a sustainability self-test, with vincent simeone

bird-copyright-andre-jordan.jpgNOW–NOT SPRING–is the time to plan for the garden to come. Especially to plan for a greater degree of sustainability in 2014 and beyond. As in: rethink, reduce, reuse. Horticulturist Vincent Simeone, author of a new book on the topic, helps us take a critical eye to how we garden—and how we can waste less and reap more. Plus: Enter to win his new book, “Grow More With Less.”

We need to wake up before the plants do, and think about the garden we’re going to make. Ready to get smarter about every action you take, and every area of the landscape? Before we get to the self-test on our own gardens, I started by asking Vincent for a quick 101 on sustainability. My question, and his answer:

Q. What does sustainable mean in the garden?

Grow More With Less by Vincent SimeoneA. The key is to think about the long term—as in the longterm care of the garden, or the environment around you.

We’re too infatuated with the now, and we don’t think about the future. Unfortunately, we see a lot of “disposable landscapes” going in, where if we get a couple of years out of those, we’re happy.

We shouldn’t be satisfied with that. We should be thinking about the longterm care of our gardens—and that will be generally a healthier garden, if we think of all the things that go into it such as water management and conservation, proper irrigation techniques, proper pruning and so on.

Who thinks even 5 or 10 years down the road in the garden? Not many people. But if you think of the great gardens of the world, the landscape designers were really thinking generations ahead, never mind just a couple of years. We should certainly think years down the road.

With things like proper spacing, for instance: So many times I see improper spacing, and in 3 or 5 years you have a jungle. Things shade each other, or have to be taken out. Then you have more of a problem than when you started. [Vincent’s spacing rules are at the bottom of the story.]

say no to dyed mulch (doodle by andre jordan)

go ahead: test yourself on sustainability

VINCENT HELPED me create an offseason garden-sustainability self-test for you–and for myself!–based on the principles in his book “Grow More With Less”  (Amazon affiliate link). The questions he wants us to ask ourselves:

First, take notes of what you have—assess your landscape with a stern eye.

Create a pros and cons list—what didn’t work is important to note, not just the highlights.

List goals you have for the garden: “I want to put in a perennial border,” or “I want more winter interest.”

Next, assessment of the site—the actual garden conditions—is very important:

  • What type(s) of soil do you have, and are there any issues with drainage? Perform soil tests once winter recedes—specifically, a full soil analysis of both nutrients and pH.
  • What light does the garden get where, and is wind a factor anywhere?
  • These pieces of site-specific information will help determine how (if!) your issues started above can be solved, or if your goals are realistic.

Are you matching plants to actual conditions? The reality checks bulleted above also figure into making “right plant, right place” matchups. If you choose carefully, the garden will be more sustainable (as in: plants will thrive, and endure, without heroic interventions). Are some of your recent “failures” perhaps really just a case of siting a plant in conditions that it can’t adapt to? We need to shop smarter, not just on impulse.

Are you making a habitat-like space, one that can attract helpful insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians, among other beneficial wildlife, and therefore be more sustainable?

Time to take a hard look at the lawn, where we squander startling amounts of fertilizers, other chemicals, fuels, and precious water—along with maintenance hours.  Ask yourself:

  • Do I really need a lawn?
  • Is my lawn successful (healthy, serving a purpose, manageable)?
  • Can it be reduced in size (perhaps replaced in part with more sustainable plantings, or in some cases material such as gravel, or maybe more raised beds for food production)?

Where will the materials needed to implement my plans come from?

  • Mulch, for instance. Can you access a more sustainable, local supply of better-quality mulch this year than all those bark chips in endless plastic bags that were trucked across the nation to your garden center? Does your garden include a spot to store and age mulch before use? (My mulch FAQ page may help you decide what to use and how and when.)
  • The same is true with compost: Take a hard look at your composting efforts—how did you do? (How to compost like a pro.)
  • Developing a better mulch and compost strategy helps build healthy soil, reducing or eliminating the need for bagged fertilizers—meaning, greater sustainability.

Make a commitment to start a daily (or even weekly!) log for the garden. Detailed information on what pests showed up when, for instance, would be very valuable in planning strategies to outsmart them in the future. Monitoring is an essential tool to safer, saner pest control, because you’re tackling the problem as soon as it’s observed, before it gets out of hand.

Do you always use the least-toxic tactic for pest or disease control? This combined approach of monitoring, and then using the safest approaches first, starting the moment an issue arises, is all part of the system called Integrated Pest Management.

Noting what invasives, or “weeds” we are tackling, and when and how we are doing so, is also part of the equation, as we try to get the upper hand with increasingly safe, smart tactics (like smothering weeds with cardboard, or perhaps solarzing them under plastic, rather than spraying them with herbicides, before making a new bed).

How good are you at maintenance? A plant that’s properly cared for will be less susceptible to pests and disease, so next we need to look at how well we did on that score in these two critical areas most of all:

  • How well do you prune, and do you do so on a regular schedule? A poorly pruned plant (with jagged cuts that invite pests or disease), or one pruned at the wrong time of year (such as severe pruning in fall, when stimulating new soft growth is a bad idea) will struggle.
  • And maybe the hardest question: Do you waste water, or are you watering ineffectively? Are you always watering deeply, and focusing on the root zone, rather than doing shallow frequent waterings? Are there runoff areas in the garden, meaning water isn’t being put to good use that could be collected or re-routed?

how to win ‘grow more with less’

I’VE BOUGHT TWO extra copies of Vincent Simeone’s new “Grow More With Less: Sustainable Garden Methods,”(Amazon affiliate link) just out from Cool Springs Press, to share with you. To enter to win, all you have to do is answer this question in the comments box at the bottom of the page:

What area or aspect of your garden do you think needs the most improvement in terms of sustainability?

