Greenbelt Native Plant Center

Native plants are equipped to live under a specific set of conditions including but not limited to climate, soil types, amount of sunlight, and surrounding species of flora and fauna. Plants and animals that have evolved together depend upon one another for survival. Native plants do a better job of providing food and shelter for native wild animals. Sometimes, only a single species or sub species can fill a niche role in an ecosystem. For example the iconic monarch butterfly relies on a single species of milkweed in order to survive. It lays its eggs on the fleshy, sap-filled leaves. Larvae feed on the plants sap, absorbing the toxins which remain in the insect throughout adulthood, making them resistant to predation. Milkweed plants are often destroyed in agriculture in landscaping. Many do not realize the plants serve a significant function in the lifecycle of an iconic species.

Problems often arise when homeowners or professional landscapers plant. In my experience as a landscaper in central Connecticut, aesthetic value often overrules the use of native plant species in decorative landscapes. Clients often have a very specific idea of what they want to achieve, and many falsely assume that planting natives will result in a look far from the immaculate images in their minds.

At Eco Brooklyn, almost all of the plants used in landscapes are native. In rare cases, the species that aren’t are not harmful to the surrounding ecosystem, have a low probability of environmental contamination, and require low levels of maintenance. The aesthetic created captures the natural beauty of the New York City area. Planting native landscapes in gardens, rooftops, and natural swimming pools is not only for aesthetic reasons however. A changing attitude about the plants we interact with is the most valuable result of planting native. Changing the common opinion on natural plants from a method that, although environmentally sound, will lead to lackluster results, is paramount to creating a healthier urban ecosystem.
Greenbelt2

 

To carry out our projects, plants are sourced from the Greenbelt Native Plants Center. Greenbelt is a nonprofit nursery and seed bank located in Coney Island serving all 5 NYC boroughs. It specializes in providing native plants, grown on its 14 beautiful acres, to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation as well as professional landscapers in order to restore degraded land and enhance the city’s green spaces. There are over 2000 plants native to the New York area, 336 of which are cultivated using seeds collected from wild, local populations. Species also include submersibles, plants that thrive underwater some or all of the year, often a rarity for growers.

For Eco Brooklyn’s most recent natural pool project on Fire Island, over 800 native submersibles from grasses such as sedge to brightly flowered irises were used. Due to Greenbelt’s status as a nonprofit organization, the plants are extremely affordable, and the staff is extremely knowledgeable about their products, providing consultations and advice on the plants they care so much for. We simply could not do what we do without the easy access, and I would like to encourage anyone interested in taking a thoughtful approach to landscaping.

 

Biomimicry and the Eden Project

The Eden Project

As a New York green builder, Eco Brooklyn is always interested in learning about what other sustainable design ideas are out there.  Last night, I listened to an amazing TED talk that took green building to a whole new level.

Michael Pawlyn, formerly with Grimshaw Architects, London, spoke about biomimicry and sustainable design and how he believes we should be looking to nature for both our inspiration and the solution to our design dilemmas. By looking to nature, we can create more efficient systems and usurp the benefits of nature’s 3.5 billion years of R&D.

Michael Pawlyn also addressed the importance of creating efficient cyclical uses of products (beneficial to both humans and nature) instead of the current, inefficient linear model of produce, use, throw away. (This theory is laid out eloquently in Michael McDonough and Michael Braungart’s must-read, Cradle to Cradle.)

Looking to Nature for Answers

Nature is effecient.  Nature epitomizes the mantra waste not want not.  In nature, waste is food.  Humans, on the other hand, are the polar opposite.  We are wasteful, inefficient, and operate on a use-it-once-and-throw-it-away mentality.

Many engineers and architects are practicing biomimicry, looking to nature for answers to the world’s most pressing problems, including us here at Eco Brooklyn.  The passivhaus pond in the backyard, for example, uses no chemicals, but gravel, rocks, and plants, to filter out dirt and other impurities.  Just like nature would in a pond or lake.

The idea of mimicking nature in manmade inventions is not new by any means.  The Greeks applied “the golden ratio”, also called the golden mean or golden selection, to their art and architecture.  The Pantheon is based on the golden ratio.  Even the volutes on ionic columns use these proportions.

Medieval alchemists would initially determine a plant’s potential healing qualities by what it looked like.  For example, the leaves of the lungwort plant, which resemble the human lung, were used to treat respiratory problems.

