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In a world that's embraced the "Go Green" mantra, more and more growers are turning to sustainable practices to make their gardens – and lawns – thrive. The methods may seem like good old common sense, but the surge of interest in tending our yards in ways that are friendly to the environment – and ourselves – is today bearing delicious fruit, nutritious vegetables, and beautiful flowers. And it could have a profound impact on the health of our landscapes tomorrow.
The key to organic gardening is to “feed your soil so your soil can feed your plants,” says Barbara Dombrowski of Goose Cove Gardens in Gloucester, where she has been selling organically grown herbs, flowers, and vegetables since 1991. “You want a busy garden with insects, worms, and all the micoorganisms that naturally occur in soil.” Chemical fertilizers kill the very things that help your plants flourish, creating a cycle in which the plants become dependent on the chemicals to grow.
If you’re thinking about switching your garden to organic methods, be prepared to be patient. “It can take three years to bring the soil back to full health,” Dombrowski says. But it can be done. “Do a soil test, use organic fertilizer and compost. Your garden may not be as spectacular in year one as year three, but it won’t fail.”
Dan Bouchard, superintendent and horticulturalist of the Sedgwick Gardens at Long Hill in Beverly, agrees. Like Dombrowski, Bouchard uses organic fertilizer and compost to tend this nearly 100-year-old garden. And, instead of using bark mulch, which comes from another site or even another state, Bouchard says, “we shred all of the leaves that fall from the trees here and reuse them in the garden.”
Bouchard has also been leading a ten-year battle to rid the Sedgwick Gardens of harmful invasive species, which “jump the fence,” invading wildlife habitat and reducing biodiversity – which puts stress on a landscape and degrades its overall health. It’s hard work, especially when chemicals aren’t an option. “We hold hand-weeding parties with volunteers, and have enlisted the help of students from the horticultural program at North Shore Community College,” say Bouchard.
The invasive species growing at Long Hill – such as Japanese barberry, burning bush, and garlic mustard – are plants that many of us take for granted because they have become so common. “They were introduced years ago for their medicinal or ornamental value,” Bouchard says. “But people had no idea how pervasive and harmful these plants could become in different climates.” Fighting invasives has become a statewide priority for The Trustees, who have launched a “Least Wanted” campaign in the Highlands to educate communities about the most destructive invasive plants, and work with volunteers at reservations from the
Berkshires to the Islands to eradicate plant populations.
The same invasives that The Trustees are battling can be found in backyards across Massachusetts. “Plants like Japanese barberry are attractive in a yard because they provide great color,” says Bouchard. But you can find native replacements. “High-bush blueberry, for example, is a great alternative to Japanese barberry,” Bouchard says. “It’s beautiful in all seasons, and it provides delicious berries for you and for wildlife.” It can take several years to fully stamp out invasives in your yard, so persistence is a must. But your local environment will thank you with a greater mix of wildlife and biodiversity, which makes the entire landscape healthier.
Homeowners who want to care for their yards more sustainably can also look beyond the traditional American lawn, which “requires water, gas, and chemicals to upkeep,” says Ellen Schoenfeld, a Trustees volunteer who converted part of her own lawn in Sharon to a wildflower meadow. “You can save yourself a lot of work – and save resources, too – by letting your lawn grow wild, or replacing it with groundcover, trees, or a garden.”
It’s something The Trustees have been thinking a lot about, as they strive to reduce the amount of manicured lawns they manage at their 101 reservations by 50 percent. Taking these concepts from the backyard to a landscape level can be challenging, so The Trustees are starting small, converting some manicured lawns into meadow at Moose Hill Farm and the Archives and Research Center in Sharon, and Doyle Conservation Center in Leominster. “It’s a multi-year experiment on a modest scale,” says Russ Hopping, Ecology Program Manager. “Converting to meadow can provide better habitat for birds, wildlife, and native pollinators. Plus, we’ll reduce our carbon footprint by mowing less, and save water.” Hopping also expects these efforts to open conversations with visitors about why the fields look the way they do, what’s at stake, and what people can do at their own homes.
These growing practices are not only better for the environment today, but they can help create a stronger, more resilient landscape in the future, one that can better withstand the grave stresses climate change will place on Massachusetts landscapes, a major goal for The Trustees. Warmer temperatures are already disrupting native species (trees including sugar maple are migrating northward) and fostering more invasives (kudzu has ventured from the south into New England). Pests and diseases, including the hemlock-attacking woolly adelgid, are thriving in thanks to milder winters.
“The health of a landscape is key to its ability to fight – or adapt to – the impacts of climate change," says Hopping. Our gardens and backyards are a small part of the world beyond our boundaries, but, says Hopping, "together we can make a big difference in ensuring a more healthy environment for tomorrow."