Time for Sustainability

You may have noticed that the word “sustainability” is cropping up frequently these days. What does this word mean?, and why is it suddenly so popular? The word “sustainability” naturally means: the ability to sustain or to endure through time. And why is this idea so relevant to gardening, farming, economics, foreign policy, trade agreements, water use and automobile and product design? I think it is because the world can no longer ignore the reality of our earth’s limits. We humans have been going through a long adolescent period and now it is getting harder and harder to ignore the necessity of growing up and taking responsibility for our actions, and for the entire earth’s children. We have been burning our candle at both ends, acting like there’s no tomorrow, assuming our resources would last forever, thinking there is place called “away” where we could throw the waste and poisons of our expedient solutions. We have put cheap products and fast profits ahead of real essential values.

Now as the temperature of our earth rises and the human population swells, ground water levels are falling, and 40% of our waterways are not safe to swim in. Herodotus knew in the fifth century BC that “Man stalks across the landscape and deserts follow.” Today deserts in China alone are expanding at a rate of 2,150 square miles a year. This is not “gloom and doom”; this is the cool reality of the condition of our earth, as we have used and abused it, especially in the last 300 years. In this situation, when cooperation is most needed, the World Bank is extending loans to big corporations to buy up water rights, to privatize our water. These people are looking at us and thinking “tsk-tsk, their end of the boat is sinking; we’d better grab both oars so we’ll be in control.”

That is why scientists, citizen groups and people with a world view that is more grown-up and responsible, are talking about sustainability. It is time for all of us to learn to manage our resources and to care for all the human and non-human inhabitants of planet earth. Mathew Fox, spiritual leader, writer and teacher, has said “Sustainability is a contemporary word for ‘justice’; it is finding the living balance.”

But what has this got to do with gardening? Everything, of course. If there is not enough water to flush the toilet, we won’t be allowed to water our plants. (We remember 2002 !) If our gardening activities require too much petroleum for gasoline engines, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, we will likewise be restricted or cut off; or prices for plants and gardening products will become luxuries that only the rich can afford. If our gardening activities pollute too much as emissions into the air and poisons into the ground and groundwater, we will be cut off or restricted. And if you think I am exaggerating, know that water is now being called “Blue Gold” and that the more water is privatized, the more expensive it will certainly become. But enough about our desperate situation.

I think gardeners, by working with nature, life and death, the seasons and the weather, are already ahead of the crowd when it comes to understanding sustainability. Gardeners are nurturers, and it is the qualities of caring and mothering that are most needed to heal our planet. Who but the most oblivious, can still believe in the ‘Man’s domination over nature’ model of civilization?

Macho methods of controlling insects and diseases with pesticides have failed. Even the mainstream in agriculture and horticulture know this now and are practicing IPM (Integrated Pest Management), and in the US more and more agricultural toxins are taken off the shelves each year. Dominating nature with dams and big machinery may bring about short-term solutions, but the more humble approaches of conservation and efficiency are being recognized as powerful approaches, even by the utility companies. Top-down methods of manipulating our economies by subsidizing the burning of coal to produce electricity, subsidizing petroleum to provide power and energy, subsidizing each cow $2 a day to provide meat, and subsidizing huge corporations, are all showing long-term negative effects on the earth and on the earth’s peoples. But although we don’t often hear about it in the corporate-owned media, there are, fortunately, a lot of good-hearted, intelligent and far-sighted folks working from the bottom up for sustainability.

In October of 2003, the combined efforts of CU Boulder, Naropa University and a local business, Sustainable Village, organized and hosted The Sustainable Resources Conference. Over a thousand people from around the world presented and attended this event. Many of the speakers are working on projects which support sustainability for the benefit of the local people. And much of the value and excitement of this conference was the informal meetings and sharing of experiences, contacts and resources. For me, attending was the best antidote to the evening news in years. It provided such hope and good news of so many people acting compassionately and ecologically. Paul Hawken, who gave the last evening address, said that the sustainability movement is the largest grass-roots movement in history. Look for this conference in October of 2004, and visit their website at www.sustainableresources.org.

Hunter Lovins, well-know as a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, also spoke at the conference. Her latest project is called Natural Capitalism Inc. She has been advising the UN International Development Organization and a division of the World Bank about sustainable development. She has also co-founded a new business school of sustainable management at Presidio World College in San Francisco.

Paolo Lugari, another main speaker, has years of experience with building a sustainable community in Columbia, called Gaviotas. He believes that if human life does not learn to recycle carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, we could actually lose our protective atmosphere. Many of his innovative engineering designs were thought impossible, but function for the sustainability of Gaviotas.

Dick Chapin, who is going strong at 86, has a company that makes and distributes inexpensive and very efficient drip irrigation systems all over the world. His aim is to help people produce their own food, even where growing vegetables was previously impossible.

Closer to home, the Colorado Springs Utilities and CSU Cooperative Extension sponsored a symposium at the end of February on sustainable landscapes now and for the future, with presentations of sustainable landscape design, plant selection, installation and maintenance, for our semi-arid climate.Visit www.csu.org .

Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) is a nonprofit organization which fosters sustainability through community gardens, gardening and composting classes, and pulling together numerous agencies and groups to provide seeds, food and community. Their advice on watering and gardening is excellent, and their spirit is uplifting. Visit them at www.dug.org.

In Boulder there is the Center for ReSource Conservation, guiding Boulder County in the sustainable use of energy and natural resources. It has a recycled building materials outlet at the ReSource sales yard, its Garden in a Box program helps people plant a designed xeriscape garden, and they organize an annual Solar and Green Built Tour of Homes. Their website is www.conservationcenter.org.

Laura Pottorff, plant pathologist at CSU recently wrote an article in the Colorado Nurseryman’s Assn. newsletter entitled “How Sustainable is the Greenhouse Industry in Colorado.” She discussed the results of a survey to determine the adoption of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in Colorado Greenhouse Operations.

People Planet Profit is an organization aiming to improve the quality of life for the current and future generation, through social responsibility in Colorado businesses. (www.P3Colorado.org)

And just one more: The Bioneers conducted their first simulcast of their annual event at CU Boulder last October. Each year their conference gathers visionaries with practical solutions for restoring the earth. The simulcast magnetized a Boulder conference of many people in our local area also working on sustainable solutions.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of sustainable workings these days. Many more people are responding to both the crisis and the business opportunities of changing how we garden, live, do business and relate with our neighbors.

In the next issue, Mikl will conclude this article on sustainability with specific suggestions that can guide you in the direction of sustainable landscaping.


In the last issue, I discussed the reasoning behind the importance of learning to manage our resources, including water, sustainably. And I mentioned several individuals and organizations that are doing good work in helping us to manage resources, provide food, and in general, take care of not just a privileged minority, but of the whole earth. The ability to sustain life into the future should be a goal we can all agree on.

Now I would like to bring this subject down to earth by making a few suggestions that can guide you in the direction of sustainable landscaping.

  1. Use plants that are regionally adapted, i.e., that love to grow in Colorado: natives, xeriscape plants, most herbs, many rock garden plants and shrub roses are examples.
  2. Eliminate or seriously reduce your use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. There are now many alternatives to toxic biocides, which are designed to kill life and don’t know when to stop killing. They destroy the natural support system of the earth: the earthworms, beneficial fungi and mycorrhizae, beneficial bacteria and beneficial insects that help maintain the health of the garden. A basic principle is: don’t use any controls unless the damage exceeds a significant level. A few pests just feed the beneficial insects. “The investment in seeds of plants that bloom through the summer, will give you more pest control that the same amount spent on pesticides.” Stuart Hill, McGill U. (This is because they support the beneficial insects.)
  3. Reduce your lawn area if it is water-thirsty bluegrass, OR let it go dormant in July and August, OR convert it to native and drought-tolerant grasses, OR plant flowering groundcovers as edging along sidewalks and driveways, or on steep slopes and in shady areas where grass is not doing well.
  4. Xeriscape your landscape: plant water-thrifty varieties, put plants of like water needs together, use efficient irrigation methods and mulch. This may sound like a lot of work and money, but so much can be done a little at a time. It can be fun and you’ll be better prepared for the next dry spell or drought.
  5. Don’t just feed the plants; feed the soil. More and more research is showing that the old NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) formula has limited significance. Even though it is true that these elements are important to fertility and plant growth, equally important is the soil life: the millions of soil bacteria, soil fungi/mycorrhizae, earthworms, etc., that break down organic matter into plant food and make minerals and even water more available to the plants. So feed these little guys what they need, which is organic matter: compost, manure (if it is low in salts), shredded leaves, coffee grounds, etc. Learn how to compost; turn your garbage into gold. This is one of the true alchemies of sustainability.

These are just a few suggestions. If you would like to share other practical solutions for sustainable landscaping, send them to the Colorado Gardener at .

The world may be at a crisis level; we may be losing 10,000 species a year. And we may feel helpless that our government won’t sign the Kyoto Protocol or the Earth Charter (www.earthcharter.org), but we have more power than we think. Where we shop and how we shop is also whom we support and what we support. We can vote with our dollars to design out toxicity and waste in manufacturing and in our environment. If we want our children to inherit the earth, we can do this.

We can change our landscapes so they require less water. We can rely more and more on renewable resources. We can change our standard of beauty from the Eastern (English) image of the lush green perfectly mowed lawn where only one kind of plant is allowed, to a western image of a lush mix of silvers, blues and greens with flowering perennial plants, native grasses and tough shrubs. We can do this not only because we don’t want our landscapes to crash when there is a water shortage; we can also do it so there is more water left to grow food, and for drinking water for people in Mexico. Mathew Fox said at the Sustainable Resources Conference, “Compassion is not about feeling sorry for others, but about feeling together with others.”

What each of us does in her/his own private garden, makes global ripples. We need to recognize that “what comes around goes around”, and that as our world gets smaller and smaller, we inadvertently influence, poison or support each other by our purchases and by our actions. Our survival as a human species and as a planet, is dependent on us growing up to a more global and ecological perspective. Changing our mind, our view and our habits is never easy. But we gardeners are accustomed to working with the realm of living things sustained through time, and we love to learn what’s new.