Gardening Nature’s Way
Principles of conservation at work in suburban landcapes
For decades, suburban gardeners have grown and tended lush expanses of lawn and beds of ephemeral flowers, many of which were imported from afar and require constant maintenance. But with greater concern about the environment, more gardeners are turning to sustainable gardening practices and finding the results to be healthier for people, pets, pollinators and the planet — and just as beautiful.
Here, home gardeners and horticulture professionals share their perspectives on how to make your garden grow naturally, while always looking its best.
Delightful by design
“When people talk of a typical sustainable garden, most think of wildflower gardens or native plants,” says Scott McAdam, president of McAdam Landscaping in Forest Park. “A sustainable garden takes care of itself.” By that he means that gardeners can spend much less time on maintenance and more time enjoying the garden by incorporating native plants, avoiding the use of harmful chemicals and conserving resources, while still following the principles of good garden design. In moving to a more natural approach to gardening, McAdam says, “Certain things need not change, like the bones or the structure of a well-executed plan, but the peripherals can.”
For 35 years, McAdam has worked with Ellen Steinberg of River Forest to achieve an environmentally friendly garden. Her first priority was to get rid of the lawn entirely, due to the expense and time involved in maintaining it. Next was to replace the 180-ft asphalt driveway with permeable pavers, alleviating her concerns about water runoff.
“I am not a rabid conservationist,” says Steinberg. Nevertheless, her garden was designated a National Wildlife Certified Habitat in 1997, and in 2016 was the first in Illinois to receive the GreenBridges certification from the Herb Society of America. Her motivation for obtaining certifications was to raise awareness about the importance of planting to support pollinators and wildlife, even in a suburban environment. Her garden incorporates both native and non-native plants as well as unusual varieties. It achieves a harmony of design that attracts human visitors, along with birds, insects and animals.
“People have a visceral response to my garden,” she says. Her garden will be open for the Oak Park & River Forest Garden Walk on June 25.
Creating a healthy habitat is not only good for the environment, but also for personal health. Blogger and author Shawna Lee Coronado of Warrenville turned to sustainable gardening because of her own health issues, first with allergies and then with osteoarthritis. She has found relief from both through a combination of organic gardening, diet and exercise. Her goal in sharing her techniques is “making a difference in others’ lives.”
One of Coronado’s first projects was to turn her front lawn into a vegetable garden, where she planted 3,000 vegetables and donated some 500 pounds of produce. Her work led her to write a book on nutritive vegetables, The Wellness Garden, due out later this year. Her vegetable garden is no longer in the front yard, but Coronado continues to grow organic edibles and plants that support the food needs of pollinators and birds. “Every plant serves a purpose,” she says.
Many gardeners are becoming aware of the need to provide friendly habitats for all sorts of creatures, and incorporating plants, shrubs and trees that are native to the western suburbs is a good way to attract wildlife. “Native plants are supportive of the whole web of life that our birds depend upon,” says Trish Beckjord, native plant and green infrastructure specialist for Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles. “Introduced species do not provide that support.”
She gives monarch butterflies as an example of what it takes to support the whole life cycle. The monarch needs to feed on nectar from spring through fall, while it also requires access to native milkweed to lay its eggs. More gardeners are finding a spot for a butterfly garden, which can include butterfly bush, lantana, milkweed and other plants that sport pretty flowers and attract both butterflies and moths. “People appreciate the value of getting out into nature,” Beckjord observes. “It is a larger pleasure to be out in a garden where you can hear crickets and see bird life.”
The health of pollinators such as honeybees has been attracting attention, leading more gardeners to choose plants that support the bee population. Beckjord says people can help by creating backyard parks, which will allow birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects to travel from one yard to the next. In her work at the Conservation Foundation, she and other staffers promote sustainable gardening with community groups and individuals. “We will come out and walk your yard and give specific advice of what to plant,” she says. “And we identify which plants shouldn’t be there, such as invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle.”
Of course, eliminating harsh pesticides and herbicides and using organic fertilizers are the best ways to support wildlife, as well as avoid harm to pets and children who play in the yard.
