Winter Thoughts about Having a Great Garden

by Henry Homeyer
courtesy photo | Oaks and birches growing in a meadow feed pollinators and help birds and can be a substitute for a lawn.

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – This is a good time for all of us to stop and reflect on how we garden. Are we creating lovely-looking spaces, but failing to support pollinators, birds, and wildlife? What about the environment? Can we do more? If so, how can we improve? Here are a few of my thoughts.

First, I would recommend that native plants dominate our gardens. I’d say 80% of our plants (or more) should be native, especially trees. Why? Because they do the best, by far, of supporting wildlife – feeding birds and providing food and shelter for animals. Oaks, the best tree of all for wildlife, support nearly 1,000 species of butterflies and moths. But many species of landscape trees and shrubs are from China or Japan, and many only support a handful of species. All plants are not created equal.

courtesy photo | Oaks are pretty for us and food for caterpillars and wildlife.

Caterpillars of moths and butterflies feed on the leaves of our native trees and shrubs and are what are fed to baby birds. That’s right, even seed eaters feed caterpillars to their young because they are full of protein and fat that baby birds need to thrive.

I think we all should avoid chemicals in the garden – and not just the vegetable garden. Rachel Carson taught the world that DDT, a powerful insecticide widely used in the 1950s, was killing off our eagles. But all chemicals used in the garden disrupt natural growth processes – and can adversely affect us, too. Even something as seemingly bland as 10-10-10 fertilizer is only 30% fertilizer – the makeup of the rest is deemed “proprietary information.” So, we don’t know what chemicals are used in it. And the salts in fertilizer are lethal to many microorganisms.

Even pesticides that are derived from plants would be banned if I ran the world. Yes, they are listed for use by organic growers, but many of them are non-specific killers. Both rotenone and pyrethrins are “organic”, but very toxic to bees, others to fish and toads. I guess I would make you pass a test about the pro and cons of any pesticide before you could buy it! Go to thespruce.com/common-organic-garden-pesticides-1402497 for a nice on-line evaluation of organic pesticides.

Sure, the Japanese beetles can be pesky. But do you really want your kids and dogs playing on a lawn with pesticide residue on it? I don’t. Plants do fine with organic techniques. Pick off those dang beetles and drown them in soapy water.

Want to make your gardening easier? Don’t let your weeds make seeds. Seeds can last years, waiting patiently for you decide to go to the beach for a week in August. Then they will germinate and grow like crazy, making you go crazy when you come back and see the gardens full of weeds.

The real solution is to learn to weed properly, have a tool that works well for you, and spend time doing it every day from April to October. We brush our hair and teeth every day, why can’t we do a little weeding every day? Even 20 minutes six days a week will make a huge difference. The CobraHead weeder is the best tool I know for getting roots out and removing weeds.

What else? Know your own capacity. Don’t have the local farmer plow up your entire back lawn to make your first vegetable garden. Start small, enjoy what you have, don’t work until your back hurts and your hands have blisters. If possible, garden with a loved one or friend. For me, gardening with another is always enjoyable.

And then this: create biodiversity in the landscape. Put some flowers in with your veggies and veggies in with the flowers. Artichokes or purple kale will look great in your flower bed. Marigolds in the vegetable garden are thought by some to repel certain pests. An acre of cabbage will attract loopers that might not find one or two plants. A biodiverse garden supports more creatures of all sorts, including beneficials.

Build a compost pile. You don’t have to obsess about the carbon/nitrogen ratio or take its temperature weekly with a long compost thermometer the way some gardeners do. Just add green and brown materials to it in layers. Add some grass clippings to get it heating up and breaking down leaves and dead weeds.

Never add invasive weeds to your compost pile. Things like goutweed or Japanese knotweed, or anything with seeds. Turning a compost pile does add oxygen, which will help the breakdown of materials, but I rarely have time to do so. Don’t be afraid to buy good compost if you don’t have enough.

Think about the size of your lawn. Does it need to be so big? Could you plant some native trees or shrubs? Once established, trees are very little work. They provide shade and cool the air in summer, and fix carbon in the soil – carbon that otherwise would be contributing to global warming.

courtesy photo | This is the time to create some winter whimsy in the garden.

Add some hardscape to your property: stone walls, a birdbath, some sculpture or a few places to sit and relax. Add things that can stay out all winter and look good against the snow are nice: after all, winter is long here in New England.

Grow enough food that you can share some. Go meet your new neighbors across the street or the elderly widow that no longer grows veggies. But don’t just give away zucchini. Grow enough tomatoes, potatoes, and garlic to share with others.

Lastly, take a few moments every day to walk through the garden, pausing to look at the beauty, not just the weeds. Find time to sit and reflect on how lucky you are to have a nice garden.