Green gardening is easy

Green gardening isn’t just a
public-relations pitch by botanic gardens: They are living it.

Smart, sustainable gardening
practices are essential for botanic gardens, where grand ideas and large-scale
gardening operations require efficient management of time, money and resources.
Big public gardens show off sustainability in beautiful ways that visitors can
take home and put to work in their own backyards.“We’re trying to do things to
set an example for people,” says Jeff Epping, horticulture director of Olbrich
Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wis. The garden’s meadow plantings are an
especially pretty example of low-maintenance lawns. “Sometimes meadows are too
much, too wild, and people don’t understand how they can fit into their own
landscapes,” Epping says. At Olbrich, the spaces are inviting, not intimidating.
Flagstone paths and seating areas help draw visitors in for a closer inspection.

Olbrich also has a new gravel
garden, with drought-tolerant asters, prairie grasses and other perennials
planted in a 4-inch-deep bed of gravel. The plants can tolerate growing close
together and will fill in quickly. These hardy perennials thrive in the
well-drained gravel, and weeds won’t be able to get a foothold. “Maintenance is
really low,” Epping says.

Choosing plants carefully and
planting them where they will thrive is a fundamental concept of sustainable
landscaping, says Steve Windhager, director of landscape restoration for the
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre in Austin, Texas. In Austin, that might
mean planting a perennial garden with black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers and
colourful beebalm, which are all drought-tolerant native plants. “If you do
native plant-use right, it’s about abundance,” Windhager says. “It’s an
opportunity to create a beautiful habitat that takes advantage of the water
that falls from the sky.”

Water conservation is another
important practice at the Wildflower Centre, where a handsome limestone cistern
and aqueduct system collects and provides water to the gardens. Windhager
doesn’t just preach: He recently installed a 5,000-gallon water tank at his own
home to collect rainwater, and he advocates collecting the moisture that
condenses from air-conditioning systems, either in a tank or by channelling it
to an area of the garden where it can soak in and water plants.

“You water a significant portion of
your yard with that,” he says. “You can make a difference for a lot of plants.”

Jimmy Turner, director of the
Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, has coined a term for tough, dependable
plants that do not need pampering: “flame-proof plants.” Colourful annuals that
bloom all summer, particularly those that can survive the extreme heat,
drought, and the occasional deluge in Dallas, are Turner’s favourites.

“Those tried-and-true plants, they
are the ultimate in sustainability,” he says. Torenias, zinnias, pansies,
poppies and dianthus all make his list, which is on the arboretum’s website.

On the whole, Turner likes big
plants that grow fast and make any flower bed look lush. “If you can see the
mulch, you’re gardening wrong,” he says. “Trust me: You plant closer, and your
plants will survive better.” Plants that grow close together shade each other’s
roots, conserving moisture. They also shade out weeds. “That’s why I love
torenia and sweet-potato vine and sunpatiens,” Turner says. “They grow in full
sun as long as they shade themselves.”

Chip Tynan, who manages the home
garden question-and-answer service for the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis,
helps visitors (to the garden and its website) every day, and directs a staff
of volunteers who field thousands of questions from visitors and by e-mail and
telephone. The Kemper Center for Home Gardening shows off smart gardening
practices for backyard gardeners. It’s a teaching garden, where visitors can
study plants and pick up ideas.

“Being sustainable sometimes
involves an acceptance of nature,” Tynan says. A recent infestation of
caterpillars gave him a chance to make his point. “People were looking for
whatever they could spray or drench the soil with to cure something that
doesn’t respond well” to sprays, he says. “Sometimes you have to realize that
if you react wrongly, you can do a lot more harm than good.”

The most popular sustainable program
at the Missouri Botanical Garden is its plastic-pot recycling project, Tynan
says. The program has recycled more than 400 tons of plastic six-packs, nursery
pots, and plant trays into plastic lumber for raised beds and other garden
projects. Gardeners bring their pots to the botanic garden’s recycling centre,
and the centre sells the recycled lumber products. The garden also uses the
planks to make raised beds for the gardening staff and for researchers who
don’t have home gardens of their own.

“That’s our sustainability corner,”
Tynan says. “It just makes me smile to see how it’s all come together.”

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