Digging for a deeper purpose

October 13, 2009

By Jane Garrison

A while ago, I attended a slideshow of gardens in Seattle for master gardeners. It was very interesting. When certain slides came up, a big “ooh” came out of the group in unison. When others came up, there would be a big “ugh.”This reaction is not just snobbery. To a gardener, the difference means sustainability, water and habitat preservation, and a healthy environment. Good gardeners go beyond aesthetics to realize the more important environmental issues.

Generally, the flowers and mixed-planting beds yielded the “oohs”, and the big, green lawns, over-clipped shrubs and foundation plants preceded the “ughs.” I wondered if the large lawns weren’t watered or mowed, would it be more acceptable. I think so.

Is “ugh” just a reaction against the establishment? Partially, but most people know that when a lawn has no weeds, chemicals were used. Too much green tells the story of too much water usage. Overly clipped shrubs look like the result of a maintenance crew that also uses pre-emergent weed killers. These chemicals impact beneficial insects, animals, streams and our water supply. So, gardeners say “ugh” when they see signs of environmental abuse.

Generally speaking, most dull yards on suburban lots have too much lawn compared to the area of flower and shrub beds. People argue that they need grass for kids and dogs. Nonwatered, rough grass with wildflowers works and is both attractive and sustainable. If rough grass is unappealing to you, one quick fix is to reshape and expand your beds into the lawn. This solution is especially effective where the lawn is shaded or not doing well. Put in something exciting to take its place.

Good low plants to act as a foreground in shady, heavy soils are sedges (carex) with a grasslike leaf, heuchera, hydrangea, astilbe, hosta and day lilies.

Sunny, hot areas would be good for festuca, heaths/heathers, lavender, potentilla, rudbeckia, and Veronica Georgia blue. Let these exciting, drought-tolerant plants grow together to form a mass and become the new foreground for the existing shrubs behind, while taking up space where the lawn used to be.

If overgrown conifers have shaded out your lawn, native plants are the best choice for you. Remove the grass and plant vine maple, salal, ferns, Indian plum, red flowering currant, and mahonia in front of the evergreen trees. Fall is the perfect time to plant natives. The fact that they are sustainable and require no irrigation after established is another bonus.

Create a yard that respects the environment. If you do, your yard and “ugh” will never be uttered in the same sentence again.

Jane Garrison is a local master gardener and landscape architect who gardens in glacial till on the plateau.

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