25 March 2008

Been Stoned: A Diatribe

When recently thinking about what stones to use for our dry drainage creek—for which I wanted a natural look—I sought out rocks that I thought looked of the place. I could’ve picked New Mexico River Rock, Mexican Beach Pebbles, Ozark “Medium,” or Colorado Flat Cobble.

All beautiful in their own right, but from places so far away.

Instead, I chose Llano River Cobbles, purchased from Austin Landscape Supplies (which strangely, is in Georgetown). I discovered that the cobbles were quarried by Hill Country Aggregates, located about 70 miles west-northwest of Austin near Lake Buchanan. It's not super close and the ecosystem is definitely not blackland prairie, but I think the rocks will make a nice local-ish looking stream after everything is landscaped.

This all got me thinking about where the stones that we use for our gardens come from? How far away did they travel? How much gas did it take? How many PPM of carbon monoxide were thrown into the air during harvesting and transport? How much of an ecosystem was destroyed so that I could have my little drainage creek?

These questions, of course, are all related to the concept of "sustainable gardening." I suppose I define that loosely as using minimal resources and giving equal--if not more--back to the ecosystem. To me, sustainable implies some sort of equality (no "greater thans" or "less thans"). But sustainable, by definition, involves a human element. Without human intervention in any way, the garden wouldn't be a garden at all; it would be a natural area. Arguably, it is impossible to find ANY place that humans have not intervened. Stephen Hopper comments in in this fascinating article that the entire Earth is our garden (put that in your pipe and smoke it).

Anyway, it might be hard to swallow, but the minute we decide to put in hardscape, we’ve damaged an environment elsewhere to make our own more pleasant to the eye. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. Stone quarries (unless they are turned into resplendent gardens a la Butchart Gardens in British Columbia) are gaping wounds in the earth. Forests and prairies and wetlands are leveled and dug out. Creeks and rivers are harvested. Ecosystems are disrupted or destroyed.

There are pollution and petroleum costs of sculpting it, carting it and transporting it to its final destination. This is the case whether its true stone or bricks, cement or plastic.

Man, it can be overwhelming.

Some help may come by way of the future-looking, positive folks at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center with the Sustainable Sites Initiative. This will result in some guidelines for landscape architects to stay "green," from water use to stone versus brick, but I'm sure many of the those rules can trickle down to us smaller gardeners. In the end, they are hoping for a system that will be like LEED certification or integrated into LEED certification. It’s a step in the right direction, but I'm afraid it still isn't a recipe for guilt-free gardening.

In then meantime, I try not to wring my hands too much over the decisions I make, and I justify the environmental expense of those decisions by believing that I am doing something better for this patch of earth where I’ve given my self the status of manager (and sometimes "Employee of the Month"). I may be adding stone that wasn’t here and taking it away from its home, but perhaps by planting more natives, providing food and shelter for wild critters passing through the city, and getting rid of lawn, I’m doing something right, something sustainable.


mss @ Zanthan Gardens said...

Thought-provoking. Most of the stones in my garden are from my garden. Some larger blocks of limestone I carted myself from a friend's building site in Steiner Ranch. But I have had decomposed granite and granite gravel delivered to make paths and I don't know where that came from.

We cannot live and leave the earth untouched. Finding a balance between our construction and the earth's destruction is tricky. What is the best approach to stewardship?

Pam/Digging said...

Great post, Lee! I was just thinking about this today when a potential client told me she wanted to use Mexican beach cobbles in her garden. I have some in my own and love them, but ever since Stuart of Gardening Tips 'n Ideas posted about mining Mexican beaches for our landscaping needs, I've felt some regret about choosing them. And Garden Rant just posted about the unsustainable harvesting of cypress trees for mulch, which I also have in my garden.

Knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn't have chosen those materials. Meanwhile, all we can do is just try our best to landscape responsibly.

Annie in Austin said...

Your dry river looks great, Lee!

The rocks we put around the fountain were bought in Cedar Park and are supposed to be from Texas - but it's a big state, isn't it! We've brought home bags and bags of decomposed granite with no provenance. Many smallish rocks came from our yard, with bigger ones free for the taking from places around Austin.

I like your post, Lee! Let's hope the small stuff counts because small stuff is what most of us have in our power to do.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Esther Montgomery said...

Near where I live, there is a seventeen mile long, massively high embankment of pebbles rising from the sea.

For nine miles, it runs parallel with the land, with a brackish lagoon in between. After that, it joins the land, breaking out in large pools from time to time.

It is called Chesil Beach. (Though it isn't what I'd call a 'beach'!).

There are by-laws prohibiting anyone from taking the pebbles. (On the grounds that if everyone did . . . . And it protects us from the sea - if it weren't there, the erosion would stretch seventeen miles inland.)

Last Year, Ian MaEwan published a novel called 'On Chesil Beach'.

He mentioned, on the radio, that he had taken a few pebbles (some in each hand) and put them on his mantlepiece.

There was a national fuss and he was threatened with a £2,000 fine.

Their return was televised!

Esther Montgomery

P.S. Came across you on Blotanical.

Muddy Mary said...

This is so timely for me as I've been thinking about ethics and gardening. Here in rock-free Houston, there is alot of demand for beach pebbles and river cobbles. I feel I should educate clients about alternatives. Glad to know about Llano River Cobbles which are so much closer than Mexico. However if chunks of urbanite somehow became the landscaping vogue, that would be even more Green for Houston.