Having thought about how every gardener or anyone who manages a piece of property must commit to doing their part in safeguarding the land and all who inhabits it, we arrive at what we can do and how to do it.
Typically, a gardener is advised to start with the soil. “ Get it tested!” is a commonly heard imperative. So lets begin with the soil in ones plot. In general, it’s good to know the state of the soil. Poor/rich, acidic/alkaline, clay/sandy, microbial content, are all factors that will affect what we choose to grow in it. Amending the soil to get it to be more supportive and nurturing of our desired plant selections is certainly a step to take. I however, and perhaps it is partially because I have a small garden area that is well delineated into smaller spaces, have never tested my soil. In the early years, I had the good intention of testing but never did. Then, over time I decided not to do so. Let me explain.
I believe the character of the soil in an area is a result of the general conditions it is in as well as how it has been managed. Management of the soil implies how it has been treated by humans – over fertilizing, use of pesticides, not providing mulch or groundcover, allowing soil erosion and/or mineral depletion etc., Hence, the basic soil will be what it is and sound practices can preserve and/or restore it to its natural state. I have observed that the general type of soil if amended say with clay to make it less sandy and slow water drainage, eventually, over time, reverts to its original state. Same with pH levels. Constant amending is needed. I would much rather grow plants that inherently thrive in those actual conditions. Adding a first round of top soil and a good measure of compost before getting started on the planting is a happy compromise.
Once planted up, mulch by way of something natural such as my preferred bark chips is commonly spread to keep the soil from drying up, protect against temperature extremes, suppress weeds and eventually break down to add to the soils nutrient content. I have since found that adding groundcover by way of low growing plants, reduces the amount of bark mulch required whilst still keeping weeds at bay and preventing rapid evaporation from the soil. Ground cover looks pretty and organically connects all the plantings so it looks less contrived. Soil erosion is also minimized. As a result of this practice, I have little need to keep feeding the beds with compost or water. The selected plants flourish when they’re well matched with the growing conditions.
This leads us to plant selection. As mentioned, they must be appropriate to the location. Soil, light exposure and whether they fit into the gardeners personal design vision are the main factors. However, the most important point here is that in order for a garden to support the ecosystem, at least 70% of the plants must be native to the region. The remaining 30% should not be invasive and should be beneficial to the native pollinators – think peonies, lilacs, spring bulbs, certain clematis, day lily, hosta. They’re non-native plants that have done well in that they enhance the garden and also provide food and shelter to the good insects.
Native plants are hardy, resilient and unfussy. However, some can be over-enthusiastic and take over the space by pushing out the meeker natives. Select wisely!
I’m going to say it upfront – I have never understood the need for large properties if it was not going to be used fully. I see time and time again, home buyers seeking substantial acreage but never utilizing most of the space. It’s one thing to buy land to preserve woodlands, natural water features, specimen trees or extensive gardens that they intend to care for. But that’s hardly ever the case. Most of the property is swathes of lawn with possibly a few trees and any garden or plantings to speak of is kept small and close to the house. I look at the vast, bland lawns and think “what a waste!”.
Large, pristine lawns are passé. Get over those golf course inspired ambitions. They guzzle water, demand copious fertilizers, pesticides and energy. They’re resource and time consuming features. And expensive. Instead, cut the lawns out drastically and whatever is left, let it be a mix of pollinator friendly, environment supporting diminutive workhorses. Plant native trees. Create new beds, Consider growing a meadow instead of lawn. Meadows enrich both the environment as well as our lives. They’re so full of life and movement – never boring!
Despite everything we know today that lawns are unsustainable, there is a deep seated reluctance to shrink those spaces and turn them into lively, thriving eco-friendly spaces. Originally inspired by English gardening trends, lawns became an ‘American’ must-have. There’s really nothing indigenous about them. Even the types of grass we use is not native. So what are we trying to prove? We can do better. Be better.
In general, plant native and pollinator friendly perennials. Keep things simple by staying away from plant divas. Add nesting boxes, bug motels and shelters such as dead wood and bramble. Let fallen leaves remain wherever possible.
Water has been slated to be a major problem in the climate change crisis. Globally. We’re already witnessing it. Too much or too little – it is causing significant damage. A gardener must work to lower the demand for water. By choosing those undemanding native plants and applying mulch and groundcovers one then simply relies on rain to do the necessary watering. This will inform you of the truly hardy plants and the better choices for a sustainable, environment supporting garden.
For plants in pots, watering frequently is required – so collect rain water. Water used to boil eggs and vegetables, once cooled, can also be used.
On the subject of water, immediately reusing that boiling hot water on hard-to-get-at weeds that show up between bricks and stones is a very effective way to kill them off. I’ve been doing this for years – it’s immensely simple and satisfying!
What weeds that show up despite everything ( and they will) are best taken care of manually and regularly. While not particularly a task I enjoy, it keeps me much more aware of how the garden is doing. I notice things that I could easily miss otherwise. The Columbines that pop up wherever they choose and make the place that much more charming. I see where the garden snakes likes to sunbathe. I observe the birds looking for worms ind other protein rich bugs to feed their young, the hidden flowers like lily-of-the-valley waft their perfume and give me pause to enjoy. See? Weeding has its positive points.
Instead of gas powered tools, use electric or manually operated ones. Cuts down on gas and minimizes noise pollution. A little more physical effort on our part will only keep us in better shape.
You get the idea, there is much each of us can do. Must do. This call of the climate cannot be ignored. In the final analysis, we custodians of our unique, sacred spaces must be able to say – “I did my best”.
Note: In the following weeks, I’ll get into things like those plastic pots we accumulate when buying plants and other actionable items towards gardening smarter.
A few environmentally friendly features in my garden –
(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar
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