The Garden of Ethics

America’s environmental wake-up call is increasingly evident in our own backyards, especially when it comes to our gardens.

Through more conscientious gardening such as organic methods, native plantings, and a renewed interest in growing our own food, we’re restoring a critical link with the land and even, with ourselves.

For too long, and for too many of us, our link with the land has been lost. For millions of years, and as recently as a hundred years ago, most people lived off of and with the land. But in the blink of the geological eye, we went from relying on a sustainable relationship with the land to practically severing the alliance completely.

Today, some of us are returning to our roots–and creating new ones. We’re regarding land as a precious resource to be used wisely, with care and in harmony with all things that live on it and with it, and that come from it. We’re seeking to connect more closely with the land, with nature and with ourselves. What better place to begin than in our own gardens?

The whole environmental ethic is manifested in many of today’s gardens,” says Phil Cleland, self-taught master gardener and owner of Chicago Specialty Gardens. “From increased composting and little or no spraying to less manicured lawn and more native plantings, people are looking for ways to be environmentally respectful and responsible. It’s the way to go in gardening, whether you use a backyard, a back deck, or containers.

Cleland practices what he preaches. This year his company is presenting a series of garden packages which feature food, water and shelter–in the form of plants, flowers, feeders, and shrubs–for butterflies, hummingbirds and wildlife in general. Naturally, organic maintenance is a key element here.

I always try to stay away from pesticides,” he says. “I use more prevention–like integrated management and soil planning–and less intervention when it comes to pest control. Nature doesn’t operate in a pristine way. We need to live in reality and understand that bugs are a part of the garden, too. So you’re going to lose a few tomatoes–so what! I far prefer a ‘living garden’ versus a ‘still life’ garden. Not everything in nature can be totally controlled and that’s the beauty of it. As a culture, we need to learn to appreciate that fact.

I’m being more proactive than ever before about inviting nature back in to our urban and suburban environments, as opposed to banishing it. For instance, imagine a broad network of backyard wildlife habitats, a mosaic of mini-oases for migrating and year-round animal residents. When you consider that a 1000 square-foot lawn requires 10,000 gallons of water each summer and a strict, artificial regimen to maintain the monotony of its monoculture, native plantings start to make a lot more sense.

Cleland is clear that it takes time and knowledge to set natural gardens in motion and that it can seem daunting to learn about how to go about it. “But, he says, “it is absolutely worth it, all the way around.”

As we begin getting ourselves back to our own gardens–March is an ideal time to start–maybe we’ll discover that this year spring is ushering in more environmentally ethical gardens than ever before. As inspiration, here are a few opinions on how to help a garden grow.

Organic Gardening: It’s Only Natural

Jan Smith, Carol Stream, Illinois
founder, Northwest DuPage Organic Gardening Club

Years ago, I saw aphids on my rosebushes and bought spray to kill them, but didn’t like the idea of having poison around my baby. At the same time, I noticed eggs of the aphid lion on the rosebushes as well. If I had sprayed, I would have killed the aphids’ natural predator and endangered the environment in which I was raising my baby. That’s when I became an organic gardener.

I define organic gardening as a method that emphasizes building up the organic content of the soil as a basis for raising healthy plants. Toxic chemicals are avoided to protect the beneficial organisms in the garden–including the gardener.

I build up soil health by composting; if plants are healthy, they can withstand some nibbling. You might get bigger plants in the short term by using chemicals, but big does not always mean healthy. Like athletes who use steroids, they represent false success.

I’m happy to share the garden with birds, butterflies, bunnies and others. I plant extra parsley and grow grass with clover in it for the neighborhood rabbits. I create a mini-ecosystem in my backyard that works for all of us.

A little education definitely goes along way in an organic garden. I found caterpillars on top of my carrots, for instance, but I became tolerant of them when I realized that they were the larvae of the black swallowtail butterfly. Now, I welcome them.

