By Andrew Bunting, PHS Vice President of Horticulture
At PHS, we have developed four principles that support the ethos of Gardening for the Greater Good. PHS encourages everyone to practice gardening as a creative catalyst for social and environmental change — for themselves, for others, and for the benefit of all living things. One of these principles is to see your garden as part of a greater ecosystem. Your garden and what you do in it are part of the larger world of nature. PHS encourages everyone to garden in recognition of the environment that is all around them. Here are five ways to get started!
There are many things you can do to create ecologically friendly habitats for your home garden. For example, create gardens that attract many native pollinators including native bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, and beetles. Even some birds are pollinators, including the Ruby-throat Hummingbird. The endangered Monarch Butterfly can be attracted to the garden by providing a source of pollen by including many species of native milkweed including the butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa and the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Other great pollinator plants include any of the mountain mints, especially, Pycananthemum muticum; native asters, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium; coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea; Golden Alexander, Zizia aurea; and shrubs New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus and buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis.
To create a habitat for your pollinators in the summer it is important to have a water source. This can be as simple as a low dish that can hold some water or some sort of natural object that can do the same. It is also important to be mindful of creating an appropriate habitat for pollinating insects to overwinter. It is recommended to “leave the leaves;” whereby leaves are left as a natural mulch and not removed in the fall. Additionally, perennials should not be cut back in the fall because the debris, and often the hollow stems of the perennial, provide the perfect overwintering habitat for pollinating insects.
It is also important to create a food source for both resident and migrating birds. Many of the native fruiting shrubs and trees are great for a variety of birds including the flowering dogwood, Cornus florida; arrowwood viburnum, Viburnum dentatum; red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia and the northern bayberry, Myrica pennsylvanica. Many of the seed-eating birds like native sparrows and the American Goldfinch can be supported by seed sources including the giant coneflower, Rudbeckia maxima; black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia fulgida and Rudbeckia hirta; coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea, E. pallida, E. paradoxa and E. tennesseensis.
Reducing your lawn by even 10% will make a huge positive impact on the environment because a percentage of the lawn will no longer need to be mowed, sprayed for weeds, or treated for fungus or insect problems with synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. Additionally, a reduced need for mowing also reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to keep the lawn cut. These areas can be turned into an expansion of an existing garden or can become a new spot for a pollinator garden, native plant garden, or a garden that features plants to be a food source for local wildlife. Of course, we would advocate for an even greater reduction of lawn areas if possible.
Every home generates materials that can be composted. In the garden, there are twigs, leaves, grass clippings, weeds, and other yard waste that can be composted. From your home, any vegetable waste, old rice, pasta, and almost anything other than meat products can be added to the compost pile. The compost pile can be as simple as an enclosed area with slatted boards. A very simple approach is to put two to three fence posts in the ground and encircle the posts with wire fencing four to five feet tall. This enclosure can become a compost pile. You can add any yard waste or green waste from the kitchen in layers. Occasionally, adding a layer of soil will help with the decomposition process. The soil then can be added back into the garden or used as potting soil for a raised vegetable garden or a container garden.
Great advances have been made in recent years with electric technology. Today, gas-powered garden tools and machinery can be replaced with electric-powered equipment. Lawnmowers, chainsaws, hedge trimmers, weed whips, etc. all have electric-powered alternatives. Using electric-powered equipment will greatly reduce the amount of fossil fuels being used and hence reduce air pollution and noise pollution too.
With changing weather patterns, especially due to global climate change, natural water systems and drainage systems alike are becoming inundated with stormwater runoff. There are several tactics that homeowners can employ to mitigate stormwater. The simplest approach is to plant trees. Trees are constantly absorbing moisture and are proven to help with the reduction of stormwater runoff.
Creating a rain garden is another way to capture stormwater from gutters on houses or general runoff after a storm. Creating a depressed basin-like area in the garden helps to capture the water and hold it until it can soak back into the ground. Rain gardens are often planted with plants that can withstand highly saturated soils like the winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata; buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis; sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana var. australis, and several perennials including the swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata and cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis.
Additionally, rain barrels can be added to the downspouts on houses. This diverts the water from potentially going into a stormwater system and instead collects it in the rain barrel. Rain barrels often have a faucet or spigot at the bottom of the barrel so that watering cans can subsequently be filled, and the rainwater can be used to water the garden.
Seeing your garden as part of the larger ecosystem is not a one-time action, but rather a process of continuously evaluating opportunities to increase your garden’s ecological benefits and functions. The tips mentioned in this article are just a handful of ways you can get started making relatively simple changes to your garden that deliver significant environmental benefits.