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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Planting party

What a week! On Wednesday, Kevin Newman’s team finished work on my yard. They left me with two new beds filled with beautiful black loam, ready to be planted. On Friday I set out on a shopping binge, and now I’m shuffling the plants around, designing the new plantings. Chances to plant a whole new area come along once in a decade. I’m having a blast! 

Trying out arrangements of new perennials for sun and part shade

    The first stage of the renovation started Monday morning, with the men rapidly scraping away the lawn around the deck. In a couple of hours, the grass was gone. Then they cut down five hemlocks at back corners of the lot (more on this in a future post), dragged the pieces out to the chipper parked in the driveway, and reduced them to wood chips. They returned the chips to the yard, using them to cover two new paths. 

Wood chip path for trundling wheelbarrows

Paths made from our own wood! You can’t get more sustainable than that! [note the presidential punctuation].

     The longest phase involved the heavy work of lifting large bluestone pavers from around the deck and putting in a new stone path leading toward the garden.

    What’s going into the new beds? They’re partly in sun, which means a chance to grow flowers that can’t thrive in most of the garden because it’s too shady. I had so many perennial darlings on my wish list that the problem was to pare it down. One of everything is not a good design principle. 

    I was looking for plants that stay low, so they won’t block the view of the garden from the deck. I thought back to a successful bed that designer Betsy Brown created for us in 1994 for a hot, dry west-facing spot. This time natives were a priority, but I couldn’t bear to leave out a few imports that had been stars of Betsy’s design.

Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) had to be included--photo by Anneli Salo

    So far here are some high points of what I’ve chosen: For the sunniest area, Achillea ‘Coronation Gold,’ a yarrow with gray foliage and flat yellow flower heads in a subtle shade of yellow, 

'Coronation Gold'

an elegant St. John’s wort (Hypericum ‘Magic Universe’) with golden flowers, dark red fruits, and foliage with tones of red and blue, 

St. John's wort fighting off depression

prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heteroleptus), a native grass that will contribute panicles of pinkish-tan flowers in late summer, and a low-growing blue juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’) for winter interest.

     For the partly shaded section, a few I have high hopes for include the red-gold flowers of sneezeweed (Helenium ‘Short ‘n’ Sassy’), 

A similar sneezeweed--photo by Dietzel

a nice goldenrod (Solidago odora), and some blues in the form of Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis ‘Blue Danube’) and Canadian phlox (Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’). Among these I have a chance to intersperse some of my favorite ground covers: bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), and a multi-colored bugleweed (Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’).

Gaultheria procumbens does well in part shade

     This is just the first pass. Stay tuned for the editing process.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Water, water all around

With Massachusetts’ drought officially over as of May 10,  I’m feeling more comfortable about watering my garden. 

Nice to see rain on the hostas

I’m happy when it rains, even though some of my annual plants, most noticeably the tomatoes, are slow to take off this spring because of fewer sunny days. 

     With plentiful rain comes other problems, though. During last week’s heavy rain, water streamed down the street in front of our house toward the storm drains.

Rainwater heading for the storm drain

    Rainwater running off roofs and down driveways in our neighborhood could be carrying toxic chemicals from both surfaces into storm drains and through them to rivers and Boston Harbor. The EPA, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and local government all advocate keeping rainwater at home, not letting it wash into the street.

     Our section of town backs up against the Charles River, which is one of our area’s most beautiful and prized natural resources. 

A quiet spot along the Charles

Years of effort have gone into restoring it from a toxic waste stream to a place where people and wildlife can enjoy the benefits of clean water. 

     At this point, storm water runoff is most of what pollutes the Charles by carrying oil, grease, gasoline, pet waste, detergents, pesticides, fertilizer, and trash into the river. 

Overgrowth of algae in a river caused by fertilizer runoff

Rain should be soaking into the soil to replenish groundwater, but with more areas paved or covered with lawns that slope toward the street, it flows into storm drains instead. 

     Not wanting to be part of the problem for the river, in 2013 we agreed to install two 14-foot strips of porous paving in our driveway. One runs from a downspout at the corner of the house toward the street. The other crosses the width of the driveway alongside the sidewalk. 

     This material looks like asphalt but allows water to flow through to a layer of crushed stone which holds the water while it gradually percolates into the subsoil. When it rains, we can see that water no longer flows down the driveway into the street. As the water reaches the porous paving, it disappears into the ground.

