is not as good a host plant as a white oak, which hosts over 534 caterpillar species.  But I’m in the summer mood for mulberry pie not acorn pie, I’ll try eating something made from acorns in the autumn.  In the meantime tent caterpillars love mulberry and the caterpillars hatch just in time to feed lots of baby birds.  96% of land birds feed only soft caterpillars or other larvae to their young.  If we lose the caterpillars we lose the baby birds.

Development of Suburbs – In order to build a house, all of the topsoil is scraped away.  The microbial community that supports plants is lost, requiring fertilizer and chemicals to grow shade plants and food.  The contours of the land are changed, creating erosion of the streams and silting in of the Chesapeake Bay with the resultant loss of habitat and food.  A lovely mulberry tree would help slow that erosion and restore soil microbes.  Mulberry trees are happiest along floodplains and river valleys and can be part of riparian buffers.

There is time to reverse the trend towards lower biodiversity.  Nations around the world are beginning to address these issues by restoring ecosystem function.  They are finding that restoring ecosystems creates jobs and stimulates the economy.  From mangrove swamps in Indonesia, to cattle-grazing practices in South Africa, to migratory bird pathways in China, people around the world are beginning to see the interconnectedness of humans with the natural world, to rethink the way they live and to see their quality of life improve.  (Note: I have conference notes on each of these projects and others, so please contact me if you would like the details.)

Here in Howard County our biggest issue is suburban development and the resultant lawn landscape, which is a biological desert.  If all of our lawns were converted to ecosystem function (e.g., native plants, combined with food production) we would be both more resilient and more sustainable.  Yum mulberry pie: pick the fruit fresh from your backyard tree, and feed the birds as well.  Mulberry trees produce abundant fruit.  And, if you prefer native raspberries to mulberries, then I’ve been told that if you plant both, the birds prefer the soft mulberries and leave the raspberries alone.

What else can you do to reverse the downward trend in biodiversity?  Transition Howard County is an educational organization.  We strive to educate people about the issues so that they can make informed decisions.  We need to get people to reconsider the way we live in Howard County, to question such traditions as lawns as status symbols, to value riparian buffers more than “the view” of a river, to enjoy native mulberry pie, and to make the happiness index more important than a growth index.

Transition Howard County has many committees (e.g., Ecosystem Landscaping Committee, Food Committee) working on biodiversity issues.  We have over the past two years built partnerships and respect within Howard County.  Please actively join us.  Help on a committee, staff a table at an event, or take on a project.  Be mindful about each of your daily habits.  Is there a better way to do habitual things?  Share your solutions with others on our Facebook page.

The message from the conference was that we must make biodiversity our highest priority, even a political and cultural movement, before we reach the tipping point.  The issue is not getting the attention it deserves.  Climate change is only now beginning to become a political conversation; biodiversity stresses are not even on the political discussion horizon, but need to be.  Extinctions are happening now, even in Howard County.  I went on a walk last week in Patapsco State Park to search for the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, the Maryland state insect.  Not only did we not find the butterfly, we did not even find its host plant, the white turtlehead, Chelone glabra, where it had been previously spotted.  We cannot wait for government to restore biodiversity for us, or individually to let someone else do your conscience work for you.  We must each work for cultural change to preserve what is left.

The Roman civilization died in large part due to use of lead drinking water pipes. A cultural paradigm.  The Mayan civilization died because they over-farmed the land. A cultural farming paradigm. Cultural paradigms are changeable!

Life on this lovely planet will recuperate after this latest of great extinctions (estimated to be 140,000 species per year and called the Anthropocene extinction). Recovery will take millions of years and might not include humans, but what a waste that we created it, when we have the intelligence to know better. No more mulberry pie.

To be sustainable and resilient on this planet, humans must become a part of the ecosystem functioning of the natural world, to be part of the place we are in, rather than trying to shape that space into someplace else. That means you and me, now.

The beautiful part is that we have the freedom to choose our life’s actions.  Anyone for mulberry pie?

