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364-Easy Ways to Help Heal Earth in Suburban and Urban Landscapes

| Care, Podcast

Getting more people to participate in healing the ecosystem takes spreading awareness of both the problems and the solutions. My guest this week, Basil Camu, does just that in his new book “From Wasteland to Wonder: Easy Ways We Can Help Heal Earth in the Sub/Urban Landscape.” 

Basil is the “chief vision officer and wizard of things” of Leaf & Limb, a tree care company that refuses to remove living trees, and the leader of Pando Project, a nonprofit that collects native seeds, propagates them and gives away the saplings. In “From Wasteland to Wonder,” he identifies how individuals and groups can use trees and other plants to reverse the decline in biodiversity that the Earth is facing. 

 

Basil Camu

Basil is the “chief vision officer and wizard of things” of Leaf & Limb, a tree care company that refuses to remove living trees, and the leader of Pando Project, a nonprofit that collects native seeds, propagates them and gives away the saplings. He is also the author of “From Wasteland to Wonder: Easy Ways We Can Help Heal Earth in the Sub/Urban Landscape.” (Photo Credit: Tessa Williams, Media Director at Leaf & Limb)

 

In a blurb for the book, entomologist and conservationist Doug Tallamy wrote: “In all of my years of reading environmental literature, I have never encountered writing as compelling and comprehensive, yet clear, accessible, and uplifting as Basil Camu’s ‘From Wasteland to Wonder.’ Basil’s logic will overwhelm any lingering doubts you may have about this approach to landscaping  and provide that kick in the pants so many of us need to take action.”

Let’s face it. When it comes to biodiversity loss, it’s psychologically easier to put our head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening, but we don’t have that option. It’s very real, and the onus is on us to change our landscaping practices to make our properties a net plus for the ecosystem.

How Basil Camu Went From Tree Remover to Tree Preservationist

Basil lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was born and raised. He used to be a guy who cut down trees. Now, preserving trees is a big part of what defines him. 

Basil has worked with his father for 15 years in the family tree business, Leaf & Limb. It started out as a traditional tree service company, removing limbs and cutting down trees. “We really didn’t even know how to properly prune back then,” he says.

They wanted to have a proper business and play by all the rules, which includes having workers’ compensation insurance for employees. “In our industry, workers’ compensation is extremely expensive because it’s such dangerous work,” Basil points out.

Leaf & Limb would bid for work against companies that did not carry workers’ comp insurance, so it could be difficult to land clients.

“Our industry experts estimate that something like 90% of businesses in our industry do not pay workers’ compensation,” Basil says. 

To stand apart from the competition, he and his father determined that they needed to learn how to prune properly and control pests.

But to back up a little bit: Basil’s conservation journey began with reading books about soil. He read works by Jeff Lowenfels, Paul Stamets and Michael Phillips.

“It was just fascinating to me,” Basil says. “I also had the good fortune of stumbling on a group called Acres, and they’re the industry representation for regenerative farming.”

He loves reading about regenerative farming, and he says it taught him about the importance of soil and changed his perspective.

“I was fascinated by these ecosystems and by trees, and I started learning the importance of photosynthesis and soil formation and how it drives our planetary systems,” Basil says. “And it was a remarkable learning journey. And then one day I poked my head up and I was like, ‘Man, what we’re doing as a company, it does not really fit with what I believe anymore.’”

When this spark ignited in Basil, he just dove in. I can relate to that: Wanting more and more information, going deeper and richer into the content.

He also read “The Responsible Company” by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. 

“I want to do something more than just have a job and make money,” Basil says. “I want meaning in my work, and his book really helped me solidify what that can look like. Being a responsible steward of resources, being a place where you’re empowering your people and you’re building community — business can be a force for good.”

Basil and his father decided to get out of the business of removing live trees. It had made up 40% of their revenue, but they made an announcement in 2020, before they knew COVID was coming, that they would no longer cut down living trees.

