My guest writer today is Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton, owner of Better natural solutions. I asked him to tell us about his business and why his cause is important to the city. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Originally from the western United States, she grew up in the Sonoran Desert and on the Navajo (Dine) Reservation. Returning to school as an adult, she began research as an undergraduate in horticulture, fell in love with mutualisms, and earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Arizona State University. She taught for the Cornell Prison Education Program and lived and worked at a remote agricultural research station in Finland.
She has a passion for the conservation of all beautiful things, art, hearts, minds and especially nature. After studying the ecology of urban forests, the beneficial relationships between plants and microbes, and the impacts of the climate crisis on biodiversity conservation, she left scientific research and started an LLC, Better Nature Solutions, in 2018 devoted to the preservation of trees and the ocean of diversity under our feet.
This is Dr. Hamilton:
East Tennessee is home to some of the most diverse plant species. Yet we fail to celebrate this in our cityscapes, our gardens, our greenways. Why do homeowners, local gardeners, and people in the landscape industry choose anything other than Tennessee flora, or at least most of our Appalachian plants?
Despite our wonderful plant diversity, our cities have vast areas of low biodiversity and habitats dominated by plants introduced from everywhere but Appalachia. We primarily plant and manage our parks and homes with approximately 50 different species/cultivars of trees and shrubs not native to Tennessee.
In any neighborhood in Knoxville, you’ll likely see Leyland cypress, a tree native to Alaska and Monterey that often carries several costly diseases. Cherry laurel cultivars from Europe and the Middle East are also dominant and frequently carry multiple pathogens. Acer palmatum, the Japanese maple, has an abundance of cultivars with cultivation taking place primarily in the Pacific Northwest and Asia. It’s no wonder these cultivars often suffer from the dense clay soils and hot, dry summers of eastern Tennessee.
We all love trees and enjoy tending gardens with cultivated and native plants. Our native plants provide the necessary home and food for local and native pollinating bees and butterflies, as well as our local and migrating birds. We are losing them at an alarming rate (over 3 billion birds gone), and part of the reason is the lack of native habitat and food provided by native plants in urban forests across the United States.
It’s no one’s fault that we’ve strayed so far from our native flora. These things happen because of discovery and curiosity and the joy of bringing the larger world into our homes. The horticulture industry is not to blame, but rather responds to the perceived desires of developers, who respond to the perceived desires of landowners.
There are invisible costs to not celebrating our Appalachian flora and fauna, both personally and governmentally. Yards dominated by grasses create “green deserts”. Short, grassy lawns don’t provide food or shelter for insects, birds, or bees, but maintaining them requires a lot of chemicals.
Plants from abroad are on average sicker than the local flora because they have not evolved alongside local diseases. They are grown in the high-density nursery industry under less than ideal conditions for plant health. In response, landscape professionals and homeowners are adding more chemicals toxic to humans to keep plants alive. Local plants are more resilient because they evolved here.
Next time we have heavy rain, watch the water move down the streets, out and across the lawns. This water carries with it all of those harmful chemicals used in most landscapes into our neighbors’ backyards, rivers and sewers. The more chemicals in the sewer system, the more expensive it is for the city, and ultimately for us, to clean it up.
This water sinks into our soils, resulting in chemically diseased soils that harm plants and can lead to increased exposure for our children, families, pets, and friends. Compared to rural areas, cities and suburbs have higher rates of skin diseases in humans and pets, as well as decreased lung health, leading to more visits to the hospital for people with respiratory problems; both physical and monetary costs.
More chemicals, especially those designed to kill pests and disease, can mean fewer healthy birds and/or lost baby birds. This means lower pollinator survival. What we add to their diet causes feminization (to stop insect reproduction) and is linked to hormonal disruption in humans. Then there are the carcinogenic effects of many of them and a group of chemicals called neurotransmitter disruptors, which they do. The same poisons designed to shut down the neurological functioning of a mouse or an insect can impact our brains, hearts and lungs.
Worse still, in most cities and suburbs, it is the poorest members of our community who are exposed to the least healthy habitats. They generally have fewer trees and are more exposed to industrial pollutants. We can change this relatively easily and save money. We can change what we grow, how we manage what we grow, and how we distribute the wealth of services nature provides. Many of the problems of our time are wickedly complex, but for this one we can provide a serious solution.
Better Nature Solutions utilizes and celebrates the diversity, beauty and health of our eastern TN forests and grasslands. Ecological principles are used to guide us because they are healthy and economically sound. BNS is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing diversity in plants and supporting diversity in our community.
We provide training and employment to women who have been incarcerated, trafficked, high school dropouts and refugees. These communities are among the least likely to have stable employment and/or employment below a living wage. This results in increased rates of re-incarceration and/or dependency on social services. Of the 23 million immigrant women in the United States (2020 stats), one-third have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but underemployment is a real problem for these women, especially those from Asian and Latino communities. .
The high school dropout rate for the US and rural US is 11% (2012), while Tennessee’s dropout rate in 2009 was 9%. The majority of dropouts do not occur in cities, but dropouts end up in cities looking for work or homeless. We believe that providing skilled jobs with an educational component is essential to help them realize their potential and foster their autonomy.
We train and employ women who enjoy working outdoors, who are interested in natural science and who are passionate about ecological or nature conservation. We want to train the next generation of arboriculture and horticulture business owners who can successfully compete in these male-dominated industries and bring solid knowledge and insane skills to the table.
The employment that BNS offers begins with a one-year apprenticeship program, training our future team members in the basics of arboriculture and horticulture. This means that they learn on the job how to climb and prune a tree safely to better preserve the long-term health of that tree. They learn the best soil care practices in green landscape design and the basics of garden and lawn management. This training is essential to BNS’s goals of honoring the unique nature we are blessed with in Appalachia.
BNS chose to work in horticulture and arboriculture because East TN has one of the most beautiful habitats in the United States. Being part of Appalachia, our forests have over 158 species of trees and of the hundreds of species of flowers and shrubs, fifty genera are found only in this ecoregion. Yet, according to the World Wildlife Fund, our habitat is considered “vulnerable”. I hike every year to see the jack-in-the-stand show and spot a blooming stewartia or taste a fresh sassafras leaf. Yet our urban forests do not celebrate this abundance.
So, Better Nature Solutions works with the idea that our best nature is found when we celebrate the skills and strengths of women, regardless of what life has already thrown at them. We propose that our best natures are best supported by a healthy urban habitat in which public and private spaces are celebrations of Appalachian flora. Managing using protocols that respect water and air quality in East Knox is better for all of nature (including humans).
To that end, Better Nature Solutions offers tree and plant health care, including tree assessment, ground and lawn maintenance, pruning and more with the goal of preserving trees. The soil health service includes soil analysis and restoration. The installation and maintenance of edible and educational gardens are also at the center of concerns, whether for public groups or individuals.
BNS also seeks men and women to serve on the Board of Directors who are passionate about honoring and celebrating diversity, empowering women, and ensuring the beauty of East Tennessee is seen often. We are particularly interested in those with skills in accounting, environmental or corporate law, development and/or construction, psychology, but all skills are welcome.