Healing the Earth One Garden at a Time

April 7, 2020

This article was guest written by Todd Forrest, Arthur Ross Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections, The New York Botanical Garden. Todd is one of our key speakers for the 2020 Annual Native Plant Symposium.

Americans love to garden. Every weekend, millions of people water, weed, prune, or simply admire plants in their yards, on their terraces or windowsills, or wherever they tend their own patches of green. Gardening provides so many benefits: exercise, a creative outlet, healthy food, time to slow down and reflect, a connection to nature, and much more.

For all of its rewards, gardening on a grand scale is not as beneficent as it might first appear. Some gardening practices, however well intended, cause harm to our natural ecosystems and threaten native biodiversity. Excessive use of turf fertilizers causes eutrophication of our lakes and ponds. In every region of the country, some common garden plants have become invasive. The uninformed use of pesticides threatens bees, butterflies, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. Plastic pots and emissions from landscape equipment cause pollution. Irrigation of non-climate adapted garden plants, including turf grasses, wastes potable water and threatens aquifers. Collectively, these and other gardening pitfalls cause significant damage to the environment.

The good news is that by educating ourselves and changing our practices, we can reap all of the benefits of gardening without doing harm. The great news is that thoughtful, well-informed gardening can actually help improve the environment and enhance native biodiversity. Over the past few decades, advances in gardening equipment and techniques, increased access to a diversity of nursery-grown native plants, and rising environmental awareness among gardeners have made it more possible than ever before to harness all the joys of gardening to benefit the health of the planet.

The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) was established in 1891 to be a center of botanical research and education. For nearly 130 years, our scientists, educators, and horticulturists have worked to document, celebrate, and preserve the plants of the world. As a global leader in the study and conservation of plant biodiversity, we recognize our responsibility to practice what we preach through the development and implementation of sustainable practices in the care of the living plant collections, displays, and natural landscape across our 250-acre National Historic Landmark site in the Bronx.

Disease-resistant roses

Over the past 20 years we have been refining our practices to reduce the environmental impacts of our horticultural work while keeping the Garden beautiful and inspiring for our more than one million annual visitors. We have developed a plant health program built on the principles of Integrated Pest Management to reduce our dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. We created a Green Materials Recycling Center where we compost all of our green waste. We have worked with nurseries around the world to source disease-resistant roses in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. In 2013 we opened the new Native Plant Garden, designed by Oehme, van Sweden to showcase plants native to northeastern North America. We have implemented a program of ecological restoration, informed by our horticulture experience, to combat invasive species and restore native biodiversity in the 50-acre, old-growth Thain Family Forest in the heart of the Garden.

These are just a few examples of how we are continually refining our practices and educating the public to help steward the environment as we are keeping NYBG as beautiful and sustainable as it must be. We want gardeners to know that informed gardening can, and should, help heal the Earth as it provides personal joy and satisfaction.