Recently, I've been reviewing chapter one, "Sustainable Solutions" by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth, again. This chapter is really the basis for everything that follows. In the very first sentence it makes the essential point that "the more a garden imitates the processes and functions of natural ecosystems, the more sustainable and resilient it becomes." That has long been what I have striven to achieve in my own garden and so it was very affirming for me to read this particular chapter. I think we all need confirmation from time to time that what we are trying to do is not totally insane.
In this chapter, the authors review what they refer to as "five philosophical approaches" to sustainable gardening. They will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked to create a habitat garden.
Xeriscaping: Water is becoming a more and more precious commodity in our world. In certain parts of this watery planet, armed conflicts are already occurring over rights to water. This may well be a portent of our future. As drought becomes a given in our lives, the successful sustainable gardener needs to learn to make maximum use of the natural water that is available, without relying on irrigation. This means using plants that are naturally adapted to conditions in the area where we garden, and that leads right in to the next major philosophical approach.
Native plant landscaping: Using native plants in our gardens has become a major gardening movement in recent years. Some gardeners are quite adamant that the only plants that one should use in one's garden are those that are native to the region. I'm not that dogmatic about it. I do think there are many non-native plants that may have come from climates similar to our own and are extremely well adapted to the area that are perfectly acceptable for use here - daylilies and crape myrtles, for example. But, in general, if one has a choice between a native and a non-native plant for a particular area or purpose, one can't go wrong choosing the native.
Wildlife gardening: The thing which first really got me seriously involved in gardening - beyond vegetable gardening - was my interest in birds. I wanted to have a garden that would be welcoming to birds. It was a natural progression from that idea to wanting a garden that would be friendly to other wildlife such as butterflies and bees, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. As our modern lives so often tend to separate us from Nature, I think this principle is becoming more important and more popular with gardeners. Most gardeners, after all, start out with a love of Nature and an interest in her critters and it is very gratifying to know that, with just a minimal effort, we can have more of them in our gardens.
Organic gardening: This is very much related to the three principles already mentioned and, most especially, to wildlife gardening. In order to have a garden that is welcoming to wildlife, you really can't go in for the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. Most of these are highly toxic and detrimental to the natural food chain; i.e., poisoning insects also poisons the birds, amphibians, and reptiles that eat the insects. If you grow food for your family's consumption, you can also introduce these poisons into their diet. For any number of reasons, organic is the better way to go.
Permaculture: This is a principle which uses groups of plants to form a truly permanent ecosystem within the garden. It actually mimics the beneficial relationships (combinations of plants, animals, fungi, and insects) that are found in healthy natural ecosystems such as forests or meadows. In such systems, each component contributes something of value to the whole and makes the system truly sustainable.
Even with the best intentions in the world of adhering to these principles, though, sometimes problems arise. The authors have anticipated some of these and offer tips for preventing problems from occurring:
- Put the right plant in the right place. It's important to provide a stress-free environment for you plants. For example, don't try to force a sun-loving plant to grow in deep shade.
- Choose plant varieties that are genetically resistant. Horticulturists have made many advances in perfecting plants that are genetically resistant to pests and diseases. Take advantage of these advances and choose plants that are less likely to succumb to the problems that may be prevalent in your area.
- Manage the planting site to permit free air flow and adequate light. Plants that are crowded together are more susceptible to pests and diseases. Save yourself problems and give 'em room!
- Use the right amount of water. Effectively managing water is often the difference between success and failure in the garden. Know what your plants require and be guided accordingly.
- Protect your plants from extremes of temperature - freezing cold or baking heat. This is often easier said than done, but again it goes back to the idea of putting the right plant in the right place and using plants that are adapted to your climate.
- Build healthy, biologically active soil. Amend your soil with organic matter and with the occasional addition of organic fertilizer. Feeding the soil feeds the organisms that depend on the soil. A healthy and productive garden begins at ground level.
- Plant polycultures, not monocultures. Growing a variety of plants in a particular space greatly reduces the incidence of diseases as well as making the plants less attractive to insect pests.
- Rotate plants (or crops) from year to year. This is a principle that is well-known to most farmers and to vegetable gardeners, as well, but it can be used effectively by gardeners of ornamental gardens, too. Growing the same thing in the same place year after year depletes the soil and makes it easier for insect pests to find something to eat. Rotating is a common-sense approach to dealing with this problem.
- Attract or purchase beneficial organisms. The use of biological controls - beneficial predator insects or frogs, anoles, etc. - is just another common-sense solution to a particular problem and, again, it relates back to the principle of wildlife gardening.
That's just a brief look at one chapter of this useful book. There are ten more. If you are looking for an informative and easy-reading manual for pursuing sustainability in your own garden, you could do worse than to get The New American Landscape.