Water drains through the darker porous paving

     Our sandy soil drains fast. We never see flooding in our yard. Rainwater falling on soil sinks into the ground and doesn’t flow toward the neighbors’ paved parking area behind our lot. So the porous paving in the driveway is enough to prevent storm water from running off our property.

Rainwater doesn't flow off the berm at the back of the yard

     Rainwater streaming from downspouts and driveways into the street now looks to me like a waste. Instead of watering with purified tap water, we could be collecting storm water and using it in our gardens. I calculate that the rain falling annually on our 1,900-square-foot roof could supply just about all the water I use for irrigation. 

     So have I been harvesting water that falls on the roof? No, I’m sorry to say I haven’t. The obstacles are cost and the prospect of digging a huge hole in the garden for an underground cistern. Maybe 

someday. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the irrigation that’s falling from the sky.

Diverting some rainwater with a rain barrel

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Nature or "all-natural" products?

There’s a thriving market for organic lawn care in my town. These contractors offer periodic fertilizing and even pest control with certified organic products. 

Organic lawn service

Intrigued, I met with Jim Agabedis of Minuteman Landscaping in June 2013 to see about switching to lawn care on sustainable principles.

    Jim had a lot of sensible advice to offer. Some was about switching to better-informed practices, such as letting clippings compost in place on the lawn, changing mower blades frequently so they cut rather than tear the grass, weeding by hand instead of spreading weed killer, and aerating sections of lawn where telltale plantain indicates compaction. 

Could the lawn benefit from organic methods?

Another part of his advice was about “product.” That’s where I started to feel ambivalent.
    Jim had a compelling story of how he decided to switch from conventional to organic lawn care. He started his business while he was still in college and built it up to 360 accounts. Then an acquaintance shared a one-page article on lawn care without chemicals, and he had an epiphany. 

     Most of his clients didn’t make the transition to organic, but he fought his way back. He said it’s worth it to avoid practices and products that could make people or pets sick. 

Not the approach Jim was aiming for

The lawns his company cares for testify to the effectiveness of his method.

     I didn’t end up hiring Jim’s company. I was looking for weekly lawn mowing informed by organic principles. He was offering something more ambitious: a commitment to a beautiful organic lawn. For me, it’s not worth the money, and it's not the direction I'm heading.

    I could see that Jim’s approach was better than conventional lawn care, but I balked at the idea of a lawn, or any other garden area, depending on application of lots of purchased products for health or survival. Jim proposed to apply benign products such as compost pellets and compost tea. 

Spreading compost on a lawn

That’s the organic approach I’d pursue if I had enough time, motivation, and compost to get serious about lawn care. 

     Ideally, though, the compost I’d apply to our lawn would be made up of decomposed materials from our own yard. That way I’d be imitating the natural soil cycle, where organic materials such as leaves and branches decompose on the ground and build soil. 

Organic material cycles back into soil

    I have a problem with replacing chemicals from the garden center or big box store—weed killers, pesticides, synthetic fertilizer—with pricey organic products purporting to fill the same roles. It’s better than the old way, but it’s still a paradigm we should be moving away from.

     Now I see the garden as a community of plants and animals. I aim to enrich and protect it by letting natural processes do their work freely, 

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) blooming this week

rather than just by replacing synthetic products with store-bought “natural” ones.

This is SEG’s 100th post! Thanks for reading. It’s great to know that we share the same gardening pleasures and concerns.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Closing the loop

One of the principles of sustainable gardening is cycling of materials. This avoids the energy costs and environmental impacts that come with industrial production. Fully realized, this principle means aiming for a closed loop. In this vision of an ideal garden, no outside inputs would be needed. All energy, nutrients and materials would be generated and grown on-site.

Peonies thrive with leaf mulch and compost for topdressing

    This year I’m noticing that my garden has moved a short way along the spectrum toward that ideal. We’re far from sustaining ourselves through a permaculture system that imitates a natural ecosystem. But more and more I’m improving soil, mulching, and even filling seasonal planters with materials from my own yard.

