To honor earth, let's create gardens that both look good and last
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"?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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