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Plantings to Help the Earth
by Jim Dronenburg


Truth to tell, there is no magic cure for the world's ills. But you can help with sensible plantings. You will, for the most part, not see any change. However, in minute amounts, you will have worked for the better. You can plant to help the air, the water, and the ground.

To help the air, plant to create biomass and reduce CO2. Let's go back to elementary biology and the carbon cycle: Animals take in oxygen and give off CO2, a greenhouse gas. (So do vehicles and any sort of combustion.) Plants take in CO2 and give off oxygen. The more plant mass there is, the more CO2 it will consume. Now, look at your property. Any additional plant material will help reduce CO2. Look especially at your lawn. Do you use it? If you don't, consider putting anything else in that has more mass than grass. Grass is a thin layer spread over the earth; larger plants, especially trees, use up much more CO2 than the same area planted in grass. You can have both: Trees that create light shade will still allow for grass underneath (or grass and shrubs, even better.) Except when first planted, trees and shrubs use less water and fertilizer than immaculately kept lawns.


Look for areas that have no plantings to fill with green mass. Run vines up walls. Shade your house with trees. Certainly, plant to shade things like walks and driveways. These plantings will make the going a bit slower when clearing off snow and ice in the winter, but will tremendously help reduce heat in the summer. Anything you can do to shade your house will help global warming-the more your house is shaded, the less energy it takes to cool it. Want a convincing demonstration? Go to the outside part of an AC unit sometime and feel the exhaust air. The heat you are sucking out of your house, plus the energy used to do it, is being dumped outside, making the outdoors hotter. But common sense still prevails: Do not plant trees where they can rupture your water or sewer lines, disrupt your foundations, or drop massive limbs on your house 50 years hence.

The carbon cycle is getting more carbon added to it every minute from the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon that was trapped in coal, oil, whatever. But when a tree grows, carbon is trapped again in the wood and leaves. (This is where coal and oil came from in the first place. Take a swamp full of trees, compress it and bury it under pressure for a couple dozen million years, and voila! Coal.) So long as the wood and leaves are not burned (releasing the carbon again) you have done your bit to reduce CO2. Compost or bury your leaves, do not burn them. Haul wood that you have to remove off to the dump; most landfills now have shredders that turn this stuff into mulch. The mulch may decompose into topsoil eventually, but the carbon will still be in the earth, not the air.

To help the ground and water, plant things like locust trees or yellowwoods, any sort of legume. These plants have the ability to take nitrogen from the air, so you don't have to fertilize them with boatloads of nitrogen. When you fertilize other things, unless it's an emergency, do so with long-term fertilizers that you can dig or scratch in. If you choose to retain your lawn, don't water and fertilize it too much. Too often, watering with a liquid or a surface-applied fertilizer results in nitrogen and phosphorus washing off in the next rain and going down the storm drains to louse up the waterways. You can also help the soil by digging in any sort of vegetable matter. To get some vegetable matter, again go to the dump: Shredded branch mulch and (depending where you live) leaf compost is free.

Here is one area where it is OK to use high-nitrogen fertilizer. If you are digging in large amounts of shredded wood, do use a high-nitro fertilizer. Wood uses nitrogen to decay. You want the vegetable stuff in your soil to improve the soil's structure and ability to hold water, so that when rain comes it doesn't just run off the ground, but soaks in. The more vegetable matter you dig in, the better it will be for holding water-and the less water you will use out of the tap for your plants. If you have any place to install a rain barrel, do it and let the rainwater off your roof get saved for later use. Make sure it's covered, or it can breed mosquitoes. (I am lucky. I live in an old farmhouse and all the gutters drain into a massive cistern, which we use for the garden. Years ago when we built an addition we drained those gutters into the cistern, too. You can build up a massive amount of water in the winter to use the next spring and summer.)

To help the land and water both, plant to reduce erosion. If you have a place where water collects and then runs off in a gully, dig a hole there. Block the gully with the dirt out of the hole, cover the gully with plants that will anchor the soil, and cover the hole with plants that can take wet feet. Let the runoff collect in the hole and go into the ground on your land, where it will soak into the ground from the hole and be of use in the days and weeks that follow. A lot of our watering these days stems from the fact that we have paved things over and allow all of the water to drain into the storm sewers, instead of going to use. The more water you can keep on your property, the better off you will be.

Retaining water has the effect of reducing the massive swells of water that come down the streams with each heavy rain. This is what the runoff ponds are for in new construction. But you don't have to have something that looks like a runoff pond, if you plant interesting things in a natural-looking depression. When you create an area where water will gather always plant with things that will tolerate both dry conditions and occasional standing water. Examples of shrubs and trees that can tolerate both conditions include: swamp and bald cypress, river birches, red twig dogwood, swamp azalea, many willows, and buttonbush. For herbaceous plants, there are Iris pseudacorus (tall with yellow blooms), cattails, cinnamon and other ferns, Vernonia, Joe Pye Weed, blackberries, and others.

Finally, never funnel water into an ornamental pond. This is the equivalent of blasting it with a fire hose. The plants can't take it, the pond will overflow, and you'll find your fish expiring on the lawn as the excess water drains away.

Where you can't stop the water, plant to save the land. Trees like willows, alders and swamp cypresses can all anchor soil, deal with wet feet, and "drink" an enormous amount of water. In spots where you get occasional mild flushing, plant smaller things with fibrous roots that will hold the earth and slow the water. Lily of the Valley works, but is slow; consider invasives like honeysuckle and tawny daylily. In this situation-if you keep them in bounds-using them does more good than harm. If you are willing to deal with height and have sun, cattails or Iris pseudacorus are tight soil holders.

I won't lie to you. This is all work, and doing things right is rarely easy work. But it is a way you can help the planet. You'll also find-by the way the plants grow better and with less effort on your part-that you've helped yourself.

Jim Dronenburg is a mild-mannered accountant by day, an Irish harper (which pays for a lot of plants) and a "Weekend Warrior" for Behnke Nurseries, 2rutlands@comcast.net, 1-301-834-6515.



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