 

Mature tree

Leaf & Limb got out of the business of removing live trees, and Basil is now a tree preservationist. (Photo Credit: Tessa Williams, Media Director at Leaf & Limb)

 

From Wasteland to Wonder

In 2020, Basil began giving a presentation titled “How Trees Can Save the World, and What We Can Do to Help” to garden clubs, the local arboretum and other places where plant people gather.

“When I went in with this presentation, I thought I was speaking to the choir. I thought these were things we all know,” Basil says. “But I found that people had these aha moments, and they were like, ‘Wow, this is really — this is amazing. Tell me more.’ And I just was overwhelmed by the positive response and the degree to which people wanted more information.”

Between running a business and a nonprofit, Basil didn’t have the capacity to travel to regional conferences to share his presentation as often as he was invited to. He decided he would get the word out by writing a book. He spent weekend mornings working on it for four years.

The audience he had in mind for the book is “the common person living in suburban space.” He didn’t write for designers or people who already know a lot about native plants and the environmental issues the Earth is facing.

“I’m really speaking to the people who don’t have the time to learn these things, and they don’t have the money to hire the professionals — the designers, or the you name it, who could actually help them implement these ideas.”

His goal was to make the message easy to understand and to share how readers could save time and money while achieving ecological goals. 

 

From Wasteland to Wonder: Easy Ways We Can Help Heal Earth in the Sub/Urban Landscape

“From Wasteland to Wonder” by Basil Camu can be downloaded for free at leaflimb.com/wonder.

 

Implicit Motivation

“We are in dire straits in terms of environmental issues, and I think it’s very scary and maybe one of the most serious issues that we’re facing,” Basil says.

For the past 30 years, finger-wagging hasn’t worked, according to Basil. So his approach is implicit motivation.

“Something like 2 or 3% of the population actually do things to help address environmental issues,” he notes. “So if scaring people and wagging the finger hasn’t been working, it’s time for a new approach.”

He wants to get people excited about the work while offering them ways they can save time and money. “That’s a great excuse to get into this sort of work,” he says.

Another one of Basil’s favorite books is “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows. It’s one of the books on his reading journey that has taught him about changing hearts and minds.

Donella argues “that your biggest lever for creating change is changing hearts and minds. It’s shifting paradigms,” Basil says.

“I obviously want to plant a tree, but I want to do more than that,” he adds. “And to get to paradigm shifting, you have to change hearts and minds, and to change hearts and minds, the research shows your best bet is implicit motivation.”

Another pivotal book for Basil is “Breaking Through Gridlock” by Gabriel Grant. It motivated him to talk about topics he cares about through a place of joy and beauty, as well as saving time and money.

 

Native landscaping

Native landscaping is a way for homeowners to beautify their properties while engaging in ecological restoration. (Photo Credit: Tessa Williams, Media Director at Leaf & Limb)

 

Top Takeaways

From the time Basil started writing “From Wasteland to Wonder: Easy Ways We Can Help Heal Earth in the Sub/Urban Landscape,” he knew he wanted to give it away. (The eBook is free to download and the hardcover is just $10.75 to cover the printing costs.) He calls the book his “act of reciprocity,” a phrase he picked up from Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.” He says she puts words to feelings that he couldn’t put words to himself. 

Robin writes: “Give thanks for what you have been given. Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

Basil says the top three takeaways that he wants readers to take from “From Wasteland to Wonder” are:

  1. The way we currently manage the suburban landscape is creating a wasteland, and it’s harming the well-being of Earth.
  2. The paradigms and practices that he put forth do the opposite. They help heal Earth.
  3. When we work to help heal Earth, we save time and money because we’re working with powerful natural systems instead of working against them. It’s like swimming in a stream of water, he says. “If you can swim with that stream, you’re going to make a lot more progress.”