Ann’s Recipe for Mulberry Pie

4 cups of ripe mulberries, or enough to generously fill your pie pan. (The deeper the red-purple color the riper and sweeter. Don’t eat the unripe ones!)

Mix with sugar, lemon and cinnamon to taste

Add a little tapioca to absorb the juice (1 TBS? I don’t measure.)

Put into your favorite pie shell and bake (don’t over-bake, just bake the crust, the berries are soft and cook quickly)

Variations: combine mulberries with other berries, or rhubarb, or apples

Ann's Yard latest post: Blooming Trees 2.17.14


Celebrating the Earth: Why is Ecosystem Landscaping

an important part of Peak Oil and Resilience in the face of climate change?

By Ann Coren

The Ecosystem Landscaping Committee is hosting a BioBlitz in partnership with the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks on Saturday, 26 April 2014 at the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum in West Friendship, Maryland. Save the date!

A BioBlitz? What’s that?”

A BioBlitz is a survey of all of the biota in a particular place on a particular date. It gives us baseline data about the biodiversity of an area. In this case our home, Howard County.

So why should I care? What does it have to with the principles of the Transition Movement? What does it have to do with Peak Oil or Resiliency?”

According to the Transition Principles, there are several Characteristics of Resilient Systems, including the following:

Diversity – Diversity in all areas (e.g., ecological, social, economic) needs to be attended to and supported.

Ecological variability – Ecosystems constantly change. Understanding the variability of a system is wise.

Ecosystem services - We have to learn to value ecosystem services. The earth is not an unlimited source of materials.

Diverse connections - We must explore and create awareness of our connections both to other people and to all of creation.

The relevance to Howard County of the above Principles is that we are living here in a time of rapid land use changes. Initially, before European settlement, the land was forest. The Europeans cleared the forests for farmland. Now the farmland is rapidly being turned into suburbs.

The Europeans brought with them a culture that said that native plants were weeds and only their ornamental or food crops were worth growing. This wiped out a great deal of biodiversity. For instance, when was the last time you saw or could identify a Spicebush growing in the woods or fields? It is the only host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. Without the host plant for the larvae to eat, the species goes extinct.

But wait, I have a Butterfly bush in my yard and it’s covered with butterflies!”

Yes, mine is also. It is a nectar plant. It feeds some species of adult butterflies, but not the larvae.

Oh yuck, I don’t want nasty caterpillars eating my plants.”

Yes you do! 98% of all songbirds feed caterpillars to their young. Without caterpillars there are no baby birds. If we lose the baby birds, we lose the adult birds who eat the mosquitoes. A few holes in the leaves of your plants are artistic reminders that your yard is a healthy ecosystem.

I will tell you more about Pollinators, habitat fragmentation and other biodiversity issues in future postings.

In the meantime the BioBlitz will tell us what species, both native and invasive live in Howard County, so that we can, each in our own yards, make ecosystem friendly gardening plans. Since I have begun the process in my own yard, the number of bird species has increased from about 5 to over 20.

Well, OK, but what does Ecosystem Landscaping or a BioBlitz have to do with Peak Oil?”

Ah yes, now you have come to an interesting question. To make an analogy, homes are now “dressed” in a very 1950s fashion, with the lawn being the dominant feature. In the 1950s we did not know about Peak Oil and we had lots of fuel for our lawn mowers. Lawn mowers put out more carbon per gallon of fuel than cars. Their engines are unregulated. How many gallons of gas do you use each year mowing your lawn? Also, keep in mind that green growing things photosynthesize and therefore sequester carbon, mitigating carbon dioxide increases. Trees and bushes have more surface area than a lawn, so they sequester more carbon. Keep some lawn area for the kids to play, but transition the rest to native butterfly gardens and hedgerows.

We need your help with the BioBlitz on 26 April 2014! We need to know what is growing in Howard County in order to develop baseline data about the native things that could be growing here and how to landscape for them. There will be fun ways for both experts and novices to identify and count plants, birds, amphibians, fungi and much more. 

See the menu on the left to register for the BioBlitz.

Margo Duesterhaus,
Dec 13, 2013, 8:02 PM