Allium 'Purple Sensation' sends up more flowers each spring in good soil

    I’m relying more on compost to improve soil. Before I wrote my book, I thought organic gardeners were being unnecessarily pure by avoiding chemical fertilizer. After all, the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are the same however they’re packaged, I thought. But I learned that manufacturing chemical fertilizer has a high environmental cost. I was also surprised to learn that it’s almost impossible to apply little enough of the synthetic stuff. By using it I was undoubtedly harming soil organisms with an over-abundance of nitrogen and adding to the phosphorus leaching into the local water table.

    Compost is free and good for the soil, it happens in two years whether I do any work on the piles of garden waste or not, and it does yield happy, healthy plants. My problem now is to generate enough compost for all the places I’d like to use it.

You can't have too much compost

    For mulch, over the past few years I’ve added arborist wood chips to my previous use of shredded or whole leaves. By using wood chips, I don’t have to buy bark mulch, which carries an energy cost for transportation. The leaves come from my lot or my neighbors’, so they can’t get any more local. The wood chips are the byproduct of tree work on local trees. Both make beautiful mulch. I like to use the leaves on perennial and vegetable beds. The wood chips are great for paths and for mulching around trees and shrubs.

Wood chips are great for paths and around shrubs

    This year many of my container plants are local too. I’ve just finished filling large pots for accents in the landscape. I combined tender perennials that winter in the basement with dispensable perennials I dug up around the garden. I like some large leaves, unusual leaf colors, and variegations to liven up the mostly medium-sized, medium green foliage. Time will tell whether these pots are interesting enough without the annual flowers I included in previous years. I left those out this year to avoid neonics.

Elephant ears with hellebores and a Japanese painted fern dug from the garden

     I’m not a purist. I don’t subscribe to “eating squirrel and crafting our own doorknobs,” in the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Just as she’s open to the right kind of international trade, I’m open to store-bought groceries and pesticide-free plants from the garden center. But as much as possible, in the garden I aspire to close the loop.
Onward and upward!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Woman versus squirrel

Wildlife—can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. This month it’s squirrels. I’ve been driven to elaborate measures to keep them from digging up my young seedlings.

Squirrel at work--photo by pelican

     A fair percentage of the seeds I planted indoors this spring succeeded in growing into little plants around four inches tall. I hardened them off, moving them outdoors for lengthening periods over a couple of weeks to make sure they were ready for this season’s wildly oscillating temperatures. 

Toughening up to live outdoors

Then there were delays during days of heavy rain that kept me out of the garden for fear of trampling the soil into concrete.

    In the last three weeks I used whatever dry days there were for planting the seedlings out. Most were headed for the fenced, rabbit-proof vegetable plot.

The vegetable garden fence reaches 12 inches underground to keep rabbits out

Basil and dill seedlings landed in a corner dedicated to herbs. Nearby I also planted seeds of peas, cucumbers, and beans directly in the ground.

     Opposite the herbs is a section that stays dry and partially shaded because of a neighbor’s tall red oak. The tree’s branches extend above the vegetable plot, and its roots efficiently draw up whatever irrigation I provide. This area can’t sustain vegetables, so it has become an insectary garden offering food and shelter for native insects.

      This month I added some seedlings of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and cockscomb (Celosia species) to it and edged the path that bisects the vegetable bed with sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima).

Sweet alyssum attracts pollinators and has a honey scent

     Near the insectary bed, I’m hoping to produce flowers for cutting. In that section I planted the zinnias, bachelor’s buttons, and cosmos I started indoors with hopes of enjoying summer bouquets. Some spider flower (Cleome hassleriana) that had popped up in the homemade potting mix came along too. The flowers of these easy annuals are popular with pollinators.

Exuberant zinnias at Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie, NY

     So far the sustainable-enough approach was working. I’d managed to procure most of the annuals I wanted without resorting to seeds or plants treated with neonicotinoid insecticides. I’d gotten the young plants safely into the garden. That’s when squirrels became a menace. 

     When I dig, squirrels follow after me, digging in the same spot and throwing the young seedlings I’ve planted out of the ground. If I don’t notice and replant them, the exposed roots dry up and the little plants die. Squirrels don’t seem to want to eat the seedlings (except sunflowers, which must have delicious sprouts). Maybe they suspect I’ve buried nuts. Whatever the reason for this behavior, it’s very frustrating.

     To foil this sabotage, wherever I dug in the vegetable garden, I had to cover the loosened soil with wire fencing and then anchor row cover fabric on top of it. 