Cyclical vs Linear Consumption

Nature functions on a closed loop system.  The waste of one is the food for another.  The dead leaves that come off trees in the Autumn become nutrients for the soil and earthworms on the ground to which they fell.  The earthworms eat the leaves and their waste provide nutrients for the tree, which then gives it energy to produce new leaves in the Spring.

Biomimicry is about creating manmade systems that replicate the remarkably efficient systems found in nature.  In one of his lectures, Pawlyn gives the example of Cardboard to Caviar.  The expensive cardboard packaging that caviar comes in was bought from a restaurant and used as bedding for horses in stables.  When that wore out, it was taken and added to a compost heap that feed worms.  These worms are harvested and sold as food to roe, whose eggs are then harvest and sold as caviar at the same restaurant.  These types of closed looped systems are both economically and environmentally sound.  The metabolism of our cities needs to be reexamined so that nothing is wasted and beneficial, efficient systems are created.

The Eden Project

The eden project biomimicry

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to create sustainable, carbon neutral (or even carbon positive), green designs that are more efficient and cost less than the “standard” models.  “It is possible to cut carbon emissions and save money,” says Michael Pawlyn. “The key to it is innovation.”  This has been proven by Mr Pawlyn in his work on many projects, specifically the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.

The Eden Project is the world’s largest greenhouse.  It is the second most visited paid attraction in England.  It was designed by Grimshaw Architects and opened in March 2001.

The site is on a reclaimed Kaolinite mine.  Since the site was still being quarried during the design process, they had to design a structure that could be built regardless of the what the final ground levels were going to be.  The result is a series of bubble-like domes of varying sizes strung along the landscape.  By looking to nature, they discovered that the most effective way to create a spherical surface is by using geodesics (hexagons and pentagons).  These bubbles are a series of giant hexagons welded together and then inflated.

The biomes are made of Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a transparent polymer that is used instead of glass and plastic in many modern buildings.  ETFE is incredibly strong and much lighter than glass.  Because of the lightness of the material, less steal was use for reinforcement which means more light can enter the space and less energy is required to heat space in the winter.  In fact, the structure itself weighs less than the air it contains

ETFE costs 1/3 less than the traditional glass solution.  ETFE is one percent of the weight of double glazing.

The Eden Project is just one of many examples of biomimicry and how man can learn to be efficient by mimicking what is already happening in nature.  By being aware of how nature solves problems we can improve our everyday lives.  Small things such as composting can make a big difference.  Compost puts nutrients back into the soil, feeds earthworms, and diverts food waste from going to landfills.  Finding new uses for old items gives them a new life.   We saved hundreds of pounds of lovely Blue Stone from a fate of going to the landfill by pulling it out of a dumpster and using it as paving in the front yard.  We can all be eco builders, practicing the principles of biomimicry.

In the words of Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Here’s Michael Pawlyn’s TED talk: 

Phone Booth Aquarium

When was the last time you used a pay phone?  For me, I think it was when I was in High School in the early 90s when I was stranded downtown.  But since everyone, and I mean everyone, has a mobile phone now, pay phones are obsolete.   In a way, I am saddened by the fact that phone boxes are useless.  They are cinematic icons (Superman, Charade, and the Birds, just to name a few) and can be found in cities large and small around the world, in various shapes and sizes.

So what happens to all of those phone booths?

 

Sadly, many have already been sent to the landfill.  Others lay unused and neglected on the roadside.  Some, however, are being rescued and converted by very cleaver people into things such as loos and libraries, showers, and sofas.

 

Some of the most exciting phone box conversions have been into fish tanks.  One of my favorites is by designers Benoit Deseille and Benedetto Bufalino as part of the Lyon Light Festival in France.  It is a local curiosity and a big hit amongst visitors.  The Lyon Light Festival is an anual event celebrating the Mother Mary, who, legend has it, spared the town from the Plague in 1643.

Aquarium phone box Lyon france

 

Other examples of phone booth aquariums are this goldfish aquarium in Japan:

Telephone booth fish tank

This lovely red phone box aquarium in England:

phone booth aquarium

This aquarium, which was part of an entire exhibit featuring creative fish tank ideas:

fish tank telephone booth

And this New York-themed fish tank design is from Animal Plant’s “Tanked.”  In doing research for this post I came upon an ad saying that the owners of this aquarium did not like it and put it up for sale on Ebay.

phone booth fish tank

Seeing creative adaptive reuse ideas such as these phone booth aquariums makes me want to go out and adopt an abondoned phone booth.  I wonder if it would fit into a taxi?

