Janet Marinelli

Hello there, and welcome. I’m an author, an interpretation, publication, and web consultant, and a certified plant nut. You’ll find plenty of my musings about plants and other matters on this website.

These days you can’t pick up a newspaper without learning how our influence is being felt even in the most remote parts of the globe. You can’t turn on the TV without hearing that we are poised at the start of an age of extinction that could rival anything in the three and a half billion-year history of life on this planet—including the mass demise of the dinosaurs. What you almost never hear is that it isn’t just giant pandas and polar bears that are in big trouble. It's estimated that half of the planet's plant species are also in peril. And a lot of them won't survive unless plant lovers like you and me do something about it.

Plants are strange creatures. They don’t have big brown eyes and they can’t bark or purr or moo. But they have the amazing ability to pluck sunlight out of thin air and convert its energy into the food that all animals, including us, need to survive. Plants fuel the dazzling diversity of life on this planet. Without plants there would be no Earth as we know it. If like me you want to make the world a healthier, more beautiful place, they are a good place to start.

March 13th, 2012

Turtle Love

If you love box turtles,  take a look at the current issue of National Wildlife magazine. In it, I tell the story of how I accidentally destroyed a box turtle habitat — a tiny bog I’d created behind my house — and have been trying to make amends with the peaceful little reptiles ever since.

I’ve made it my business to find out what box turtles like to eat, where they like to siesta on a hot summer day and how these creatures — among the longest-lived vertebrates — make it through the winter. I’ve done my penance in the library, reading scientific tomes on box turtle fecal contents and other engrossing subjects. I’ve learned not only that gardeners can help ease the plight of box turtles, which are gradually disappearing from landscapes across North America, but that they have a lot to offer us in return, beyond the usual bromides about the virtues of patience and perseverance — like getting rid of slugs and other garden pests.

The article is illustrated with some amazing box turtle photos, too.

July 20th, 2011

It Pays to Grow Green

The old saying “money grows on trees” may not be literally true, but a sustainable landscape comes close. New studies demonstrate that environmentally friendly gardening practices not only can decrease utility and maintenance costs but also increase property value.

July 12th, 2011

Plants: Dumb Blondes of the Biosphere?

If they think of them at all, most people see plants as domestic accessories, with all the awareness of a Marcel Breuer Wassily chair. Gardeners and other plant lovers tend to see plants as horticultural eye candy, flaunting their pretty flower heads solely for our pleasure. Until very recently, even most scientists assumed that plants are essentially passive—rooted in place, taking whatever moisture, nutrients, and sunlight chance brings their way. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that the word “vegetable” is used to describe people with brain damage so severe they have no discernable awareness.

A trove of new research, however, is demonstrating that plants are far from botanical automatons. To be sure, researchers have found no signs of Socratic logic or Shakespearean poetry in the plant kingdom. But there is so much new data on plant intelligence—including abilities like sensing and, yes, even learning, remembering, and recognizing kin—that the investigation of plant intelligence is suddenly a serious scientific endeavor.

The latest case in point: You know the perennial debate over the role of nature vs. nurture—heredity or the environment—in the development of a human being? Studies have shown that, depending on their distinct personal experiences, identical human twins can have a different chance of getting a disease. Well, it turns out that in this respect plants may not be so different from people.

In a new study, University of Toronto biologists found that genetically identical poplar trees—clones—responded to drought differently, depending on the nursery the plants were obtained from. They took cuttings of the poplar clones from nurseries in two different regions of Canada and regrew them under identical climate-controlled conditions. Half of the trees were then subjected to drought. Since the trees were regrown under identical conditions, the researchers predicted all the specimens would respond to drought in the same manner, regardless of where they had come from. But low and behold, the genetically identical specimens responded differently to the drought treatment, depending on their place of origin.

Malcolm Campbell, one of the study’s authors, called the finding “quite stunning.” “A tree’s previous personal experience influences how it responds to the environment,” he said. In other words, the trees “remember” where they came from.

Discoveries such as this have the potential to transform the public’s view of plants. In fact, they’re helping to transform our understanding of the nature of intelligence itself.

They also have practical implications for gardeners, landscape designers, and foresters: The “memory” of previous experience discovered in this study could help determine how plants from a particular nursery will respond to conditions in a particular landscape. It may also help predict how certain plants will respond to climate change or other environmental stresses.

July 6th, 2011

Edge Plants

You’d think that conservation efforts for the world’s most imperiled and genetically unique species would be well underway, right? Think again. Many are currently sliding silently towards extinction with little or no attention and action on their behalf.

In 2007, the Zoological Society of London launched an initiative to publicize and protect such Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species. These weird and wonderful creatures are often extremely unusual looking, and their behavior can be pretty bizarre, too. Because they have few close relatives on the tree of life, if they are allowed to become extinct there will be nothing like them left on the planet.

Most imperiled species around the world are assigned a conservation status in the IUCN Red List. EDGE ranking goes a step further. It’s determined by multiplying a species’ “globally endangered” score (based on its Red List status) by its “evolutionary distinctiveness” score (based on its phylogeny or evolutionary history).

