Tag Archives: sustainable gardening

Permaculture and You

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people while providing habitat and other benefits for the rest of nature.

Permaculture is the fancy name for this approach to garden design. When you garden using organic fertilizers and organic pesticides ( when necessary ) you reduce pollution in the environment. When you plant edibles like beautiful fruits, vegetables and herbs in your yard, you create a more natural landscape that takes better care of itself while yielding a plentiful harvest of plants for food.

You can put these ideas to work in your own garden by using water more efficiently and carefully selecting and siting plants. Deep rooted trees like fig, mulberry, peach and plum help break up heavy soil and shade the plants beneath them. Planting drought tolerant trees creates shade which in turn slows the evaporation of moisture from soil and prevents erosion.

Group plants with similar water needs. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. You might install a rain garden in an areas like this. A rain garden is simply a planted depression designed to absorb run-off from areas like driveways, walkways, roofs and compacted lawn ares. The rain garden acts to replenish ground beds while preventing water from running into storm sewers, streams and creeks.

Plant dry climate plants like lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and drought tolerant ground covers like oregano and thyme to shade the soil and conserve moisture. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible.

Place hardy perennials like artichoke, butterfly bush and rhubarb under tree canopies to conserve moisture. In general, use deep-rooted, low maintenance perennials that provide food and also shade for plants underneath.

For food, plant fruit trees, berries, nuts, herbs and vegetables. To create habitat, plant fennel, spearmint and yarrow for beneficial insects; butterfly bush and sage for pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds; ceanothus and other native shrubs and trees for birds and other wildlife.

To , plant deep rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter. You can plant rhubarb, bear’s breech or other large leaf plants for a living mulch. Using wood based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too.  To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, and peas and lupine. To supply minerals as compost or mulch plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.

Sustainable landscapes do not have to look like a weed patch. With a little planning your garden can be beautiful and productive.

Planning the Garden

As you plan this year’s garden, whether it’s a new vegetable bed, un-thirsty perennials,  shade trees , or anything in between, think of how they will affect your surroundings. Will they take up less of the earth’s resources and not too much of your own time and energy? Changing weather patterns make it smart to find new, more sustainable ways to garden.  Downsize your garden’s neediness without sacrificing beauty or productivity.

Start with a smart design.

  • Does your garden utilize permeable paving like gravel or pavers that help manage runoff, giving the soil more time to absorb rainfall and recharge the ground water?
  • Have you considered installing a rain garden or small, planted basin to catch and filter rainwater and keep it onsite?
  • Have you grouped plants in your garden according to their water needs? Do you have some plantings that can survive on rainfall alone after their second season? Have you chosen plants that are locally grown and adapted to our climate?
  • Do you have an irrigation system that is efficient without being wasteful?  Do you water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff? Do you water in the early morning or evening to maximize absorption?
  • Do you have deciduous trees to provide cooling shade in the summer and allow sunlight to warm the house in winter? Do you have trees and shrubs to clean the air of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide? Trees also breathe in carbon dioxide ( a major greenhouse gas) , use the carbon to build mass, then exhale oxygen. They retain more carbon than they lose so every tree you plant helps reduce your carbon footprint on the planet.
  • Does your garden feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other wildlife? Do you have perennials such as echinacea, lavender, penstemon or salvia to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds? Have you planted flowers that attract beneficial insects to help control harmful insects? Do you use organic pesticides?
  • Do you make your soil a priority by adding compost each year? Do you mulch your soil to keep down weeds and conserve water?  Do you use natural fertilizers like manures or fish emulsion that feed the soil? Do you compost the green and brown waste your garden produces-fallen leaves, weeds without seeds, grass clippings, spent flowers and vegetables?
  • Do you stay ahead of weeds , pulling them before they set seed and spread?

       
Take steps to make your corner of the world contribute to the larger landscape around you.
 

How and Why to Mulch

We never stop learning. No matter how much we think we know about a subject, there is always more to learn. 


Take mulching, for example.  Mulching is simply covering the soil around plants with a protective material, organic or inorganic.  This helps maintain moisture in the garden, decreases soil compaction, modifies soil temperatures and adds nutrients and humus to the soil as they decompose. 

It’s that time of year to mulch existing perennials, shrubs and trees. While a little chicken manure is good worked into the veggie garden, composted horse manure works better as a mulch for the rest of the garden.  Chicken manure is high in phosphates and too much can inhibit beneficial microbes in the soil.  It also feed the weeds.  They love it.  A better method would be to cover a layer of compost or  composted horse or steer manure with a thick 4" layer of wood chips.

Wood chips offer additional benefits: They’re local, free from arborists, and affordable from the transfer station in Ben Lomond  . Any disease in the chips doesn’t transfer to healthy plant roots, as long as you don’t dig the chips into the soil.  You can also buy clean chips from landscape supply yards or in convenient bags from nurseries.

To make the most of , learn what kind of soil you’re working with.  The University of Massachusetts at Amherst  ( www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest/ ) offers a basic standard test for $9.  It includes  pH, buffer pH, extractable nutrients (P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B), extractable heavy metals (Pb, Cd, Ni, Cr), and extractable aluminum, cation exchange capacity, percent base saturation. 

