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What is a "green desert" and how to avoid planting one.

The term "green desert" is often used to describe an area that appears lush and green at first glance but lacks biodiversity and ecological health. In this article we'll take a look at what a green desert is and how to avoid planting one.

Grass cut in stripes
Green Desert

In other words, a green desert is a landscape that might seem vibrant and alive due to the presence of a single type of plant or a few dominant species. Still, it lacks diverse species and interactions that characterize a healthy and balanced ecosystem.

The term "green desert" should not be confused with the concept of "greening of a desert." While both terms involve deserts and the idea of increased vegetation, they refer to different scenarios:

Green Desert: As mentioned above, a "green desert" refers to a landscape that appears green and lush on the surface but lacks biodiversity and ecological health. It often involves monoculture plantations, invasive species dominance, deforested areas, or simplified ecosystems.

Greening of a Desert: The "greening of a desert" refers to efforts and processes aimed at increasing vegetation and transforming arid or desert landscapes into areas with more plant cover. This could involve various techniques such as afforestation (planting trees), reforestation (restoring forests), introducing drought-resistant plants, implementing irrigation and water management systems, and more. The goal is to combat desertification, enhance soil quality, and provide habitat for wildlife.

In essence, "green desert" highlights the lack of biodiversity and ecological balance despite a seemingly green appearance, while "greening of a desert" focuses on intentionally increasing vegetation cover and transforming barren landscapes into more productive and sustainable ecosystems.

The focus of this article is the green desert that lacks biodiversity and exploring how we got here. Reasons why the green desert evolved, include the following:

  • Monoculture Agriculture: In industrial-scale monoculture agriculture, vast expanses of land might be planted with a single crop, such as corn, soybeans, or wheat. While the fields can appear green and productive, they lack the natural diversity of plant species and associated wildlife that contribute to a more resilient and sustainable ecosystem.

Yellow Corn on a husk
Corn on the cob

In contrast, Native Canadian and American horticulturalists have been growing three important crops together: corn, beans, and squash. This agricultural technique is commonly associated with several Native American tribes, including those in what is now known as Canada. The Three Sisters planting method is a sustainable and mutually beneficial way of cultivating these crops, as they provide support and nutrients for each other. Here's how it works:

  1. Corn (Maize): Corn is planted in mounds or hills and serves as the tallest crop in the arrangement. The sturdy cornstalks provide support for the climbing beans.

  2. Beans: Beans are planted around the base of the corn plants. They use the cornstalks as a natural trellis to climb upward. Beans are leguminous plants that fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, enriching it with this essential nutrient.

  3. Squash: Squash or pumpkins are planted between the corn and beans. The large, sprawling squash leaves provide shade to the soil, helping to prevent weed growth and retain soil moisture. This shading effect also benefits the shallow-rooted corn.

The Three Sisters planting system is beneficial for several reasons:

  • Complementary Growth: The three crops have different growth habits that complement each other. Corn provides support, beans enrich the soil, and squash provides ground cover.

  • Nutrient Cycling: The beans' nitrogen-fixing ability benefits the other plants by increasing soil fertility. This reduces the need for external fertilizers.

  • Pest Control: The presence of squash leaves helps deter pests by providing a physical barrier and reducing sunlight penetration to the soil, making it less favourable for weeds.

  • Water Conservation: The squash leaves help shade the soil, reducing evaporation and conserving moisture.

  • Cultural Significance: The Three Sisters are often seen as a symbol of interdependence, cooperation, and the close relationship between people and the land in many Native American cultures.

The Three Sisters planting technique is an example of indigenous ecological knowledge and sustainable agricultural practices that have been passed down through generations. It showcases the wisdom of these cultures in cultivating crops in harmony with the natural environment.

Urban Garden with grass and trees
Urban Garden

  • Urban Landscaping: Some urban areas prioritize lawns and ornamental plants for aesthetic appeal and uniformity. These manicured landscapes might lack the native plants, pollinator habitats, and natural interactions that support a thriving ecosystem. Not sure if your plant is an invasive specie? Check out this article on What NOT to plant in your garden.

