“Invasive” Species: A Fresh Look

When talking about invasive species, I often put “invasive” in quotes because really, the biggest invasive species is humans. We just can’t seem to keep our mitts off any corner of the earth, land, sea, or air.

Many environmentalists view the removal of “invasive” species as an essential task to restore “native” landscapes. (And I’m not going to argue with those folks, because their viewpoint is very tenaciously rooted.)

My viewpoint is that an attempt to eradicate this or that plant or animal is a fool’s errand. Even if we could succeed at it (which we never will), eradication is extremely energy-expensive, not only in terms of fossil fuels but in terms of sheer human energy that could better be spent elsewhere.

You might be able to think of examples from your own life — not only from your house and garden but also in the social/professional arena.

One of the principles of permaculture design is “Obtain a yield.” Simply setting out to “get rid of” something is expensive, exhausting, and bad for the ecosystem.

Interesting story: One of the most vilified “invasive” species in my home region is the Brazilian pepper tree. There are huge campaigns to eradicate it. But my friends, backyard beekeepers who sell their honey at the farmer’s market and happen to have a Brazilian pepper tree growing in their yard, told me the other day that they have found that there is special demand for Brazilian pepper honey. Apparently it has a special zip to the taste! It’s a niche market for them.

I have also read that the pepper has medicinal uses. And one Brazilian pepper tree I heard about recently, had been home to several nests of cardinals before the tree was ripped out by well-meaning humans trying to clear the landscape of “invasive” species.

Other potential uses abound. Pretty much any plant should be able to be harvested and made into bio-plastic, bio-fuel (methanol), and other useful products. Even more simple and low-footprint, any plant could be “chopped and dropped” to make berms and gabions for water filtration, erosion control, stormwater management, and other essential functions.

A permaculture colleague (Koreen Brennan of GrowPermaculture) recently commented in a Facebook thread on invasives:

“Cogon grass, a super invasive that needs multiple application of Roundup to kill it, is rare and hard to find in Vietnam because it is used for all sorts of household uses.

“Every invasive species has usually at least a dozen economically viable uses. Water hycinth has at least 20 different economic uses. We could be harvesting them instead of poisoning them (and the ecosystems they’re in).

“Handling invasives could make money for the state instead of costing money. This might take some initiative and thoughtfulness to work out, but it is far from impossible and a much superior handling.”

If you share my aversion to the eradication mentality and would like to hear from an expert who favors a more measured approach to how we view “invasives,” I highly recommend the book Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration, by Tao Orion. (Ms. Orion does support limited use of herbicides, which I don’t agree with. I think we should be absolutely dogged about harvesting and obtaining a yield, or else just leaving that corner of nature alone and watching her come up with a better way than we humans could imagine. Still, I do recommend Ms. Orion’s book as a life-saving antidote to the eradication mentality.)

Also check out this interview with Tao Orion by Shay Totten of Chelsea Green publishers, on the Organic Consumers Association website.

And for the artists and art lovers, check out this artist, Matt Tommey, who weaves gorgeous baskets from kudzu (a plant that is reviled as invasive in the USA, but is utilized as a dietary starch in Asia). The photo at the top of this post shows me having fun with some yard clippings from my neighborhood.

Update: Here is a treat I just found. Opinion piece on naturalizing our yards asks the question “Is St. Augustine Turf Grass an Invasive Pest Plant?”

Trash Can as “Buffer”

This is my three-bucket kitchen setup for trash, compost, and recycling. (Recycling is yellow bucket underneath the compost bucket.)

The trash bucket holds a month, two months, three months worth of trash (even half a year one time in recent memory). Trash consists mostly of plastic wrappers, bags, lids, and other things that can’t be composted or recycled.

Being dry, the trash doesn’t stink. And it is very lightweight and easy to compact by foot.

A bonus of not having to empty the trash every week or even every month, is that sometimes I find a reuse/upcycle for something I’ve thrown in there, and am able to retrieve it. Containers can be planters for seeds; lids can come in handy for all sorts of stuff. Flexible materials can serve as patches or stoppers.

