Takeaways from Landscape Heroes

by Meghan O’Connell

On January 31st, NOFA and the ELA teamed up to bring farmers and landscapers together to learn about three key components for creating healthy soil—and in turn, help reverse the effects of climate change. Those three featured “landscape heroes” were carbon, water, and biodiversity.

As a gardener and environmental educator, I aim to enhance the beauty of landscapes, as well as create benefits for our environment. The speakers at this conference each spoke to this theme in their own ways. Here are some highlights from the presenters:

  • Let animals roam: controlled grazing benefits the soil and plants more so than a completely non-grazed land
  • Leave the leaves on the ground: decaying leaves create healthy soils
  • Let the ground breathe: minimize compaction, which destroys beneficial microbial life
  • “Creeks want to be creeks”: rather than creating straight channels of water, which severely erode soil walls over time, allow the water to twist and turn as it would naturally
  • Don’t till: turning over land does more harm than good; it brings more weeds seeds to germination and it rips up the delicate beneficial fungal networks
  • Plant more: photosynthesis has worked for millions of years in removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, let’s not reinvent the wheel
  • Fungus is critical: create healthy soil and healthy plants by encouraging mycelium networks to flourish, reduce/ remove fertilizers, and use more compost tea and mulch
  • Biochar is an ancient, but newly popular naturally-created resource that all land workers should be using; it stays stable in the soil for thousands of years and it continually benefits plants by retaining moisture in the ground and enhancing soil aeration due to its porous nature. Amazingly, it also takes up toxic compounds that would otherwise leach into the soil and water tables.

According to two of the event organizers I spoke with, they hoped participants would take away these ideas:

  • Well grown plants will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and put it back in the ground
  • Both farmers and landscapers can use the same knowledge and apply it in different ways
  • This biological information is vital to combating climate change and will help create a healthier earth

I also had the chance to speak with a few participants at the conference. I asked them what they had taken away from the conference – an idea or phrase that stood out for them. This is what they said:

“No tilling. I’m starting a vegetable garden and I’m finally going to try the no-till method.”

“Farming isn’t rocket science…. It’s more complicated than that.”

“I appreciated Chip Osbourne’s perspective on grasses… that we can consider the photosynthetic capabilities of grass and their ability to sequester carbon to improve lawn management.”

“This conference was a great opportunity to refresh and update my knowledge. The ideas were presented in ways that make it easy for integration into differing landscapes.”

“Soil restoration and management are vital for nutrient cycling.”

“There is so much overlap in solutions for farmers and landscapers that are found by following mother nature’s cues.”

During a question and answer session, one of the few younger audience members present asked about how we could motivate millennials to do more, regarding using horticultural practices to save the environment. The response from the panel of speakers was mostly correct: millennials indeed do know and care a lot about the problems created by the previous generations. What I wanted to add to this conversation was the fact that many people can be stuck in their ways. It’s easy to keep doing what’s always been done. In the farming and landscaping realm that could mean: fertilize every spring and fall; clean up all the leaves; use loud, gas-guzzling machines; compact and then till the ground; promote unnatural, traditional landscape aesthetics.

We all know what needs to change, but who will lead the way? I believe that we are all equally responsible, but I feel it is especially important for my generation (I’m almost 30) and the ones that come after me to be brave in creating new norms for the industry. It’s difficult to try new things when the “tried and true” ways seemed just fine before. I implore more seasoned horticulturists and business owners to keep trying new methods. Educate your friends who don’t go to these conferences. Help lead the charge for our future land workers. One farmer on the conference panel said that it took nearly six years to make a full transition to a no-till method. Change is slow, but steady. The important part is that we try something new – something that will benefit not just our businesses, but also the earth and all of its life.

The work of late Dr. Lynn Margulis, a distinguished university professor of geosciences at UMass Amherst, was drawn upon that day, as well. Opposing the prevailing Darwinist beliefs about random mutation, Dr. Margulis rather believed that evolution is based on symbiotic relationships at the micro-level. She was also known for her work on the Gaia theory, which states that Earth – its atmosphere, geology and living inhabitants – is a self-regulating system and living organism in and of itself. The take-away message of the Landscape Heroes conference speaks to her profound ideas: it is time for humans to stop competing with the environment and instead, begin to repair and revive this most critical symbiotic relationship we have with the earth.

About the Author

Meghan O’Connell first discovered her love for gardening while working as an after-school teacher in Watertown where she led the creation of an edible learning garden program. In 2015, she began work as a home gardener and promotes food growing wherever possible. She is also an Environmental Educator at the Lemberg Children’s Center “food forest” garden in Waltham.

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