October 12, 2023
In Bringing Home the Wild, A Riparian Garden in a Southwest City, author Julie Stromberg demonstrates how ecologically guided gardening develops a sense of place, restores connections to nature, and brings joy and meaning to our lives. When living in a large sprawling city, one may feel disconnected and adrift. Finding ways to belong and have positive effects is challenging. Today, Stromberg has provided us with field notes and insights into her work.
For three decades of my life, I was a professor at Arizona State University. During that time, I made many field trips to rivers of the American Southwest and published many research papers about the ecological relationships of riparian plants. These studies increased our understanding of the ways in which human activities alter riparian plant communities and informed the efforts of those who were working to restore them.
Once I retired, my engagement with riparian biota became more personal. My attention turned to the forests and shrublands my partner and I were tending on a patch of abandoned farmland we had purchased near the Salt River. Revitalizing our own patch of green has been deeply satisfying. I love engaging with trees not just as study organisms, but as partners and even as friends. Ecosystem restoration has been called, somewhat dismissively, glorified gardening. I am proud to be a gardener. I firmly believe that urban gardeners, collectively, can do much to help tackle the pressing issues of our time. Our ecosystem garden is a multitasker. For one, we have a working food forest of velvet mesquite, a tree which once covered much of the area that is now Phoenix. Agroecosystems such as these are a sustainable alternative to industrialized agriculture.
Second, by tending a bioproductive climate garden, we help mitigate the rising air temperatures in the city and offset a share of our own carbon emissions. Connecting with the plants who sequester the carbon is an important first step in undertaking climate action.
Third, our patch of green provides habitat for birds, mammals, and other wildlife whose numbers are in decline. Pollinators, herbivores, predators, and decomposers all thrive in our ecosystem garden: all have roles to play. The diversity of life in our garden has astounded me.
Finally, our garden provides ecotherapy. Anxiety is high among many urban dwellers, but the colors, sounds, smells, and patterns of the flora and fauna keep us calm and hopeful. Ecotherapy is a powerful force, especially when the greenery embraces you right as you step outside the door.
I wrote this book to inspire and guide others. I hope that our joyful experiences in urban ecosystem gardening will tempt others to deepen their connection to the natural world and nurture life-filled bounty in their own backyards. I hope more urban dwellers will unplug from the digital world, for a bit, and put on their gardening gloves. When we connect strongly to a place and feel as if we are part of the local ecosystem, we are more likely to take actions that benefit us all.
Julie Stromberg is a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and a plant ecologist who specializes in wetland and riparian ecosystems of the American Southwest. For the past thirty years, she has studied plant population and community dynamics and vegetation-hydrology interactions. The author of more than a hundred peer-reviewed publications, Stromberg continues to write about plants while also tending a riparian forest garden in the city.