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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!

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