Friday, August 27, 2010

An interview with Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener magazine, about local green gardening trends

According to statistics collected in the National Gardening Association’s (NGA) 2004 and 2008 Environmental Lawn and Garden surveys, the number of households in the U.S. that practice environmentally friendly gardening techniques increased from an estimated 5 million in 2004 to 12 million in 2008.

Although those statistics sound great for our country, as a whole, I wondered how many gardeners in the Washington DC Metro area are making similar changes in their gardens.

Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener magazine, took a break from preparations for her Third Annual Tomato Tasting, for a short interview on the subject.  

Question: Have you noticed a trend towards more eco-friendly gardening among your readers and fellow gardeners?

Kathy’s Answer: We have been publishing for 5 years and in that time I have noticed an increase in questions about earth-friendly gardening practices. I'm hearing from many who have stated they are seeking to reduce the size of their turfgrass lawns and who are trying to attract wildlife to their yards. In non-gardeners I also see that trend. They are asking about lawn services that are truly green, not just in name only.  

Question: What types of environmentally friendly techniques have you seen starting to show up in local gardens? (more native plants?, rain barrels? less chemicals, etc.)  

Kathy’s Answer: I see a lot more interest in adding native plants to gardens, although I think the trend of using ALL natives has hit its peak and is now tapering off to a more moderate use. Gardeners are working in natives where they can, instead of going whole hog natives-only.

Gardeners are saving water and planting more drought-tolerant varieties. Many are investing in rain barrels and are even talking about cisterns.

Most of the gardeners I encounter were already avoiding chemical herbicides and pesticides except as a last resort. The last few years just seems to reinforce that conviction. Many now want to cut out any gas-powered garden and lawn tools, as well.

Question: Vegetable gardening is certainly one type of gardening that seems to lend itself to "organic" gardening, because of the health aspects of not using chemicals. Do you think vegetable gardeners are more concerned about practicing eco-friendly techniques than perhaps flower gardeners?  

Kathy’s Answer: I would not say they are more concerned, but certainly equally as concerned. Gardeners are very aware that what they put into the soil is what they get out of it - be it an ornamental plant or edible one. They know that organic is the most healthy and sustainable practice.

I do see more ornamental gardeners adding vegetable beds and fruit trees to their gardens. They are better able to control what goes into their food that way and I think they also enjoy being able to grow their own food. The popularity of cooking shows has helped feed into this trend, so to speak. People are a great deal more aware of their food sources and food quality these days.

Question: What do you think is motivating more people to practice environmentally friendly techniques? Are people doing it for their families, the planet, for wildlife?  

Kathy’s Answer: I think it is out of personal conviction, though the influence of peer pressure cannot be discounted. If your neighbors have on sprinklers all day and spray everything down with chemicals, you think that is "the norm." But if none of your neighbors do those things, it probably would not occur to you to do them either.  

Question: Are gardeners being influenced by any particular people or groups? Did the White House Organic garden encourage more organic vegetable gardeners?

Kathy’s Answer: The White House organic edible garden seemed to have most influence on people who had never gardened before, rather than current gardeners. I see current gardeners being most influenced by what they see in garden centers, in gardening publications, and what they see at local public gardens. They are very visual and always looking out for what is new, improved and problem-resistant. Gardeners want beauty, but they also want gardens that are as low maintenance as possible.

Gardeners often swap plants with neighbors or with fellow garden club members. In that way, their plant selection is almost viral.
Thanks, Kathy, for taking the time to share your thoughts on eco-gardening. I especially like your comments about how gardeners learn from their neighbors and fellow gardeners. It’s a good lesson for all of us to try to set a good example with our gardening practices and even the choice of plants that we share at plant swaps and with fellow gardeners.  

Kathy Jentz worked for 15 years in association publishing (both trade and professional organizations). She saw a need for gardening information specifically for the DC (MidAtlantic) area and started Washington Gardener Magazine in 2005. She is President of the Takoma Horticultural Club and on the board of the Silver Spring Garden Club. Here is a link to Kathy's Washington Gardener Blog, one of my local favorites.

Washington Gardener magazine, is the gardening publication published specifically for the local metro area — zones 6-7 — Washington DC and its suburbs.

Earthworms - Wriggling Wonders of the Garden

Earthworms are the intestines of the soil. – Aristotle

One of the most memorable questions that I ever received from a fellow gardener was from the gentleman who called me with his earthworm problem. “What can I do to get rid of all of these awful earthworms,” he said. “They’re all over the place.”