When you open your eyes as an organic gardener, you are stepping into a great adventure. Make your adventure a success by finding a source of information and support like a local organic gardening club, using plant varieties that are more resistant to bugs and raising them in the healthiest soil possible.

John Peterson, Caledonia, Illinois
owner, Angelic Organics CSA (community supported agriculture)

The premise of organic gardening is “feed the soil, not the plants.” It’s a misplaced vision to focus only on the plant itself–that’s literally the tip of the iceberg.

If people can perceive soil as a living, dynamic organism with many synergistic activities occurring simultaneously, they’ll understand that gardening is not just a matter of giving plants something to eat, but asking, what does the soil need?

When plant matters and manures are introduced properly into the soil, it becomes a humus which orchestrates a release of nutrients in a balanced way over time and in concert with the way plants are designed to operate.

Conversely, nitrogen fertilizers can create too much foliage and overwhelm a plant’s development and maturity process, including seed formation. Too much nitrogen can also create early insect infestation and and an unhealthy crop. Salt fertilizers also cause problems in that they override and bypass an important natural plant process. Without fertilizers, the sugars of the plant travel down the roots and stimulate bacteria in the soil to become available as nutrients. There is a synergistic relationship between what the plant produces and excretes into the soil and what the soil naturally turns into useful elements for the plant. Pesticides often adversely affect more than they are designed to, including the soil. They can kill off earthworms, and drive away bees, butterflies, birds–and people.

Healthy soil usually means healthy plants and fewer insects. It’s not that healthy plants actually repel insects, but that they spring back from infestation better. If you consider that the role of insects may very well be to eat plants that are not healthy–to weed them out, so to speak–you’ll find a perfect case of survival of the fittest playing out in the garden. And it all starts with the soil.

Back to the Wild with Native Plantings

Perle Olsson, Ringwood, Illinois
owner, Windsong Prairie Nursery

I used to be a traditional gardener until it occurred to me that my garden was missing much of what birds need for food and shelter. I was also looking for my connection to the natural world and my place in it. For me, a native plantings garden was the answer.

I planted basically, using Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region as an invaluable guide. If you take time to educate yourself, you’ll not only save time and money, but end up with a productive garden.

When you have a native garden you start seeing how everything in nature works together and is connected. Your garden becomes a seed source, a food source, a pollination source, and generally, a place for animals, insects, plants and their needs. And though it looks wild, there is a clear pattern and reason in it.

For instance, certain native plants are necessary to the native insects they evolved with. Milkweed is host to the monarch butterfly which lays its eggs there. No milkweed means no monarchs : Monarchs can certainly use other flowers and plants for pollen, but not if they’re not caterpillars first!

Native gardens are year-round habitats for local plants and animals. This is their turf; they can survive our seasonal extremes. In fact, once established, there’s no need to water or spray them because they are practically maintenance-free: you’ve recreated a tiny parcel of self-sustaining nature!

By bringing a native garden into your own yard you really make a connection with nature. If you’re starting from scratch, there’s no question there’s a good deal of start-up work, but I have no doubt the world would be a much better place if more people planted with respect to native landscapes.

Vicki Nowicki, Naperville, Illinois
co-president, The Wild Ones
Ron Nowicki, landscape architect

A resurgence in native plantings and natural landscaping is coinciding with the diminishment of the standard manicured lawn. Although once considered fashionable and necessary, lawns are now outdated.

In the 1950s, America’s baby boom was in full swing. People moved in droves from the cities to the suburbs, building new homes for their new families. All across the country, people needed something that could quickly cover the ground of their developing lots. The answer was to roll out manicured lawns.

Lawns became the glue that unified the new suburban communities, both visually and psychologically. Their neat, perfect appearance personified pride; they joined homes–and homeowners–together.

Over the years, the increased use of petro-chemical fertilizers for lawn weed control weakened soil and plants, and made them more vulnerable to disease. In the late 1980s, droughts brought attention to the water demands of lawns, and in 1990, Earth Day sparked a renewed interest in how we use the land. Suddenly, the lawn was under a lot of scrutiny–for good reason.

