Cover Story

Growing Greener

by Paula S. Brown, Contributing Writer


Green is a very “in” word these days.


Hopefuls in the presidential race see how many times they can mention “green-collar” jobs (manual-labor jobs with new clean-energy industries such as installing solar panels) as a fix for unemployment. Spending on clean-tech investments is offered as a stimulus for the economy.

And while “Going Green” may be the latest trend, it is also a harkening back to proven, traditional methods of working with nature, instead of against it. “Green gardening” is gardening with the environment in mind.

From the ancient earth-friendly practices of Native Americans down to the gardening wisdom you gleaned from your grandmother, these practices just make good sense. Besides that, in our modern world, GreenScaping (as the EPA is now calling it) is, in some people’s eyes, becoming almost a moral obligation. Regular citizens can make a big difference if they will reduce, recycle, plant native species, and re-train the eye to see a new ideal.

To reduce rainwater runoff and erosion, refrain from paving; instead, use permeable hardscape on your property wherever possible, such as mulch, wood chips, gravel, a pretty groundcover, or stones set in sand with enough room between them for interesting creeping plants.

If hard surface is absolutely necessary, use asphalt containing recycled tires. As Joni Mitchell has been warning since 1970, those who “pave Paradise to put up a parking lot” will have to see their trees in a “tree museum,” and will be charged “a dollar and a half just to see ’em.” We’d better hug those trees now so we still can later.

Think of all the carbon dioxide cleansed from the air and the fresh oxygen provided when we add plants to the environment. Progressive cities are adding rooftop gardens filled with pollinator-friendly plants that attract butterflies and bees. Such an innovation could prove very beneficial, not only to the recently decimated bee population, but also to the global economy, since pollinators affect 35 percent of the world’s crop production. Also, a green roof can reduce summer cooling needs as well as heat loss in winter by about 25 percent each.

U.S. Slower out of the gate

America is vast and for years resources seemed limitless, so we’ve been slower to come to the realization of the need for Green Gardening than smaller countries, socially aware for a long time that land is precious and must be handled with the utmost care. England has seen the need to protect hedgerows by law to restore ecological balance and give back necessary habitat to wildlife. Also, almost every garden there (which we would call a “backyard”), even in the city and no matter how small, has a bin for compost that is convenient and in constant use.

Newer kitchens in England are designed to have a small chute underneath kitchen chopping areas to collect food scraps, treasured for their high-powered nutrients, such as egg shells for calcium and banana peels for potassium to stimulate bloom. Make compost all summer by recycling fall leaves. Alternate a layer of brown leaves in a bin with a layer of green grass clippings and yard waste. To “heat up” or accelerate decomposition, add a commercial accelerant; or, better yet, add manure if you have access to any horse or cow “pies.” If you become a compost convert, consider getting a pet rabbit for its superb contribution of rich waste. Compost naturally enriches the soil without using chemical fertilizers that harm the environment.

Fall leaves saved in black plastic bags can also be turned into mulch over time simply by punching holes in the bags to let the air get to them. Add the mulch or compost to your soil so it will retain water, improve texture, and cut down on evaporation.

For aeration and water retention, use earthworms, which can be bought in bulk if you do not have a natural abundance of them. Use traps and natural predators — “good bugs” — instead of pesticides, or grow plants that naturally repel insects such as tansy, marigolds, chives, and basil. At a recent Chelsea Flower Show, a “rubbish garden” of recycled plant materials attracted much interest.

Pine needles are an example of a plentiful garden material that should be valued for some birds such as robins and grackles, which are “leaf litter” feeders, meaning that they love to probe in the pine tags and leaf litter for food. A pristine landscape is no longer the ideal — which may take some getting used to, especially for neatnik homeowners married to weekend maintenance routines they consider “the right thing to do.” Retain some “rangy” habitat for the birds. Do not cut back the garden until spring; leave the flowering seed-heads through the winter to provide food and shelter as well as visual interest.

Europeans extend their gardens to make their houses more a part of the outside. Foundation plantings, which came into being originally to cover tall, unattractive foundations on old-style houses, still girdle most American homes. Instead of planting all shrubs against the foundation, try moving these beds away from the house and incorporate tall plants in small areas. The resulting screened area will seem intimate and will create privacy, adding to the feel of sanctuary. Plant native trees, shrubs and groundcovers that stabilize soil and prevent erosion.

Native Plants a Wise choice

It is logical that indigenous plants are best adapted to existing soil and climate so they need less human help (such as fertilizing, watering, and applying of pesticides and fungicides) to thrive. Create these island beds to reclaim areas that are currently grass lawn. Few plants require more maintenance and expense than grass, yet having a thick stand of grass is still the goal of many homeowners who want “curb appeal.”

Perhaps a re-training of the eye to consider what is appealing is in order. Greatly reducing expansive lawns will save time, money, and the environment while making the most of the opportunity to introduce color, habitat, and a sense of enclosure. Try environmentally friendly lawns instead of the typical fescue that requires so much water, mowing and fertilizing.

Learn to work with nature in orienting the garden. Deciduous shade trees obviously block western sun in summer, increasing your air conditioner’s efficiency. The tree’s bare branches then allow light through in winter to warm up those rooms. Plant a shield of evergreen shrubs to lower heating costs where wind is a problem. Vines shading porches from harsh summer sun create green leafy bowers of restful serenity. Tall trees limbed up and interplanted with understory trees (such as dogwoods or redbuds), shrubs, and groundcovers require the minimum amount of maintenance and help conserve energy and water.

The old rain barrel has come back into vogue for collecting rainwater, especially for watering plants. It saves money and conserves the precious resource itself. Rainwater, traditionally prized for hair washing because it is said to make hair silky, can once again become a valuable conditioner, free to all, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Try growing some of your own food and herbs or, if there’s one available, get involved in a community garden. At the very least, buy locally grown herbs and vegetables to get the freshest produce, those packed with nutrients and those that have used the least amount of gasoline to get to your market.

Support gardening efforts that beautify the community while they help the environment. Offer your children as some of that manual labor to teach stewardship of the land and to wage war against that modern ailment in the technological age: childhood obesity. Gardening is great exercise, especially if you replace those loud, energy-wasting leaf blowers with simple rakes.

Do Your Part

Do your own part to reduce your “carbon footprint” — walk, bike or carpool. Teenagers might be more inclined to get out of bed early on a Saturday morning if their school’s Friends-of-the-Earth chapter could spearhead a program to teach them gardening skills that would enhance the rest of their lives, not to mention garnering community-service points for college resumés for the effort.

You do meet the most interesting people gardening. Some are artistic people who like color and design. Some have a more scientific approach. Most all are people who like to share — their plants, their wisdom, everything. People who like to recycle are often frugal souls who get really excited about sharing plants because they are free.

Ideally, Green Gardening will become a way of life, a Second Nature, with a positive vision for the future.


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