01 April 2007

Stumbling through the gardening landscape

The other day I was out in the yard, poking around investigating what is coming up in the garden. Along with the usual buds and sprouts of things we like, there are things we aren’t so crazy about. We refer to them as weeds: ground ivy, buttercups, couchgrass, horsetails. I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once wrote a weed is any plant growing where it is not wanted. In that philosophy, a rosebush in a broccoli field would not be wanted. Fair enough. I don’t want groundivy, etc in our garden beds. But being a peaceable gardener, the only thing I will use as a weed killer is a mixture of vinegar, salt and baby shampoo, or else straight horticultural vinegar if I happen to have any. And we only resort to even using organic chemical warfare (is that an oxymoron? Probably) where we want to kill creeping grass and weeds, and in walkways, etc. I’ve taken glyphosate to the evil goutweed in the past, but found the horticultural vinegar worked just as well. Other weeds like those I first mentioned get pulled out, left to wilt in hot sun, and then composted.

On the other hand…I encourage milkweed wherever it wants to come, and we allow comfrey, nettles, and thistles to grow in certain parts of the yard. People might think that is curious. But as I’ve written in the past, we encourage beneficial insects, wild birds, and other native visitors to our yard. Especially beloved are the butterflies, including a lot of monarchs that visited us last summer, as well as tiger swallowtails, red admirals, and a whole host of butterflies that I don’t know the names of. We love seeing ladybird beetles around, knowing that their little dragonlike larvae are munching on aphid colonies. We have nests of hummingbirds, swallows, redwinged blackbirds, and who knows what other birds on our property. And we have hordes of happy frogs in the pond, from the tiny spring peepers that we expect to start hearing any time now, to the glunking green frogs, to the occasional big bullfrog. We wouldn’t have any of those if I attacked things with chemicals.

Recently I had a note from someone who was crowing about a way to control moss in the lawn. It’s always puzzled me that people regard moss in the lawn as a Bad Thing. Moss is lovely; soft, green, polite. It doesn’t need mowing. It doesn’t need dethatching, fertilizing, liming, reseeding…it grows where it will and spreads politely. It signifies a happy ecosystem to me, far more so than the sterile monoculture that is most lawns. I’d be delighted if moss would take over where the grass is growing, everywhere in our yard. Walking on soft green velvety moss is one of the pleasures of summer, isn’t it?

You may wonder what these musings have to do with the title of this entry. Well, I’ve mentioned StumbleUpon in a previous post. StumbleUpon is an extension that can be added to most webbrowsers (the exception currently seems to be Safari, which is why I’ve made the leap to Firefox. ) It gives you the ability to surf all kinds of websites that have been discovered by other web-surfers. You can customize it according to your own preferences, and you have your own SU user blog, where you log your likes and dislikes and interests. You can meet others who share similar interests, and people have developed all kinds of friendships and found countless fascinating sites by using StumbleUpon. I use it for websurfing primarily, finding it a terrific source of websites on things of interest to me; gardening, of course, nature and environment, photography, cats (of course!)…The extension gets embedded in your webbrowser’s toolbar and you can either randomly ‘stumble’ to a website, or track sites from other stumblers…it’s an ongoing adventure where every day is different. (my website reviews and blog can be found here.)

Anyway; I also belong to the Garden Writers Association, which has a private listserv. Another writer posted a note yesterday about the Royal Horticultural Society’s policy on using peat in its operations, and I went off to have a read. Peat’s one of those things that polarizes some gardeners, much in the same way that chemical versus organic gardeners are polarized. Despite what the peat industry would have us believe, it’s not a strongly renewable resource. Read the RHS findings and policy here.

I can’t claim to be peat-free, yet. What we did a couple of years ago was buy a dozen bales of peat, which I then used as the base for bedding in the horse’s stall. Now that peat, along with manure, shavings, sawdust and hay, is happily turning into compost and composted manure, which will be far more useful in the garden than straight peat, which holds no nutrients and does very little to improve soil friability or drainage/water retention. But as more and more people become aware of peat’s non-sustainable status, more and more renewable peat alternatives are coming on the market, and finding favour with gardeners.

Then I stumbled across a website with a newsstory about how French scientists are asking people to leave patches of wild plants in their yards to encourage butterflies.

An unusual SOS that has gone out from French ecologists may not initially go down well with gardeners, who are being asked to leave weeds well alone.

But it's all in a good cause -- to save disappearing butterfly species.

Having set up the first butterfly 'refuges' in northwestern France in 2004, a Brittany-based association is now urging gardeners to do their bit for butterflies and biodiversity by not cutting back their brambles or nettles.

"We are asking people to leave several square metres of wild grass, brambles, nettles in their garden... which caterpillars love," Jeremy Allain, of the Vivarmor association behind the initiative said.

Garden-lovers are also encouraged to put down "plants which are rich in nectar like clover, sage or daisies to feed adult butterflies," he said of the project, which has prompted interest across France.

"'Spotless' gardens with a well-mown lawn are true deserts for butterflies which lack refuges, while wild gardens can also be very pretty," he enthused.

I was pretty pleased to read this, particularly as there was a newsitem earlier this week out of the US, about how bees are disappearing from beekeepers colonies in the millions. Read an indepth story on the New York Time’s website.

You don’t suppose that might have anything to do with the gazillions of pounds of chemicals that are dumped on gardens and crops every year, do you?

And finally, two terrific websites for those who want a more natural, native/wild garden. Wild Flora’s Wild Gardening is a delightful blog written by a fellow writer and gardener who has lived in various locales across North America but now proudly calls Nova Scotia home. She’s into wildlife friendly gardening and the use of native plants and sustainable gardening practices, a fount of knowledge—oh, and a terrific writer.

And thanks to the GWA, I discovered Wild Ones, a terrific resource for environmentally sound landscaping and gardening. Currently there are chapters only in the United States, but wouldn’t it be great to see similar organizations and chapters everywhere in the world?

I’ll never stop trying new perennials, shrubs, trees, annuals, etc. But I’ve always loved using native plants in the gardenscape too, and it’s exciting to see that so many others feel the same way—and are gently encouraging others to try native plants and kinder, gentler gardening practices.


  1. This was an interesting post, Jodi. I liked your comments about moss in lawns and also attracting butterflies to the garden. There's something so wonderful about having butterflies in the garden during the summer. I live in fear that the usual collection of butterflies and bees will be wiped out by my neighbour's intensive use of Round-up.

    I have slowly removed all the grass from my front and back gardens ... it is so liberating not to be chained to lawnmowers and grass problems. I won't ever go back to having more than perennial and native grasses!

  2. Thank you for the kind comments about my blog, Jodi! In response to your comments, I've posted a few thoughts about peat, including a great recipe for a soil amendment and mulch.
    The Wild Ones is a great organization. Even though they don't have chapters in Canada, it's still possible for individuals to belong. (I do.) However, the organization is based in the Midwest (Wisconsin)and tends to be oriented toward prairie-style gardening. Residents of Atlantic Canada may be frustrated by a shortage of information about using native plants in an area that's naturally forested.
    For those who want to share information about native gardening in Atlantic Canada, I have an email list on Yahoo. It isn't very active, but an infusion of new voices would probably remedy that. Anyone who's interested should feel free to email me.
    I love your blog!
    Wild Flora
    email: wildwords@yahoo.com
    blog: http://www.wildgardeners.blogspot.com

  3. I love to hear posts about others gardening responsibly. I understand that peat is also used in many gardening starter preparations and of course in peat pots. This is why I vow now to save soil (or compost) in the fall for seed starting projects.

    I'll be back to read more.


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