The basis for most of our tree care and landscaping practices is fighting natural systems, Basil says. The plants are always going to win in the end, but we pour a tremendous amount of time and resources into the fight, harming the environment in the process. “If we could just go the other way, flow with the energy, find ways to channel that natural system in our favor, well then, we can have the best of all worlds,” he says. 

 

Saving and sharing native tree and shrub seeds is a great way to preserve and promote biodiversity. (Photo Credit: Tessa Williams, Media Director at Leaf & Limb)

 

Broken Natural Systems

“From Wasteland to Wonder” opens with some fun essays about how the planet works, Basil says. Then Section 2 is titled “Four Not-so-Fun Essays About Broken Natural Systems.”

Basil wrote about how existing practices and paradigms are destroying natural systems to set the stage for why change is needed. He explained how photosynthesis has been damaged and how soil has been damaged globally, which has created a water crisis. And he wrote about how carbon in the atmosphere and carbon sequestration plays into the paradigms.

During the Carboniferous period, the content of carbon in the atmosphere was at about 1,500 parts per million, Basil says. It came down over millions of years to about 250 ppm as life on Earth proliferated. Trees, soil and life in general sequestered carbon in biomass. 

Today, carbon in the atmosphere is at about 407 ppm. 

“We’ve cut down half of the world’s forests and grasslands,” Basil points out. “We’ve destroyed half the world’s soil. Over half of all populations of life are gone. Water’s becoming scarce, and there’s an explosion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Mitigating the rise in carbon emissions and reversing the upward trend will take building more life through how land is managed, he explains.  

Shifting Baseline Syndrome

“We have this mismatch between human lifespans and geological time span,” Basil says. “So it takes a long time for things to happen on this planet. Humans, we live for 70 or 80 years. We don’t get to see these things happen. So when I’m born, I see what we have here today, and to me that looks normal. But it would probably horrify my ancestors who had a different view a thousand years ago.”

One of the big impediments in raising awareness of environmental issues is that people aren’t able to see the big picture, Basil notes. “They think what we see is normal today. And it’s just not.”

I remember driving in the family car as a kid from Miami to the North Carolina mountains on the turnpike, and every so often we’d have to pull over and wash off the windshield because it was coated in splattered bugs. These days, that doesn’t happen anymore because the insect population has been so decimated.

I also think about how often I would see monarch butterflies in my youth, compared to now. In 13 years of living on the north side of Atlanta, Georgia, I have seen fewer than 10 monarchs, despite growing milkweed here. It’s scary to think about what that means.

These are two examples of changes that could be observed over one lifetime. Basil calls attention to the changes that happened before anyone on this planet was born. No one living today was there to observe the changes, so to everyone alive, it doesn’t seem like a change at all; it seems normal.

Each generation becomes more removed from a time before the Industrial Revolution when there was less carbon in the atmosphere and more trees, and they are desensitized. 

Section 2 is the “low point” in the book, Basil says, pointing out that it is a book of hope and empowerment. The rest of the book focuses on solutions. 

“We can use our properties for such powerful good,” Basil says.

His book offers easy ways to support birds and butterflies, build healthy soil, clean water and pull carbon out of the atmosphere.

Why Saplings Are Superior

Basil is not a fan of trees from nurseries, whether they come containerized or balled and burlapped. “There are just so many issues with the root systems and with how the trees are raised and the health of these trees,” he says. 

He encourages planting saplings instead. They are younger than containerized or balled and burlapped trees, but they get acclimated to their planting location must faster and they catch up in growth quickly.

“There’s just a litany of reasons why they end up performing better in the long run,” Basil says. “But guess what? They’re really easy to plant. You can put your shovel in the ground, wedge it open, slide a sapling in place, and you’ve got a tree in the ground. You can do 25 or 30 of these in the time it takes to do one from the nursery.”

Containerized trees are accustomed to getting water and fertilizer, and when they are put out in the suburban landscape, they are needy trees, requiring supplemental watering for several years until they finally get established. Saplings are healthier and live longer, research shows

Suburban trees have an average lifespan of 35 years, while wild trees live for hundreds of years, if not thousands, Basil points out. It’s old trees that do the most good building soil and feeding life — so plant saplings.

