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Vincent Simeone - "Grow More with Less: Sustainable Garden Methods", April 18, 2022

5/4/2022 6:25 pm

Vincent related lessons learned from working at Planting Fields Arboretum, a state park in Oyster Bay on Long Island's North Shore that was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy.  Superstorms like Sandy are here to stay.  US Hardiness Zones have moved upward for most of the US with climate change.  While this change presents new planting opportunities, it also presents new challenges of diseases, pests and dramatically shifting conditions.  


Vincent defines a sustainable garden as a diverse ecosystem -- one filled with plants that can adapt and survive.  It is not limited to native plants.  A cultivated sustainable garden can have both natives and non-natives.


A sustainable garden considers: recycling, water conservation, energy conservation, green products, composting, integrated pest management and proper plant selection.


Water conservation.  Water use is not restricted in the country as it probably should be except when there is drought.  We are great wasters of water.  Sources of this waste include excessive use of impervious surfaces where rain runs off and pollutants mix in.  


Integrated Pest Management.  Good gardeners monitor the landscape.  They incorporate many methods of pest control, from mechanical, physical, biological, cultural and proper plant selection.  IPM reduces the need for non-organic pesticides.  Pesticides should be used as a last resort, sparingly and carefully with great attention to directions on the label to assure safety.  It is the misuse and indiscriminate overuse of pesticides that has caused harm.  The same is true of fertilizer use, pollution, emissions and water misuse.  All work against our gardens.


Gardens are Ecosystems.  We should treat them as such.  Compost and don't pick up every leaf and twig.  Follow nature with its varying heights - tall, understory, middle height, low.  Plants have places they want to grow that can be observed where they grow naturally.  For example, dogwooods grow best with morning sun and afternoon shade. Plant them facing east.  In European gardens more than here, plants are grouped by similar needs and requirements, but still with a diverse palette. 


Sustainability does not equal wildness.  Sustainable gardens can be highly designed, structured and thought out.  


Turf grass is something done poorly in the States.  To conserve water, pollute less, mowing should only be done for a reason.  Don't mow too short as it makes grass more susceptible to disease and pests.  Raise to 3 1/2- 4 inches to mow, especially in droughts.  Taller grass grows thicker.  It needs less water too. Compost clippings instead of using chemical fertilizers.  Battery operated equipment pollutes much less too.  Water lawns INFREQUENTLY but deeply when done -- for a few hours, once or twice a week.  Frequent watering promotes shallow roots.  Save on water and experience less disease susceptibility.  Consider a no mow lawn as an alternative: low maintenance turf, like sedges, that are mowed only once or twice a year.


What turf grass to use?  In the south, grasses that tolerate hot climates like fescue, buffalo grass and even zoysia (which can survive salt water intrusion).  Leave grass tall in winter.


Or ditch the lawn.  Consider stonework, ground cover, weed suppressive lawn covers.  Evaluate soil to see what might work.


Compost.  Compost should be aged 6-8 months.  Top dress gardens every year.  Avoid use of chemical fertilizers absent a specific known issue.  Commercial fertilizer is missing much of the nutrition of compost (and isn't generally right for a diverse garden with varied plants).  Dyed mulch leaches chemicals.  Mulch out to the drip line if you can.  Mulch leaves and return to under trees.  Beneficial fungi in mulch (the white stuff) - mycorrhiza --  aids plants in dealing with stress by helping roots.   Compost saves work, time, money and energy. Compost needs air, light, water and turning to be good.


Watering/Water Usage Controls.  Use deep watering.  Avoid wetting leaves.  Minimize impermeable substances which lead to water run off.  There are pavers that absorb vs. repeal.  Harvest water with rain barrels, cisterns.  Consider a rain garden for wet areas or where can channel water.


Recycling.  Use composite woods.  Solar landscape lighting uses less power.


Pesticide Use Reduction:  Bat houses 15 feet in trees to help mosquito issues.  Beneficial insects are encouraged by NOT using pesticides "just in case" -- don't spray without addressing a specific problem as you kill beneficials too.  Use plants to attract "good" pest managers.  But understand that to have butterflies, you need to allow caterpillars to feast on your plants.  You need to accept spots on apples and holes in leaves as part and parcel of gardening.   Provide food, water, shelter to birds -- they eat bugs.  


Pollinator friendly plants include both natives and nonnatives.  Consider Oaks, Black Cherry, Willow, Birch, Tulip Poplar, Milkweed for caterpillars.   Achillea, asters, Coreopsis, Echinacea (Pow Wow and Cheyenne better choices), Geranium Rozanne, Solidago Fireworks, Panicum virginicum 'Dallas Blues', 'Heavy Metal', Little Blue Stem, Drop seed too.  


Avoid "disposable" landscape trees or ones known to have pest issues.  Diversify to protect against pest invasions that affect single species.  (E.g. Hemlocks). Avoid Arborvitae and use Chamaecyparis and Thuja.  Stick to pest resistant roses.  Birds love Viburnums dentatum and the native Wisteria frutescens 'Amethyst Falls'.  Good sustainable shrubs include Ilex verticillata, serviceberry, Clethra alnifolia, blueberries, Dogwoods (east exposure!)


Vincent encourages thinking along a timeline, from 6 months to the long term.  Give plants room to properly grow and not have to move or remove later.  Assess your site, soil, drainage, light and wind.  Plant quality plants to succeed.  Journal or calendar what you plant for future reference and to learn from mistakes.   Use the right plant in the right place.  Don't have room for a wide tree, use a narrow (fastigiate) tree.