Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spring Cleanup in the Organic Garden

I firmly believe that I have the best lot in my neighborhood, though I think many of my neighbors would disagree. I live at the end of the road at the base of the turnaround circle facing north up the street. The lot is pie shaped and has adequate front lawn and a curved driveway that give the house a graceful setting. I have planted 16 trees across the front that will some day create a canopy while busily offsetting a portion of my carbon footprint. The bulk of the 10 acre lot is behind the house. There is 2-3 acres of lawn and the rest of the land is woodland, a good portion of which is within the Resource Protected Area, RPA of the Chesapeake Bay Act.

In this instance the RPA is a 100-foot buffer along both sides of the river and streams with perennial flow. Within the RPA allowed development is extremely limited in order to preserve a natural plant buffer that slows runoff, prevents erosion, and filters nonpoint source pollution. Though the river is at the bottom of my land, there are several small creeks in the woods that may or may not be perennial. It doesn’t really matter since I have no plans for the woods beyond spring cleanup of accumulated trash, using the woods as the location of my compost piles (the non RPA portion) and keeping the woods for its ambiance. When you site in the kitchen, the family room, in my office, or on the deck what you see is a park with trees and plantings ending at the woods edge. The protected watershed gives me my private yard; a special place that I hope will someday be magical.

Each spring I prepare my garden for summer, deadhead some of perennials (which maybe I should have done al little more aggressively last winter), cleanup the dead leaves and remove any dead plants. The incredibly harsh winter of 2009-2010 followed by the heat wave last summer killed off four shrubs and 6 evergreens. It was a sad and expensive loss that was compounded by the deer pulling several plants out of the ground. I have been trying to create a garden along the principals of green scaping. I am expanding the plantings in my garden, adding a few more trees and shrubs each year, replacing the losses and learning the principals and practices of green scaping and organic gardening. The EPA calls green scaping “the easy way to a greener, healthier yard.” Gardening is work. In the spirit of full disclosure the spring cleanup, edging, enlarging a bed, hauling in the compost, replacing plants and mulching has taken 38 man hours so far only about 8 of them mine.

In the woods soil and the organisms in soil recycle dead plants and leaves into nutrients for new plant growth. Plants that grow in the woods are adapted to the water, sun and soil available there. Maintaining a wide variety of healthy plants, soil organisms, beneficial insects and animals can keep many pests and diseases in check. The woods beyond the garden seem to do just fine. The idea of green scaping is to work with nature to have a low maintenance and healthier garden.
There are five principle of green scaping:
1. Build and maintain healthy soil.
2. Practice natural lawn care
3 Plant right for your site
4. Limit watering
5. Adopt a holistic approach to pest management

Soil is the very essence of life consisting of eroded rock, decayed organic matter, water and air and teeming with microscopic life. Soil is both the beginning and the end of the food chain. This is a beautiful concept from HRH Prince of Wales’ book “The Elements of Organic Gardening.” The soils in my neighborhood and my yard are described by the USGS as Balls Bluff Siltstone with a gravel, sand and clay type bedding plane. (That is the technical name for the flat plane, edged orange red rocks that are everywhere you put a shovel.) There is very little overburden, virtually no top soil. My first challenge is to build rich topsoil. Building topsoil is a long (and expensive) process. When I first read “The Elements of Organic Gardening” I was very discouraged by the scale, scope and manpower that the Prince of Wales put into his lands. It took me a long time to appreciate that the most important step was to build soil.

Though I have a nice pile of compost available each year to add to my garden, I have been using the compost to expand my planted beds each spring. Someday I would like to be able to top dress my lawn with compost when I aerate and over seed in the fall but that will have to stay in the someday category. The expense of aerating and over seeding the front lawn and the acre of land closest to the house is all that is in my soil building budget each year. However, the lawn is mowed with a mulching lawn mower that leaves the clipping on the lawn to recycle the nutrients in the grass cuttings back into the soil. I do not use fertilizer or pesticides or for that matter water the lawn. Though my lawn is environmentally friendly, it certainly is not great. I photograph my lawn and garden every year and I was very discouraged until I reviewed the pictures. The lawn is slowly improving. After surveying the neighborhood I am no longer the third worst lawn, I am clearly in the middle of the pack.

Choosing what to plant is very important, but even when I select plants that grow well in my region and allow for sun loving and shade loving I still have failures. There are always a few plants that do not survive the winter and the deer. I have a small group of evergreens that died out over the past two winters. On the other hand some plants are so successful that they need to be moved, split or pruned. Though I do not water my garden as a routine practice, I do water planting until they are firmly established. I have purchased watering tubes for the replacement trees and I am considering some organic Holly-Tone to help the new trees become established.

Finally, you need to adopt a holistic approach to pest and weed management. I do not use pesticides in my garden. The beds are weeded by hand. Last summer the weeding took about 6 hours a month to keep the beds clear of weeds- not exactly the EPA promised “easy way.” Weeding is the work of gardeners. The lawn is kept at 3 inches in hopes of building strong and deep roots that someday will choke out the lawn weeds. For now I have embraced dandelions as pretty and anything green growing in what passes for a lawn around here is considered good- crab grass, clover and other weeds. The sections of tall fescue are expanding adding lovely dark green to previously bare spots and interspersed in the lawn. Progress.

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