Invasive plant species introduced to a new area can sometimes outcompete and displace native plants. This can lead to an ecosystem dominated by a single invasive species, creating a green appearance but reducing biodiversity and ecological balance.

  • Deforestation and Simplified Ecosystems: When forests are cleared for agriculture or other purposes, the resulting landscape might be covered in grasses or a few hardy plant species, creating a uniform green cover. However, the complexity and diversity of the original forest ecosystem still need to be recovered.

  • Overgrazing: In areas where livestock graze excessively, native vegetation can be degraded, leading to a simplified landscape dominated by a few less palatable plant species. This can result in a "green desert" where biodiversity is reduced.

Efforts to combat "green desert" conditions often involve promoting biodiversity, restoring native habitats, and encouraging sustainable land management practices. See this project in Kitchener-Waterloo that aims to restore wildflower meadows on roadsides.

How did we become so accustomed to green deserts?

Wildflower meadows disappeared mainly in England and many other parts of the world, including Canada, after World War II due to agricultural intensification, changes in land use, economic factors, and shifts in societal preferences.

Lawn with a building in the back
Monoculture Lawn
  • Social Status and Prestige: Having a manicured grass lawn symbolized wealth and status in many cultures. Lawns were seen as a way to demonstrate one's ability to devote resources (such as time, money, and labour) to maintaining a pristine and controlled environment.

  • Cultural Norms: Grass lawns became part of cultural norms and societal expectations for residential and public spaces. This led to the proliferation of grass lawns as the default landscaping choice.

  • Agricultural Intensification: After World War II, there was a push to increase agricultural production to meet the demands of a growing population. This led to the adoption of intensive farming practices, including synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and heavy machinery. These practices were not conducive to maintaining diverse wildflower meadows, often viewed as unproductive land.

  • Mechanization: The mechanization of agriculture allowed for larger fields and more efficient land management. This led to removing hedgerows, ditches, and other landscape features that provided habitats for wildflowers and associated wildlife.

  • Monoculture Farming: The focus on maximizing yields led to converting mixed grasslands into monoculture crops such as wheat, barley, and other cereals. These monocultures were more financially profitable but needed more diversity of wildflower species in traditional meadows.

  • Government Policies: Government agricultural policies after WWII often incentivized the conversion of traditional grasslands and meadows into more intensive and productive forms of agriculture. Subsidies and support programs encouraged farmers to maximize production rather than prioritize biodiversity and conservation.

  • Urbanization and Development: The post-war period saw increased urbanization and development, leading to the expansion of cities and towns. This encroachment on rural landscapes resulted in losing open spaces, including traditional meadows.

  • Economic Factors: As urbanization increased, rural populations declined, and traditional rural livelihoods shifted. Small-scale farming and traditional land management practices that sustained wildflower meadows were often abandoned in favour of more economically viable options.

  • Societal Shifts: There was a cultural shift in landscaping preferences towards more formal and manicured landscapes, including closely mowed lawns. Wildflower meadows were seen as unkempt and less desirable compared to well-maintained lawns.

  • Lack of Awareness: Many people were not fully aware of the ecological value of wildflower meadows and their importance in supporting pollinators, biodiversity, and traditional landscapes.

In recent decades, there has been a growing recognition of the ecological importance and cultural value of wildflower meadows. Conservation organizations, environmentalists, and individual gardeners have been working to restore and preserve these habitats through initiatives such as agri-environment schemes, meadow restoration projects, and public education efforts. Efforts are being made to reintroduce native wildflowers and manage landscapes in ways that mimic natural processes, allowing these valuable habitats to recover and thrive once again.

Are you ready to change your traditional lawn to something more sustainable?

Red poppies and blue flowers next to the sidewalk
Sidewalk Wildflowers

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