Native plants and other more natural gardening

Under-appreciated opportunities in public health, environmentalism and happiness.


I am writing this because I have found a fascinating hobby which is also a major opportunity for environmental action. It is a tangible way to address huge systemic problems.

“Healing the earth one yard at a time.” That’s the motto of the national organization Wild Ones Native Plants, Natural Landscapes. Last July, I co-founded the Western PA Area Chapter. I am also a member of the PA Native Plant Society and other mission aligned gardening and environmental organizations.

Wild Ones “promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.” Landscapes can not only be attractive but also build rich ecosystems that support wildlife and humans alike. You can learn more about our mission and our work in Pennsylvania on our website.

I and many others in the native plant movement see growing healthy food more in harmony with nature as “the other side of the coin” of beneficial land care. We see what we are doing as part of a much larger mission to take care of our planet while optimizing human health and well-being including economic security and broader goals.

Gardening more beneficially and joyously is accessible to people of most socioeconomic groups at their homes and/or community gardens. It can be very inexpensive from seed and plant-sharing, help from non-profits like ours and low maintenance in comparison to traditional grass yards. It is also great for those with more leisure time and/or money who may choose to hire professionals to develop more expansive designs.

The Western PA Area chapter of Wild Ones Native Plants, Natural Landscapes has at least one event per month. These include virtual presentations on topics such as improving soil contamination, outdoor air quality and genetic diversity and plant preservation. A favorite live activity is tours of member gardens to show what is possible and how. We also have community garden projects, do presentations for other groups, and table at community events. Our core function is to provide education and hands-on help to gardeners.

We also network widely with area businesses such as growers, garden designers and landscapers. We collaborate and co-promote with mission aligned gardening groups and environmental non-profits on public policy which encourages more native plantings and limits invasive species and pollution. In these ways, our chapter has grown to over 150 paid members and reached hundreds more in less than 10 months since founding.

Natural gardening is a relatively non-controversial activity which appeals to people who may not consider themselves environmentalists. It presents a better alternative for individual action rather than expecting people to sacrifice for the common good. It can interest people in other related environmental concerns including climate change as discussed in a New York Times Article about Jeff Lowenfels an Alaskan journalist whose 45+ year old column on gardening can be viewed as a history of climate change .

The work of the Wild Ones Pennsylvania chapters directly addresses the 3 major issues of PA PSR as listed on the website.

1) Environmental Health:

Native plants are ideally suited to the environments in which they have co-evolved. They naturally require no gasoline and synthetic chemicals for care, many of which are potential carcinogens, including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

Growing healthy food shares many of the same benefits which can be provided on a grand scale by more environmentally sustainable agriculture and forestry. This can involve both traditional and tech methods and provide multiple win-wins for farmers as well as everyone else.

2) Climate Change:

Gasoline powered lawn mowers are responsible for a relatively small but significant percentage of gasoline consumption, but even more concerning is that gasoline mowers and “leaf blowers” and similar equipment are far more polluting per amount of gasoline used than automobile and other larger engines. “Using the ‘best selling commercial lawn mower’ for an hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as you would by driving a 2016 Toyota Camry around 300 miles. Leaf blowers are even worse, with the "best selling commercial leaf blower" emitting the equivalent amount of smog-forming pollution that the same Camry would do over 1100 miles.” A reason for a law banning the use of such engines in California is that in addition to the environmental benefits, “the resulting emissions reductions will save $8.8 billion in health costs through 2043.”

As an aside, they are also very noisy.

Many of the synthetic chemicals above are derived from fossil fuels. So is plastic which can be reduced greatly by more natural gardening methods.

A huge amount of carbon can be sequestered in soil and native plants both above and below the ground, much more than in comparable acreages planted in turf grass.

3) Violence Prevention:

Compared with usual practices as a control, a 3 year study in Philadelphia demonstrated that, in neighborhoods below the poverty line, “landscaping vacant lots reduced overall crime by more than 13% and dropped gun violence by nearly 30%”, etc.

More generally, an article from the Royal College of Medicine in England mentions “increasing evidence that exposure to plants and green space, and particularly to gardening, is beneficial to mental and physical health, and so could reduce the pressure on NHS services.”

A fourth benefit is biodiversity. Why is this important? To boil a complicated answer down to one word- “resiliency”.

A multitude of genetically diverse individuals and types help species and ecosystems respond to pathogens, weather and climate variability, and other challenges. Native plants are the foundation of our entire ecosystem including insects with which they have co-evolved and birds which depend almost entirely on insects to feed their young. That’s why I say: “Native Plants are for the birds!”

You can contact Ed Wrenn by emailing info@psrpa.org.

About the author:

Ed Wrenn retired early last year from clinical medicine (FP/Hospitalist) at age 62 to focus more on environmental and social determinants of health. His interests include reduction in single-use plastics reuse/circular economies more generally including in health care, freight rail safety with Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (railpollutionprotectionpittsburgh.org), and more affordable, predictable and accessible healthcare as a physician adviser for HANDL Health (handlhealth.org).

Go to the national website wildones.org for multiple free resources, how to become members, and links to local chapters. There are numerous opportunities for volunteer participation including leadership.

Please check out the concept of “The Homegrown National Park”. Also, check out the wonderful Book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.


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