My book and web site

Check out my book, The Sustainable-Enough Garden, available on Amazon, and the book's web site at See more plant photos on Instagram.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Time--the final frontier

This is the time of year when garden tasks start to get ahead of me. After Memorial Day, any un-mulched soil in my vegetable bed is suddenly full of weeds that I should pull out now before they smother my peas and lettuce and before I plant my tomatoes and green beans, another task I should have finished by now.
            For weekend gardeners like me, time is the scarcest resource. I always have to triage how I’ll spend my gardening time. I never get everything done. As the weekend approaches, I keep a shifting tally of priority tasks. After walking by a neighbor’s vegetable garden and noticing that her tomatoes are already well established, I decide the vegetable garden should come first. Then I park my car next to the six-packs of annuals I left sitting in the driveway, and I think I should pot up my container plantings before the candidates die waiting. I sense a constant drumbeat: hurry, hurry, hurry! You’re late!
Plant me!
            This shortage of time may be partly due to an outdated gardening paradigm, the one where arduous work is needed because I’m the boss and sole responsible party in my garden. Fortunately, one thing I’m learning from my transition to more sustainable gardening methods is that some of my old techniques and approaches weren’t worth the time and effort. For example, in spring I used to turn the vegetable bed with my spade to prepare for planting. I found out that it’s better not to till or turn the soil for a host of reasons. 
            Tilling brings weed seeds to the surface to germinate, it introduces oxygen that causes quicker decomposition of organic material, and it breaks up fungal networks that could be cooperating with soil bacteria and plant roots to provide plants with better nutrition. So I’ve crossed turning and raking the bed off my to-do list. Now I plant through the layer of compost I applied before the growing season started.
            I’m slowly learning a new way to garden, one that doesn’t assume that I have to make a garden alone by the sweat of my brow. Instead, I’m recognizing that natural systems are effective and complex, more complex than we can probably know at this point in history—or ever. My goal is to learn to go with the flow. I hope that will mean spending less time spinning my wheels and more time understanding and appreciating how my garden ecosystem works.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

This means war

Like the war on cancer and the war on drugs, our relationship with nonnative invasive plants always seems to be framed as a war. When something invades, we fight back. Pulling garlic mustard, we’re like heroic patriots battling a force that wants to wipe out our way of life.
            I can get behind that attitude to some of the invasives I’ve encountered (done battle with?), such as Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica). 
Oriental bittersweet coiled to spring
We invest enemies with almost supernatural malevolent powers: bittersweet can grow twelve feet in a year (it seems like six inches in a day, doesn’t it?), girdle a full-grown tree and kill it. To eradicate knotweed, you have to excavate to a depth of three feet, sift the removed soil for root fragments, and burn them. I don’t deny that invasive imports have damaged large areas of farm land and wildlife habitat.
            A change of perspective can make the adaptability of invasive plants almost admirable.  Toby Hemenway points out in Gaia’s Garden that a lot of these plants, ones he prefers to call opportunistic species, pioneer in areas where humans have disturbed the ground. There’s an example downhill from the parking lot I use at work. An international mix of tough, enterprising plants populates the steep slope between the low end of the paved lot and an apartment building below. Several Norway maples make up the canopy, along with one pignut hickory, a native tree at the edge of a neighborhood colony. Underneath are aggressive imports from Europe and Asia:  garlic mustard, mugwort, common burdock, chicory, common lambsquarters, and fall dandelion. Familiar natives also hold their own: New England aster, sticktight, and pokeweed. I have to respect the resilient individuals that grow together to make up that little ecosystem. They’re not daunted by the slope, the run-off of road salt from the parking lot, the poor soil, the car exhaust, the flooding when it rains and drought when it doesn’t. When human activity created a wasteland, these pioneers were ready to move in.
            We need a way to live with globalization and yet keep what’s unique about our place and community. No one wants all stores to be big box chains or all plant life to be replaced by a short list of internationally successful aggressive growers. At the same time, it’s na├»ve and possibly xenophobic to think that before European contact (invasion?), North America was covered with a stable plant community that would have gone on unchanged if we hadn’t brought in nonnatives. Ecosystems change over time. Now humans have become one of the most powerful evolutionary forces. Hot, paved cities offer different growing conditions than the ones that were present before they were built, leading to the rise of what Peter del Tredici calls “spontaneous urban vegetation.” Try as we might, we can’t get the genie back in the bottle by restoring native vegetation everywhere. We’re going to have to adapt to the new reality. I don’t have the solution to this problem, but I hope one thing we can do in suburbs and cities is to plant trees. Not all, but many pioneer species can be shaded out by mature trees—if bittersweet doesn’t kill the trees first. We could sequester a lot of carbon while we’re at it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bugs welcome

