I am a fanatical gardener. It does not really matter to me why I am in my garden. I only know that I am generally happier when I am there. So, I was thrilled when I was offered an opportunity to talk with a number of organic landscape designers and hear their thoughts on gardening in general, and organic gardening specifically. In my conversations with these landscapers I unearthed not only some useful ideas and interesting methods of cultivation, but also discovered a connection with the environment that helps explain my own passion for landscaping.
RICH, FERTILE SOIL MAKES CHEMICALS UNNECESSARY
The secret to a beautiful garden is in the soil. And you can create healthy soil without using chemicals. Gil Schieber of Borealis Landscape calls it "Litterculture," where you return the waste back into the ground in the form of compost. Adding organic material to the soil is extremely important for its health. Compost provides all the nutrition that your plants need, without leaving behind the salts and heavy metal residues of chemical fertilizers.
Fertile soil also requires good drainage and air flow. Adding sand to the compost can help drain water. You can also consider leaving behind tree roots if a tree is removed, and allowing deep-rooted weeds, such as dandelion and dock weed, to survive in the garden. "Removing a tree root is like amputating a lung," says Schieber. These roots, along with deep-rooted weeds, create pathways for air and water deep into the soil. And some weeds, such as clover, can be cultivated to actually return nutrients to the soil.
Of course, creating a natural, balanced environment in your garden greatly reduces the chances of infestation from pests and weeds. Given healthy soil and prudent care, ornamentals will win any competition for sunlight and water.
INVITE WILDLIFE INTO YOUR GARDEN
Wildlife is a natural part of a healthy and balanced eco-system. Birds not only add interest to your garden, they help to control insect, slug and, snail populations. Attracting birds to your landscape is easy. Adding a water feature as simple as a bird bath can provide birds with much needed water for drinking and cooling. Planting native shrubs such as Oregon Grape, Service Berry, Evergreen Huckleberry, or Porcelain Berry can provide birds and other wildlife with food and protection from predators and weather. Evergreen trees and shrubs also provide excellent protection for birds. If you enjoy watching humming birds flitting through your landscape, try planting Penstemon, Hosta, and Crocosmia.
Be sure to include plants that attract beneficial insects, such as butterflies, moths and bees into your garden. These insects provide pollination for the production of seeds, berries, nuts and fruits. Without the insects flying from flower to flower, your back yard eco-system will not be able to produce the food necessary to attract other wildlife. Any flower will attract bees and butterflies. But some good plant choices include Apple and Crabapple trees, Butterfly Bush, Echinacea, and California Lilac.
GROW YOUR OWN FOOD
Growing your own organic food has become a popular trend, and presents some unique challenges and benefits to Pacific Northwest gardeners. Growing our own food can be very satisfying, and save you money at the grocery store. However, our maritime weather is often too mild to grow a number of varieties of fruits and vegetables.
Success in your vegetable garden depends on what you pick to grow and how much sunshine your garden gets. Plant your veggies in the sunniest location in your yard. If you have large trees, prune the lower limbs to give your garden more sun light.
When choosing what to grow, keep in mind our short, often cool growing season. Choose fast growing and early maturing vegetable varieties to ensure that your plants bear fruit before the cold weather arrives. Fortunately, local nurseries and plantsmen have spent years developing cultivars that perform well in our climate. So, talk to a landscaper, nursery, or seed distributor for assistance in choosing an appropriate cultivar.
Michael Seliga of Cascadian Edible Landscapes offers one caveat to gardeners beginning to grow their own food. "I like that people are growing more of their own food. But I dislike that growing your own food is becoming trendy," he says. Seliga explains that while growing your own food can save you money, he's seen nurseries overcharging for vegetable starts, fruit trees and shrubs. And he finds gardeners spending thousands of dollars for a chicken coop. All the landscapers I spoke with recommend some caution when shopping for your food crops, and suggest that you pay attention to pricing.
BRINGING THE GARDEN INTO THE CITY
If you live in the city and do not have a yard in which to plant a garden, planting in containers offers the perfect solution for scratching your gardening itch. Whether planting vegetables or ornamentals, a small sunny spot is all one needs to create a small garden.
Successful container gardening depends on following a few simple guidelines. To begin, use only pots that have a drainage hole in or near the bottom of the pot. Also, fill the containers with a fast draining, non-compacting soil mix. If you use typical garden soil, the soil will compact in the container and make watering difficult. Any commercial, organic potting soil will work. Finally, be sure to water your pots regularly. Containers dry out much faster than a typical garden plot. You should water your containers twice a week, perhaps more often in hot, dry weather.
Your choices for planting in containers are limited only by the amount of sunlight on your deck and the size of your pots. Follow the usual guidelines for successful planting. If you have a sunny spot, choose plants that perform in sunlight. However, you have to keep in mind that some plants' root systems can outgrow their containers. If you choose your plant size carefully and you have healthy soil, you can enjoy your potted plants for many years.
A GOOD LANDSCAPER CAN REDUCE MISTAKES & SAVE YOU MONEY
What many people might not realize is that a landscaper can not only help ensure the success of your garden, but can also help reduce your landscaping costs. Creating a healthy, well balanced eco-system in which your plants will thrive offers excellent savings. Landscaping can be very expensive if you have to regularly replace the plants.
Likewise, knowledge about plants and the conditions they need to remain healthy will increase survivability and reduce additional costs. In fact, Schieber recommends that you simply buy the ornamental plants you like, then consult with a knowledgeable plantsman to place them where they will best grow. The landscapers I spoke with were unanimous in their belief that knowledgeable nurseries and landscapers can help avoid costly landscaping mistakes, create beautiful and useful gardens, and ensure success.
ORGANIC GARDENING IS MORE THAN JUST BEAUTIFUL LANDSCAPE
Growing an organic garden is much more than just creating a beautiful landscape. To the landscapers I interviewed, it is a way for them to ensure the health of the planet. By replicating and maintaining the natural balance of our ecosystem, the landscapers reassure their connection to the environment.
Gardening is also a therapy for mindfulness. As Seliga explained it, "The garden is a teacher. If you are impatient, it will teach you patience. If you are controlling, it will teach you to let go a little and relax. But if you are too relaxed, it will teach you that you need to work a little harder." The garden can help us to keep touch with the fact that we humans are a part of nature, and not always in control of it.
Gardening is often hard work. What do gardeners really get out of all their hard work? Many gardeners I know enjoy experiencing the bounty of the Earth. Their gardens take advantage of every arable inch of their property for growing fruits and vegetables. Others gardeners want to be closer to nature; and they create naturalistic landscapes to attract lots of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Whatever your reasons for gardening, there is a landscape design that will meet your needs and fulfill your desires.
Thanks to my interviews with these landscape designers, I have discovered my own motives for gardening. I am simply trying to create a beautiful space. I want my trees to be beautiful, my flowers to bloom brilliantly, and my ornamental shrubs to perfectly frame the scene I create. In other words, I want my own garden to reflect the natural beauty of the world in which I live. I am trying to bring the world's beauty closer to home, and share it with my friends and neighbors.
For gardeners, organic methods reflect a desire to remain connected to the Earth, and a desire to keep the Earth well-balanced, healthy, and fertile.
Tod McManis is a staff editor with the Directory. Interviewees: Michael Lockman, WE Design; Gil Shieber, Borealis Landscape; Michael Seliga, Cascadian Edible Landscapes.
Photo credit: By f_shields