by Ladd Smith, Co-owner of In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes
Gardening is like life. Sometimes it is the journey and not the destination that really stays close to our hearts with the passing of time. As human beings we are, and have been, meant to caretakers. Tending to a plot of earth can open up doors to aspects of ourselves we never realized. Nurturing the soil, caring for plants, even just watering the earth can have profound impacts on relaxing our minds and reconnecting with Mother Nature. Studies have shown that working with moist soil, for as little as 20 minutes, can release serotonin in the brains of mice. The soil bacterium responsible for this is Mycobacterium vaccae. So just gardening for twenty minutes can help us feel better about the world and our lives. Studies are showing us scientifically what gardeners have felt for many years. Ecotherapy is gaining attention; a natural therapy where prescriptions are written for taking walks in parks and forests. More studies have found that people who interact with forests see changes in their blood that are associated with protection against cancer, lower blood pressure and better immunity. Nature has shown that it can be responsible for relief for health issues like heart disease, depression, cancer, anxiety and attention disorders. So it is more important than ever, because of our urban lifestyles, to save our existing environment from destruction and to begin creating peaceful spots where we can rest our minds and reconnect with the earth.
This is why it is so important now to garden with a sustainable approach. We need to create gardens that are restful and free of toxins. By creating these natural gardens we can bring wildlife back into our yards and lives. Do you know that plants respond favorably to the sounds of birds in the landscape? Instead of having to pipe in classical music to make your plants happy, just bring the birds in for a singing session. You will find that the birds will make you feel good too.
Sustainability is a philosophy that encourages protection of natural resources and espouses working with nature instead of against it. Sustainable gardening means taking a step back and thinking about the long term use of that area of earth. This will lead to a garden that does not need as much maintenance as a traditional garden. And most people say less work as something they want more of! Any change to sustainable practices that you make, whether one, two, few or many, is practicing sustainable gardening.
Changing a few practices makes adopting more of them that much easier and more gratifying. For instance, you are gardening sustainably when you:
• Pull weeds instead of dosing them with chemicals
• Add compost or other mulch to your planting beds
• Use a mulching lawn mower
• Grow food to feed your family
• Use renewable resources (i.e. organic fertilizers and mulches)
• Conserve water and reduce runoff
• Capture and/or retain rainwater on your property
• Add nectar-rich plants to feed birds, bees and butterflies
• Participate in local yard waste composting programs or make your own compost
• Choose the right plant for your environmental conditions
• Choose drought tolerant plants that suit your style and preferences
• Select plant varieties that are disease and pest resistant
• Use recycled materials for structures
So when you are planning your gardening chores, choose a few of the above methods and your garden will be well on its way to being more natural and sustainable.
One challenge is most people often think that sustainable gardens have to look a certain way. The garden has to look like a desert landscape made up of only rocks, succulents and cactus. Or, the garden has to look like a forest full of only native trees, shrubs and ferns, with very few flowers. Or, that a sustainable garden is only a rain garden and rain gardens are a dip in the lawn with a few scraggly plants.
What makes a garden sustainable is the result of the conscientious actions you take--how you care for the soil, what plants you choose, the way you care for the plants, the hardscapes materials and accents you use, and so on—not the style.
A sustainable garden can be of any style or theme you choose from formal to cottage and contemporary to eclectic. A well-designed drought-tolerant landscape, for instance, can be filled with a lush variety of colorful plants that have year-round beauty and give no outward clues that it was created to conserve water and eliminate chemical usage.
Here are some helpful hints when you are thinking about the design of your garden:
• To reduce water use, choose drought tolerant plants for sunny, dry spots. Many are available that can give you a very similar look to the “traditional” plants you might otherwise choose. The website greatplantpicks.org is a great resource for identifying plants with low water needs and have the look, color and form that you want for your garden or landscape.
• To reduce pesticide use, choose plants that grow well in Pacific Northwest weather and soil conditions and are resistant to pests and disease. Natives are not your only choice. Again, check out greatplantpicks.org for ideas.
• To support wildlife, choose plants that provide food and shelter for birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife within the context of your design.
• Incorporate edible plants among the ornamental ones to feed yourself, your family and to donate.
• When creating large entertainment areas, allow rainwater to percolate back into the ground by leaving spaces between pavers or use crushed local rock instead of concrete.
• Use sustainable care practices such as: fertilizing wisely by timing application to when plants need it, by following the rates found on the package, and by switching to organic fertilizers; pull weeds or spot treat them; and, use least toxic pest controls when the damage to the plant warrants it.
• Top off garden beds with mulches made of organic materials (i.e. compost, untreated wood chips, aged manures) to conserve water, suppress weeds and to help plants survive harsh weather conditions. Avoid synthetic or dyed mulches
And lastly, resize your lawn to only what is necessary to achieve the desired effect.
Advocates for sustainable gardening point out that lawn fertilizers, weed killers and gas powered lawn mowers can be a significant source of water, air and noise pollution. And, over-watered lawns waste a precious resource.
With so many inherent risks of damage to the environment, many homeowners conclude that lawns are taboo if you garden sustainably. But, you can have a lawn. When kids, families and pets need a soft place to play and relax, no other plant quite fits the bill as perfectly as turf grass. You just need to adopt some new practices to make lawns sustainable.
• Plant lawns where they grow best: full sun on well-draining soil. Choose other plants for shady, damp and sloped places.
• Adjust mowing height to leave grass blades 3 inches tall and use a mulching mower to let nutrient-rich clippings decompose and naturally “fertilize” the lawn. This lawn height also shades the soil surface reducing water evaporation.
• Convert to a mulching mower. For smaller lawns, a rechargeable or an electric, mulching mower will usually do the job just fine and will eliminate gas emissions.
• Water deeply, 1 inch once per week. It’s best to water once or twice weekly rather a little bit every day. This promotes growth of deep roots making the lawn more drought tolerant and a tougher, more resilient plant.
• Consider letting lawn go dormant in summer. It will be green 9-10 months of the year and when it is dormant you can take a break from mowing! A healthy lawn will bounce back in the fall when rains return. If you choose to let the lawn go dormant, it is important to water one day a month to keep some moisture in the soil profile. The lawn would like one inch of water during the watering.
• Eliminate spreading weed and feed products on lawns. Pull or spot treat weeds instead.
• Fertilize organically. Use compost to top dress lawns in April or May; use slow release organic nitrogen-based fertilizer in September or October and follow application rates as directed.
• Aerate lawns and over seed annually in spring or fall. Aeration will alleviate compaction and opens up the soil profile to air and water. Over seed with a Northwest or sun/shade blend of seed. Look for perennial rye and fine fescue grasses in the blend.
Ladd Smith is an acclaimed pioneer and notable sought after speaker, on sustainable landscaping and gardening in the Puget Sound area. Ladd is also Co-owner of In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes, building a healthier planet one landscape at a time. InHarmony.com