In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
January, 2010
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.

Going Green: Practicing Good Garden Stewardship

I've been gardening for most of my life but I didn't start gardening in earnest until my husband and I bought our first home. I was green then -- when green meant inexperienced, not environmentally aware. I was extremely ignorant about things that grew in the ground. I knew "rose" and "lawn" and "sycamore tree," but that was about it.

As I worked to turn our bare soil into a landscape, I began to learn a few things. I learned the difference between perennial rye grass and Kentucky blue; pansies and petunias; cannas and callas. From a weekend dabbler, I slowly but surely grew into an avid, obsessive gardener. Garden magazines tantalized me with their pictures of perfection. I wanted my perennial borders to be as boisterous and my grass to be as lush and green as in those magazine photos.

I used all the recommended insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. I had a faint idea that what I was doing might not be good for the environment, but I didn't really connect using a few chemicals in my small yard with the larger picture of global warming, acid rain, and polluted rivers.

A Change of Attitude
One summer, for a Scout project, our oldest son built a bird feeder and set it in the garden. Steller's jays, chickadees, robins, and wrens 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 plum purple with lime green trim, 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 methodically trying to kill in my garden. Suddenly the connection between chemicals and the environment -- my environment, the birds' environment -- became clear. Before, when I sprayed my roses for black spot or my lawn for grubs, I rarely read 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 Hazard: 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 exploded into full bloom: 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 in that direction.

I hope one of your New Year's resolutions is to practice good garden stewardship by becoming more environmentally friendly in and around your garden. Going green is not just a catch-phrase. It's something you can physically do, with little effort, to ensure you're walking softly upon this Earth.


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