I’ve even thought of making “trash-crete” sometime.

This trash can is the main trash can in my house. Other than that, there’s just the little wastebaskets in the bathroom and bedrooms which hardly ever need emptying. (And it’s mostly paper trash, which I compost). And there’s my office trash, which only needs emptying a couple times a year and mostly gets composted.

When you take food and leftover beverages out of the trash equation (they are composted), it solves a lot.

Trees Are Not a Luxury

We should start thinking of trees as public-health infrastructure, according to the Nature Conservancy as reported by FastCompany. “Leafy streets cannot afford to be seen as a luxury.”

On that subject, today I had a minor victory in communicating with a public-works supervisor who was overseeing tree work on a public site in my neighborhood.

I walked up to him and asked why they were cutting so many branches off the big oak tree at my neighborhood police precinct. (Insert loud mechanized equipment, teeth-gritting noise here.)

The guy was a bit short with me, replied, “It’s called trimming.”

(Note, this was a guy I had talked with before, a couple months ago, when a work crew was excessively cutting palm trees in our neighborhood and I told them it was bad for the trees, wildlife, and neighborhood. I was trying to be civil but probably came off a little rant-y. So that surely played a role in his response today.)

I said, “I know what trimming is, I just wanted to know why you are doing it.”

He said, “If you know what it is, then you would know why we are doing it.”

I said, “Not really. There are lots of reasons to trim a tree, why are you trimming this tree?”

He pointed up at a light that was above one side of the tree, said, “They want more light here.”

Which did not explain the need to trim so many branches all around the tree, but I thanked him for the information and walked away.

But then a few minutes later I walked back and said, “Look. I’m not trying to be your enemy. And, I’m trying to get better about how I communicate, and who I communicate with. But I’m a citizen and I want to know how my money is being spent. And a lot of us are concerned about the loss of shade on Beachside.”

The interaction didn’t end with everyone feeling lovey-dovey, and I’m still not happy with how much this beautiful oak tree with its graceful canopy is being poodled, like so many other trees in our city. But, a bit of progress in that I stayed calm and kept things focused & brief, and spoke up as a taxpayer/resident.

One thing that has become apparent to me is that, more than anywhere else I’ve lived, people here in my adopted home region on the Atlantic coast of Florida have wide differences of opinion as to what constitutes necessary landscape maintenance. The norm here seems to be very extreme. Right now on the same lot they are doing their habitual thing of shaving the protective bark off the palm trees — something that is just shocking to me. The University of Florida Agrigultural Extension Service and other recognized authorities advise against removing the “boots” (as well as over-pruning the fronds, another common practice around here).

Since so many people in our region seem to favor extreme scalping, those of us who feel differently might need to get a bit more vocal to protect the trees and quality of life in our neighborhoods. (In addition to creating our own preferred environment by planting all the trees and other plants we can on our own yards/balconies).

Photos show the “improved” oak tree, a scalped palm trunk, and a group of “rooster” or “hat-racked” trees, all very representative of landscaping practices that have become more and more the norm in this region in recent years, on public property and private.

The all-reaching cherry-pickers and chainsaws have been at it for hours. Speaking of public health and quality of life, I wonder how much of our mowing and trimming budget could be redirected to swim lessons for underprivileged kids, care of our senior citizens, and even just planting more trees.

I do my best to focus on positive actions I can take. Besides making my yard hospitable for pollinators and other wildlife, I’m also creating native plant landscaping in a few pockets of public space. It’s micro-scale, but it’s attractive; it’s low- to zero-maintenance; and it’s helping with stormwater mitigation even if it’s just on a micro scale. And it is easy for anyone to replicate on any scale.

In closing, my constructive takeaway: Wherever you live, keep on doing what you are doing to communicate about what is important, and shift the norm in favor of ecosystem health. Keep refining your process and don’t give up. Gather allies; they are closer than you think.

