Beyond Food: A Sustainable Landscape

By Dan Segal

As more people choose clean, healthy, local food, it’s clear most of us have more than one reason for our choices. We may want to support farming methods we see as cleaner, safer and healthier for all creatures—an endorsement. We may want to keep more of our money in the local economy. For some it’s about community, the vibrant, essential bonds that good food nurtures. Of course all these reasons make sense, and at some level, they’re factors for just about all of us. Most people don’t realize, however, that the same factors can, and should, steer their decisions about landscape plants, even those that aren’t edible.

In general, landscapes are often considered “green,” regardless of the history of the plant material. The nursery and landscape trades often call themselves “The Green Industry,” but once you see behind the curtain — how plants are branded, mass-marketed and mass-produced in the world of big, commercial horticulture — you’ll feel the same way about your landscape plants as you do about your food — that the plants themselves embody the integrity of the process — and you’ll prefer the cleaner stuff. Since the current big horticulture model for selling nursery plants keeps you in the dark about methods and history, I feel someone needs to spur progress by taking the first step: giving an insider’s view of how most plants are produced, and what happens to them before they reach your garden. As a nurseryman I’ve been growing plants for almost 20 years, and I’ve always worked outside the mainstream — by choice, largely because of what I know about how things are done “on the inside.

First, your garden plants are propagated somehow. Today this is almost always by tissue culture or cuttings, which means genetic diversity is immediately compromised. A plant species that has evolved for, say, 35 million years has now been plucked from Evolution’s timeline, with one momentary version of the species being deemed by a marketing staff or a horticultural promoter to be “improved” or “better.” The social implications are dangerous enough — that someone else should tell us which shuffle of the genetic deck is best for our gardens — but the ecological implications are even more dire. Horticulture has been shifting drastically for about 25 years towards single-expression versions of all species (i.e. cultivars), including natives. The new, hasty selection process zooms in on superficial features such as flower color, growth habit, or foliage mutations, but ignores the larger world of pollinator compatibility, genetic diversity and adaptability.

Next, now that your young plant has been cloned, it has to grow somewhere. Yes, mega-production factories are cool to see, with high-tech climate control and automation. But huge scales of production always lead to problems, as we see in factory farming. The exact same pitfalls apply in factory horticulture: automation, requiring fossil fuels and removing people from the process; de-localization due to the model of mass-production and mass-distribution; massive toxicity at every stage; and genetic monocultures as explained above. Suddenly the new “Knockout” rose doesn’t seem as rosy.

The modern economic model for horticulture is to grow plants at huge mega-production facilities, and then distribute them great distances to garden centers. Some plant production factories supply thousands of garden centers. The garden center is the end-point for mass-produced plant material. Garden centers are different from nurseries in several ways, but one is fundamental: garden centers don’t grow plants. They buy them already grown, for re-sale. Nurseries grow plants, hence the name “nursery.”

In modern horticulture, many of the biggest production factories that supply garden centers keep strict spray schedules. Fungicides (with millions of plants crowded in the smallest space possible to increase profits, fungicides are big business), pesticides (the broad-spectrum killers of yore have been replaced by a slew of new poisons with a sharper focus, and are used daily), and growth regulators (give your plants the bushy “pinched” look but with hormones instead of real pinching) are just three common tools of the trade. All these products are made by large corporations who have grown with, and helped nurture, the rise of big commercial horticulture.

Finally comes distribution. The plants have weathered the constant barrage of chemicals. They’ve come to resemble healthy plants because they’ve been fed gobs of fertilizer to look their best for their coming out—Shipping Day! Garden centers are opening and plants are loaded on trucks from Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, headed to everywhere—not exactly a local, or regional, model. By the time they arrive at your garden center, they’re stressed out, tired, and confused. But they still look good! Why? Because aside from drought stress, which is corrected quickly with enough water, their history is invisible to you. How are you going to know how many times the plant has been treated with sprays like Physan, Stinger or Mavrik? How are you supposed to know if this plant was grown in New York, or South Carolina? It feels local, because you’re at a local garden center, even though it’s not a local product at all.

What can the educated plant shopper do? Support growers who value genetic diversity, open-pollination and free thought. Ask why a cultivar is considered better than the straight species. Natives are the original heirloom plants!

Demand standards and transparency from your garden centers and nurseries, just as you might do with food growers. Our choices support entire systems. Understand that a plant’s genes, and where it’s grown, are what make it local, not where it’s finally sold. Smaller local growers are in charge of their methods and you can see a plant’s history at the nursery. Support local growers and you’re supporting cleaner, healthier, local systems. Or if they’re not growing plants how you’d like, at least you can see that.

This leads us back to the irony of The Green Industry. Our current generation of clean, healthy and local food farming has evolved from seeing the far-reaching ills of factory farming. In the same way, we need to expose the unsound methods of factory horticulture, so people can react by making better, more educated choices. What you’ve read above is clearly not what The Green Industry wants you to read.

Whether we think of ecology and genetics, toxicity and environmental health, or local sustainability of social and economic communities, when systems over-reach with mass-production and mass-distribution, they eventually fail. Factory farming was at one time seen as a reasonable way to provide the most food. Unfortunately, it undermined the health of those same people it tried to serve, by disturbing or poisoning water, air and land. Originally, factory horticulture may have had good intentions, wanting to provide good plants for everyone. Unfortunately, it now undermines the genetic integrity of those plants, and sabotages localism, while spreading toxins along the whole route. But as with food, a cleaner, more local, healthier system awaits, if we expect it, and if we create it.

My nursery, The Plantsmen, is not the only nursery to grow plants locally, or sustainably, but we encourage you to ask about methods and sources, wherever you buy plants. Our model emphasizes native species, local production and local distribution. We operate in direct opposition to the model described above, trying to demonstrate that nurseries can be clean, healthy, local, safe, fun and viable! We don’t spray any nursery crops with any chemicals not approved for certified organic farms. All our food plants are grown with organic fertilizers and we’re working towards feeding all our plants organically. We encourage you to think about your garden, and your landscape plants, in the same discerning way you think about your food. The Green Industry is way behind—help them catch up!

Dan Segal owns The Plantsmen Nursery in Lansing. Their core mission is to localize horticulture, with native plants and sustainable systems of plant production. Dan has almost 20 years of experience in ecological restoration, native horticulture, and the nursery business. He lives in Lansing with his wife, Sarah, and their three kids.

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