Basil says a tree is like a carbon pump, taking carbon out of the air and pumping it into the ground and its leaves. Native trees are even better at sequestering carbon because they are eaten by native life, he adds.

“The trees that are from here feed life that’s from here,” he says.

 

Sapling

Saplings acclimate to where they are planted more readily than containerized trees.(Photo Credit: Tessa Williams, Media Director at Leaf & Limb)

 

Having an Impact Beyond Your Yard

“Suburban space in the U.S. represents maybe 3% of landmass,” Basil notes. “Meaning if everybody in suburban space just immediately adopted these practices we’re discussing, it would only be a blip on the radar in terms of landmass. But what’s really important is that people live in suburban spaces. This is where ideas and discussion and laws and policy are passed. So the big value here is not necessarily getting a perfect amount of native meadows and trees on your property. … The more important thing is that you understand these topics. So now that when you go vote for local bills and local bonds, now you’re a better-informed voter. You can spend your money differently. 

“There’s so many ways we can do change. We can do it with our dollars, we can do it with our votes. It’s not just the yard where we work.” 

 

Trees to Pay More Attention To

The biggest trees are the strongest trees on your property — the ones that survived the hurricanes.

The tree to pay attention to is next to where the neighbor just built a new house dug where the trees’ roots grow, Basil advises.

“The vast majority of trees that are removed in my experience, are based on fear or fear mongering, and unfortunately, my industry colleagues do a lot of fear mongering,” he says.

One of my pet peeves is tree-topping, the practice of removing the main leader of a tree. This is terrible for trees, but many tree companies go on topping trees.

“When you cut the top of that tree off, it creates issues that severely affect the tree’s health,” Basil explains. … “When the tree tries to grow from those cuts, it now grows multiple new trunks or multiple branches where there was just one. And those are all more weakly attached than what had been there before.”

He tells people: “You’re going to be in a maintenance trap forever.”

 

A large healthy tree isn't likely to break or fall over in a storm. It's trees that have not been maintained properly that create concerns.

A large healthy tree isn’t likely to break or fall over in a storm. It’s trees that have not been maintained properly that create concerns. (Photo Credit: Tessa Williams, Media Director at Leaf & Limb)

 

Structural Pruning

“When a tree grows in its natural ecosystem, which is the forest, it has to compete for sunlight, which means that it is forcing that tree to grow straight and tall,” Basil says.

The tree must have a central trunk with well-spaced branches that are of a reasonable size. But when that same tree grows in the suburban landscape where there is no competition for sun, it’s now able to just grow fat and happy whichever way it wants. It creates a tree that potentially has a weak structure.

“And that means if a high wind comes or a storm comes, something could break,” Basil says.

That could mean a damaged car and a mortally wounded tree.

“We can help alleviate that through structural pruning, which again ties into this idea of we need trees to grow a very long time,” Basil says. “So they need to be strong in the face of winds.”

Structural pruning preserves a dominant leader and maintains well-spaced branches along the main trunk.

“I’m willing to bet, based on 15 years worth of experience, that nine times out of 10, if you think you need to remove a tree, you probably don’t,” Basil says. 

Even a dead or dying tree, if it’s located somewhere of no consequence — meaning it won’t fall on your car, house or family — can just be left for the birds and the beetles and other life that arises, Basil says. “When a tree dies, it actually lives a second life.”

Fungi digest the tree, moving nutrients from the soil to the dead tree, and then beetles eat that rotting wood with nutritious fungi, and that beetles become food for an abundance of wildlife

A dead tree, or snag, also provides opportunities for owls and other cavity-nesting birds. 

