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The Sustainable Garden

Now that spring has once again arrived, thoughts are turning to how to make the most of our personal green spaces. For some good guidelines on how to make your garden sustainable, go to the Sustainable Claremont website and take a look at the items listed for the garden certification program–any or all of these will put you on the right track. For starters, here are a few horticultural thoughts:

Ornamental trees: Not only are these beautiful, they can help to reduce household energy use if planted to shade structures or protect them from wind. Each species of tree has a characteristic shape- triangular pines, broad oaks, just like dogs and sparrows have their own shapes–and proper care maintains these shapes. Trees should never be topped, or pruned into lollipops. The leaves feed the tree and if more than about 25% of the canopy is removed at one time, the tree will suffer. Frequent, severe, pruning looks bad and will eventually kill the tree. At first it will also stimulate the tree to send out a lot of water sprouts which are unattractive and often unsafe, and which will require pruning soon. Don’t let anyone tell you that a heavy pruning will save you money–it will destroy one of your garden’s best assets. Most trees need pruning only every few years and then only to do a little shaping or to remove unsafe limbs or dead wood. A well-pruned tree looks like it grew naturally that way.

Lawns: An often contentious subject, these days. It’s certainly true that lawns need a lot of water in our area if they are to look good, but is that a reason to eliminate them entirely? For some purposes, such as areas for children to play, they can’t be beat. But most homes could do with a lot less. If you want to keep some, there are lawn grasses bred to take less water, ones that go dormant for part of the year, and most will do fine with much less sprinkling than they get now. But if you want to remove your lawn, what can replace it? Decomposed granite, gravel, river rocks, pavers, stone, brick or other hard surfacing can all substitute for some lawn but the area they cover should be limited or the overall look will be barren. There are some low-growing, lower water use plants that can be used as ground covers. English ivy is one, as are snow-in-summer, yarrow, a number of succulents, periwinkle, and liriope, among others. Flower beds or vegetable beds, orchards, or play areas can also replace lawns. Artificial turf is generally not a good choice unless you are adding a putting green. It does the soil and wildlife no good and is not a sustainable item.

Flower beds: Include a few of our Claremont natives (see the Sustainable Claremont website, Constructed Landscape) in your plantings. They are adapted to low water availability. Choose water-wise plants from the nursery for new plants and to replace existing ones. Group plants that need more water together so you can water efficiently. There are those, like me, who pack plants in and welcome volunteers–this reduces weeding but can also require some thinning and some things will die. I let the plants duke it out. Those that do well with limited watering, and with no fertilizer or pesticides are the ones that flourish in my garden. Other gardeners space their plants and mulch in-between to cut down on weeding and retard evaporation. The Sunset magazine website is a great place to get ideas for your beds. Remember, if you reduce watering in your garden, be sure the trees, including your street trees, still get watered well every few weeks. Most trees benefit from deeper less frequent watering than they get in lawns.

Vegetables and fruit: Raised beds are very popular now and can look good even in a front yard if care is taken with their placement. Plant edible flowers in the beds too-let nasturtiums trail over the edges. Trellises with red-flowered beans are very decorative, and the paths between the beds can be bark or stepping stones with creeping thyme between. The possibilities are endless. Vegetable gardening rarely saves water unless a smaller area is planted but it certainly promotes the “eat locally” part of sustainability efforts. It is perfectly possible to grow good veggies in ordinary flower beds. For instance, you can edge a bed with red lettuce and plant majestic artichokes at the back. Small fruit trees do well in flower beds too.

Fruit trees have special pruning needs in order to give their best but, in general, you can keep them pruned to 8 or 9 feet without harm to the plant and still get more fruit than you can use. If space is limited it is even possible to plant more than one tree in a hole (there is a nice demonstration fruit orchard planting at the Tri-Cities mental health Demonstration Urban Farm and Community Garden, 2008 N Garey, Pomona). Buried soaker hoses, drip irrigation, adjustable bubblers or hand-watering all can keep your water use in bounds.

If you are interested in helping to start a Claremont Garden Club, please email me, Sue Schenk, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and let me know. We have a lot of ideas but we need people-power to get them going!

If you are thinking about food gardening, then come to the next Sustainability Dialog on April 2 at 7pm at 420 Harvard. The title is “Don’t Keep Food Down on the Farm: Making the Case for Urban Agriculture”. There will also be talks on sustainable gardening at the Earth Day celebration on April 21. For info about Sustainable Claremont, go to sustainableclaremont.org—we’d love to have you as an active member!

By Susan Schenk
Demystifying Sustainability is a project of Sustainable Claremont (sustainableclaremont.org).

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