My guest writer today is Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton, owner of Better Nature Solutions. I asked her to tell us about her company and why its cause is important to the city. It was edited for brevity and clarity.
Originally from the western U.S., she grew up in the Sonoran Desert and on the Navajo (Dine) Reservation. Returning to school as an adult, she began research as a horticultural undergraduate, fell in love with mutualisms, and got a PhD 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 conservation of all things beautiful, art, hearts, minds and most especially nature. Having studied urban forest ecology, beneficial relationships between plants and microbes, and climate crisis impacts on biodiversity conservation, she left research science and started an LLC, Better Nature Solutions, in 2018 devoted to preserving trees and the ocean of diversity beneath our feet.
Here’s Dr. Hamilton:
East Tennessee is the home to some of the most diverse kinds of plants. Yet, we fail to celebrate this in our cityscapes, gardens, greenways. Why do homeowners, local gardeners, and people in the landscape industry choose anything but the flora of Tennessee, or at least most of our Appalachian plants?
Despite our wondrous diversity of plants, our cities have large zones of low biodiversity and habitats dominated by introduced plants from everywhere except Appalachia. We mostly plant and manage our parks and homes with around 50 different species/cultivars of trees and shrubs not indigenous to Tennessee.
In any given Knoxville neighborhood, you are likely to see Leyland Cypresses, a tree native to Alaska and Monterey often carrying with it multiple costly diseases. Cherry laurel cultivars from Europe and the Middle East are also dominant and frequently carry multiple pathogens. Acer palmatum, Japanese Maple, has an abundance of cultivars with cultivation happening primarily in the Pacific Northwest and Asia. It is no wonder these cultivars often suffer in the clay-dense soils and hot-dry summers of East Tennessee.
We love all trees and love to care for gardens with cultivated and indigenous plants. Our indigenous plants provide the home and food needed by local and indigenous pollinating bees and butterflies, as well as our local and migrating birds. We are losing these at alarming rates (over 3 billion birds gone), and part of the reason is the lack of native habitat and food provided by indigenous plants in the urban forests of the US.
It is no one’s fault that we have strayed so far from our indigenous flora. These things happen because of discovery and curiosity and the joy of bringing the larger world into our homes. The horticultural industry isn’t to blame, but rather is responding to the perceived desires of developers, who are responding to the perceived desires of property owners.
Not celebrating our Appalachian fauna and flora comes with unseen costs, both personally and at the governmental level. Yards dominated by grasses create ‘green deserts.’ Short, grassy lawns do not provide food or homes for insects, birds, or bees, but they do require a lot of chemicals to maintain.
Plants from abroad are, on average, more diseased than local flora because they didn’t evolve alongside local diseases. They’re grown in high densities nurseries industry under less-than-ideal conditions for plant health. In response, landscape professionals and homeowners add more toxic-to-humans chemistry to keep the plants alive. Local plants are more resilient because they’ve evolved here.
The next time we have a heavy rainfall, watch the water moving over the streets, off and across lawns. That water carries with it all those harmful chemicals used in most landscapes into our neighbor’s yards, rivers, and sewer systems. The more chemicals in the sewer system, the more costly to the city, and ultimately to us, to clean it.
That water sinks into our soils leading to chemically sick soils that hurt plants and can lead to increased exposure for our kids, families, pets, and friends. Compared to rural areas, cities and suburbs have higher rates of skin diseases in both humans and pets, as well as decreased lung health, leading to more hospital visits for those with respiratory issues; costs that are both physical and monetary.
More chemicals, especially those designed to kill pests and diseases, can mean fewer healthy birds and/or lost baby birds. It means lower survival of pollinators. What we are adding to their diets causes feminization (to stop reproduction of the insects) and is linked to hormonal disruption in humans. Then there are the carcinogenic effects of many, and a group of chemicals called neurotransmitter disrupters, which is what they do. The same poisons designed to shut down the neurological functioning of a mouse or insect can impact our brains, hearts, and lungs.
Even worse, in most cities and suburbs it is the poorest members of our community who are exposed to the least healthy habitats. They typically have fewer trees and more exposure 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 that nature provides us. Lots of problems of our era 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 nonprofit dedicated to increasing diversity in in plants and supporting the diversity in our community.
We provide training and employment to women who were formerly incarcerated, trafficked, high school dropouts, and refugees. These communities are among the least likely to be stably employed and/or employed below a living wage. This leads to increased re-incarceration rates and/or dependency on social services. Of the 23 million female immigrants in the US (2020 statistics) one-third have a bachelor’s degree or higher, yet underemployment is a real issue for these women, especially coming from Asian and LatinX communities.
The high school dropout rate for the US and rural US is at 11% (2012) while Tennessee’ dropout rate in 2009 was 9%. The majority of dropouts are not occurring in cities, but dropouts end up in cities seeking employment or homeless. We think that providing skilled employment with an educational component is critical to help them realize their potential and to foster their self-sufficiency.
We train and employ women who enjoy working outdoors, are interested in the science of nature, and are passionate about ecological preservation or nature. We want to train the next generation of business owners in arboriculture and horticulture who can compete successfully in these male-dominated industries and bring to the table robust knowledge and mad skills.
The employment BNS provides starts with a year-long apprenticeship program, training our future team-members in the basics of arboriculture and horticulture. This means they learn on the job how to safely climb and prune a tree to best preserve that tree’s long-term health. They learn best practices for soil care in ecological landscaping design and garden/lawn management basics. This training is critical to BNS goals of honoring the unique nature that we are lucky to have in Appalachia.
BNS has chosen to work in horticulture and arboriculture because East TN is one of the most beautiful habitats in the US. Being part of the Appalachian Mountains, our forests boast over a158 tree species and of the many 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 go hiking yearly to see the show of jack-in-the-pulpit and catch a glimpse of a stewartia in bloom or a taste a fresh sassafras leaf. Yet our urban forests do not celebrate this abundance.
So, Better Nature Solutions is operating with the idea that our better natures are found when we celebrate the skills and strengths of women regardless of what life has previously thrown at them. We propose our better natures are best supported by a healthy urban habitat in which public and private spaces are celebrations of Appalachian flora. Management using protocols that respect the quality of water and air in East Knox is a solution better for all of nature (including humans).
To this end, Better Nature Solutions offers Tree and Plant Health Care, including tree evaluation, soil and lawn care, pruning and more with a goal of tree preservation. Soil Health Service includes soil testing and restoration. Installation and care for Edible and Learning Gardens is also a focus — either for public groups or private individuals.
BNS is also seeking men and women for board membership who are passionate about honoring and celebrating diversity, empowering women, and ensuring the beauty that is East Tennessee is often seen. We are especially interested in those with accounting, environmental, or corporate law, development and/or construction, psychology, but all skills are welcome.
If you’re interested in helping, in employment, or in the services offered, please contact Dr. E Hamilton @ firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the website for more information.