Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rethinking lawns and yard space

Lawns usually require the most energy and water in landscaped spaces. The Ecological Landscape Association recommends allowing grass to grow longer between mowings and letting lawns go dormant during the height of summer. Using seed mixes that tolerate drought and resist disease are also beneficial. Local landscapers often use Ecoblend, Pearls Premium and Pennington's Smart Seed. Of course, if your lifestyle allows it, forgoing or limiting grass in the overall landscape works too. Groundcovers can easily replace grass especially on steep slopes that are too dangerous to mow. I have also seen show-stopping perennial gardens take the place of traditional front yards. Many folks are now using edible landscaping instead of grass. Of course, a really low-maintenance option is to use wood chips (or gravel for more urban sites.) Providing a thick cover of material is applied, the area will be virtually free of any needed landscape management, energy expenditure or watering.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

World Water Day

It has been pouring rain in Boston. The weather feels appropriate since Monday was World Water Day. Every year, this day highlights global issues regarding access to safe, drinkable water. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), there are several ways in which gardeners can help preserve this precious resource and prevent polluted runoff. Whenever possible, we should use natural fertilizer such as compost, manure, bone meal or peat. In addition, using drip irrigation systems and soaker hoses will prevent overwatering our lawns and gardens. Decreasing impervious surfaces will also lessen the load on our public sewer systems and improve drainage into the soil. Finally, NRDC recommends maintaining septic systems properly - they should be cleaned out every three to five years to prevent contaminating the local groundwater. This year, I am going to take advantage of this crazy New England weather by installing rain barrels on our downspouts. Come summer, we'll have extra water from Mother Nature to irrigate with.
To learn more about how we can clean up our water go to

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mediterranean style

This year, I am creating a potted garden on our south-facing deck. My previous experience with container gardening, and the copious amounts of water it can require, has led me to seek out drought-resistant plants. These days, no one can ignore basic sustainable design as water has become an increasingly scarce resource. Luckily, my favorite natural landscape in the world, the Mediterranean, can give me some direction. This area of the world receives little rainfall so most of the plants from this region do not require a lot of irrigation. Areas of the United States, like California, share many of these species. However, even colder areas can utilize some of this plant palette. My hometown, Boston, is hardly a warm climate but it is in Zone 7. Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) can tolerate a Zone 7 climate. There is a cultivar named "Tiny Tower" that is perfect for small urban gardens. French lavender (Lavandula stoeches) can also live in Zone 7 (although English lavender is a bit hardier.) Colder climates down to Zone 4 can use Lambs Ears (Stachys byzantina.) Of course, commom herbs like rosemary and thyme are perfectly easy to include as well. There are some plants that will not survive our Boston winter and will need to be brought indoors. So when it gets colder, I can bring some of the Mediterranean into my home with small potted Meyer lemon and Kumquat trees.
(Photographs taken in Kas, Fethiye and Bodrum in Turkey.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Giving gardens

Last year, our community garden group decided to donate a portion of our harvest to a local food pantry. A weekly basket of fresh fruits and vegetables was delivered to those in need. In all honesty, I initially balked at the idea of giving up some of my hard-earned bounty - then I remembered all of those tomatoes and zucchinis that went to waste. (How many loaves of zucchini bread can you make your family eat?) This year, half of my little plot will be set aside for a "giving garden." In this way, I'll be making a concerted effort to grow food for donation. I'll also be encouraging all my friends who have expansive yard space to do the same. During the Depression era, there was a movement to create Relief Gardens to address hunger and poverty. Of course, WWI and WWII initiated Victory Gardens as our nation directed its efforts towards the "good fight." Today, with record unemployment and foreclosures, it might be time for gardeners to roll up their sleeves again. I have asked fellow blogger, Carol Duke of Flower Hill Farm in Western Massachusetts, to help spread the word.

Winter harvest

Just a quick note. At long last, my microgreens are ready to harvest for our evening meal. I snipped off my arugula sprouts and washed them gently in a salad spinner. After our broiled tilapia was done, I put a little haystack of greens on top with a drizzle of olive oil and a squirt of lemon (Eastern Mediterranean style.) I have to say that I am hooked on microgreens!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A brave new ecology

Peter Del Tredici held an educational session at this year's New England Grows conference. As a long time Senior Research Scientist at Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, Dr. Del Tredici has led the way in studying our contemporary landscape. His new book "Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, A Field Guide" challenges traditional views of "native" landscape design and gives a glimpse of what our future cityscapes might look like. A lot of species, formerly seen as invasive weeds, may become an appropriate part of our plant palette as gardeners and landscape designers. Although there will never be a use for poison ivy or rag weed, there are some "volunteer" plants that deserve a second look because they require little to no maintenance or irrigation. As municipal budgets dwindle and efforts to conserve water increase, using or preserving some of these plants just makes sense. For instance, instead of clear cutting vacant lots, selective weeding could be done instead. "Green is good" even if the plant was once called a weed. Certainly, some of the 158 species outlined in this new book are worth a second look.
Please note: the Phragmites australis depicted above is not an appropriate landscape plant for our wetlands. However, on large industrial sites, this species has been successfully used to clean up contaminated soils.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Horticulture at work

