Lessons from my Garden

29 06 2016

This summer began with a new development in my home garden: after the first few years of shade-gardening with native plants, a light-gap has opened in the woods from a tree falling last year, allowing me to finally pursue a dream of vegetables. My husband and I put in the small, square raised bed; I planted a modest selection of tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper plants; and we fenced it in for protection from ever-present, hungry wildlife.

The first lesson I am confronting is patience.

I believe the seemingly contradictory qualities of impatience and distraction are responsible for my long history of a black thumb. Sometimes I smother my plants with eager watering and prodding; other times, I forget my charges, and they wither from neglect. I have begun to see that vegetables are delicate; if I want any kind of yield, I have to be diligent but not clingy.

Still, as I water them daily, I purse my lips and examine the stalks (gently!) for signs of new flowers.

I also have newfound gratitude for rain. I have always loved rainy days almost more than sunny ones, but rain takes on new meaning now, a direct sign of divine providence. “No need to water today!” I think, with a sigh of contended relief. It’s work lugging the big watering can up to the light gap, far from the hose’s reach.

All this watering gives me greater respect than ever for our crops’ tremendous strain on resources. Just seeing the daily amount my four plants require easily paints a picture in my mind of that amount magnified across our groaning planet. And it occurs to me that all of us, whether omnivore or carnivore, vegetarian or vegan, should be humbled by what it takes to provide for our needs on a daily basis.

Who knew such lessons await in such humble, green places?

A Gleaning Revival

7 09 2010
Annapolis Maryland looking across an estuary t...

Image via Wikipedia

In historic Annapolis, Maryland, community garden group Grow Annapolis is trying a new approach to safeguard paid vegetable plots: one plot is outside the fence, where produce is free for the taking. It’s a refreshing show of generosity, but also a clever fix. And it revives an ancient social practice of caring for the poor: gleaning.

The Hebrews of Old Testament fame allowed the poor – immigrants, orphans and widows – to gather food left in the fields after harvesting. (A modern-day organization does the gleaning and brings it to the poor). In today’s economy, it’s heartening to see such an old-fashioned idea put to good use.

Less water is the ticket to conservation landscaping

13 06 2008

If the first rule of conservation landscaping is to lesson your lawn, the second is to lesson your water use. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, with the most obvious benefit being a smaller water bill. Using less water will also reduce your impact on the earth and encourage another key part of greener gardening: the use of native plants. Plants that are native to your region usually require less water because they are adapted to the climate in which you live, with its unique weather pattern and annual precipitation levels. Let me repeat: the best plants for an environmentally friendly garden are not only native to your country but to your region, as well. Trying to plant a U.S.-native cactus if you live in New Hampshire kind of defeats the purpose.

The first way to reduce your gardening water use is to plant regionally native plants. If you live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (most of Pennsylvania, Delaware, D.C. and Maryland, with parts of New York, West Virginia, and Virginia as well), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a detailed photo-book of regional native plants available online. If you live in the Mid-West, check out the EPA’s Great Lakes Native Plants Factsheet. The WildOnes organization is a native plant resource also primarily for the Mid-West, but it has a few Eastern chapters and good information for all. For Westerners, visit the customizable Native Gardening Guide at eNature, which goes for everyone in the U.S., too. Everyone can also benefit from visiting the National Wildlife Federation and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center websites, both of which have spotlights and lists on the native plants of specific U.S. regions.

Another great way to get into native plant gardening is to go directly to nurseries, greenhouses, and nature centers in your area and to ask if they have native plants available. If they do, take notes but don’t buy anything until you check out resources like those above and books at libraries to make sure the person(s) you spoke with know what they are talking about. I have personally experienced several instances where garden center personnel were happy to help but gave false or misleading information about which plants are native. The native gardening movement is growing in the U.S., but knowledge is lagging behind in the commercial horticulture industry. There are, however, some nurseries cropping up that specialize in native plants. Seek these out and support them with your business if you can. Here in Western Maryland, ElkRidge NatureWorks is a beacon of conservation landscaping, covering aspects beyond native plants for their customers.

Some of these aspects also reduce water use, and I want to mention two more: rain barrels and rain gardens. Both capture rain water, the former for your traditional watering use and the latter for the purpose of decreasing stormwater flooding and increasing groundwater infiltration (besides looking good!). More information and how-tos about both can be found in this pdf document from the Center for Watershed Protection. Be careful, again, if you do not live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, as the native plants mentioned may not be best suited for your region.

Now go and get your hands dirty with a greener garden; if not for the planet, at least for me, since I must garden vicariously.

Green backyards have more than just lawns.

28 05 2008

It’s been a busy week for me as work gets into swing at the state park. And as more people in the northern U.S. finally catch up to summer, it’s time to talk about going green in your backyard.

Landscaping with native plants is often called xeriscaping (xeri meaning “dry”), because native plants are adapted to the region’s climate and soil conditions and therefore require infrequent to no supplemental watering. Xeriscaping is technically gardening with a focus on water conservation, however, so I like to refer to wholistically green gardening as conservation landscaping.

Though I don’t have a garden behind my city apartment, I did grow up with gardeners, and I had to do a large amount of research on the subject for a work project. So, I will share some useful links and tips on landscaping in a way that enhances the natural potential of your garden while offering habitat for wildlife and miles more eco-friendly benefits than traditional gardening.

The first and most important tip? Don’t obsess about having a green lawn. Lawns are artificial to begin with–the grass wasn’t here before Europeans were–and keeping them green to the current American standard requires more money, pesticides, herbicides, petroleum-based fertilizers, time spent mowing, gasoline, and water, water, water than Earth can stand. Cut back your lawn habit slowly by allowing it to go a little brown during drought periods and by reducing its size over time. The brown is a natural way for the grass to go dormant, and it will return. Meanwhile, replace the parts of your lawn which you don’t need with beautiful gardens of native plants, and watch the wildlife flock to your doorstep. And stay tuned for more on conservation landscaping.

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