During the past four years, EDGE mammals, amphibians, and corals have been selected for protection—from the numbat, or banded anteater, to the six foot-long Chinese giant salamander and the mushroom coral. A new EDGE birds conservation program is in the works.

Finally, plants are beginning to enter the picture. The first group to be prioritized by EDGE score is the gymnosperms, including conifers, cycads, the ginkgo tree, and gnetophytes such as Welwitschia. Why gymnosperms? For one thing, they are some of the earliest seed-bearing plants. And Red List conservation assessments have already been done for the almost 1,000 gymnosperm species distributed around the world, the majority of which are threatened with extinction.

According to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the highest priority EDGE gymnosperm is the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), which was discovered in 1994 in the Wollemi National Park, Australia.

June 28th, 2011

The Climate Conscious Gardener

Sometimes when I’m depressed about The State of the World I cheer myself up by thinking about how radically things have changed in my own lifetime. More and more women are at the top of their professions. Cigarettes are taboo. Same-sex marriage is now legal in my state. The Sustainable Sites Initiative is poised to transform the way we design and maintain landscapes…

Less than two years ago, I was told by a client not to say too much about climate change in a publication we were developing because the issue is a political hot potato. But just last week at its annual meeting, the American Public Gardens Association unveiled a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to educate gardeners and plant enthusiasts about the possible effects of climate change on the country’s gardens, landscapes, and green spaces. Yay APGA!

And I’m happy to report that my latest book, The Climate Conscious Gardener, which was published by Brooklyn Botanic Garden last year, has won a 2011 Garden Writers Association award. Kudos to BBG for continuing to raise critical—and potentially controversial—issues in its acclaimed handbook series. And thanks, GWA, for the recognition!

June 26th, 2011

Parking Gardens

Parking lots make great settings for film noirs—I’ll give them that. But they’re bad for the environment. Their extensive paved and impervious surfaces bake in the sun, exacerbating the urban heat island effect. Virtually all the rain that falls on them is funneled into storm sewers, polluting local waterways. And they’re some of the ugliest places on the planet.

Public gardens are leading the way to greener parking lots—parking gardens—with plantings that absorb rain and prevent runoff and solar arrays that produce energy while providing shade. Read the rest of this entry »

June 25th, 2011

Landscape For Life

You’ve heard me sing the praises of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), the country’s first rating system for landscapes that make ecological sense. SITES, which provides technical metrics for landscape professionals striving to go green, sets sustainability standards for landscapes the way LEED does for buildings. Landscape For Life, a collaborative project of the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, is the new homeowner version of SITES. Landscape For Life makes it possible for anyone to create a sustainable garden. (In the interest of full disclosure: I worked with the USBG and the Wildflower Center to develop the content for the Landscape For Life website and print materials.) Stay tuned, because further enhancements, such as interactive features and a souped-up design, are in the works.

Here’s my “Growing Greener” column on Landscape For Life that appeared in Public Garden magazine, the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association, Vol. 25 No. 3. In my “Growing Greener” columns I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff. Read the rest of this entry »

November 13th, 2010

Green Restaurants

Here’s another one of my “Growing Greener” columns in Public Garden, the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. This one appeared in Vol. 25 No. 2 (2010). In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: I’ve heard that it’s possible to have our restaurant certified “green.” Is this true, and if so, what does it entail?

A: Missouri Botanical Garden’s restaurant Sassafras and Phipps Conservatory’s Café Phipps have joined the ranks of top-rated American restaurants that have been certified by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), and for good reason. It’s a little known fact that restaurants consume vast amounts of water and energy and generate an astonishing amount of solid waste and pollution each year.

Some statistics to chew on: Read the rest of this entry »

November 10th, 2010

Living Building Challenge

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 25 No. 1 (2010).  Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: What is the Living Building Challenge, and how is it different from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system?

A: By the sound of it, you’d think the goal of the Living Building Challenge—to encourage the creation of “living buildings” that “function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower”—was tailor made for public gardens. Although it grew out of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, a chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, it is designed to push the industry—and LEED itself—to a whole new level. In the words of one observer, the Living Building Challenge makes LEED’s incremental system of credits that get tallied up to determine whether a project earns Certified, Silver, Gold, or top Platinum rating “look like something drawn up by Exxon.” Read the rest of this entry »

December 24th, 2009

Are All Green Roofs Created Equal?

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 24 No. 3 (2009). Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: There are so many different green roof systems. Are they all effective?

A: It’s easy for us plant enthusiasts to be seduced by the idea of verdant rooftops. Aesthetically, living roofs are a major improvement over typical asphalt or tar roofs, which are about as hospitable to humans and most other life forms as Death Valley on a mid-summer day. But before falling head over heels for green roofs it’s worth asking whether they really, as touted, help insulate buildings and thus save energy that would otherwise be consumed for heating or cooling, counteract the urban heat island effect, remove particulates from polluted air, detain and cleanse storm water, and more. Read the rest of this entry »