 

structural pruning

Trained and certified arborists practice structural pruning, which encourages trees to grow stable and healthy. A tree should only have one leader, or central stem.
(Photo Credit: Tessa Williams, Media Director at Leaf & Limb)

 

Stop Using Mosquito Spray Services

Sprayers use neurotoxins — which are dangerous for kids and pets — and wipe out all life, causing a massive outbreak of tree pests because the beneficial insects were sprayed dead, Basil explains.

When a client reports a tree with an outbreak of scale, he knows the client was having their property sprayed for mosquitoes.

“They come in, they spray the whole yard. It kills all the parasitic wasps and the ladybirds and the things that eat scale insects and aphids,” he says. “Now the problem is those predatory insects take a long time to bounce back, whereas the mites and the others just explode. So you actually get these huge outbreaks of pests in your yards.”

And mosquito spraying doesn’t work — because all the land around you hasn’t been sprayed.

Basil recommends removing standing water and English ivy, and applying repellent at the point of contact — yourself — to reduce bites.

Project Pando

Basil works with local tree-planting nonprofits that lack money to buy containerized trees and lack volunteers who know how to plant the trees for success and can keep up with watering.

His nonprofit, Project Pando, raises saplings and gives them away for tree-planting and ecological restoration projects. They require no special knowledge to plant and don’t have the water demands of containerized trees.

Pando Project volunteers collect seeds locally and bring them to drop-off stations all over town. The seeds are processed and then sown in air-pruning beds, which they found, through trial and error, to be the most effective way to grow.

The nonprofit also provides educational videos and resources, and identifies when tree seeds will be ripe so volunteers know the best time to collect them.  

Native 1- and 2-year-old saplings are hardy, with local genetics, Basil says, and Project Pando gives away 10,000 to 20,000 trees a year to local nonprofits engaged in ecological restoration.

Pando Project services Raleigh and is not looking to expand its footprint but to be thought leaders who will encourage others to do the same work in their communities. 

 

Project Pando propagates seedlings from native, local trees and gives the seedlings away for ecological restoration projects.

Project Pando propagates saplings from native, local trees and gives the saplings away for ecological restoration projects. (Photo Credit: Tessa Williams, Media Director at Leaf & Limb)

 

If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Basil Camu on “From Wasteland to Wonder” and how to heal the Earth, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

How have you used your property to help heal the Earth? Let us know in the comments below. 

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 282: The Vital Role of Soil Bacteria in the Garden, with Jeff Lowenfels

Episode 134: Bird Population Decline and What Gardeners Can Do to Help

Episode 232: Ecological Horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with Rebecca McMackin, Part I

Episode 233: Ecological Horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with Rebecca McMackin, Part II

Episode 237: Ecological Gardening: Creating Beauty & Biodiversity

Episode 331: The Ecological Garden Blueprint: 10 Essential Steps That Matter Most 

Episode 335: Better Soil Health and Crop Yields Through Regenerative Agriculture, with Gabe Brown

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

Earthbound Expeditions: Discover South Africa with Joe Lamp’l

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joegardener Facebook

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joegardener Twitter

joegardenerTV YouTube

Growing a Greener World®  

GGWTV YouTube

Leaf & Limb

Leaf & Limb on Facebook

Leaf & Limb on X: @leaflimb

Leaf & Limb on YouTube

Project Pando

From Wasteland to Wonder: Easy Ways We Can Help Heal Earth in the Sub/Urban Landscape” by Basil Camu – free ebook

 “How Trees Can Save the World, and What We Can Do to Help” presentation by Basil Camu

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis 

Teaming with Fungi: The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizae” by Jeff Lowenfels 

Teaming with Bacteria: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Endophytic Bacteria and the Rhizophagy Cycle” by Jeff Lowenfels

Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition” by Jeff Lowenfels

Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility” by Michael Phillips 

Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

The Responsible Company” by Yvon Chouinard

Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows

Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World” by Jason Jay and Gabriel Grant

Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Earth’s Ally – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Dramm – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JG10 for 10% off your first order

Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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