Although most people create pleasing home environments, we often neglect our work places. The same is true for gardeners. The only greenery on my design table is a struggling pothos. So I have turned to my friend and fellow co-worker, Carl Johnson, for inspiration. For the last ten years, he has been tending a small forest of Norfolk Island Pines behind his desk. His hardy beneficiaries are glossy and lush despite typical office-air quality, low humidity and sparse lighting. Carl says he routinely waters his plants once a week but not much more. They have indirect light from an east-facing window and have stayed happily planted in their original pots. (I also think Carl's positive energy has something to do with their health and longevity.) During the holidays, the pines are festively decorated. Small red velvet bows are tied on the end of every branch like a little girl's braids. Last but not least he has a "retirement meter" on the wall. Once the tree tops hit the mark, it is time to move on. I hope his plants don't grow too fast. I like having Carl and his pines around.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Microgreens, greens harvested after the first leaves (called cotyledons) appear, may become the ultimate home-grown food of the future. They are nutrient-dense and can be grown year-round near a sunny window with minimal time or effort. Common vegetables used for microgreens are: arugula, broccoli, beets, cabbage, celery, chard, cress, endive, mustard, pea and radish. Today, I planted some arugula in a covered container with drainage holes on top of fresh potting soil. I covered the sowed seeds with a paper towel and watered them well. After about 2 weeks, in a sunny place, sprouts should appear. At this point I'll take off the towel and wait for a few more days. After the first leaves appear, I'll be ready to harvest the greens for a fresh salad, sandwich or entree. Of course, using old food containers to plant in and buying seeds in bulk makes this effort very cost-effective. I often order from Also, a great book on the subject is "Microgreens, A Guide to Growing Nutrient Packed Greens" by Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Vertical gardening

Living walls have transfixed my imagination since 1998 when I stumbled upon one of Patrick Blanc's installations at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. For the last decade I have tried, without avail, to create some small version of my own. The first attempt was with an old shoe holder that had plastic pockets. I grew plants in yogurt cups and popped them into the shoe pockets on top of felt made from recycled bottles for drainage. This effort worked well but was not very visually pleasing. The next step, with the help from my husband, was sewing a planter out of recycled felt and and old shower curtain. Because our sewing machine could not handle the density of the fabrics, we had to hand-sew most of the sections. This was a lot of work. Recently we found a similar version by the Woolley Pocket Gardening Company at Vessel (our favorite store in Boston.) Because these products were on sale at half price, we were able to justify the purchase and got two small wall planters. The next step was to go to Logee's in Danielson, Connecticut while visiting friends. This nursery has the largest collection of exotic houseplants I have ever seen. It is a horticultural wonder world! After surveying our options, we chose some sturdy succulents. We still want to make our own planters but it is nice to put some greenery up in the meantime.
Get inspired and check out Patrick Blanc's website at

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Helping an old wall

One of my projects this winter is securing funding for our community garden's much needed improvements. Continuously tilled since 1923, this particular community garden is one of the oldest in the United States. Today, the retaining wall that encloses the site is in need of repair. This structure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC.) The CCC, created by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression, was a public relief program for unemployed men. A local historian told me that walls built with round field stones and concrete caps are typical of this era. I confirmed this information by researching our park department's annual reports in the local library. As is delineated on the wall's weather-worn inscription, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (ERA), which extended the CCC program, funded the project in 1935. Finding this information was lucky because the CCC's walls are usually not registered as historic landmarks. Many of these structures are falling apart without anyone knowing about them. Bolstered by this knowledge, I submitted an application for funding to restore the wall. If successful, I'll follow up with other grant programs for a new gateway and educational signage. Fingers crossed!
A great website for finding funding sources, for nonprofit efforts, is the

Sunday, January 3, 2010


We recently visited San Francisco and toured the California Academy of Science. Located within Golden Gate Park, this new facility contains hundreds of exhibits of the natural world and is an exemplar of sustainable design. Gardeners will be especially impressed by the 197,000 square foot living roof! This verdant creation, designed by Renzo Piano, uses seven hillocks to suggest the city's rolling topography. The stability of these mounded slopes are ensured by biodegradable trays which allow plant roots to grow and intertwine (the Biotray by Rana Creek Nursery is now commercially available.) Horticulturalists also sought sturdy species of native plants. The most prominent perennials are Strawberry, Self Heal, Sea Pink and Stonecrop. Annuals such as Tidy Tips, Goldfield, Miniature Lupine and California Poppy are also used. As in any garden, the space will continue to change and grow. The Academy is planning to expand the roof's habitat in order to protect the endangered Bruno elfin butterfly and the Bay checkerspot butterfly. Read more about this remarkable living museum at