By Tom Lawson He/Him Mad Gardener LLC

A black and white butterfly hanging from a red flower cluster.
Pollinators are a critical part of an integrated ecosystem
Photo credit: Tim Holman
"The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth."
Sir David Attenborough

In “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses rights versus responsibilities. Indigenous people did not have a concept of ownership of the land. They lived in harmony with the environment and understood that sometimes nature is brutal. Western culture has dominated the environment, using the resources as we see fit, regardless of the consequences. It is a mindset of entitlement, not respect. Western culture and “The American Dream” have always been anchored in domination and entitlement, survival of the fittest, climbing over the dead bodies of our competitors to reach the top of the hill. That anchor needs to shift. We need to care about the consequences of our choices. It is not just about “ME”.

It’s time for a paradigm shift. Our climate is changing rapidly and efforts to be “Sustainable” have not been enough. I frequently hear clients say they want to be as sustainable as possible. I also have clients that respond positively when I ask them in my questionnaire about sustainable practices. I usually then follow up with asking them what they think sustainable means. Typically, they respond that they want to do things that are good for the environment. The term Sustainable has gone down the pathway of “Organic”. It is being used in marketing products to make them sell better, whether they meet critical criteria or not. Our clients can be confused as to what makes a product or a particular practice sustainable. I want to change the focus away from the descriptive term, Sustainable, to an active term, Stewardship. It is something that most people understand from the outset. It is about taking responsibility for something, caring for it, nurturing it, leaving it better than you found it. The paradigm shift needs to occur in the way we interact with our world and with each other.

Three circles of Environment, Social, and Economic intersecting. The areas of intersection are Sustainable
This is a classic VENN diagram describing when the spheres of Environmental, Social, and Economic Developments intersect, Sustainable Development is the result.
Photo credit: This Venn diagram example was redesigned from the Wikimedia Commons file: Sustainable development.svg. [ wiki/ File:Sustainable_ development.svg] This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. [ licenses/ by-sa/ 3.0/

For years now, I have seen clients struggle with the fact that they cannot just do what they want with their property, that a municipality has regulations on what they can build and how. After all, it is “THEIR” property. I see people pursuing their American Dream, which usually means “bigger is better” or “more is better”. This is a mindset left over from the Victorian era or the Gilded Age that brought us the status symbol of the manicured rolling green lawn; water hogs with fertilizers and weed killers that continue to cause problems in the environment today. It is not an integrated ecosystem. We need to shift from the mindset that we are entitled to pursue whatever “We” want, regardless of the consequences, to one of caring about our world and taking responsibility for the choices we make. Can we live in harmony with the environment and each other?

Left, No mow grass mix with flowers, white bark trees and white stones scattered throughout. Right, Spiral stone path tapering to a point imbedded in a low micro clover grass alternative.
Pro Time Lawn Seed offers seed mixes that are a great alternative to the traditional lawn that are pollinator friendly, “no mow” and water wise.
Photo Credit: Pro Time Lawn Seed

When I bought my first property, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to purchase a property that had a long history and had been neglected for many years. I was not a landscape designer at the time, but from the beginning I had difficulty with the idea that I “owned” this property, that it was “mine”. The concept of property ownership is a construct created centuries ago to solidify economic power and drive an economic engine. This property was there long before me and would be there long after I was gone. I was merely the current steward, the one paying off the bank, negotiating with a municipality and making decisions that would affect the future of the land. I felt a responsibility to care for it. It had a story to tell, and I was writing the next chapter. It was the beginning of my understanding of the concept of stewardship.

My journey in understanding stewardship was a combination of my training as a massage therapist and my training in landscape design. When I was studying Shiatsu (a Japanese massage technique), I learned the Eastern approach to health and treatment, which is holistic, seeing the interconnectedness of a person and a problem. The Western approach is more linear, treating the symptom without understanding the complex pattern of connections that led to the problem and the full range of repercussions of the solutions. When studying sustainable landscape management, I learned a similar approach to solving problems, seeing all the avenues of causation and the repercussions of the design and management choices. I began to refer to the process as holistic problem solving and since then I have been seeing holistic landscape design become a phrase used in conversations, articles, and academic training. I believe holistic problem solving is the methodology of stewardship.

Rows of plants in paper pulp containers ready for sale at Portland Ave Nursery in Tacoma, WA
Paper Pulp containers replace plastic ones at Portland Ave Nursery in Tacoma, WA
Photo Credit: Author

As designers, we have the opportunity to be the influencers of what is to come, how people will interact with the environment, their community and the economy, the three pillars of sustainability. We are already familiar with a design process that looks at all the factors that influence our choices, water, soil, sun, wind, temperature ranges as well as functional parameters and budget. Commitment to the environment is part of the APLD Code of Ethics and asks that we “utilize professional knowledge and skills for the greatest good of the project site, the surrounding community and the environment as a whole”. The shift I am looking for is in the intent, the anchor that guides the design. In order to design for a changing climate, we need to guide our clients in the direction of stewardship so that they understand the full range of their choices and the consequences. Holistic analysis and solution crafting can solve multiple problems at once, reduce the impact on the environment, support community development and interaction, as well as be economically sound. That is why I use the language of stewardship in all my client discussions, from, plant and material choices, functionality, construction techniques and maintenance strategies to the impact those choices have on the environment, our social interactions, and our economy.

Left, Broken up concrete path creating rubble that typically goes to a landfill. Right, Concrete rubble inside a wire mesh cage creating a curved bench with an Alaskan yellow cedar wood seat.
Many projects in our area require breaking up existing concrete. Here is a concrete rubble gabion bench as a solution to putting the concrete in a landfill.
Photo Credit: Author

We are at a critical time for the environment, our social systems, and our economic systems. I believe the only way forward is to become better stewards of all of these and the way to become better stewards is to take responsibility for our choices. We can craft solutions that are holistic, that consider the full range of cause and effect over time, leaving the world a better place than how we find it.

APLD graphic for Healthy Pots Healthy Planet. Circular image of the earth with Images of soil and a leaf superimposed on top.
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APLD Code of Ethics