Conservation of natural resources
Another tenet of sustainable gardening is to conserve natural resources. In Batavia, retired horticulturist Rosie McVay and her engineer husband Patrick have been making their 1950s-era home and garden more sustainable year by year since they moved there in 2011. “My husband and I decided that we wanted to live softly on the earth,” explains Rosie.
The couple has been transforming both the inside and outside of their property to make it “greener.” This started with making the house more energy efficient with new windows, better insulation and an upgraded HVAC system. The next project was to build a pavilion in the back yard with solar panels on the roof, which now supply 70 percent of the electricity used in the house and on the property. To conserve water, the McVays hired Aquascape of St. Charles to build a shallow, decorative pool filled with goldfish and water lilies, with a cistern underneath to collect rainwater. “We water our gardens only with rainwater,” she says.
Since moving in, the McVays have planted 25 fruit trees, including dwarf apples and pears in espalier plantings, and apricots, peaches, cherries, figs, serviceberries, and raspberries. They also created a vegetable garden with an enclosure designed to keep rabbits out. Her secret to success: “I don’t use chemicals on anything. I just compost everything. I use just about everything that grows here and drops here.”
In the front yard, a labyrinthine path winds around two large maple trees to provide a place for contemplation. “Even though it is sustainable, it is the most peaceful and beautiful place,” she says.
The good earth
The foundation of any garden is, of course, the soil. Unfortunately, a lot of soil in our area is compacted clay, which makes just about everything hard to grow. But rather than spending time and money on constant tilling, watering and fertilizing, the sustainable approach is to build up the natural ecosystem in the yard so that it can thrive on its own.
“Our philosophy is to work with nature and not try to fight it,” explains Freyja Conrad, design/install division manager for DigRightIn Landscaping in Westchester. The firm takes an organic approach to landscape design and lawn maintenance. “If you put a chemical on the lawn, the grass becomes dependent on it,” says Conrad. “If you feed the soil, which is the lifeblood of any plant, the grass doesn’t need to be fed.”
The firm brews its own “compost tea” to feed the soil, provides core aeration in the spring so water can reach the roots, mows the grass to three inches, which is slightly higher than normal to grow the roots deeper, and over-seeds with leaf mulch on bare patches. Conrad recommends leaving a light layer of lawn clippings on the lawn when mowing, which “provides enough nitrogen for a year.” To deal with weeds, the firm applies corn gluten in the spring and tries to pluck off weed flowers before they go to seed.
At the University of Illinois Extension office in Kane County, horticulture educator Richard Hentschel works with homeowners on both sides of the lawn debate — those who fertilize with chemicals and those who take the natural approach. He notes that organic fertilizers are made from waste plant materials and usually have NPK numbers under five, which indicates the amounts of nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. “I just say that organic fertilizer is Mother Nature’s version of a slow-release fertilizer. As you begin to use organic fertilizer, you change the microflora population in the soil.” Eventually, the soil becomes healthier and requires less fertilizer of any kind.
When it comes to watering lawns and garden beds, Hentschel advises, “Water infrequently but deeply. That’s not what happens with an irrigation system, which trains the roots to be only where the water is. If you soak the soil properly, four to six inches deep, you are training the roots to go deep.” He notes that new irrigation systems have responsive timing and soil moisture monitors that will switch off the usual cycle of watering if it rains or if the ground is already wet. Native plants, once established, perform better with very limited input, which means savings on water and fertilizer. “Natives are designed to get through summer in a drought,” says Hentschel.
Pesticides, of course, are not welcome in natural gardens, but there are ways to control pests. Coronado dons gloves and takes out a bucket of soapy water to pick off and dispose of Japanese beetles when they first emerge. But, she says, “I have a theory that it’s best to ignore pests,” she says. “If you leave them alone, the birds will take care of them.” Although her rose bushes may not look as perfect as those who spray pesticides, Coronado is happy with the results. “Nature is not perfect, but it’s beautiful.”Edit Module