Archive for June, 2008

Eco Design Standards and the Middle Road

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

At a recent conference, I was speaking with a friend in the lawncare industry (ancient enemy of all eco-friendly) who also has a PHD in agronomy. I had asked him how he got into the lawncare business with his PHD and farm background. He proceeded to tell me all about the merits of traditional composting, and how he had come across a technique that married the best of old world composting and crop rotation with the use of chemical fertilizers.

Now I happen to trust this fellow, I did mention I consider him a friend, and I dont have many of those nor do I use the term lightly. It was that relationship that preserved me from my standard knee jerk eco-friendly reaction which is the solid belief that anything chemical is evil, and that chemically produced nitrogen kills live topsoil.

So it was gently explained to me that a) only certain kinds of chemically produced nitrogen have this effect, b) how much nitrogen is applied makes a huge difference regardless of the type, and c) chemically produced nitrogen in the right quantities introduced at the right time in the composting process will actually jump start the composting process and biological agents will thrive under these conditions.

Now if you consider what happens when any organic material is laid down on top of live topsoil, we all agree, chemical advocates and organic advocates, that mulch for example, will actually pull nitrogen from the soil to begin its composting process. The mulch pulls available nitrogen, nitrogen already processed and absorbable, and does not care whether this nitrogen came from an organism, or a factory. This would prove the argument conceptually at least.

Regardless of whether you agree with the example or not, the point is, that we in the eco-friendly/sustainable landscape world have a tendency to believe all that is old school is good and that all western produced chemicals and techniques must be bad. Is it possible, that there is a middle road here? Could it be that there is use and strength in western science that we are ignoring?

We in the sustainable landscape movement need to get deeper into testing and proving what we claim, otherwise we are reduced to using home remedies vs. cutting edge. If you go to less developed nations, and someone has a toothache, they are walking around with a big rag wrapped around their head with some herb laden poultice against their face while their teeth are rotting out. Here in the United States, even the most eco-conscious individuals accept having cavities cleaned out and filled, being injected with novacaine, laughing gas, whatever. We blindly accept it because the prospect of having our teeth rotting out is not a pleasant one, and these techniques are proven.

What do we want in our landscape design and practices? home remedies that may work (or may not) or scientifically grounded technique? Do we want to practice mythology or fact?