Monday, September 17, 2007

Heirloom Needs- continued

This is a continuation of my post from last Thursday.

My great-grandparents would be wowed by the immense and diverse market that supports our modern landscaping, nursery and turf industries. In some ways, smaller yards and less choices could be a good thing. Compared to yester-year, we have countless options for flowers, trees, shrubs and annuals at the big-box garden center. Unfortunately this also means we have a great chance of putting a blooming thing in the ground in April or May that will be dead by August.

In a recent conversation with Jim Ward, Interim Assistant Director of Horticulture at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, I was reminded that we are more likely nowadays to “garden for pleasure” than for food and therefore more likely to put things on life-support (artificial irrigation), put exotics where they were never meant to grow, and sacrifice the time and the money to create lush lawns and flower borders that can be felled by drought.

Losing the hibiscus beside your mailbox to a dry year is one thing. Losing a quarter acre of sod, four Japanese Maples, and twenty azaleas is quite another.

Pass-along plants are a great way to keep your yard local and thriving. Market bulletins and catalogs aside, dependable self-sowing annuals, tough perennials that need dividing, and cuttings from your relatives or neighbors would have been the source for a good bit of ornamental plant material 80-100 years ago. If you saw clematis or a red-hot-poker growing just fine next door or down the road, chances are it would probably do well in your yard. Of course, many gardeners are still reaping the rewards of pass-alongs, especially if they have something to swap and an ear for the story of where their new addition came from and what conditions it likes. You cannot get that same experience at the super-center.

An improvement, in my opinion, on domestic landscape practices from my great-grandparents’ era, is our increased acceptance of native plants. For folks who haven’t discovered how wonderful roadside “weeds” can be, they are missing out. Joe-Pye weed, golden-rod, and asters are commonly recommended by garden writers today for late summer and low maintenance bloom. This is a positive trend that has been gaining momentum in recent decades. Mixing perennials and shrubs from your region often gives you a water-wise, chemical free haven for butterflies and birds. Viburnum, milkweed, and switch-grass are doing just fine in my yard right now. The Durham County Cooperative Extension and the North Carolina Botanical Garden are excellent places to scribble down ideas and procure plant lists. They will also gladly give you the locations of local nurseries and garden supply shops specializing in native and drought resistant plants.

While I may grimace at the brown stalks of a few choice perennials in my side yard and the dying dogwood along the edge of a natural area, I am fortunate that I am not staring at a half acre of suffering vegetables or many acres of ruined livestock silage. To put this drought in perspective, I have to remember that a dependence on Mother Nature for your daily bread is not a historical footnote; it is an everyday trial for a lot of families in North Carolina. This year may cause many folks to give up their way of life as they are finally persuaded to sell the farm to a developer of a subdivision. Folks are moving into the countryside (or at least a marketable version of it), but unfortunately they aren’t taking back the wisdom of a country gardener. Instead they are too often striving for a large, expensive, and environmentally unsustainable lawn.

For my great -grandparents and their contemporaries, there was always next year in the garden. I share that sentiment with them but am also blessed that my dry sky is only affecting a hobby and not my family’s welfare. I can always go to the grocery store or a Farmers’ Market to buy my vegetables. I bet my grandmother’s mother would recommend the Farmers’ Market.

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