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Monday, August 14, 2017

How it should be done

Yes, a garden can be both sustainable and beautiful. My faith in this ideal got a big boost Saturday when I visited garden designer Robin Wilkerson’s enchanting home garden in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She opened her site to visitors as part of a native plant tour organized by the Ecological Landscape Alliance.

The entrance to Robin's sustainable garden

      Robin’s house and garden sit on old farmland that had been taken over by nonnative invasive plants. For 20 years she has been reclaiming expanding portions of the lot for her organic garden, tearing out unwanted plants and sheet mulching with cardboard and wood chips to smother unwanted vegetation. She grows a large vegetable garden, grapes, berries, and numerous fruit trees.

Beds of bird- and pollinator-friendly shrubs and perennials lead to fruit trees in the background

    Unlike me, she’s resisted planting tall trees that would shade sunny areas. Her flowers enjoy full sun. There’s also a shady woodland section. 

    I had attended a workshop Robin taught at New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods on native shrubs for garden use. Her enthusiasm for these plants was contagious and reinforced by a tour of the garden on a lovely June day. Afterward, though, second thoughts set in. 

    Many of the plants she’d showcased had medium-green, medium-sized leaves. They might have pretty fruits and bright fall foliage, but their flowers were often small, off-white, and not very eye-catching. I thought that a garden of these shrubs would look like a typical New England woodland edge, generally pleasing but not particularly striking or ornamental.

    Seeing Robin’s garden, though, I suddenly got it.

A peach tree, ornamental banana, and hanging basket of calibrachoa blend with native honeysuckle and phlox

While supporting biodiversity and welcoming wildlife, she’s combined natives and nonnatives in a harmonious blend of flowering plants from New England and around the world. The natives she’s planted are shown at their best through thoughtful combinations of shapes, sizes, and leaf colors and textures. 

It's all in the design

    She has large, thriving patches of a long list of pollinator-friendly plants. Plentiful fruit beckons to both humans and birds. 


She’s lined the lowest point in the lot, the back border, with a barrier made from pruned twigs and branches; 

This homemade fence provides shelter for insects and other animals

in addition to demarcating the lot line and preventing erosion, this provides a home for insects and other animals. For birds, she keeps several dead trees topped at around 20 feet standing behind the garage. These snags are valuable to woodpeckers and others that feed on insects beneath the bark and build their nests in tree cavities.

Dead trees offer food and habitat for birds

    Insects were everywhere. In addition to the many bees working flowering perennials, butterflies were wafting all over the yard, 

Black swallowtail nectaring on a tithonia flower

and I spotted a hummingbird moth. That was just while strolling around gawking at the flowers; I’m sure closer observation would find that this garden hosts a full range of insects in dynamic balance.

    Robin’s is the kind of garden I aspire to. The visit immediately got me thinking about how to emulate her dense plantings and thoughtful combinations of natives and exotics. Next, the front yard!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Let it rain

What a lush garden year we’re having! Last summer’s gardens were parched by drought. This summer the Northeast has been blessed with plentiful rain. 

Foliage is thriving thanks to plentiful rain

As of August 6, we’d had 30.83 inches of precipitation in the Boston area in 2017, well above the average of 25.88 inches by this date. You can probably see the difference in your garden; I certainly can in mine.

    Why should that be? What makes rain better for gardens than irrigation? We run a sprinkler irrigation system, so unless I cut back on scheduled watering, my plants should be getting enough water even when it doesn’t rain.

Water beads on a giant elephant ear leaf

    There are limitations to even the best-designed irrigation system. Ours is set up in 12 watering zones. Twice a week, sprinkler heads pop up in the early morning and start spraying in a programmed sequence, controlled by a computer in the basement. A rain sensor prevents watering when there’s been adequate rain. With this system, I lavish a lot of water on the garden, sometimes more than my conscience tells me I should.

    Theoretically every plant gets plenty of irrigation water, but in practice, I’ve learned, it’s not that simple. As the garden has matured, shrubs have grown wide and tall, hogging the spray of water and creating dry shadows behind their bulk. And the arcs described by the sprinklers’ spray don’t fit exactly to every angle and curve of plantings. Inevitably some patches get less irrigation.

    Beyond falling evenly on the whole garden, rain conveys numerous advantages:

Lots of rain is helping this St. John's wort get established

•    Whereas irrigation water contains dissolved minerals, including calcium, magnesium and sodium, rainwater is “soft” and mineral-free. As a result, it pulls nutrients by diffusion from where they're bound in the soil, making them available to plants’ roots.
•    Rain water is acidic, which promotes release of micronutrients including zinc, manganese, copper and iron that plants need. Most of my garden soil is acidic already, but there may be alkaline areas where concrete paving leaches lime. Acidic rainwater is especially beneficial in those spots.

Soil next to sidewalks may be alkaline

•    Rain falls at 20 miles per hour, penetrating soil better than irrigation water, which falls at 5 mph.
•    Rain is saturated with air, so it oxygenates soil. That’s good for plants
•    Rain contains nitrogen in the form of nitrate and ammonium from the air. This nitrogen becomes available to plant roots and promotes growth.

Big canna leaves can use a boost from extra nitrogen in rain

•    Rain doesn’t contain the chlorine that comes with treated drinking water. Chlorine inhibits plant growth.
•    Rain flushes salts (such as road salt) that inhibit growth through the root zone and washes mineral deposits, dust and pollutants off leaves, making for more effective photosynthesis.

The proof is in the pudding. The garden looks happier this year with more rain. 

New plants I added in June and July are surviving, despite the heat. Just watering them might not have been enough if it hadn’t been for well-timed, frequent rain.