Gardening for Good

It’s no surprise to me that when the pandemic first hit and we had some free time on our hands, a lot of us turned to gardening.  Garden supply stores had record business last spring and I personally ended up ordering 8 cubic yards of garden soil for my vegetable garden.  Now that vaccinations are underway and there is a light at the end of this oh so long tunnel, I hope that we will continue to dig in the soil and maybe even expand our gardens even further this spring.


Why plant?

garden 1There are endless reasons for gardening whether for food or flowers.  Gardening improves the health of your body, mind, community and the planet!

Gardens make you healthy. Just being outdoors increases your exposure to vitamin D and the act of  digging holes and pulling weeds is good exercise for your bones and heart.  One study even found that gardening decreases your risk of dementia.  Even exposure to the bacteria found in dirt increases serotonin levels for sense of wellbeing.   And luckily gardening is a hobby you can enjoy at all stages of life.

Gardening brings people together.  Sharing a garden with young kids helps build relationships between generations and shows children where their food actually comes from.  Sharing a garden with your community builds broader relationships and a sense of place.  Even a garden in your front yard will likely draw neighbors to stop and visit more as they walk the dog or take an afternoon stroll.

Gardens feed people.  A garden at your home can feed your family.  Community vegetable gardens produce thousands of pounds of produce each year for food banks, providing healthy, fresh choices to those who might live in food deserts.

Gardens feed nature.  Pollinators, birds and animals need the food grown in gardens.  With land being cleared daily to build more houses and businesses, the need for individuals to plant on their land has never been greater.

Gardens feed the planet.  Finally and perhaps most importantly, as more wild areas are disrupted for development, gardens become important places for water to be filtered or carbon to be sequestered by trees. Even the simple act of composting in a garden can have a large impact on the amount of carbon released in the air.

“The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there. ” George Bernard Shaw

What to plant?

garden 2If you look around your neighborhood this spring you probably noticed the yellow blooms of daffodils and forsythia.  The pink loropetalum and tulip magnolias were absolutely stunning this year.  And don’t forget the ever popular butterfly bush and camellia.  You may be surprised to learn that NONE of these plants are native to North Carolina, or even North America.  But we are a country of immigrants so what’s the harm?  This question was posed in a recent editorial by Margaret Renkl and her answer sums it up.

“Quite a bit of harm, actually. Plants aren’t people. Ambulatory and omnivorous, human beings are a migratory species. That’s not true for the vast majority of plants, which evolved to thrive as part of the unique web of life that makes up an ecosystem.

Native flowers feed native insects, which in turn feed native birds, bears, bats, lizards and frogs. Native plants bear seeds that feed native rodents, which in turn feed native foxes, hawks, owls and snakes. Native trees provide nesting places for native birds and squirrels.”

To best benefit wildlife and pollinators you should choose native plants over those from Europe and Asia.  I have heard many folks mention that they see honey bees all over their plants so why does it matter.  While honeybees get a lot of attention, the bees that are most in trouble are our native bees.   Honeybees will forage on pretty much any flower but native pollinators are usually specialists that only feed on native plants.  So instead of Crape Myrtle, consider a Fringe Tree or Serviceberry.   Instead of Butterfly Bush consider Sweet Pepper, Buttonbush or New Jersey Tea.  Instead of Chrysanthamums, plant asters.  While the Beeloved Community Garden does have a handful of butterfly bushes and vitex bushes, about 2/3 of the plants are native to the southeast, including all the plants mentioned above.

A huge advantage to planting natives is that they are used to the clay soil and and hot dry summers.  They need less coddling to thrive where they evolved.  For native plants that do well in our area, check out this top 25 list of native plants from Debbie Roos, an extension agent in Chatham county.

 “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves. ” Mahatma Gandhi

Where to get plants?

garden 3From big box stores, to garden centers, to roadside stands, there are a LOT of choices for buying plants.  The first think you should check is if the plants are sprayed with pesticides such as neonicotinoids that harm not only the insects that feed on the flowers but the birds and animals that eat these insects.  If you aren’t sure, ask.  However, know that even if the store does not spray the plants, the grower might have.  A few larger growers like Monrovia and Bonnie no longer use neonics but others do.  Lowes and Home Depot now label their plants so that you can see if they have been sprayed. 

If you are looking for native plants that are not sprayed in Raleigh I strongly recommend Field to Cottage Nursery. You can find a map of other strictly native plant nurseries here. Local nurseries like Logan’s Garden Shop, Campbell Road Nursery, Atlantic Garden Company, Garden Supply Company, and Homewood Nursery also have a fair variety of native plants as well.  In general I avoid big box stores because those plants are shipped in from other areas and don’t necessarily grow well in Raleigh. 

Of course the very best place to get plants is to share with your neighbors!  Check out this swamp sunflower shared with Katherine Meares.

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. ”Margaret Atwood

What about the lawn?

garden 4A lot of energy and money in our yards is often given to the lawn – mowing, fertilizing, spraying for weeds and generally adding chemicals to the earth.  To the pollinators, bird and animals, a lush green lawn is a desert.  There is no food and for many, the ground is poison.  For example, fireflies lay their eggs in the ground where they pupate for up to 2 years before emerging to light up the evenings during the summer.  If you’ve every wondered why you don’t see as many as you used to, consider the treatments you give your lawn. 

Luckily alternatives to grass abound!  A clover yard is extremely low maintenance and  provides a carpet of white throughout the blooming months.  You can start by seeding your existing lawn with clover seed and over the years it will take over.  In shady areas, where it’s hard to grow anything, consider a moss lawn.  Removing or replacing the lawn saves water, gasoline, and keeps the soil healthy.

“I think this is what hooks one to gardening: it is the closest one can come to being present at creation. “Phyllis Theroux

Note:  The photos included are all native plants – oak leaf hydrangea, bee balm, coreopsis, Stokes aster, purple coneflower, and swamp sunflower.

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