A “Meadow Movement”

There seems to be a worldwide movement to allow wild meadow to replace short-clipped turf lawns.

Here are links to just a few of many articles I’ve seen recently about what I’m calling the “Back-to-Meadow Movement.”

People are being encouraged to allow lawns to revert to meadow to save bees and other pollinators. To help its declining population of essential pollinators, the state of Minnesota is even looking at paying homeowners to replace lawns with bee-friendly wildflowers and native grasses.

Note, if I were to be allowed to try this on the empty lot next to me (I have just emailed my idea to the relevant departments of my city government), the grass would spontaneously revert to meadow just by easing up on mowing. There’s no need to go to the expense of ripping out the grass and planting flowers. The wildflowers and grasses emerge of their own accord over time. Think how much money we could save, as well as helping the environment and reducing the use of noisy mechanized equipment in neighborhoods!

Below the article links you can read the letter I sent. I hope it’ll help others who would want to do similar things in their own cities.

In London, UK, “The London borough of Brent is creating a ‘bee corridor’ of meadowland to boost the population of vital pollinators.” (from inews)

Gardeners urged to let lawns run wild and count flowers to help save bees: “While many gardeners prize a well-maintained lawn, conservationists are urging people to leave their mowers in the shed and count wildflowers instead,” reports the Independent.

In the U.S. state of Minnesota, MNN reports, “lawmakers have approved a new spending program … to pay homeowners who replace traditional lawns with bee-friendly wildflowers, clover and native grasses.”

Farmers are getting in on it too: Farmers using flowers instead of chemicals to beat back pests: “It’s been a common practice to grow flowers around the perimeter of farmland acres, because it encourages biodiversity. But agriculturalists are experimenting with strips of flowers within their crops, creating a highway for bugs to travel farther and cover more ground for pest control.” (from GreenMatters)

And finally, my letter to city officials (some details omitted for privacy and conciseness):

Hope you find these resources helpful in restoring quiet, beauty, and pollinators to your neighborhood.

Dear <City Officials of relevant departments>,

As you know, I live on xxx Avenue at the intersection of xxx and xxx. Immediately adjacent to me on xxx is an empty lot owned by the City. Currently is is being kept mowed extremely short by a contractor.

I would like permission to try an experiment on all or part of this lot. I would like to try managing it as a “managed meadow,” allowing the grass to grow a few inches high and selectively encouraging the emergence of native wildflowers and dune grasses. I would create mowed borders or other features to ensure a neat and deliberate appearance. 

The benefits to the City would be multi-fold:

— Reduced runoff, improved stormwater percolation, improved soil quality, improved erosion control (there is considerable erosion on the slope right now, as frequent mowing with large machinery has created many bare patches where there used to be grass and small shrubs)

— Improved microclimate (cooler; better hydration; reduced heat-island effect)

— Habitat for butterflies and other pollinators

— Neighborhood beautification: softer, greener vegetation; flowers

— Potential increase in property values; attract more fulltime residents through a unique natural amenity

— Potential for community garden feature, by introducing a small patch of edible greens and herbs (at one corner of the meadow next to the sidewalk, inviting residents to pick fresh greens)

— Reduction in noise and air pollution by reducing/eliminating need for large gas-powered equipment

— Test-bed for “Managed Meadow” concept that could potentially be implemented citywide, freeing up for other tasks the resources currently being used for mowing

— Since I’d be volunteering, there would be potential money savings for the City (though I am not setting out to deprive the contractors of income by reducing their hours, so might have to put some more thought into this aspect) <Comment thought of after sending letter: while not seeking to deprive anyone of a livelihood, I cannot condone practices that are unhealthy to the land, creatures, and people.>

I propose to try the Managed Meadow experiment for six months, subject to monitoring by the City. Assuming it goes well, I would continue (possibly enlisting neighbors’ help via community workdays).

