Ecosystem gardening vision

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My proposition is simple:

We don't need more gardens--we need more gardeners.

I arrived at this opinion after a long road. I studied environmental design, natural history, joined the landscape industry, working for contractors, nurseries and one farm, drifted into native plant revegetation, then went back to the university to study ecosystem sciences and environmental horticulture, and have ended up designing systems for managing public investment in aquatic ecosystem infrastructure. All along the way I've dreamed of creating landscapes that build ecological assets by investing in the land for the benefit of the next generation. What I found was that landscapes only express the values of their managers--regardless of grand visions or designs. Astute designers in turn conform to the culture of their clients. A large portion of our landscape is managed under a cacophony of institutional relationships, where developing the ecological functions of land is not well supported. My dream of ecological landscape development isn't about soil and trees--it's about people.

No large-scale project will succeed if it is not rooted in our small-scale practical reasoning. For it is we in the end who have to act, who have to accept and cooperate with the decisions made in our name, and who have to make whatever sacrifices will be required for the sake of future generations... I am critical equally of top-down regulations and goal-directed movements, and see the environmental problem as arising from the loss of equilibrium that ensues, when people cease to understand their surroundings as a home. - Roger Scrutton

When I say garden, I mean something larger and more complicated then most might think. A garden is a metaphor for any complex living system. The Greek Oikos, meaning house, gives us the language for ecology and ecosystem. Gardening is stewardship of the ecosystem in miniature. Steward is stig-weard--the guardian of the hall. The ecosystem is made of nested systems--watersheds are just neighborhoods made of gardens, large and small. Any greater whole, depends on the quality and relationships among its parts. We garden-small our private parcels of land, and we garden-large with shopping malls, freeways, and oil spills. Our gardens create the ecological outcome and manifest our behavior (as opposed to our endless words). Garden with a big 'G'. This broad use of Garden transforms the ecological assessment of human behavior into a daily practice. We are neither different than other animals, nor exempt from critical observation. Moles garden. Birds garden. Buffalo garden. Beavers garden. People garden.

By shifting our frame of reference, from garden patch to watershed and back, we cna strengthen our analysis of ecosystems. I fear that if we do not train ourselves and our children to analyze complex ecological systems in this way, we will fail the test of stewardship. We will be unable to connect the dots between how we live, and how we degrade ecosystems. The manifestation of stewardship is not in the realm of ideas or words, it is made of behavior. Terms like 'policy' and 'land use' generalize human behavior in a way that relieves us of any personal power or responsibility. We are stewards of the garden.

The tapestry of landform, soils and vegetation, is our source of life and security, and the foundation of our civilization. Gardening is the tending of soils and plants. The foundation of civilization is, at is essence, the tending of soils and plants. This is why I am so interested in gardens.


Why school gardens?

When I was in 7th grade, my education was notably disconnected from my ecological existence. As I came of age, I had enough exposure to ecosystems to notice the disconnection. I also noticed that I was being conditioned to accept a 'policy' around 'land use' that seemed destructive of our earthly heritage, and wasteful of both human and ecological potential. As a young person coming of age, I was busy, producing little of consequence. Analysis of my ecological behaviors or its effect on the land was not on the agenda.

Now my daughter is approaching the same age. I am very conscious of her education--and her conditioning. Many schools still feel disconnected from both the land and the vital organs of our social or economic systems. To the young hungering for purpose, we offer rubrics and rules, landscapes managed to minimize biodiversity, shed water, and guard against human predators. They are arid, barren patches of ground where we import food and water and consume fuel. In these places, rather than being the engine of life, the sun makes heat.

While I don't expect to change this whole pattern, I am unapologetic about working to build a sustainable society. I would like to experiment with a key component--the relationship between schools, their communities, and their land. I'd like to integrate the respectable institutions of science--and its ruthless process of deconstruction and critique, with the intuitive challenge of systems theory and design, to inform how we manage ecosystem servicesany of the ways that an ecosystem provides for our needs, whether physical, ecological, cultural, emotional, or spiritual, starting with what we do with land owned by schools, and the connection this creates to school communities. Schools make nice garden sized ecosystems--heavy with institutional land use policies--at the heart of how we condition our children's behavior.

In the school garden we can consider the flow of nutrients, water, and energy, and their sources and cycles. It requires the creative application of complex knowledge, and equips us to observe and understand complex systems of all kinds. Managing land to be ecologically or economically productive links our schools back to community, and useful work--the crucible for developing self management, communications, and entrepreneurial skills. I believe this is not only a vehicle for educational excellence, but also for the development of empowered citizens.


I believe we need four components to create an integrated ecologically sound land-use in any given school ecosystem:

  1. teachers supported by curriculum
  2. a business model
  3. informational networks
  4. institutional networks

Teachers supported by Curriculum

We must reintegrate the knowledge and skills necessary to regenerate land. An ecosystem gardening curriculum involves ecosystem sciences, agroecology, systems design, project management, community development, entrepreneurship, and craftsmanship. Teachers are our first asset, and curriculum should support them in their art.

  • Washington state science curriculum provides a powerful framework, but our reductionist habit in its implementation, of teaching to topics, rather than understanding systems and solving problems, requires some careful reintegration of science, language and mathematics, along with skills not currently recognized as valuable, and are consequently stuffed in the cracks by our under appreciated educational professionals--economics, ethics, logic, design, systems analysis, and knowledge of place.
  • Educational professionals have educational and continuing training requirements equal to engineers, and they get treated like technicians. No such venture will succeed without a core community of teachers. Curriculum should provide a flexible tools set.
  • To reinforce internal motivation, the development of skill needs to be rewarded with responsibility for real resources, status, and privilege.
  • The Cycle of the seasons provides an annual integrative framework, with the school year well timed with the woody plant propagation and site installation cycle.
  • Under a powerful curriculum students arrive at higher levels of education increasingly ready to lead project work--from early elementary to late elementary, to middle school to high school to undergraduate.

A Business model

Business creates meaning. Revenue requires that we provide service, and revenue creates institutions, and the need for the mentorship and succession planning in which a culture can grow and be sustained. By contrast, market forces drive us toward ecologically destructive behaviors. Thus I propose we romance the shadow, with every ecosystem garden operated as a business.

  • Ecosystem garden programs can be engaged as retail nurseries, produce restoration stock, implement stormwater retrofits, produce cafeteria food or supply specialty crops to resturaunts.
  • Leases of school land to non-profit partners can increase the use of school and create an additional interface between students and communities.
  • Gardens can alternately provide educational services, with students as teachers.

Information networks

Learning how to leverage each other will be critical for start-up. Information systems, collective advocacy systems, and communications networks will be necessary. Each benefits first from coordination, and then collaboration.

  • Younger students are inspired by the work of their elders. Elder students can support teachers in providing experiences for their youngers.
  • Teachers need efficient access to information. The is anticipated as a foundation of semi-integrated components, from practical to abstract, from which many different programs can be developed.

Institutional networks

Integration of land use with education will require a network of semi-stable relationships between schools and interdisciplinary teams. The interaction between ecological scientists, food system workers, and educators is vital, not as a source of some didactic truth, but as a stimuli to elevate the level of work. While schools don't necessarily have the resources for ecosystem gardening, this in part reflects that perhaps none of the standing institutions in our society have integrated ecology and agriculture and design and business. That said, Thurston County has a robust collection of building blocks for interdisciplinary work.

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