Our local soil testing laboratory in Watsonville, Perry Laboratory, offers a comprehensive test.  Their web site is  www.perrylaboratory.com.  The landscape package they offer includes basic fertility, micronutrients, salinity, alkalinity, texture, organic matter content and lime content. The main difference between the two labs is that Perry’s  will give you  specific recommendations based on your results to improve your soil. 

Make sure you get fresh mulch spread over your garden plants soon.  You’ll be amazed at the difference in your garden this season.  A mulched garden is a happy garden. 

Planning for Extreme Weather

Drought one year,  rainy the next.  How do you plan for these weather events in your garden?

CLIMATE-PROOFING used to mean tossing a little mulch on the garden, hauling pots of tender plants indoors or under an overhang.   But global warming and cyclical climate change has caused weather to grow so volatile that these traditional practices just don’t cut it anymore. Our gardens need year-’round help to deal with the new weather realities, including increasingly rain events in the winter and dry springs and of course our usual dry summers. . If you doubt the significant effects of climate change on our gardens, think about all the plants you consider hardy that may have died off in a really cold spell or the usually drought tolerant plants that didn’t like our dry spring last year.   The list varies by microclimate, but might include escallonia, abutilon, verbenas, Melianthus major, phormium and yuccas. Have you noticed birds returning earlier in the spring and lilacs blooming two weeks ahead of when they flowered 30 years ago?

We need a fresh arsenal of garden strategies, and it will help if we better understand the changing weather where we live and garden.  Our climate is influenced by the Santa Cruz mountain range and moderated by the Pacific Ocean.  Sixty inches of rain is "normal" for us but it’s been a few years since we’ve had this much.  While there is great year-to-year variability in our weather,  we need to be prepared for the worse case scenario.  You can lose both precious plants and trees as well as all the money and work you put into the garden.

How to deal?

• Begin by choosing tough, sturdy, self-reliant plants that need less water and fertilizer. Healthy plants are naturally resistant to pests and diseases when put in the sun/shade/water situations that suit them.

Compost-enriched soil provides the foundation for thriving plants that are more resilient to disease, drought or insect damage. Healthy soil absorbs water like a sponge and also stores carbon from the atmosphere, helping reduce greenhouse gases.

Reduce water consumption by using drought-tolerant and native plants, and by grouping plants with like water needs. Water with drip systems or soaker hoses; use tools like watering bags to keep new trees healthy. Remember to check whether your soil is dry before irrigating, and make sure you are watering more than just the surface.

Weed regularly so you aren’t wasting water on nuisance plants. To keep weeds down and water in, mulch garden beds at least once a year in late winter.

Global warming is creating what climatologists call "heavier rainfall events." This means more runoff and more stormwater problems. We can help by avoiding chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and using porous surfaces like pebbles, gravel or pavers for patios and driveways rather than solid concrete. Install rain barrels and cisterns to capture rainwater to use for irrigation. Consider taking advantage of low-lying or boggy spots in your garden to create a rain garden, planted with moisture-loving natives, to slow down the passage of rainwater through the soil.

• Nurture the birds, bees and insects in your garden that are also confused by climate change. Make your garden a healthy habitat for all living things by eschewing chemicals. Plant a diverse array of flora that blooms early and late to encourage pollinators. Add natives and plenty of berried plants to feed and attract creatures.

• And finally, a few ideas on saving energy: Solar garden lights are the smart way to go; cut energy use on other outdoor lights by putting them on a timer. If you aren’t yet lawn-free, at least get rid of your gas mower, blower and weed eater, and use rakes and hand clippers; you’ll be rewarded with blessed quiet as well as energy efficiencies. You might consider arbors and pergolas for shade in summer and rain protection in winter. And it might not be a bad idea to invest in a rain barrel.

Sustainable gardening tips

Blazing hot weather one day, foggy the next – our summer is turning out to be a particularly hot one.  The last two winters saw more than the usual freezing weather.   If weather tells us what clothes to wear, then climate tells us what clothes to buy.  Is all this proof of climate change?

Our planet has always experienced heating and cooling cycles.  A warm period from 300-1300 AD allowed the Vikings to fish and farm Greenland.  They were frozen out after 1300 when the Little Ice Age changed Greenland’s climate.  A 20 year drought starting in 1276 probably drove out the cliff dwellers in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and the Mayan culture collapsed about the same time as an extended drought occurred in Mexico and Central America. 

People who cultivate plants have always taken climate change more seriously than most.  Many tomatoes stop setting fruit when daytime temps stay above 90 degrees.  Higher levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, have been accelerating weed growth.  Our best defense as gardeners is to choose wisely what we plant in the garden and how we water. 

  • Start with smart design by evaluating how the space will be used and what plants will thrive with minimum of care and pruning.  Select the best trees and place them to shade the south side of the house to reduce  cooling costs.
  • Supplement the soil by making soil health a priority.
  • Examine your irrigation system and watering plan for efficiency and minimal waste.
  • Reduce, recycle and reuse whenever possible.  Simple ways include reusing plant containers and composting  organic waste and fall leaves.  

  We can all become stewards of the land by using these sustainable landscaping tips.