Pacific Northwest | April 18, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineApril 18, home
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Satisfaction Sustained
To honor earth, let's create gardens that both look good and last
At the Millholland garden in West Seattle, the practical necessities of catching water have been turned into a garden focal point. Rain from the gutters, water from a seeping hillside and runoff from the driveway are all directed into a pond at the lowest point of the property.
WHAT IF, in the spirit of honoring Earth Day year-round, the Pacific Northwest Garden Contest tried out some new criteria this summer? Suppose that each candidate garden was required not only to be beautiful but also to demonstrate environmentally sound, sustainable gardening principles? I just made up this contest idea, but I think it's a good one, considering how much ground gardens cover in our city, and how much their care affects our shared air and water.

Still, I admit it would be quite a challenge for contest judges. Accustomed to picking gardens based on the visuals of plants and design, could they also consider the health of a garden and its place in our ecosystem? Our home gardens are such artificial constructs, suited to our fantasies and our desire to fill them with plants from around the world. Sustainability may be the latest buzzword, but does it really apply in the back yard? How would judges determine a garden's sustainability quotient, considering that much of it rests on habits and practices rather than anything you can see? In the end, does sustainability mean anything more than tried-and-true organics and the concept of "right plant, right place"?
Illustration Now In Bloom
Springtime's pastel prettiness is offset by the slightly sinister appearance of the darkly hooded, large-flowered cobra lily Arisaema taiwanense. Part of the arum family, these woodland perennials emerge from the ground as mottled spikes, opening into a purplish brown hood with a long, thread-like appendage cupping a white, club-shaped spadix. The weirdness continues with snakeskin-patterned stems holding aloft umbrella-like, widely splayed leaflets. Cobra lily's otherworldly beauty is emphasized when grown with the fresh green foliage of fellow shade lovers like ferns and corydalis.
I turned for answers to Cameron Scott, a former Texan who teaches at Seattle Tilth, designs gardens and is passionate about gardening that actively helps the environment. I asked Cameron if all sustainable gardens share specific elements. Is a worm bin a clue, or would our overburdened judges need to snoop around garden sheds to make sure there's not a trace of chemicals to be found? Scott is knowledgeable about environmental principles and recyclable materials. He's also a good sport and came up with a sustainability checklist:

• Pay attention to how water is dealt with. "Water off the roof is so much better than water out of a hose," says Scott, for water that falls from the sky is free of chemicals like chlorine, doesn't cost a cent and contains beneficial micro-organisms. It can be collected in a rain barrel or directed into a cistern for use when needed. And we're not talking about a barrel or two, but 22,000 gallons of free water every year (figuring a 1,500-square-foot house footprint) that can be used to irrigate the garden rather than contributing to run-off problems.

• Mulch with something besides beauty bark and put more emphasis on soil building; no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

• Pay attention to the topography. Terraced slopes prevent wasteful water runoff. Drier-climate plants should be planted together in the hotter areas of the garden and water-lovers grouped in wetter spots.

• Practice companion planting — the mixing of vegetables, herbs and ornamentals — which deters predators, lures pollinators and keeps all the plants healthier.

• Use a certain percentage of native plants to problem-solve in difficult areas such as dry shade or hot, sunny slopes.

• Create raised beds to make the most efficient use of space and topography. They're also a smart way to deal with bad soil. Ground warms up earlier in the spring, and plants are easier to tend.

• Look closely at the structural materials a garden is built of — gardeners get extra points for using recycled and local materials, and demerits for treated lumber, which leaches chemicals into the soil. Scott recommends the Environmental Home Center (206-682-7332) and Second Use Building Materials (206-763-6929) as sources of recycled materials for the garden.

• Take out lawn or replace with less thirsty eco-turf.

Our mythical judges will have their work cut out for them. But wouldn't winning be more meaningful if sustainability were considered an equal goal to beauty? Oh yes, and Scott suggests our judges toss in a few extra points for worm bins, green fences, drip irrigation, herb or vegetable spirals, and good-neighbor behavior like considerate pruning and fencing.

Seattle Tilth is offering a class on sustainable gardening on April 25. To register call 206-633-0451.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor to Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail is

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