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 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!