My Coronavirus Garden

From our Deputy Director Deb, who is is also our gardening expert:

Late last summer I visited the Charlotte Rhoades Park Butterfly Garden in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Full of color from both the flowers and the many butterflies it was designed to support, this garden was an inspiration. I thought of it often in the ensuring months but a major gardening project seemed like more than I would be able to manage at this point in my life.

The came the coronavirus. Remember March when the state shut down? Then there was April with empty shelves and Governors Cuomo and Lamont’s daily news briefings. May didn’t bring a lot of relief. It was starting to seem obvious that we would be in this situation for the long haul. I needed to do something positive and thought again about the Charlotte Rhoades garden. Maybe this would be the year to pull this off. To plan a garden is to plan for the future, a future that exists outside of the news cycle. The world was a mess and I couldn’t do anything about it, but I could create a garden that would support and nurture the wildlife in my small corner of the world.

Each night for weeks I fell asleep thinking about plants and butterflies and birds. If I started to worry about the coronavirus, I turned my thoughts instead to the Jersey Tea shrub I had just ordered. Or those beautiful fall-blooming asters that would be covered with bees and butterflies come September and October. Or the big clumps of Verbena bonariensis I planned to scatter throughout my garden.

I read books and looked at websites about creating pollinator gardens and sketched out a plan for an irregularly shaped garden about 50 feet long and between 12 and 20 feet wide. There was an existing spruce and 2 shrubs from an earlier planting scheme. And I wanted to incorporate a number of plants from another garden. A 50-foot garden may sound large but it wasn’t nearly big enough for the dozens of plants that I wanted to include. I made list after list. And then crossed out most of the plants on the lists until I had a workable plan. At this point, it was late April and time to get busy.

There were challenges, as there are with any garden. My location was a sandy hillside next to our driveway that turned out to have been a town dumping ground for road sand and hunks of old macadam from long–ago repaving projects. We had to remove the sand and junk from the planting area for each shrub or perennial (there were dozens) and replace it with decent topsoil. This was hard work! Luckily for me (though not for him), my 28-year-old son was stuck at home and was willing to help. He did most of the heavy excavating and moving of soil, alI I had to do was plant, mulch, weed and water. Months later, my garden is taking shape. It has been full of bees in all shapes and sizes as well as butterflies. As I write this, a flock of goldfinches is busy pulling the seeds out of the fading liatris and coneflowers. And I am busy thinking about how to improve the bloom sequence and plant variety in the garden. As any gardener knows, a garden is never completed.

Want to plant your own wildlife garden? There are many wonderful resources online. Check out the website for the Xerces Society for information and plant lists. American Beauties Native Plants, a wholesale nursery partially located in Connecticut, also has great plant lists.

Many of our area nurseries carry native plants such as coneflowers, liatris, asters and goldenrods. Some natives can be more difficult to find. Natureworks, the organic nursery in Northford, had a great selection of milkweeds and asters earlier in the season. Their website also offers lots of excellent information on gardening to support pollinators and butterflies. If you can’t find the plants you need locally, try Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota. They have been around for 40 years and supply over 700 North American species.

Consider joining a local gardening club. Members are knowledgeable and experienced gardeners who are happy to share their experience. Many clubs offer a wide range of educational programs. Cheshire has 2 garden clubs, the Cheshire Garden Club and the Suburban Garden Club.

Gardening has benefits beyond improving the beauty and utility of your yard. Check out this recent New Yorker article on the therapeutic power of gardening.

The library has numerous books on planning gardens for pollinators, butterflies and birds. Search the catalog using keywords such as “pollinators”, “native plants”, “xeriscaping”and “gardening for birds” .

Here are a few :

 

The Pollinator Victory Garden : win the war on pollinator decline with ecological gardening : how to attract and support bees, beetles, butterflies, bats, and other pollinators by Kim Eierman

100 Plants to Feed the Bees : provide a healthy habitat to help pollinators thrive by the Xerces Society

The Wildlife-friendly Vegetable Gardener : how to grow food in harmony with nature by Tammi Hartung

Native Plants for New England Gardens by Mark Richardson

Attracting Birds and Butterflies : how to plant a backyard habitat to attract winged wildlife by Barbara Ellis

Garden Secrets for Attracting Birds : a bird-by-bird guide to favored plants by Rachael Lanicci

The National Wildlife Federation’s Guide to Gardening for Wildlife : how to create a beautiful backyard habitat for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife by Craig Tufts and Peter Loewer

For inspiration and specific suggestions for what you can do in your own yard to support wildlife (hint: it involves planting more natives), read Douglas Tallamy’s books Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.

Planting Your Garden

Spring is here! As we put those tender seedlings into the ground, up sprouts the constant question: should I go Organic, or should I show up my neighbors by using Miracle Grow? Will I poison my children if I use it on my tomatoes? Is my neighbor’s cancer due to Round Up™, and did it blow over into my yard? If a lawncare company treated my grass, are my grass clippings poisoning my compost?

So many questions for such a busy season!

“Organic” is a shady term to start with. We think of hippies and happy sheep, and fields strewn with mulch and recycled orange peels, when in reality it just means the land cannot have been treated with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers (including Miracle Grow), or GMOs for three years. Sounds nice, right? Except that two of the three companies licensed by the USDA to certify organic farms are for-profit (Oregon Tilth is not). The farmer wanting to be certified pays the company to license them. That’s like paying a teacher to give you a grade. The problem is worse overseas: 100 countries export “organic” produce to the USA, and though they are supposed to abide by US law, the countries inspect and license their own. And let’s not forget that a good percentage of “organic fertilizer” in many countries is human in origin.  (The E. coli that keeps poisoning lettuce is usually animal in origin).