If you want to see more creative phone box conversions, click here.

Das Haus New York

green builder brooklynLast week, the interns from Eco Brooklyn went to the Net Zero Symposium sponsored by Das Haus in White Plains, New York to hear lectures and view a model of Das Haus, a passivhaus model made from two shipping containers that functions completely off the grid.  The conference was held at the White Plains Public Library and about 100 people were present.

 

Das Haus (German for “The House”) is a traveling pavilion featuring German innovation in photovoltaics and energy efficiency. Das Haus is calling on ten cities across North America.  Das Haus tour hopes to accomplish two goals: introduce North America to Germany’s innovations in solar energy and green construction, and create an ongoing dialogue across the country about policies, construction materials and techniques, etc., regarding sustainable design.

 

During the Das Haus conference in New York, the lecturers were a mix of Germans and Americans.  The Americans who spoke are based in New York and addressed what is going on in the state.

Das Haus tour New York

 

Guy Sliker, from the New York Power Authority personified the attitudes of the typical American: America knows best, we’re number one, look at all that we have accomplished, go America!  Mr Sliker spent the majority of his speech listing numbers that prove these (mis)conceptions.  Mr Sliker was overconfident in New York Power Authority’s progress and too comfortable is the direction the ship is sailing.

 

Net Zero symposium New York

Kim Curran, PV Instructor from the Bronx Community College, gave a distilled explanation of how PV works and the challenges the industry is facing.  She gave a more realistic picture of the solar industry and the problems it is facing, such as bringing down cost, increasing efficiency, and the state of government incentives.  Kim’s and most of the other presenters’ presentations can be viewed here.

 

It is an amazing thing that some of Germany’s technology is coming over the pond to North America.  Germany has been using PV panels, energy efficient designs, and green roofs for decades and are lightyears ahead of North America in their development, understanding, and implementation of sustainable ideas.  This is a giant step for progress in North America.

 

Why Should I Use Native Plants?

A significant aspect of green building and living sustainably is using vernacular materials and buying locally. Being green also means being a locavaore, eating and buying foods grown locally. But what about the vegetation we choose to plant in our gardens? We may choose a particular plant because of aesthetics, how well it will grow well in shade, or the fact that it was on sale at the nursery. Choosing which plants to put into our gardens is another area in which we can make more sustainable choices. Here at Eco Brooklyn, we stress using native plants at home and in all our Brooklyn Green Contractor jobs.

What are Native Plants?Brooklyn Green Contractor

Native plants are those which are indigenous to an area that have not been put there by humans. In North America, that becomes a bit more complicated because Europeans introduced many plants to the Americas beginning in the 15th century which some classify as “native.” Most botanists, however, define native plants to be those which were in the Americas before the Europeans arrived.

Why Should We Use Native Plants?

Currently, approximately 25% of the plants growing in North America are at risk of becoming extinct because of human activities. By using indigenous plants in our landscaping projects we can slow or even reserve the threat of species extinction. Native plants also assist in the larger picture of bolstering up native insects, moths, butterflies, and other animals native to the area. Here at Eco Brooklyn, we try to use as many native plants and animals as possible (such as the fish in our front pond or the Eastern Box Turtles in the roof garden).

Native Plants are Low Maintenance

Think of Indigenous plants as your local tour guide – they know the area, the best spots to hang out, and where you can take shelter from the storm. Native plants have become acclimated to the temperatures, annual rain fall, and have a relationship with the local wildlife. Native plants, therefore, require less fertilizer and pesticides, if any, and once established, require no irrigation.

Native Plants Rarely Become Invasive

Native plants stay put. They have a harmonious, symbiotic relationship with other vegetation that is beneficial to all, so native plants do not take over the landscape like “foreign” species do. Native Plants are Part of Our History The plants grown here in the Americas have played an important role in the history and civilization of this country. Herbs have been used by “medicine men” to remedy ailments, tree saplings were used to make bows and arrows, berries were used to make dyes, and let’s not forget our elementary school education of the Native Americans teaching John Smith, et all, how to grow corn.

What plants are native to your area?  

Native Plant Database allows you to do searches based on area, soil pH, plant type, etc.  It’s very extensive and customizable.