“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” Charles de Gaulle lamented, reflecting the big issue that many human beings have with diversity. Conservationists agree that the more plant species in an ecosystem, the healthier and more robust it is, yet a stroll down any lane in suburban America offers yard after yard of similar plants set in straight rows. Our culture values the neat and the familiar in home landscapes and our nurseries offer the plants consumers seek; as a result, the biodiversity of the nation declines.
The world is so full of a number of things, I think we should all be as happy as kings, sings poet Robert Louis Stevenson, in a perfect summary of the wealth and diversity in nature's plant kingdom. These days, biodiversity is a popular concept but it can be difficult to determine what type of diversity and in what landscape. Botanical diversity refers to variation in a plant system in any defined area from a home landscape to a nation.
The More the Merrier
Bio-pests are usually picky, relying on only one species or a handful of closely related species. If an area has many species, the distance between specimens of the same species increases, and insects and diseases cannot hop conveniently from one to the next, decimating an entire species. Almost every time a species has been wiped out in large numbers, it grew in exclusive stands, such as the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata, U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 8), largely eliminated by a host-specific fungus. This is also true in the home garden as demonstrated by the demise of photinia (Photinia x fraseri, USDA zones 8 through 9) and Leyland (cypress x Cupressocyparis leylandii, USDA zones 6 through 10).
The Dirt on Bio-Diversity
Gardeners know soil is more than the dirt beneath their feet, it's a living ecosystem filled with organisms from microscopic bacteria to earthworms -- collectively known as the soil food web. These organisms decompose plant debris and convert nitrogen, enhancing and enriching the place plants' roots call home. The richer the soil food web, the more fertile the soil. Since the food web partially depends on the plants that grow in it, the more different species you plant, the richer and healthier the soil.
Your plants belong to you, but in a larger sense, they serve your community, since diversity is the sum of all our backyards. You can preserve biodiversity by abandoning the idea that your garden should resemble your neighbor's. Do not plant over-used species, and space related specimens far apart in your yard. Visit your local biological gardens for inspiration rather than the local nursery that will likely offer what you see in your neighbors' yards. Don't plant the same veggies year after year. It is worth your time to seek out different species, especially native species; not only will this help in creating biodiversity in your community, but also it will reward you individually with fewer garden pests and plant problems.
- Smithsonian Institute Department of Botany: Centres of Plant Diversity
- National Science Foundation: Plant Diversity is Key to Maintaining Productive Vegetation
- BGCI: Major Threats to Plant Diversity
- University of Kentucky Extension: Botanical Diversity in the Landscape
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Castanea Dentata
- Missouri Botanical Gardens: X Cuprocyparis Leylandii
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: Leyland Cypress Alternatives
- Fine Gardening: Photinia x Fraseri
- Bonnie Plants: The Soil is Alive, Really
- Photo Credit Anna Omelchenko/iStock/Getty Images
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