Pacific Northwest: Sustainable Gardening

Seattle, Washington, USDA Zone 8

I’ve never understood how sustainability applies to home gardens. Is it more than using organic gardening principles? I went to this year’s [2005] Northwest Flower and Garden Show prepared to find out.

The concept of gardening green by consuming less was on display in gardens laced with ingenious ideas for recycling. My favorite was a satellite disk transformed into an arbor. The round disk was thickly planted with moss and ferns and supported by twisted tree limbs. You’d never guess there was metal under all that green. In another display, rusty old trucks became garden art, with nandinas and mahonia sprouting through broken windows. Plenty of old doors, re-used cobbles, recycled wood, and glass chips found a second life in, and gave an aged air to, gardens built only yesterday.

But sustainability encompasses much more than creative structures and surfaces. Looking for practical advice, I sought Cameron Scott, who is known for designing award-winning garden show displays featuring recycled and eco-friendly materials, and for building environmentally friendly real gardens, too. He had plenty of suggestions for helping to save the planet—and time, work, money, and guilt.

Soil building is a hallmark of good gardening, and Scott’s tips include eschewing beauty bark to mulch instead with organic materials that break down to build up the soil. The famed Chicken-N-Chips blend from family-owned de Jong Sawdust & Shavings in Redmond, Washington, is a perfect example of a multitasking mulch. It’s dark and fluffy enough to spruce up your garden, fine enough to disappear into the soil and improve it over time, yet rich enough to nurture plants. Who needs chemical fertilizers if you can feed your plants with chicken poop?

Even in rainy Seattle, conserving water—a focus in sustainability—is a concern. Plant roots suffocate in soggy winter soil, yet suffer during our months of summer drought. “Water off the roof is so much better than water out of a hose,” says Scott, because water that falls from the sky is free of chemicals like chlorine, doesn’t cost a cent, and contains beneficial microorganisms. It can be collected in a rain barrel or directed into a cistern for storage until it is needed. Additionally, increasing the garden’s ratio of permeable surface to impermeable surface will make it absorb more water, preventing storm runoff from reaching streams and lakes, where it could harm salmon populations. Gravel, Grasscrete, and groundcovers do the trick.

Ecolawns, a blooming alternative to turf grass, manage runoff, too. And in the dry season they require far less water and work. Scott has two dogs, and his ecolawn holds up to both their ravages and summer drought. Tom Cook of Oregon State University has developed ecolawns (Fleur de Lawn and Fragrant Herbal Mix, available at several Portland area garden centers) that are ideal for our Northwest climate. They are composed of grasses, herbs, and broadleaf perennials. Think of them as the tousled look, every bit as legitimate and perhaps more appealing than the perfectly groomed standard to which we used to aspire.

Cameron Scott’s final bit of advice is so obvious that gardeners often overlook it: work effectively with your garden’s topography. You can terrace a slope to prevent wasted water—or you can plant drought-lovers at the top of the slope and plants that tolerate boggy soil at the bottom, where they’ll relish the runoff. 

WORTH GROWING: Grevillea ‘Orange Sparkler’

Showy and drought-tolerant Grevillea ‘Orange Sparkler’ is a mid- to large-sized shrub with needlelike, olive-toned foliage. Its scarlet winter flowers are curved like little prawns.

Places to Go

Seattle Tilth is a nonprofit organic gardening and urban ecology organization, housed in the historic Good Shepherd Center in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. Its demonstration gardens, children’s programs, workshops, and events, such as the popular “City Chickens 101” class and coop tour, show people how to protect the environment–and improve their gardens at the same time.

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