Interview – Michelle Geary

Interviewer: Elizabeth Ingram

April 22nd, 2012


Interview with:  Dr. Michelle Geary, Instructor, Biology Department, West Valley College


1.When did you become interested in sustainable gardens, or adaptive plant restoration projects?


Like a lot of ecologists/biologists, I mostly focused on natural ecosystems, and for a long time I wasn’t especially interested in the creation or design of what I’ll call garden-type projects.  This illustrates a common (and I think mistaken) attitude in our society – this idea that humans and the natural world are separate.  So, in line with that, researchers often pay more attention to what an ecosystem would have been like without human intervention.  But – years ago – after a few years in graduate school, I moved to a neighborhood in Davis called Village Homes.  There, the designers had tried to create a livable and sustainable human-ecological landscape.  It was amazing, and one could see how the children in the neighborhood (including my daughter) really responded to that.  This was the first spark that got me interested in figuring out how to create living/working landscapes – creating environments in which humans were part of the system, not something outside or separate, and in which the humans played an ecological role.


2.How would you go about designing a campus-wide garden to LEED Standards and its implementation on a garden project?  


How do I even start?  Wow.  Realize that I don’t know the details of LEED standards.  But here’s one of the guidelines I try to use.  Work with the existing system, not against it.  Don’t try to force your ideas onto a framework that doesn’t work for them.  So you have to look at the campus and see which parts are (comparatively) natural (i.e. less paved or constrained by paths for example) and which parts are more altered.  In the more natural areas, figure out what kinds of microhabitats would naturally tend to be created by the ecosystem drivers.  So – near the creek you can have more riparian type plants.  On the north sides of buildings you put habitats that require more moisture or that can survive with the lower light levels.  On the south-facing sides, you figure out what kinds of species can survive there, where it will usually be hotter and drier. 


In the more – okay, I’m not sure what word I want here – in the more human-impacted parts of campus, the areas right around buildings for example, you can in a sense be more creative – the landscapes there aren’t going to be usually self-sustaining no matter what you do.  If you have a small 15 foot by 10 foot patch on the northwest side of a big building, isolated by paths from the rest of the landscape, you can probably assume it’s not going to be self-sustaining.  With a restoration project, ideally you want to create a landscape that (eventually, if you put all the pieces into place) will be able to run itself.  But on a campus around the buildings this would be difficult if not impossible.  So – you get to play a little.  Figure out how to use those areas both educationally and sustainably.  So, you put in a pollinator garden.  Or a little mini redwood understory area.  We’re too far inland at WV to really be redwood habitat, but in a small area you can create something that shows what redwood understory would be like.  It’ll be educational, and even tho’ it will need more water added than a natural redwood understory in the true redwood zone, it will still need less water (once established) than conventional landscaping.


3.Sometimes gardens designed to replicate habitats are so often on too small a scale to look esthetically pleasing. What would you like to see implemented in the current campus project?


In terms of habitats?  I may be misunderstanding the question but….  On the large scale, I think we should be trying to implement oak woodland/oak savannah/grassland type habitat, with riparian components near the creek.  Closer in to the buildings, I would like to see small habitat gardens, displays of the kinds of ecosystems that aren’t necessarily native to this campus but which are interesting and educational for people to learn about.  We could make them thematically tied-in to the departments in the buildings nearby.  


In terms of other criteria….  I think we need to make choices that won’t require large inputs of time and energy from the landscaping crew, because in this era of budget cuts that simply won’t be possible.  I would like us to start using more plants that were used by the Native Californians (especially the Native Californians in this area) for food or tools or medicine.  This would be fun educationally, and it also ties into the idea of long-term sustainability of humans in the landscape – students could learn not only what was done by the indigenous peoples, but what could be done by people like them in the future.  And of course we want to create landscapes that use less water (and aren’t too flammable…).  And landscapes that are attractive enough in “conventional” terms that people who are less familiar with native plant landscaping look at the design and think “I like that.  I could do that”.  Okay, at this point I’m just rambling.


4.There are several different processes that can be used to achieve LEED credits, Living Machine Wastewater Treatment Systems, Wetland or Riparian Restoration and Research, Native Eco-System Landscaping, Butterfly Garden, Integrated Pest Management, etc.  Are there any processes that you utilized more than others?


Utilized?   Again, I am not familiar with the LEED credit details. And at this point we don’t have a detailed campus environmental master plan.  But I’m interested in WV working on Riparian Restoration and Research, Native Ecosystem Landscaping and theme gardens like Butterfly Gardens.  In terms of Native Ecosystem Landscaping, again, I’m interested in creating both landscapes (admittedly, on a small scale) that reflect the naturally occurring local ecosystems and gardens or suites of plants that were used by the Native Californian peoples in this area. 


5.What legacy would you like to leave to the future students of West Valley College?


Wow again.  What legacy do I want to leave?  This is hard!  When I leave West Valley, I want the campus to have both extensive natural and educational landscape elements.  I want it to be even more beautiful than it currently is.  I want the campus to serve as a living laboratory for biology, ecology, park management, history and anthropology courses, as well as for the local schools in the community.  And of course I want the campus to be as sustainably managed and sustainably functional as possible.


Elizabeth says:

Thank you so much, Professor Geary for your kind support of our WVC LEED Internship, Spring 2012!


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