The lawn is not a sustainable plant community. It is an unnatural, high-maintenance monoculture which requires an artificial amount of water as well as a regimen of chemicals which keep out other plants, insects, fungus, and small animals, and kills valuable organisms in the soil. Additionally, the EPA estimates that more than 83 million lawnmowers are in use across the country, emitting untold amounts of carbon monoxide into the air: none requires emission control devices.

If you think about it, lawns are like intensive care units that require intravenous round-the-clock feedings of vast amounts of water to keep them green and chemicals to keep them free of insects. They are completely unnatural. In fact, The World Watch Institute predicts that in about forty years, lawns may very well be an obsolete symbol of our excesses.

In terms of conservation and environmental issues, lawns as we know them no longer make sense. It’s as if we’re bending over backwards to grow a plant that just doesn’t want to grow here. Why not work with the native plants that are here instead?

Food for Thought: You Can Grow Your Own

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Bill Whitney, Wheaton, Illinois

Four and a half years ago we started a garden to grow food in. The start-up time was close to two years, but it was simple, enjoyable work. We have a relatively small plot–1,500 square feet–and our goal is to grow a year’s supply of food at a time. Some of our focus crops include tomatoes, garlic, green peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers and strawberries.

We never had intentions of being perfectly self-sufficient. Instead, our goal is to supplement our vegetable-based diet with several items and not create more work for ourselves in our already-busy lives. If I take several days off a year from my job to pick tomatoes and make them into sauce, for instance, it equals out the shopping time and sheer dollars I would have spent otherwise.

You become aware of many things when you grow your own food, including the differences between organic home-grown and store-bought quality. Many fruits, vegetables, and grains in stores are designed and hybrid for sturdiness, long shelf-life and to survive shipping. This creates a completely different set of nutritional and taste values than if they were grown naturally.

We are so far removed today from what food actually is and how it grows. One reason this has happened is because we’ve become too dependent on the convenience of store-bought and prepared food. But growing your own food is much easier than many retailers would want you to believe. Even if you only have a back deck to work with, it’s really not that tough. Try picking out one or two types of food to grow, then simply understand each of them well–read up on the organic methods of growing them. I highly recommend browsing in bookstores and libraries for information.

Health equals exercise and eating closer to the earth–growing food is a perfect fit. And the routine is a welcome part of our lives.

Martha Davis, Bolingbrook, Illinois
horticulture instructor, nature photographer

Edible, ornamental gardens combine beauty and function: they look attractive, taste good, and ensure control over how food has been raised. They lend themselves well to whatever space you have, whether containers or plots of land.

It’s easier than you might think to find foods which complement each other in terms of texture, color, taste and variety, both in the garden and on your plate. Consider the following “salad bowl” combination, which can readily be grown and eaten together: Lollo rossa lettuce, a very curly, leaf-type red lettuce with a mild taste; arugula, a taller, lobed salad green with a sharper flavor; and oak leaf lettuce, another green lettuce not quite as frilly as the other two, with a mild flavor. To dress-up this combination on your dinner plate, you could also sprinkle on chives, an herb which has purple pom-pom flowers, a sharp taste and can grow well in a pot on a window sill.

Vegetables are good to start with because they’re mostly annuals that grow in summer and don’t have to withstand winter. Many fruits, on the other hand, aren’t hardy enough for the dramatic change of seasons. You have to forget tropical fruits like papayas and guavas, but raspberries, certain apples and pears are realistic. However, don’t expect instant results with fruit; vegetables are more promising.

In edible ornamental gardening, as with most gardening, do your homework regarding choices of plants and varieties. Choose types that are suitable for your particular site; diversity will help your garden disease-wise. And above all, no matter how much homework you do, if the soil preparation is poor, the plants will be too.

Remember, gardening is a fluid process by its very nature. Some things will simply flourish and others won’t, season to season.

Catharine Bell
Conscious Choice, March 1996

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"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease" ~ Thomas Jefferson

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