Row cover fabric lets water and light through and keeps squirrels out

That gave the vegetable seeds and the young seedlings a chance to take root. Yesterday, after the row cover had been in place for two weeks, I lifted it off. I left the fencing in place.

Lettuce and greens growing through the wire fencing

 I covered the bare soil with leaf mulch. Here’s hoping I’ve outsmarted the squirrels, and they’ll dig somewhere else.

 Are these pea plants old enough to be squirrel-proof?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Less lawn, new beds

With a surge of spring energy, I’m launching a project I’ve been mulling over for months. I’m going to eliminate some lawn and open up a new planting opportunity!

    I’ve been wondering what to do about the lawn closest to the house. For several years this grass has been looking particularly woebegone. It’s partly because I walk on it so much traveling from the utility area at the side of the house to the rest of the garden.

Nice flowering trees, but see that patchy lawn in the foreground?

     One day inspiration struck. I could tear out that whole piece of lawn, put in a generous wood chip path to walk on and trundle wheelbarrows over, and still end up with some sizeable new beds. At this point in my garden’s history, I don’t get many chances to plant new areas, so this is an exciting moment.

The grass next to the deck will be replaced with paths and a new planting bed

     It's been a long-term goal to shrink my lawn. Just about every other use of yard space has lower environmental costs than a lawn maintained with regular inputs of water and chemicals and groomed with machines powered by fossil fuels. 

Green, lush, and sterile--photo by Andrew Vicars

Even my lawn, innocent of chemical inputs, offers little to the community of organisms that share my yard.

    To test out my brainstorm, I rolled out hoses on the ground to outline different configurations for the new paths and beds. This is a technique often recommended by basic landscape design texts. I’d never used it before, and I can now testify that it works well. With lines of orange hose on the lawn, I could step back and judge whether paths were wide enough. I could easily nudge the hose around to adjust the size and shape of the beds.

Hose as design tool

     What looked best to me was a five-foot-wide mulched path along the curve of the present beds. Two other paths will be paved in bluestone, reusing the stones that currently surround the deck. A straight eight-foot-wide bluestone path will extend from the outer edge of the deck to the next garden “room,” a circle of lawn surrounding a rectangular pond. 

     The second stone path will lead from the back door of the house to the utility area. Together the three paths will define two planting areas adjacent to the edge of the deck, one large and in partial shade, the other rather small but in prized sunny territory near the garage.

     To save my design until the work starts after Memorial Day, I sprayed the grass alongside the hoses with marking paint. That’s the non-permanent stuff used to paint lines on athletic fields. 

Rough outline of the proposed small sunny bed

Meanwhile, I have the fun of choosing which plants to use and where to source them.

     I’m picturing low plants that won’t block the view from the deck, some gray foliage and ornamental grasses, and an emphasis on native plants. 

New York's High Line--a garden style to aspire to

I’ll be on the lookout for neonic-free sources. More to follow as plans develop.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Hemlock farewell

For years I’ve been protecting my hemlocks from a nonnative pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid, by having them sprayed with a pesticide. Now I’ve had a change of heart. Sadly, those hemlocks will have to go.

Our hemlocks need pesticide spraying to survive

     When I was researching The Sustainable-Enough Garden, I interviewed environmentalist Ellie Goldberg of Green Newton for advice on whether this treatment was consistent with an environmentally friendly approach. She didn’t favor the idea. She’d taken down her hemlocks rather than spray them. At the time I wasn’t ready to give up on mine.

     But this spring I’ve decided to follow Ellie’s example. Perhaps learning about neonicotinoid pesticide residue on nursery-grown plants has made me more sensitive to the effects of my actions on the insects around me. 

A praying mantis keeps garden insects in balance--photo by Scott Robinson

     Our eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) were planted by previous owners in two corners of the yard and have grown to about 30 feet tall. The adelgids are tiny imported insects that kill hemlocks by sucking their sap. That’s why you see so many hemlock skeletons and trees gradually losing their needles. 

Hemlocks succumbing to woolly adelgid damage

You can recognize infested trees by the lines of white egg cases along the twigs that look like tiny cotton balls.

Telltale white dots along the twigs are adelgid egg cases

     Leaving the hemlocks untreated wasn’t an option, because untreated trees die within a few years of infestation, and there’s no escaping the ubiquitous adelgids. I didn’t want to provide a staging area for further adelgid depredations in my neighborhood. I wanted to keep the hemlocks alive because I thought that as native trees, they must be hosting native animals in the yard.

