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. Donna Pike says:

    Count me in! I will be moving some taller plants toward the center of one front ornamental garden area so the in ground sprinkler system will be more efficient and the water will not be blocked by the taller plants. That is my lesson learned on PLANNING ahead to save time not to mention an aching back! Live and learn. :)

  2. Anna says:

    I have a creek bank “lawn” on one side of my property that I imagine washing away in the next 10 years if I don’t do some erosion control soon. Even though it’s barely a trickle through most of the season, the spring-fed creek turns into a raging monster when it rains. It’s bank is a tricky spot because it’s right above my septic leach field, i.e. can’t take a ton of tree roots piercing through it. I’ve got a couple native hazelnuts in their first couple years planted along it, but I imagine diversifying that border into fibrous-rooted perennials will be a worthwhile challenge.

  3. Diane Rodriguez says:

    I have started composting already this year and I am trying to learn how to grow things in the south, both flowers and veggies. So please count me in.

  4. Maura says:

    I am going for less lawn, more habitat, and more vegetable gardening. This spring I will replace about half of my modest front lawn with native perennials. I love growing edibles, and will make more space for those in the back yard. Also looking for ways to get involved with community gardening.

  5. Maura says:

    I’m also looking a methods for vertical vegetable gardening to increase yields. And this fall I ripped up some flannel sheets and threw them down on a weedy patch, covered with mulch, to encourage earthworms. (Thanks to Lee Reich for the notion that ANYTHING will compost.)

  6. Leslie says:

    I have become the repository of orphan plants. Most have over grown (meaning they do well in this area–No. California) their spots or pots. Have also traded plants with people I have met at nurseries. So I divide or transplant the weak ones, and surprise, I have a garden–of sorts.

    Sustainable and growing more with less is definitely the way to go!

    Love your blog. Count me in!

  7. William J says:

    Our garden/lot was not but dirt and goat’s head a year ago. I’ve tried to be water-conscious, but I probably still tend to want to grow things not quite as sustainable as I should…I’d love to read the book — count me in!

  8. Sharron says:

    The biggest thing I need to change are my work habits. I fizzle out too early in the season, but as far as the actual garden is concerned, it sits too low and there are drainage issues in the spring. We may need to move it’s location.

  9. Cris says:

    Lots of food for thought here for my garden! I would say the proper spacing is my first issue as it is really difficult to say no to all those lovely trees and plants!

  10. Jodi says:

    I just started a little garden this year. I’m still in the learning curve. To make my garden more sustainable, I need to learn more about pruning. I have things that are sprouting flowers and seeds, and I don’t know what I’m suppossed to do with the seeds once I take them off? Help. I’m assuming I can store them somehow and reuse them.

  11. Joyce says:

    Definitely need to eliminate all lawn. Easier said than done, as I am getting too old to be digging that stuff out. Luckily it’s a small area. Always needing more space for my perennials and food crops.

  12. Carole says:

    Hey, I think my garden is sustainable! No lawn, drip irrigation, home compost, natives and drought tolerant species for ornamentals. I will add more mulch this year to retain moisture and control weeds.

  13. Beth says:

    I’d like to be a better pruner. On the plus side, we use no pesticides; we compost (more and more we discover what can go in that pile) Love smothering weeds with newspapers and use pine bark mulch after discovering that black mulch I loved so much, no matter where I could get it still seemed like cut up pallets – EW! Think we’re also positive on matching plants with conditions after reading an article to not fight your landscape which drove me to bring in more rocks (where the water ran) vs years ago I had a yard where I was constantly hauling rocks off the property…the Lord works in mysterious ways… I might over water but I do that more for my mental health than for the health of the plants!

  14. Katy Emanuel says:

    Dealing with our ravine area, we need to find a good ground cover that spreads fast to help prevent the erosion and spread of invasive mustard garlic. Also we are slowly working at reducing our lawn area by adding gardens, but it takes time.

  15. Jill says:

    I definitely need to better plan for the long term. Right now, I have black raspberries, blueberries, and asparagus planted too close together because I didn’t consider the amount of spreading that occurs.

  16. Tim says:

    Forget lawn, Pasture is the way to go. Great looking. Mow it once a Summer in July, lay it down, looks great, keeps the soil in good shape. That’s all you need. Bonus — if you ever get in to having goats or whatever, you’ve got a place for them — as long as you put up/have fencing.

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