Sustainability and the gardener

Sustainability is surely the buzzword of the century, tacked onto anything and everything. But despite its overuse, the concept of “sustainability” is still a great yardstick to guide all types of human endeavors — including gardening.
Spring speaks of new beginnings in the garden, a time when we make new plans and fervent resolutions. So let’s take a look at what it means to grow a sustainable garden and some of the ways we can achieve this goal.
Put simply: Sustainability is “the capacity to thrive and endure over time.”
And, if my garden is to thrive and endure, my love of gardening must also continue and persist. This means my garden must be satisfying, fulfilling and beautiful. It must also be affordable and easy to maintain, populated with long-lived plants that will stand the test of time.
In short, a sustainable garden must be easy on the gardener.
But sustainability does not stop at the property line. Our gardens are tiny slices of our bigger world, which too must thrive and endure.
As we think beyond the garden fence, the first rule is to “do no harm.” Done badly, gardening can be quite detrimental to the wider environment, for instance if we let invasive species like barberries or burning bush escape into the wild.
But going further, we can also strive to make our gardens a positive good, both for the environment and for our communities.
Thus a sustainable garden must also be gentle on the earth.
Here are seven suggestions for creating a garden that is both easy on the gardener AND gentle on the earth.
Make a plan but implement it gradually
A garden plan is like a blueprint: It shows how things fit together and it acts as a guide for garden projects, both now and in the future. There is nothing more frustrating than discovering that the lovely flower bed you made two years ago — where the shrubs in their amended soil are now filling out nicely — overlaps the spot you have chosen for a new patio! Making a garden plan at the outset might have avoided this.
In a nutshell, a simple garden plan is an excellent way to get where you want in easy steps, while avoiding costly, and often really depressing, rework.
Nourish the soil
Good soil, enriched with plenty of organic matter, is the foundation of all great gardens. And good soil makes our gardening efforts infinitely more productive, rewarding and fun.
The easiest way to gradually improve your soil is to make your own compost. Gather all your kitchen scraps (except meat and fish) plus garden debris, either into a big pile or into specially designed containers, and let everything decompose for a year or more. Then each fall spread the results in a three-inch layer across your garden beds and fork it in lightly.
If possible avoid disturbing the soil excessively (no rototilling!), which not only destroys its structure but also kills beneficial soil micro-organisms. It is interesting to note that many farmers are adopting similar “no-till” cultivation practices, including planting cover crops, which also add organic matter to the soil.
Grow resilient intermingled plant communities
How can we make our gardens low maintenance without becoming low interest? The answer is to match the plants to their location and make sure they cover the ground.
A plant in its preferred habitat or exposure — whether it be sunny or shady, wet or dry — will grow and thrive without continual cosseting by the gardener.
Also we need to choose plants that will withstand our Vermont winters. For more on this, go to the interactive map at http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/ and enter your ZIP code. This will give you the hardiness zone where you live (using a designation like Zone 3b, 4a, 4b or 5a).
Now, when you go to the nursery, look for plants for the exposure of your bed and labeled with your zone designation or lower.
Finally, to crowd out the weeds, let your plants merge and grow together. Start by populating your beds with a backdrop of the shrubs, so that, when fully grown, their branches will overlap slightly. Then fill the intervening spaces with lots of perennials. In a few years, as everything grows in, the result will be a resilient intermingled “plant community” with few weeds and very little mulch.
Plant a legacy of trees and shrubs
Trees and shrubs are wonderful additions to our world. They provide beauty and structure for our gardens, as well as food and shelter for wildlife.
Trees are the essence of enduring, creating a legacy for future generations. Indeed big trees can live for over a century, as some maples in our front garden illustrate.
From an environmental perspective, trees also have much to offer. They give out oxygen while sequestering carbon. And, when situated properly, a deciduous tree will shade and cool the house in summer, while allowing the sun to brighten our rooms in wintertime.
Create a wildlife friendly garden
Today’s explosion of human housing has resulted in a significant loss of natural habitat. And this in turn is threatening the very existence of certain wildlife, including songbirds and pollinators (especially many species of wild bees). But, if we gardeners work together, these trends can be reversed. Here are a few suggestions for wildlife-friendly gardens:
•  Favor native plants that are the preferred food for bees and other pollinators. Native plants also form the lowest tier of the natural food web. For instance: most caterpillars only feed on specific native plants. But in turn these caterpillars become sustenance for our songbirds.
•  Grow an abundance of plants that produce berries and seeds; these too become food for birds.
•  Leave parts of your property in a “wild” or “naturalized” state, thus creating both cover and nesting space for birds and pollinators.
Grow an organic lawn and reduce its size
One does not need an array of chemicals to have a healthy green lawn. And, as fertilizers wash down to the storm sewers, they eventually pollute our streams and lakes.
If you want to maintain your lawn without chemical fertilizers, I suggest you invest in a mulching mower, adjust it to cut 4 inches high. The resulting taller grass will shade the ground and help to repress the weeds. And a mulching mower re-chops the grass clippings before returning them directly onto the lawn, thus adding organic matter to the soil.
And of course you can always let part of your lawn revert to meadow, thus creating additional wildlife habitat. Simply cut it back annually to prevent woody scrub from growing in.
Benefit our communities
And there are so many ways our gardens can enrich the fabric of our communities. Here are a few ideas:
•  Grow plenty of vegetables — some for your family and some for the food shelf.
•  Volunteer to teach fledgling gardeners how to grow their own food
•  Make your gardening dollars speak and patronize our local nurseries.
•  Look for the “Vermont Grown” logo when buying your plants.
•  Share the excesses of your garden (as when you are dividing perennials) with fellow gardeners.
A vibrant community is one that will endure and flourish — surely the essence of sustainability.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen, where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and a Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She is also a garden writer and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see many of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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