A hemlock (not ours) shelters young Eastern screech owls--photo by Matt MacGillivray

So I signed up to have our hemlocks sprayed with horticultural oil. My justification for using the pesticide was that the adelgid is a nonnative introduction with no North American predators.

     The horticultural oil application involves spraying a mist of refined petroleum-derived oil combined with emulsifier into the hemlocks. The spray smothers the insects mechanically by coating them with oil rather than attacking their metabolism as many chemical pesticides do. When the oil dries on the trees in a few hours, it’s non-toxic. Horticultural oil was used on fruit trees as far back as ancient Greece, although back then they used plant oils rather than petroleum.

     If it’s applied in very early spring when the adelgids are active but most other insects aren’t, horticultural oil comes close to targeting only the adelgids. But in practice, the timing never turns out right. It’s not the company’s fault; weather and scheduling get in the way. If they spray now, the oil will also suffocate insects I’m trying to foster in my yard. 

Bees on swamp milkweed are welcome guests

     The only alternative is to remove the hemlocks. I asked arborist Kevin Newman’s team to cut them down in the next few weeks. I’m sad to do it, but it seems better than continuing to spray at the wrong time. To replace the food and shelter that the hemlocks have provided for wildlife, I'll need to plant other native trees or shrubs in their place.

Sunday, May 7, 2017


Things are looking up for my quest to avoid neonics. This week, to my delight, I encountered some new plant sources for ornamental plants that aren’t treated with pesticides.

I want to keep pollinators healthy in my garden

     I made the one-hour drive to Salem, Massachusetts to check out a place I found through a Google search, Thomson’s Garden Center. The owner, Scott Thomson, explained that all his food plants are organic. Despite his motivation, even Scott hasn’t been able to find organic seedlings for some annuals, but his flowers are pesticide-free. 

May offers lots of flowers. Insects need something in bloom through the season.

     That’s the key point for me, because my main goal at this point is to use only plants that are safe for insects in my garden, including pollinators such as bees, leaf-eaters that provide food for birds and other animals, and beneficial insects that keep the garden’s insect population in balance. Thomson’s web site includes a link to an excellent TV segment on WCVB’s Chronicle, featuring Scott as a source, about why neonicotinoid insecticides are a problem for bees and how to make gardens that are bee-friendly.

     Thomson’s seedlings were beautiful, clearly well-grown and healthy. This wasn’t even the full inventory, which Scott said will be coming in later this month. He sources his plants locally. His organic herbs came from Gilbertie's Herbs in Westport, Connecticut, another outlet I’d like to visit. I bought herbs and also pesticide-free marigolds, geraniums, dahlias, cosmos, lobelias, and alyssum.

Marigolds and alyssum, annuals I'd been hoping for

    The next day I scored some more annuals and some vegetable seedlings—tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers--also grown without pesticides, at the seedling sale of the Waltham Community Farm, one town over. With these purchases, I’ll be able to plant out almost all my usual annuals.

Annuals will supplement perennials in the pollinator garden

     What I won’t be doing this year is making a big purchase at my favorite local garden center, which shall remain nameless. It’s a bigger place than Thomson’s with a wide selection of gorgeous perennials, annuals, and vegetables and some shrubs and trees. I love going there. My May shopping trip has long been one of the high points of my year.

Anise-scented sage, Salvia guaranitica, a treasure from my favorite garden center

    But what’s the point of a pollinator garden that kills pollinators? Until this business can certify that their plants are neonic-free, I don’t feel right shopping there. I’ve sent them a letter explaining why. I hope that as customers raise this issue, garden centers will follow the lead of the big box stores that have yielded to pressure and promised to phase out neonics.

     When consumers got interested in planting for pollinators, sellers jumped on the bandwagon, touting plants for pollinator gardens. They just didn’t mention that the plants were treated with chemicals harmful to those same pollinators. Scott Thomson’s attractive stock confirms that marketable plants can be produced without these synthetic chemicals.

Geraniums from Thomson's

     Garden centers understand why consumers want organic food plants. Now we want organic—or at least pesticide-free—ornamental plants too. I’m happy to know that a few growers and retailers are out there supplying them.