Saturday, July 12, 2008

Review: Noah's Garden

Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

As interested as I am in gardening for wildlife you'd think I would have run across this a lot sooner. Noah's Garden is the narrative of the author's work to restore her 5 acre lot in upstate New York to something resembling native vegetation. It turns out that restoring a habitat involves a lot more than just planting some native species and calling it good. Habitats are interactive systems, and having the right native species for the area in the right numbers and the right combinations are all important.

Once the critical mass is reached, however, Stein herself discovered that if you plant the habitat, they will come. In this case, "they" consisted of plant species that she'd not planted herself, and she watched in amazement as a rare bit of endangered ecosystem self-assembled over the course of several seasons once she had the right woody plants in place.

Noah's Garden is not a scolding rebuke against "foreign" plants in the landscape, nor against any particular type of landscaping at all. Most of the book chronicles the author's personal discoveries on her own acreage and around a tiny vacation cottage. The author does go into why the typical suburban blandscape is so hostile to wildlife. Sprawling suburbs have, in fact, been enormously destructive, as native habitats are replaced by monocultures of lawn and a small selection of nonnative "easy care" shrubs and trees.

Can suburbs and native habitats co-exist? They can, according to Stein, if one is willing to be neither a pure nativist nor an intolerant lawn jockey. Pocket woodlands featuring native trees, berry-bearing hedgerows with native shrubs, wildlife-friendly ponds, backyard meadows created with native grasses and flowers (not the weedy "Meadow in a Can" products) can all contribute to a more varied, more naturalized landscape. Stein also suggests ways in which neighbors with adjoining back yards (or builders who create those adjoining yards in the first place) might cooperate to create islands and corridors of woods and shrubs that are more wildlife-friendly.

And what would be the benefits? Why bother with the work of re-creating habitat when we already know how to do the lawn-shrub-barkdust routine so well? Because the varied habitat can actually help us garden better. A healthy habitat supports birds and predatory insects that feast on garden pests and keep pests from overpopulating in the first place. Water features can harbor toads, a gardener's best friend. And let's face it, wildlife watching is just plain interesting.

When I travel to large cities, where the suburbs sprawl beyond the horizon, I'm often dismayed at the vast artificiality of it all, and at the prospect of anyone attempting to garden for wildlife in the midst of so much wildlife-hostile territory. One yard out of thousands with a hedgerow and a butterfly garden isn't going to restore a habitat. But if that one yard inspires one more yard... and that inspires one more yard... perhaps something wonderful might come of it. (Registering your backyard habitat with the National Wildlife Federation and putting up their official habitat sign is one way of educating and inspiring the neighbors.)

It's unfortunate that Sara Stein has passed away since this book was written. It is fortunate that the book lives on as a testimony to what one person with a little determination can accomplish for this earth.

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