Although most gardeners would love to see slimy, wriggling earthworms, rolling around in their soil, this gentleman saw them only as a nuisance. Such is the case with many garden critters, which are shunned at first sight and sometimes even eradicated from a yard long before the gardener takes the time to learn their bountiful benefits.

There is no doubt that earthworms are slimy little critters. Nevertheless, if you have earthworms in your yard, you should feel lucky. If you could create a miniature little robot that could aerate your soil by creating passageways for air and water, all the while adding valuable nutrients to the soil, wouldn’t you do it? Too late. Nature has already created this creature and we have named him “earthworm”.

Like many creature’s, an earthworm’s primary activity is eating and eliminating what it eats. But in the case of the earthworm, the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out” isn’t very accurate. With earthworms, what they eliminate, called castings, are pure gold to your garden soil.

You don’t have to go to the extent of Cleopatra who supposedly considered earthworms so indispensable to the agricultural economy of ancient Egypt that she declared them sacred, subjecting exporters to the death penalty. But you should definitely roll out the red carpet for these creatures by giving them what they like – a nice layer of damp fallen leaves or other organic matter.

In my continuing effort to learn more about “environmentally friendly” landscaping, I decided to see what else I could find out about earthworms.

Environmental benefits of earthworms
  • Earthworm poop peps up your plants. Earthworms eat microorganisms in the soil. As the organic matter passes through their system, it is fragmented and inoculated with other microorganisms. The resulting feces or casts contain nutrients and organic matter that is more readily taken up by plants.
  • Earthworms help stir things up! A large proportion of soil passes through the guts of earthworms, and they can actually turn over the top six inches of soil….in about ten to twenty years. But in the process of moving dirt around, they can bring essential nutrients back to the top layers of the soil that had leached down.
  • Earthworms help prevent erosion. Earthworms make soil more porous as they move through it. Some species make permanent burrows deep into the soil. These burrows can remain long after the worm has died, and can be a major conduit for soil drainage, particularly under heavy rainfall. At the same time, the burrows minimize surface water erosion.
  • Earthworms help soil retain moisture. By fragmenting organic matter, and increasing soil porosity, earthworms can significantly increase the water-holding capacity of soils.
  • Earthworms help prevent water pollution. By allowing more water to seep into the soil, earthworms help prevent pollution by minimizing runoff.
  • Earthworms provide channels for root growth. The channels made by deep-burrowing earthworms are lined with readily available nutrients and make it easier for roots to penetrate deep into the soil.
  • Earthworms help feed local wildlife. Earthworms are a favorite food of many bird species and other friendly garden predators such as toads and turtles.
If you see earthworms in your yard, then it is a good sign that you have a somewhat “healthy” garden. Earthworm populations tend to increase in areas with richer organic matter levels and decrease with soil disturbances, such as tillage and potentially harmful chemicals. If you would like to attract MORE earthworms, here are a few tips:
  1. Avoid using chemicals. Pesticides are one of the biggest threats to earthworms today. Many common pesticides, even "organic" pesticides, kill earthworms, some with mortality rates as high as 100%. Chemicals that are used to kill Japanese beetle grubs, for example, also kill earthworms. Some chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and fungicides can also kill earthworms.
  2. Avoid unnecessary cultivation. Studies have found a direct correlation between the frequency of cultivation and the number and size of earthworms: the more frequently the ground is cultivated, the fewer and smaller the worms. When possible, cultivate beds by hand or with a digging fork. Hand cultivation has a significantly lower mortality rate for earthworms than machine cultivation.
  3. Add compost and other organic matter to your soil. If you make your own compost, you may see earthworms in your compost pile. Spreading a thick layer of finished compost on new garden beds, or digging it in when you plant, is a great way to improve your soil, produce healthier plants, and attract worms, all at the same time. If you don’t have a compost pile, you can feed the worms by adding certain food scraps such as vegetable peelings and coffee grounds directly to your garden either in shallow holes or under layers of mulch.
  4. Add mulch. Worms are easily killed by surprise frosts on unprotected soil in spring and fall. Mulch provides an insulating blanket that can help protect them from the cold. It also helps keep soil cool and moist in the summertime when worms are typically driven deep underground to hide from warm temperatures and dry soils. Organic mulches such as straw and shredded leaves are also favorite worm foods.
*Many of the facts for this article were found from this source: The Living Soil: Earthworms, NRCS website

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