It seems to me that the City could benefit greatly by not having to use so many resources for close-cropped mowing. Also, there is great potential for improved stormwater absorption, which obviously is a hot-button item for us as it is for many cities.

And the residents could benefit greatly from the beautification and noise reduction.

With this plan I would create attractive signage to inform the public of the intent and benefits of the Managed Meadow.

Before starting, I would approach the other homeowners whose lots are ajacent to this one, and get their approval by explaining the intent and answering questions to satisfy any possible concerns.

In the future, if someone wants to build a house on this lot, the meadowscape would be no barrier — and likely would even be seen as a desirable feature of the lot.

What are your thoughts on this? I’ve been thinking about this for a very long time and would love to make it happen.

All the best to you,

 

Upcoming Talks, Radio Shows, etc.

Talks/Presentations

“Naturally Cool: Beat the Heat, Help the Environment, and Cut Your Utility Bill.” Did you know that home cooling accounts for about 46 percent of your energy bill in summertime? In this presentation I’ll talk about a variety of simple DIY adjustments you can make to keep your home and yourself cooler, while also helping the environment and of course reducing your utility bill! (This talk is part of my “Healthy Living with the Environment” series of talks, which I do on the first Friday each month at Breakers Oceanfront Park Environmental Learning Center, 13 S. Atlantic Avenue, Daytona Beach.) Friday June 7, 12 noon – 1:30pm.

Previous talks in the series so far: 1) “Healthy Living with the Environment: An Introduction to Permaculture Design”; 2) “Rainwater Harvesting & Waterwise Landscaping.”

Radio Shows

“Green Infrastructure” radio show. This is part of my “Green Daytona” series, which airs on the second Wednesday of the month. It’s during the City of Daytona Beach Government radio show, which you can hear every Wednesday from noon to 1pm Eastern Standard Time (U.S.) on WJOY 106.3 FM. (By the way, WJOY is a gospel station, so when the CODB radio show isn’t on, you can hear gospel music and related content.) The “Green Infrastructure” show will be on Wednesday June 12, from 12 noon – 1pm on WJOY.

Previous installments in the series so far: 1) “Permaculture, Sustainability, and Low-Footprint Living”; 2) “Natural Capital.”

Workshops

Rainwater Harvesting & Waterwise Landscaping (upcoming workshop at a residence – not open to the public)

All of these talks and presentations are available by request. I will tailor the content to address your group’s concerns, needs, and goals.

Boiling Water: Stove vs. Kettle

Journalist Tik Root tested the energy-efficiency of the typical approaches to boiling water, and wrote up his findings in the New York Times. Turns out the electric kettle is quite a bit more energy-efficient than either the stovetop or the microwave.

I like my electric kettle. It takes just over a minute to heat up the 0.6 liter of water (20 ounces) that I heat up on a typical day. When heating water for coffee, I do not let it reach the boiling point. My ideal temperature for water to pour over coffee in my reusable filter is considerably less than the boiling point. I think it might be about 180. I have learned to hear when the kettle water reaches the temperature I like. There’s a certain set of ticking sounds and whooshing noises that comes well before actual boiling. And I’ve read that the differential represents a considerable energy savings.

Now, if you really want to be an eco-ninja, you could boil water with a Rocket Stove or Kelly Kettle. All it takes is a handful of dead twigs or other small fuel readily available from the natural environment.

Calculate Your Plastic Footprint

Here’s a handy calculator by PhD candidate Hanna Pamula for computing your plastic footprint. Thanks for your work Hanna! (And her site also offers links to 10 other eco calculators, such as Car vs. Bike.)

According to the calculator, my plastic consumption comes in at about 5% of the U.S. average. But that is still over 700 pounds in my lifetime! I got rated an “ecological ninja” but still have plenty of room for improvement.

One of my latest areas of focus is trying to remember more consistently, when I go out to eat or drink, to ask in advance for a non-plastic drinking glass and no straw, etc. I just don’t think of it sometimes because I never buy that stuff or use it at home. But I’m getting better at remembering!