I was talking to a nursery grower the other day who was encouraged by the fact that he was hiring young, smart people who were keen to make their mark in the green industry. They were coming to his production greenhouses not from the traditional route of the horticulture schools but with a background in ecology.
The two disciplines are merging in the garden as never before: We have entered an age of environmental gardening. Given the afflictions of our planet, this is overwhelmingly positive as long as we remember that the one creature most in need of refuge in the garden is the gardener. Ecology has to do with the relationship of organisms and their environments. In its purest sense, horticulture is the science and art of growing plants, but it is rare to find a horticulturist who doesn’t see the biological web in the decorative landscape.
It is possible to create a garden that degrades the larger world — for example, through excessive paving and a reliance on pesticides and fertilizers — but the days when the use of poisons and chemical nutrients was not just the norm but an imperative seem to be behind us. One hopes.
In this winter period of garden planning, it is worth remembering that most of us have in our power the ability to create a garden that helps to heal a damaged Earth, even if that just means putting some planters on a balcony and filling them with a few herbs for us and nectar-rich plants for the butterflies. You can think big but start small.
It is also worth pondering that our understanding of the interconnectedness of nature is relatively new and coincides, paradoxically, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution.
The author and historian Andrea Wulf makes the case that the guy who first connected the ecological dots was the Prussian polymath Alexander von Humboldt. He lived a long and exalted life, dying at the ripe age of 89, in 1859, the same year his admirer Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species.”
Humboldt had established his reputation in his 30s after a five-year exploration of the Americas in which he proved himself as a botanist, geologist, meteorologist, astronomer, anthropologist — the list goes on. He also was a mountaineer, climbing to almost 20,000 feet, then a record, on Mount Chimborazo in the Andes. This feat enabled him to document how weather, climate, and plant and animal life change by altitude, on Chimborazo and other peaks around the world.
“Humboldt compared everything he saw with what he had previously observed and learned in Europe,” Wulf writes in “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World,” published in September. “Whenever he picked up a plant, a rock or an insect, his mind raced back to what he had seen at home.”
The book just won the biography prize in the United Kingdom’s Costa Book Awards and is one of five finalists for the competition’s Book of the Year.
When Humboldt wrote his “Essay on the Geography of Plants,” he introduced the idea that plants could be grouped not just by their botanical family but by shared types of zones and regions. “Humboldt plaited together the cultural, biological and physical world, and painted a picture of global patterns,” Wulf writes. In some quarters today, ecological gardening is synonymous with horticultural nativism, but implicit in Humboldt’s story, and in Darwin’s, is that they had to travel to far-off, exotic lands to tie together the strands of the original worldwide web.
Darwin also made important discoveries in his own garden and surrounding countryside, as did an English country parson in the 18th century. Many regard the Rev. Gilbert White as a trailblazing ecologist for his work in recording the weather, seasons, and plant and animal life in and around his village of Selborne in southern England.
He was particularly fascinated by the seasonal arrival of the house martins from Africa, just as we are by the spring advent of the barn swallow now wintering in Central and South America.
“Many of the intimate details of their lives that most enchanted him . . . are the kind that can still touch anyone who has kept the long summer watch over house martins as they raise their families,” Richard Mabey wrote in a 1986 biography of White.
Our contemporary affinity for nurturing plants and animals in our gardens is not really new. Gardeners have always viewed the garden as a place of sanctuary for all, even when the squirrels and deer ply their mischief.
The migratory songbirds such as the martins and swallows lend a considerable magic to the effort. When I see the warblers that pass through the garden in spring, and the catbirds, which stay all summer, I have to remind myself that these birds have flown all the way from the tropics. They migrate with effort, but surely none of the hardships of Humboldt’s voyage to Venezuela aboard a sailing ship.
Think of his wonder at his first sight of a hummingbird, a flashy dancer in a constant tango with the flowers. All we have to do is plant a salvia and wait.
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