My answer here: I’m starting to identify more unmown or less-frequently mown areas (like this), and also want to fine-tune my vegetable-garden watering system.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say, “Count me in” or something like that, and I will. Two winners will be chosen after entries close at midnight Sunday, February 9. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast?

VINCENT SIMEONE, director of Planting Fields Arboretum and State Historic Park on Long Island, and the author of a new book “Grow More With Less,” was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The February 3, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

one last tip from vincent, on spacing trees 

GETTING BACK TO PROPER SPACING: So how do you figure out where to place a young tree or shrub, how far from the house or a fence or another plant?

“I have invented this thing in my head that I call ‘the half rule,'” says Vincent. “Look the plant up, do some research, and see how wide and tall it is going to get. Say an umbrella pine, and the book says it is going to get 25 feet wide and 30 feet tall ultimately. Well, consider that it’s going to get at least half that size in your lifetime, and that’s how you’d base your spacing. Not 3 or 5 feet away from something, when it’s going to get 12 and a half feet wide in your lifetime at least.”

(garden doodles by Andre Jordan. All his doodles are here.)

  1. Navarre Leroy says:

    I love your blog, Margaret! It is food for the soul, especially in February!

    We have a bare lot to work with in Douglas County, Washington. The class B noxious weed Kochia scoparia invades the disturbed land and I spent last summer battling it with a Pulaski fire tool. There isn’t a lot of information for gardeners in eastern Washington; most books tend to focus on the west side of the mountains. My goal is to create a drought tolerant xeriscape type garden with areas of wildflowers, grasses, herbs, and raised vegetable beds with drip irrigation. We also plan to have a small flock of chickens (3-5 birds) to help with sustainability. It is daunting! Do you have any gardening friends or information sources in this part of the country?

  2. Jenny Stein says:

    This year, after we shredded the leaves we collected from the grassy areas, we redistributed the material over the onions and bulbs we’d planted, and around the perennials (which were already trapping leaves to make a nice winter bed). I also decided to wait until early 2014 to cut back the perennials (before the bulbs come up too much) but that may have been short sighted as I am 6,000 miles away from my garden and may not get back until March. Truly an experiment – or a disaster in the making.

  3. Nancy says:

    I’d like to skip the plastic bags of mulch and get a load delivered instead. Plus, it would be good to grow more from seed and skip all the plastic nursery plant containers. We’d don’t really use pesticides and we have chickens for compost, so we’re doing fairly well. Thanks for the giveaway!

  4. karen says:

    I love this post, and the issues of spacing. Unfortunately this leads me to a yard of little twigs! I need to know more about how to plan for the interminable interim period when everything just looks so skimpy. I have twigs wrapped in netting to keep the deer off. It’s really ugly! Help!

    This year I am going to deal with a poor draining area of my veggie garden by putting in a raised bed. Not sure how that’ll work.

    And I hope to continue transplanting volunteer coneflowers that come up. I’m starting get several good masses out there. Love that.

  5. Shelly Murphy says:

    My new gardening study is how to live with and garden around redwood trees…how the soil is affected, how to prune, feed and care for the trees, and all about their water needs. I think I will be changing my yard less and my habits more because of these giants that I live with now.

  6. Robin K says:

    Love your blog and podcast!
    As a newbie gardener, I think the thing I have the most trouble with is water management. I tend to let it go too long in the summer and then panic and over-water. And I have some trouble with topsoil washing away in the rain, so maybe I need to mulch more? Pest control is a close second… I refuse to use any chemical harsher than dish soap, but sometimes it seems like a losing battle. Wish I knew how to attract more beneficials.

  7. Shelley says:

    This past fall, we found free wooden pallets and made a double compost bin behind our vegetable garden. We live in 5 acres of woods so the fall cleanup is very intense and so we are trying to put to better use our “mowed over” shredded leaves. It may take a few years to compost correctly (with the help of your blog we’re off to a good start) but this is a great stride in the right direction toward sustainability in the future!

  8. Annette says:

    I have a 25×20 vegetable garden that I do companion planting in. I do have a compose pile. I would like to make a rain barrel to make watering easier more economical & more sustainable.

  9. Gillian says:

    Moisture consistency in 112 degree heat index 103 degree days for many weeks straight.
    Better nutrient soil for more veggies more overall success and beautiful flowers

  10. Kathy Adams says:

    We have never had our soil tested and should do that this late/winter spring (sometime after the snow disappears and the ground thaws a bit)
    We should get serious about using rain barrels too.

  11. margaret says:

    Oops! Tardy Margaret over here forgot to post the winners’ names (they have been notified by email). They are Craig and Robin K.

    Thanks to all for a great conversation – sounds as if many of you, like me, are looking at ways to water smarter, in particular. Maybe I need to do some homework for a future story!

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