University City

January 4, 2013

Try these resolutions for a sustainable garden

In spite of dire prophesies and frightful cliffs of various sorts in 2012, we and our gardens are still here in 2013.

In spite of dire prophesies and frightful cliffs of various sorts in 2012, we and our gardens are still here in 2013.

Our gardens are our immediate link to the natural world, which sustains all life on our fragile planet. In our gardens, in our own small way, we can make the Earth more beautiful and sustainable.

This year, my garden resolutions focus on this hot new topic, sustainable gardening.

Take idea to heart

These blamed garden buzzwords pursue us like swarms of yellow jackets, don’t they? “Sustainable gardening” is just the latest to come flying in our direction.

Looking at all the sustainability websites, it’s hard to define what the term means, exactly. It has vaguely to do with gardening in harmony with nature and not living beyond our means, but beyond that, it can signify anything from growing native blueberries to building “farm-scrapers.”

A movement that advocates creating urban farms on skyscrapers festooned with solar panels and windmills has wrapped itself in the sustainability banner. The brainstorm of a gaggle of architecture students in New York City, none of these exist yet in the real world, but proponents are out there digging for grants.

It appears to be spawn of another recent fad, “vertical gardening,” where you grow things up walls. Growing a plain, old dirt garden sometimes drives me up the wall, when squirrels eat my tomatoes or borers get my squash, but that doesn’t count, I guess.

Fortunately, other emerging ideas from sustainable gardening are well worth applying in our gardens.

Three key points stand out, making fine fodder for garden resolutions:

Plan before you plant

Sustainable gardeners tell us to plan carefully, after a thorough assessment of the site and soil.

I’ve seen too many garden projects start with a big wow factor and high expectations, but within a couple years be nothing more than expensive boxes covered with weeds, like a Mayan ruin smothered under the rainforest.

It doesn’t take rocket science to avoid this. Each garden site is different in terms of sun, soil, location, ecology and people. The more we know and honor this, the better our gardens will grow, and the more sustainable they will be.

Observe, do a soil test, talk to people, and only then apply all you learn to making your plans, with openness to adapting them over time, the way nature does it.

Honor ecology

When you are just sitting there looking (what a hard, hard concept for most Americans), be informed by the site’s underlying ecology. Ask yourself, “what would this site look like if people disappeared?” Next year? In 20 years? “What did it look like 200 years ago?”

We’re in the Carolina Piedmont, a bio-region that favors some plants and doesn’t favor others, but not in any simplistic way. On dry sites you’ll find one plant community, on soggy sites a completely different one. Some native plants do fine in urban areas; others, well, they might do well in 200 years, but right now they die.

Honoring ecology can be as complex as you want to make it. My suggestion is to think small, and give nature a role. If you want a manicured lawn, go ahead – but do 2,000 square feet, not 20,000. Allow areas of your yard to revert to a semi-natural state, where you “garden by editing,” pulling out what you don’t want and favoring what you do.

This is already popular – you can see great examples in older University City neighborhoods, including Autumnwood.

Join the conversation

Seek out information on your own. Two good sources for sustainable gardeners are Susan Harris’s site,, and Cabarrus County Cooperative Extension Agent David Goforth.

Both are superb gardeners. David also farms sustainably and grows some of the tastiest peaches in the Carolinas – he once brought a basketful of his peaches, honey-scented and the size of softballs, to an interview on WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks,” and had host Mike Collins drooling into his microphone).

If you face nonsustainable rules where you live or garden, look to other communities for better regulations and guidelines, and learn what it takes to change existing covenants here at home.

One final resolution comes to mind:

Grow food (even a little)

As I do every year, I challenge us all to grow something in our gardens we can eat.

Small is beautiful – no need to plow up the whole yard or spend a fortune on raised bed box planters. A few choice herbs in pots is a great start.

If you live in a condo or a student apartment, join (or start) a community garden.

There is a tie between food and sustainability. The sustainability concept grew out of agriculture, and only later became a trend in environmental policy, global development, and, most recently, gardening and landscaping.

Our industrial farming system, for all its near-miraculous benefits, is not sustainable. Once the cheap energy runs out, we’re going to have to find new ways to feed ourselves. And the best way to learn about good food is to grow some.

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