THE HUMANE GARDENER with NANCY LAWSON
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word Humane as this: "Being characterized by consideration of other, compassionate. Today we’re joined by Nancy Lawson who brings this idea to bear on our gardens in her book – The Humane Gardener, Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017).
Nancy is also an editor, naturalist and founder of Humane Gardener, an outreach initiative to help people live in harmony with the animals – great and small – in their backyards. She writes the "Humane Backyard" column for All Animals magazine, published by the Humane Society of the United States.
She joins us today via Skype from her home and garden in Maryland.
After being a fairly rigid suburban home gardener and working for The Humane Society of the US for several years, Nancy began to see a pattern of discrepancy between the ethos of the Humane Society and the way in which she gardened based on mainstream garden culture and communication earlier in her gardening life. She is pleased that in the last 15 years or so there are healthy signs all across the gardening world of an awakening as to how much more our gardens can do – humanely – for us and for other the living things we would like to have feel welcomed and supported within these gardens of ours.
Today, Nancy gardens humanely in her partially feral garden in the Piedmont region of Maryland. There she welcomes the sassafras saplings, broomsedge grasses, ferns and wildflowers tentatively returning. Her book and our conversation today shares her journey from being a gardener who tried to color in the lines with determination to a gardener who stopped to enjoy the life – plant and animal - that showed up once she let it.
"As a younger gardener, I wanted everything to be perfect, and neatly spaced
and I was probably incorrigible to my husband ….I didn’t realize how much
my over-controlling was inhibiting the life - the real life of the garden.”
author of The Humane Gardener
In the writing of her book, "The Humane Gardener", Nancy Nancy traveled the length and width of the US to document some shining examples of humane gardeners and their practices for her book and her outreach initiative. Ultimately the book profiles 6 gardens of different size, means, purpose and climate but that all met her criteria for what it means to be "humane,",which starts with deciding to reframe what we have heretofore perhaps seen as "conflicts" into opportunities for working together for the success of all. Nancy describes a perfect example of this in this way that public parks deal with what they sometimes see as a Canadian Goose "problem." When cities or other public entities have ponds that they surround with well mown lawn, they attract overwinter and nesting Canadian Geese. Many cities - with their lawns and water features a mess of fecal pollution from the geese populations take to euthanizing the animals. However, when these same entities stop putting the fossil fuel and labor resources into mowing these grass areas, and instead plant native riparian plantings of shrubs and grasses, the geese are no longer attracted to take up residence and move on to more appropriate locations. Thus circumventing the issue (and reducing many costs) altogether.
After we finished speaking, Nancy emailed me to say “Just now I went out and found volunteer native dogtooth violets popping up in some leftover lawn that I'm still trying to get rid of -- which is also why I say my garden is half-feral; we have all this old turf, but there are so many native plants coming into every spot of it that often I just end up painstaking pulling the grass around the little plants. In some places the natives are so tough they outcompete the grass, but in other places, I have to help it along. So ... it can be funny-looking, but in my mind I can see where it's going! I hate to disturb anything, too, which of course is a problem for a gardener -- but once when I was about to remove some turf that had invaded a front bed, I realized there were baby snakes in there. So the turf stayed that season. Events like finding the baby snakes really emphasizes to me the importance of
challenging our own assumptions and questioning fear-based marketing about both animals and plants.”
I could not agree with you more Nancy. Fear based decision making so rarely gets us where we want to go – especially in the garden; Joy and wonder based gardening on the other hand really just might! Consider the eclipse wasp and its radiance….
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here’s one of the things that struck me about this conversation with Nancy Lawson – that early description of being a little waddling toddler with her father in the downpour of rain – of looking up to see her father delighted by the event and comfortable in that moment and place. This really makes me think about how messages are transmitted to us without words and we transmit important messages without words to others – to our children, to our peers, to our neighbors. This has me thinking about how and where I might have transmitted a message of fear when had I thought about it, I would have liked to transmit a message of awe and wonder and openheartedness. Whether in response to heavy rain, spiders, snakes, poison oak or ivy – whatever it might be. How do we open our eyes and minds in the garden and on the trail to transmit wonder and delight – sometimes healthy respect – rather than fear? Something to consider… and I’m sure I wont get it right all of the time, like the next time I encounter a rattle snake on the trail and my legs feel wobbly, but we can always keep learning and modeling even that willingness to try to expand.
This conversation with Nancy has reframed my thinking on where there might be conflicts in my garden or natural areas that I don’t even recognize as conflicts but which if I saw them for what they were – instead of accepting them in a "that’s just the way it is" resignation I will never creatively think my way out of it. I think of the weeds in the garden and the creatures in my garden. And I think of the inevitable LIFE IN THE CHAOS. I love that – and we ALL know it’s true – let the lettuce bolt and go to seed and you see so much more than you might have otherwise; right now in my tiny front garden a Salvia fruticosa which was originally in a pot (three summers ago now) has liberally seeded herself about and become something of an impromptu hedge, which is on the list of things to take control of so that the chair I sit in there can actually be sat in – but the thing is the little accidental hedge is now in bloom and every afternoon while I am working at my desk I am routinely distracted with bumble bees and hummingbirds darting about at the pale lavender tubular blooms and they bring me such happiness. Sooooo…..as Nancy celebrates in her work – it is so often when we relinquish that dreaded (and delusional – ha!) word: CONTROL, that life gets really interesting.
What chaos has brought more life to your garden? I’d love to read about it or see it. If you have thoughts or stories to share, please send them by email through the contact page at Cultivatingplace.com (scroll to bottom of page), or write them in the comments of this episode’s post on Instagram and Facebook.
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The value we find in conversations like these is powerful action for positive shifts in this world. Thank you!