This spring, inspired by Jessica Walliser’s Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden, I’m planting an insectary bed, and it’s turning out to be a blast. 
            The idea is to devote an area of the garden to plants that provide forage, nectar, or reproductive quarters for native insects, which in turn will help me out by pollinating my flowers and vegetables and keeping leaf-eating competitors in balance. Working from Walliser’s list and the plants recommended by George Adams in Gardening for the Birds, I’ve so far planted native perennials yarrow (Achillea millefolium), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), bluebell (Campanula rotundifolia), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), garden phlox (Phlox paniculata 'David'), and two New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). For annuals I chose cosmos and sweet alyssum, with sunflowers and zinnias to come. Under lights in my kitchen I grew a bunch of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) from seed and popped those in around the edges of the bed. I also started monkey flower (Mimulus ‘Magic Blotch’) for the first time and was amazed to see the seedlings flowering about three weeks after I’d planted the seed. I hope they’ll keep it up through the summer.
Newly planted monkey flower
            We were all sold a bill of goods during my childhood in the fifties and sixties by the makers of garden chemicals. When I started gardening, I had the idea that just about all insects were bad. I liked butterflies and ladybugs, which got good press and didn’t seem scary. My basic paradigm, though, was Gardeners Good, Insects Bad, Plants Defenseless. Now I learn from Doug Tallamy and others that this was all wrong, as well as a vast over-simplification. It turns out that the insect component of a garden ecosystem involves a complicated system of checks and balances, and plants are active players, sending out signals all the time that influence the insects and microbes around them.
            Reading Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home woke me up. He argues convincingly that we humans have taken over almost all the land in the United States and covered it with nonnative vegetation, as well as pavement and buildings. That means there’s little forage or habitat left for the native insects we depend on at the base of the food web that allows us all to eat. I’m not ready to pull out all the nonnative plants in my garden, but I’ve resolved to choose natives whenever a space opens up. My insectary garden is part of this effort. Walliser and others point out that native insects benefit from some nonnative plants, especially as sources for nectar. That’s why I feel OK including zinnias, which originate in Mexico, and an edging of sweet alyssum, which came to us from southern Europe.
            The space I'm planting with these insect snacks is part of my designated vegetable-growing area.  The half that gets the most sun will still be for edible-podded peas, salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans. The other half I’d half-heartedly used as a nursery bed, sinking pots of self-seeded bleeding heart and columbines and divided Siberian irises that I was saving for the PTO plant sale. I have to admit that it got infrequent weeding and looked like quite a mess by the end of last summer (Walliser actually recommends keeping certain weeds for the bugs—I can claim that’s what I was doing).
            I’m finding it surprisingly liberating to choose plants for the insectary bed without worrying about a color scheme. This time it’s not about good taste, it’s about tasting good. When I see the garish flower combination that ensues, I’ll probably change my mind and want to revise. Watch this space.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Compost: Keeping it slow

In November 1985, I stepped into my new backyard eager to start a compost pile. How hard could that be? Reading Organic Gardening had convinced me that I could transform garden waste into “black gold” in short order. We’d just moved in, and the materials available were fall leaves, mostly from Norway maples that surrounded our lot and a huge red oak next to the garage. After doing my best to create a rectangular base layer out of leaves, I threw on some soil, added more leaves, and proceeded in that way. My pile didn’t have the vertical sides of the ones in the magazine diagrams. It was shaped more like a sand dune than a box.
            Despite my great plan, by the next summer the oak and maple leaves in my embryonic compost pile had not turned into lovely leaf mold. What I had instead was a pile of matted leaves. The mound had sunk to a third of its original size, and the leaves had clumped together in rough sheets, but they were still whole. Clearly there was more to composting than I’d thought.
            Over the next 25 years, I learned that making compost takes longer than the sixty to ninety days I’d been led to expect. I developed a lazy woman’s process that worked for me. I built two side-by-side chicken wire bins and later added two more near the vegetable garden. In spring, I mostly added grass clippings. In midsummer, I had less grass to compost and more weeds and prunings from the garden. In autumn, the lawn started growing again, and a huge volume of fallen leaves needed to be dealt with. I gathered up most of the leaves to use as mulch, but some made their way into the compost piles. At the end of the growing season, I moved vegetable stalks, spent annuals, and perennials cut down for winter from the garden beds to the piles. I could have sped up the process if I’d been willing to balance proportions of nitrogen- and carbon-predominant ingredients and turn and water the piles. It just seemed like too much work. If I just left them alone for two years, my piles did indeed yield real compost. Here’s a picture of one-year-old pile I started last year. To its right is the bin I just emptied onto the vegetable garden:

            I still had the feeling, though, that I wasn’t doing composting right. Starting in 2010, I went on a quest to learn from master composters. I attended a lecture about large-scale composting done at Battery Park in New York City. I toured my city’s yard waste composting operation. I consulted two local experts, a permaculture gardener whose method, reassuringly, was a lot like my own, and a neighbor who kept worms in his kitchen for vermicomposting and saved urine in jars for adding nitrogen to his outdoor compost pile. Finally I got my compost tested for biological activity by the lab at Soil Foodweb. The result: the slow, cold-composting approach I was using was good enough. There were lots of happy microbes in my finished compost.
            My slothful method had a side benefit. In addition to generating usable compost, it also helped give birth to a new perspective on my role in the garden. I didn’t have to make garden waste decompose, I could just relax, let the expert decomposers in the soil do their thing, and enjoy the benefits. “Compost happens.”

Monday, May 11, 2015

My journey toward sustainable gardening