Won’t chemical fertilizers like Miracle Grow poison me? No. Plants don’t care where the nutrients come from, horse manure or a green and yellow box. Plants use them the same way. The issues with Miracle Grow are 1) the concentration of ammonium phosphate may be too high for some plants. MG makes different formulas for roses, tomatoes, azaleas, etc. Choose the one you need. 2) The greatest issue for chemical fertilizers is that heavy rains can wash a recent fertilizing away. If twelve homes get washout, and it flows into the brook behind them, too high a concentration in water systems can cause algal blooms that suck up oxygen and kill wildlife.

Okay, but what about Round Up™? If I kill the dandelions in my walk, won’t I die?

Uh, that’s a loaded question. Yes, more than 14 countries have banned Round Up (chemical: glyphosate), and while the courts have said yes, Round Up causes cancer, the US maintains it does not. And there’s the difference: In Europe, you must prove a chemical is safe before it hits the market, and that’s hard to do. In the US, chemicals are presumed innocent and you must prove they’re harmful – which is really easy to sidestep even with math and science. In America, it is up to the manufacturer to show their product is harmful, not the government (Got that? The man making and marketing the product must show that what he’s selling is harmful.) When the people with highest exposure to Round Up were studied (ie, farm workers), they had a 41% higher risk of a type of cancer called Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. People with heavy, frequent exposure over time. NO risk was found in people who go outside three times a year and spritz a weed. If you want to use it, do so sparingly, wear rubber gloves, and wash with soap immediately after, and whatever you do, don’t inhale it. 

But if those chemicals wind up in my compost bin, won’t they pollute my compost? Mm, depends. According to John Reganold, Professor of Soil Science at Washington State University, “The heat and microbial action of most compost piles break down many produce pesticides.” So don’t feel bad throwing that non-organic banana peel in the pile. BUT: some pesticides (like clopyralid – Reclaim) can become concentrated. Things like termiticides bind to the soil and last a long time.  And even treated and composted animal/human waste can still contain parasites. If in doubt, buy local, where you can ask what might have been sprayed on the food.

But rest easy: Miracle Grow has never been shown to cause cancers.

So, is organic worth it? Depends on what you’re willing to pay. The most chemical-contaminated foods in the grocery store are strawberries, peaches (more than 57 pesticides on one sample), celery, lettuce and greens (and that’s not counting the E. coli risk), and most other fruit. If you want to reduce your pesticide ingestion, consider buying organic just for fruits (or grow your own), and wash, wash, wash what you do bring home.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are about the best thing there is for your body, and growing your own, organic or not, is a fun (and tasty) experiment anyone can do anywhere. Try growing some popcorn, or a yellow or brown or purple heirloom tomato. Pole beans are great for kids, because they grow incredibly fast and are very prolific, as are grape tomatoes (so why are they so expensive?).

No matter which method you use, read further on gardening in these topical books:

Starter Vegetable Gardens : 24 no-fail plans for small organic gardens by Barbara Pleasant

Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

101 Organic Gardening Hacks : eco-friendly solutions to improve any garden by Shawna Coronado

Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, edited by Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W. Ellis

Organic Gardening for Dummies / by Ann Whitman, Suzanne DeJohn,

The Organic Lawn Care Manual  by Paul Tukey

Vegetable Gardening : from planting to picking by Fern Marshall Bradley, Jane Courtier

High-Yield Vegetable Gardening : grow more of what you want in the space you have by  Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Northeast Fruit & Vegetable Gardening : plant, grow, and eat the best edibles for Northeast gardens by Charles Nardozzi

The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible by Edward C. Smith

 

Get Gardening With the Whole Family

Spring is here. This means it is a perfect time to start researching and planning what you want to grow this year. I am already dreaming about sunflowers, lavender, fresh tomatoes, and a variety of other produce and herbs. I love to garden, and have always been spoiled with the gift of family with very green thumbs. I adore fresh flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables and am glad to grow or have access to a wonderful supply each year.

kidgardenDuring the garden planning and planting process do not forget that everyone can take part in gardening. No matter the age, we can all dig a hole to plant a seed or young plant, pick out a plant to grow, or help chose a container to plant in. A wonderful trick to getting children (or adults) to try new foods is to have them help grow, pick, and help wash and prepare them.

kidgardens44The library has a vast gardening section in the adult nonfiction section to help with the important planning and plant choices. However, do not overlook the books in the children’s room. These books can give gardeners of all ages some ideas and inspiration to garden as a family, or to give the kids their own special little container or garden space. Here are a few of the great gardening books about involving children and getting them excited in the process.

Garden to Table: A Kid’s Guide to Planting, Growing, and Preparing Food by Katherine Hengel with Lisa Wagner
Container Gardening for Kids by Ellen Talmage
The Family Kitchen Garden: How to Plant, Grow, and Cook Together by Karen Liebreich, Jutta Wagner & Annette Wendland
The Nitty-Gritty Gardening Book: Fun Projects for All Seasons by Kari Cornell
Gardening Projects for Kids: 101 Ways to Get Kids Outside, Dirty, and Having Fun by Whitney Cohen and John Fisher
Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy
Kids’ Container Gardening: Year-Round Projects for Inside and Out by Cindy Krezel
How Does Your Garden Grow?: Great Gardening for Green-Fingered Kids by Clare Matthews
Gardening With Children by Monika Hannemann
A Kid’s Guide to How Herbs Grow by Patricia Ayers
It’s Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden by George Ancona

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