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, June 28, 2015

Water barrel dreams

As I’ve shifted toward more sustainable gardening, I’ve become more aware of stormwater runoff. To keep rain from running down the driveway into the street, two years ago I hooked up a rain barrel to the downspout at the corner of the house and got two strips of porous paving dug into the driveway. 

            The barrel feeds a soaker hose that waters a clump of shrubs near the street. When heavy rain fills the barrel, the porous paving lets the overflow soak down into the soil. During rainstorms it’s quite an amazing and satisfying sight to see sheets of water disappear into the ground as they hit the porous paving, instead of puddling in the gutter. It’s good to be doing my part to prevent stormwater from running into the storm drains, but I’ve started to wish I could capture that water for use in the garden.
            Ken Dews, an expert in rainwater harvesting systems, told me that he got started in the field when he set up a rain barrel at his house and saw it fill up and overflow after one heavy rain. His reaction to the overflow was, “That’s my water!”
            I feel the same. The rain barrel has me thinking differently about rain. Suddenly it seems silly to be using tap water for irrigation. If  I can water one small bed with rainwater, why not the whole garden? I could be solving two problems at once—irrigation and runoff—if I captured the rain falling on our roof, stored it, and used it in the garden. Massachusetts hasn’t yet made it easy to get permits to set up a greywater system, using water from the shower, dishwasher and clothes washer for irrigation. But I could arrange to drain water from house gutters into an underground cistern in the backyard and run the garden sprinkler system off that water supply.  
            Today it rained heavily. As I watched water pour out of the overflow of the rain barrel, I thought it was high time to make the investment in that rainwater harvesting system.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tree planting--worth doing well

Planting trees is a good thing, we can all agree. Trees bring beauty into our lives, provide shade, lower summer temperatures, clean the air, help manage stormwater, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere that would otherwise contribute to climate change. Tree planting has accelerated in my town over the past decade. I just wish some of it had been done more sustainably.
            Both a nearby shopping plaza and our main public library have planted trees, including red maples and pin oaks, in raised beds. In both places the trees are suffering a slow death.
            The idea of the raised beds must have been to keep cars away from the trees. Curb-like granite edging protects each bed.  The problem is that each enclosure was filled to the top with soil, raising the ground level at least 10 inches above the surrounding asphalt.
            With our sandy New England soil, the raised beds just create even faster drainage.  As a result, the poor trees are gradually dying of thirst. They get no supplemental watering and no pruning. Instead of an enhancement, these trees are a sad sight. This spring, after a particularly hard winter for trees as well as people, many of the trees at the shopping plaza and the library are down to their last live branches.   
What did this tree do to deserve this fate?
It’s a waste of time and money and a shame to plant trees in adverse conditions and then neglect them throughout their short, sad lives.
            In contrast, the local Tree Conservancy offers to plant street trees in the strip between sidewalk and street. Thanks to our city’s director of urban forestry, the planting is done right--and not in raised beds. Volunteers do the work of planting on the condition that for each tree, a neighbor or group of neighbors commits to water weekly for the first two years and keep the surrounding mulched area weeded. A drip irrigation bag is wrapped around the base of the trunk to be filled with 20 gallons of water approximately once a week from spring to fall. 
           This partnership between the Conservancy, the city, and individual citizens has enabled the planting of hundreds of trees in recent years. The trees start out with the best chance of a long and healthy life. That’s sustainable.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Welcome to the all-you-can-eat buffet

Now that I’m trying to encourage biodiversity in my ornamental garden and provide habitat for wildlife, I notice how much time I’ve been spending trying to foil animals, especially squirrels, rabbits and birds, who are pursuing their legitimate aims.
            Last weekend I spent an hour planting sunflower seedlings I’d started in the kitchen and surrounding each one with a foot-tall tube of fiberglass window screen tied together with bits of wire. I anchored the tubes to the ground with earth staples. The reason for all this fussing is that in previous years, squirrels bit the seedlings off at ground level, apparently enjoying a snack of sunflower sprouts. If I can give the sunflower stems time to reach a height of two or three feet, they’ll be woody enough to lose their gustatory appeal. Meanwhile, the visual effect of my arrangement is what my husband Steve once dubbed “the garden at Checkpoint Charlie.” 
Protected from squirrel attack
            Rabbits have moved into the neighborhood in the past few years. I thought having a dog would protect my garden from their nibbling, but not so.  They barely glance at Nadia, our German shepherd mix, hopping away casually if she gets too close. She seems a bit scared of them.
            After a summer when rabbits chewed my green beans to the ground as soon as they sprouted, I gave up and ringed the vegetable bed with a waist-high rabbit fence of half-inch wire mesh that’s sunk into the ground a foot deep to discourage the bunnies from tunneling under. That’s holding them off so far, but I figure it’s a matter of time before they find the weak spot in my defense—the narrow space between the ground and the lower edge of the gate. They still have free range in the rest of the yard.
            The fence allows me to grow vegetables for our table, but outside the fenced vegetable area, my preference is to share with other inhabitants of the garden. Sometimes this means changing my point of view.
            For example, years ago I planted six blueberry bushes, but I harvest about three blueberries per summer. That’s because the birds always get there first. I’ve tried covering the bushes with bird netting, only to find that birds have no trouble plucking berries through the netting. I, on the other hand, can’t lift the netting without tearing off berries and leaves. I could build a conspicuous frame to hold the netting off the branches, but instead I decided to change my attitude. I’ve declared that the blueberries are there to provide food for birds. That way I can be happy when the ripening blueberries disappear. I still harvest some raspberries and the paw paws that raccoons don’t get.
            By providing seeds, fruit, shelter, and nesting opportunities with native plants, I aim to provide more stable support for birds instead of putting out birdseed in the warm months. My sunflowers will help—if they survive the marauding squirrels.