The following column appeared in the Glen Rock Gazette in 2005. My gardens have matured since then, but my goals and methods remain the same!
Have you ever heard of Slow Food? It’s an international movement that can best be defined as the opposite of fast food. Fast food is the same all over the world, it’s mass-produced, it uses a lot of artificial ingredients. Slow food varies by region because it’s based on local customs and local produce, it’s produced by small growers who respect the land, it uses natural, fresh ingredients. Fast food ignores environmental concerns, slow food is respectful of nature. Fast food is everywhere, slow food is becoming harder and harder to find. (For more on the slow food movement, check out www.slowfood.org or www.slowfoodusa.org.)
Slow food is a good analogy for environmental gardening. Environmental gardens are based on the local ecosystem, climate, and soil, they’re individually planned and maintained (often in defiance of local customs that call for pristine lawns and water-thirsty annuals), and they use only native species and organic practices. This kind of gardening has more to do with long-term improvement of the land and the surrounding ecosystem than with immediate gratification (although the results of environmental gardening are extremely gratifying). Fast gardeners hang a birdfeeder if they want to see birds. They will see birds right away, but mostly pigeons and grackles and house sparrows. They’ll also see cats stalking the birds, dead birds from infections spread at feeders, pigeon droppings all over the deck, and rats and mice eating the seed. But they will have the immediate gratification of seeing birds.
When environmental gardeners want to see birds, they plant a mixed environment of native grasses, flowering plants, shrubs, and trees. They stop using pesticides, because birds eat bugs as well as berries. They install, fill, and maintain a birdbath. They wait for the plants to begin to produce fruit and seeds. Eventually they will also see birds—a large, diverse population of native birds (on a regular basis, in my small yard, I see robins, catbirds, jays, mockingbirds, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, wrens, kinglets, several species of woodpeckers and native sparrows, goldfinches, and house finches, besides occasional visitors like orioles, hawks, blackbirds, crows, and warblers). But it takes a few years for the plants to mature enough to flower and bear fruit. Even native perennials don’t bloom until the second year. Slow gardening.
We began our experiment in slow gardening 9 years ago now. The tallest tree in my little forest is a white ash that’s maybe between 30 and 40 feet high this year. It’s got birds nesting in it. I have a picture of my then-5-year-old son towering over it the day it was planted—that’s how I know it was 9 years ago. That little boy is almost 15 and taller than I am, and that tree looks like it’s always been here. Wildlife certainly treats it that way. Slow gardening.
This spring, catbirds and robins nested in my little forest, and a wren noisily established a claim to it a few weeks ago. Kinglets dance above the branches of the old, moribund dogwood, finding abundant insects in the dead wood, catbirds and robins feast all day long on the chokecherries, squirrels and chipmunks eat hazelnuts through the winter. The understory has reached its full height of 12 to 15 feet, and the shade is dense and deep. This took about 5 years to really look good. Slow gardening.
I have several tree islands in my front lawn—small areas, no more than 10 feet in diameter, closely planted with shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns. The ones that are 3 or 4 or 5 years old are lush and thick, with flowers in spring and bright-colored foliage in fall, and rabbits and chipmunks living in them. This spring, we planted two more islands, and they look like bare twigs sticking up out of mulch. They’ll look better next year and gorgeous in about three years. Slow gardening.
I like a lot of flowers in my garden—I love the colors and the fascinating pollinators they attract. Their seeds also feed birds all winter. These are native perennials like black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia species ), coneflowers (Echinacea species), asters, beebalm, false aster (Boltonia), milkweeds (Asclepias species ), various perennial sunflowers, and numerous others. Most take about two years to bloom, whether you start with seeds or with small nursery plants. Slow gardening. Once they’re established, however, they’re completely carefree—no water, no fertilizer, no pesticides. I could have planted annuals instead for instant color, but I’ll bet I’d have to water them constantly and replant next year. That would be fast gardening.
Fast gardening is pretty, but it rarely is anything more. Those annuals would certainly provide more color the first year than my native perennials, but the next season they’d be dead. They wouldn’t even provide much in the way of pollen for insects or seed for birds during their brief lifespan—most garden annuals (and perennials) are hybridized, bred for showy flowers, and sterile. I’ve got a small patch left of coreopsis ‘Moonglow,’ a popular perennial that I bought because I thought it was native. That was fast gardening—I didn’t take time to do my research. It’s a cultivar, with pale yellow flowers that are not attractive to pollinators. You should see the pollinators fly right by it on their way to the lanceleaf coreopsis—a native species—I put in this year. ‘Moonglow’ will be out of here next spring, along with a hybrid yarrow I’m ashamed to say I planted. It’s remarkable to watch the scads of pollinators busily working over the adjacent New Jersey tea and swamp milkweed but totally ignoring the yarrow. It’s pretty, but it’s too fast for me.