In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
March, 2004
Regional Report

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Restoring a natural balance in your garden can be as simple as reducing your use of pesticides and adding plants with different blooming seasons.

When a Perennial Student Finally "Gets It"

I have been a gardener since my husband and I bought our first home. I was green then -- when green meant inexperienced, not environmentally aware. I was immensely ignorant about things that grew in the ground. I knew "marigold" and "lawn" and "maple tree," but that was about it.

As I worked to turn our patch of clay into a landscape worthy of the name, I began to learn a few things. I learned the difference between Kentucky bluegrass and red fescue; dianthus and dahlias. From a weekend dabbler, I slowly but surely grew into an avid, obsessive gardener. Lushly photographed gardening magazines tantalized me with their pictures of perfection. I wanted my perennial borders to be as exuberant and my grass to be as green as in those magazine photos.

Increasingly I used insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. I knew that what I was doing wasn't especially good for the environment, but I couldn't connect using a few chemicals in my small yard with the larger picture of acid rain, fouled rivers, and dying lakes.

A Change of Attitude
One summer our oldest son built a bird feeder and set it in my favorite garden nook. Steller's jays, thrushes, robins, and warblers all came to visit. These birds must have been frequenting my yard for years, but I had been so busy frantically working at gardening that I'd never taken the time to notice them.

Delighted with the new activity in the garden, he then built a birdhouse, painted it barn red, and hung it from a tree limb. All summer, fall, and winter it sat forlorn and forgotten. Then in the spring, when a thick layer of yellow pollen dusted its roof, I noticed two wrens going in and out. Inside were three delicately flecked eggs in a perfectly woven nest of twigs, pine needles, and old leaves.

For weeks the wrens attended their nest. The male would come near the birdhouse and sing his quiet song, and at this signal the female would leave while the male kept guard. My family and I watched the adult wrens as they constantly fed their young with bugs and spiders.

Bugs and spiders. The same bugs and spiders I was so earnestly trying to kill in my garden. Suddenly the connection between chemicals and the environment -- my environment, the birds' environments -- became clear. Before, when I sprayed my roses for black spot or my lawn for grubs, I had ignored the warnings printed in small letters on the labels. But now, as I remembered the wrens feeding their young, the labels fairly screeched at me: "Environmental Hazards: This product is toxic to fish and animals. Keep children and pets away from treated areas until completely dry." And on a common pesticide I used fairly often: "Birds feeding on treated areas may be killed."

The idea that had taken root in the corners of my mind suddenly came to full flower: I would go organic. I would reduce my use of chemicals and take the natural approach to gardening whenever possible. I decided to live with a touch of black spot on my roses and proudly accept a few dandelions in my lawn. I decided to view gardening less as a quest for still-life perfection and more as a way of enjoying my surroundings, including the butterflies, the birds, and the bugs.

I'm still a long way from being purely organic and from having a garden that fully welcomes all forms of wildlife. But thanks to my son's gift for building things, to the robins and thrushes that visit my bird feeder, and to the family of wrens that made a home in my birdhouse, I'm happily moving along the road that's leading in that direction.


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