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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Rebuilding Atlanta’s Biodiversity One Yard at a Time

Georgia’s urban sprawl has created some of the most significant and widespread environmental impacts in the nation, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia (NGE).

The metropolitan Atlanta region has more than 16,000 miles of roads, the second-highest number of miles per capita of any metropolitan area in the nation. In 2005, Atlanta lost 500 acres of open space each week to development, which contributes to the “heat island” effect, in which temperatures are hotter over pavement than land, NGE reports.

From 2010 to 2015, Atlanta’s population increased by 40,000 people, according to Sustainable Atlanta. Neighboring Sandy Springs grew 11.6 percent during the same time.

The local boom has resulted in concerns for local land, water and air quality in Metro Atlanta. From its 30-plus year Tree City USA status to the launch of the city of Atlanta’s 2008 Office of Sustainability and new seven-acre Browns Mill Food Forest, the region has tried to help mitigate the environmental effects of its population boom.

Local residents can play their part in improving the ecology of greater Atlanta by turning their yards and private lands into sustainably landscaped gardens filled with native plants, pollinators and edibles. Atlanta-based landscape architect Leah Pine specializes in using native plants to create meadows and pollinator gardens. “Whereas 60 years ago, the Metro Atlanta footprint was very small compared to the native forest, there’s almost nothing left. We’re losing a lot of our native landscape,and when we lose that, we lose the ecological services it provides; the cooling, the carbon dioxide sequestration,” says Pine.

A certified arborist, Pine says that it is generally 10 degrees cooler under a tree, a definite asset for Hotlanta, and that trees recycle thousands of gallons of water. But the trend to keep up appearances and cut down trees to create a homogenous grass lawn and then treat it with chemicals and additional irrigation draws too heavily on resources, as well as failing local wildlife.

“One of the things I’m trying to convey to my clients is that what it means to be a good citizen is changing and it needs to be fast. It needs to be more about bringing back these plants, the community of plants—to me that is what a good citizen is now,” says Pine. “From an ecological point of view, anything you do is better than what’s going on now.”

Having a meadow garden does not have to look shabby, notes Pine, who suggests consulting with a professional. She likes to use native grasses for structure, changing colors and native bee habitat. For drier areas, use bluestem and muhly grass for moist areas. Flowers she relies on include purple coneflower for beauty and bird feeding, as well as the large flower coreopsis. She likes using rabbit-eye blueberries as well, for flowers, fall foliage and berries for humans and birds. “I like my plants to fulfill multiple functions: have excellent structure and foliage, for example, as well as pretty flowers; and medicinal value, if possible,” writes Pine.

For do-it-yourselfers, she suggests that the first thing a landowner should do is remove all the non-native invasive species, including English ivy, privet, honeysuckle, kudzu and bamboo. She also says that the key to a good landscape is a good hardscape, such as pavers and paths, that help manicure the meadow.

Lindsey E. Mann founded Sustenance Design in 2006 as one of the leaders in edible design. Her company serves greater Atlanta and the Southeast U.S., and has worked on mostly residential projects, although her company was recently contracted to do a raingarden for Fulton County, and gardens for several local schools. She focuses both on edible landscapes and native plants. “In the city now, what we find are depleted landscapes. There is no topsoil left, there is just no biodiversity, which means a variety of soils, animals, insects and plants that lead to biodiversity, that all function to make a healthy ecology.”

She suggests the first thing Atlantans can do to improve the local ecology is cover any bare soil. A cheap way to do that is to call a tree company and ask for mulch chips. “If you cover the bare soil with mulch, you end up with a top layer of nice soil; you create a little microcosm of worms,” says Mann. “The worms and microorganisms churn the mulch into soil and mix it into the existing soil. Just by the act of putting mulch down on your topsoil, you’re creating good topsoil. It turns into garden soil in six months to a year. That’s the foundation of a healthy garden.”

She also suggests to stop spraying for weeds, because not only do the chemicals sprayed get into the ground and water supply, weeds stay green all year, unlike a grass lawn. She says we can grow weeds six inches long and mow them just like grass for a more manicured effect. She also suggests ground cover like strawberries and edible flowers like nasturtium.

Mann’s design takes into account ayurveda and yoga practices. She says edible gardens should be balanced with plants that attract pollinators to help the edibles grow and plants that feed the soil. “We are a part of the Earth, and we are only as healthy as the Earth, very literally,” says Mann.

Sources: Leah Pine Landscape Architect,

Lindsey E. Mann Sustenance Design,

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