Why Container Gardening Matters for Conservation

By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee

It was good to see so many people at the garden tour and at the April general meeting. Being the contrarian that I am, I wanted to flag something we don't do enough of, and argue that it's important. What we don't do is to help people set up container gardens for native plants. Most of our work focuses on in-the-ground gardening, and for good reason. But there's this problem. It's typically a few years out of college, happy to finally at least have a balcony on the apartment or a yard bigger than a surfboard. This problem thinks that native gardening might be cool, buys a white sage at a garden sale, puts it in a pot, watches it die, decides they can't grow native plants, and goes onto some other hobby.

Does this story seem familiar? I've not only heard it, I've lived it, and while I never grew white sage in a pot (mostly because it grows in my mom's yard), I've heard quite a few variations on it over the years.

There are numerous reasons why this is a conservation problem. First and foremost, CNPS members tend to be older, wealthier, and whiter than the population of California as a whole. What we think of as "normal"—having a garden to landscape, being able to take long vacations, comfortably hiking in the back country, are privileges that many people simply don't have. Some things we can do, like leading more field trips and targeting our advertisements where people outside our normal demographics look for fun. Others, like giving everybody a big back yard to garden in, are less possible every passing year. This isn't just about the housing crisis, it's about the sprawl crisis, and it's something I have to deal with in conservation all the time.

There are multiple reasons why both urban planners and conservationists are trying to get cities to densify. Food, water, energy, pollution, and transit are all easier to do when people live in smaller spaces. Conversely, even back in 2011 when the County passed its last General Plan, it was obvious that sprawl was unaffordable. We simply don't have the tax base to pay for roads, water, fire safety, or sheriffs if everybody has their own acre out in the back of beyond.

That hasn't stopped developers from trying to build, for instance by promoting a mythical I-15 development corridor that they promise will be absolutely full of affordable housing, for instance. That part about affordable housing is conspicuously under-represented from EIRs on real projects proposed for this corridor: Newland Sierra, Lilac Hills Ranch, and Safari Highlands. Worse perhaps is the Otay Ranch Village 14 in the south County. Those developers want to install a bunch of houses at less than one house per acre, right in the footprint of the 2007 Harris Fire. That's the kind of spread-out, low-density housing that is very hard for firefighters to protect and (in Otay Ranch) apparently hard to evacuate from, if you believe the EIR analysis. It's also kind of expensive, and I didn't see affordable housing mentioned in the Otay Ranch Village 14 EIR. I'm stressing this, because if you vote in San Diego, you're about to get deluged with advertising claiming that developers in the north county are building massive numbers of affordable homes. The EIRs I've read (and I'm happy to share them) say otherwise, unfortunately.

Then there's the central CNPS conservation issue: conserving rare native plants against sprawl developments. While we don't have any species extinctions recorded in San Diego County yet, we have a long roster of plants whose populations have declined by >90% over the last century. It's not clear how much it will take for some of these to die out, but if we keep building, we'll find out. We could, very easily, go from a conservation success story to a hot zone of extinction, if we are careless about sprawl. If the price for the privilege of a big native plant garden is the extinction of a native plant species, do you want to pay that price? I certainly do not.

So here I am, arguing on conservation grounds that we need people to live in smaller homes closer together, while our garden culture celebrates exactly the opposite.

Does this mean I'm arguing against garden tours? Absolutely not. We all need to see what's possible. But we in CNPSSD simply need to acknowledge that a lot of people, especially the next generation, can't afford those beautiful gardens. We need to have something for them too.

It would be great if we had something to tell the people beyond "don't put white sage in a container on a shady balcony," when it came to gardening advice for apartment dwellers. So many CNPSers are into gardening, wouldn't it be great if we could tell people what to grow on their balconies, in their little postage stamp backyards, in the shade of buildings, all that? I think we've got the knowledge, but, as with finding out what caterpillars eat so you can garden to feed bird chicks, that knowledge isn't gathered in one spot, let alone a brochure or a website. Hopefully we can change that.

And it's not just container gardening. The big threat, especially in urban conservation areas, is human activity, specifically mountain bikers and homeless people. The homeless are a symptom of our crisis in affordable housing, but as with the mountain bikers, they can trash conservation areas simply by being there and rearranging stuff in what they see as "vacant land" to meet their needs. In some ways, I think the mountain bikers are a bigger problem, because they have more wealth, more privilege, and a well-financed group of activists fighting for their access, something the homeless do not have.

How do we reach out to them? I'm not sure we do right now. But if we're going to try and get more and younger CNPSers, we're going to need to reach out to them where they live, especially in cities around here. We're going to need to get them out of their apartments and off their bikes, and get them hiking, weeding, and gardening where they can, so they can fall in love with the place we love too. We'll all have to do our part, especially if we don't want this place to be sprawl- developed into potholes and traffic jams.