The frigid days of winter — exaggerated by long sieges of stagnant air caused by temperature inversions that often blanket the Yakima Valley — keep most of us trapped indoors. And they can cause a bad case of cabin fever.
One antidote to the winter blues is to make yourself comfortable with a good gardening book and a steaming cup of coffee or your favorite winter-time beverage.
Last year, I read a book review in one of Valarie Easton’s always informative gardening columns in The Seattle Times that intrigued me. So a few days after Christmas, I headed to Inklings with a gift card in hand to search its extensive gardening section for “The Conscientious Gardener — Cultivating a Garden Ethic” by Sarah Hayden Reichard. Inklings didn’t have it in stock, but ordered it and the turnaround time was only a couple of days.
Haven’t heard of this book? Probably not, since it was published by the University of California Press. Unfortunately university presses often don’t get a lot of press (pun intended) in the news media. This is a shame because university presses publish a lot of fine books, including occasional ones on gardening.
Reichard is a professor of conservation biology and an adjunct professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. She is also the curator of the Hyde Herbarium and heads up the Rare Plant Care and Conservation Program at UW. In addition, she has taken on the job of being the interim director of the UW Botanic Gardens, which includes Washington Park Arboretum. However, Reichard is best known in academic circles as a top authority on invasive plants.
While it’s true that many authors in academia write books that are often almost incomprehensible to the average person, I found this is not true of Reichard’s very readable and informative book. You will find that her writing style is down-to-earth. Chapters in her book cover — or more correctly uncover — soil, water, native plants and alien plants. Other chapters confront the issues of preventing and managing pests, climate change, plus recycling, reducing, reusing and repurposing in the garden.
The overriding theme of her book is revealed in the book’s subtitle: “Cultivating a Garden Ethic.” Reichard was influenced, as many of folks have been since the 1949 publication of Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” This is a collection of essays that ends with an essay on the need for developing a land ethic. Leopold saw that everything on Earth is intertwined into one huge community, so the fate of one facet of the environment, whether it is the soil, water, plant or animal, depends on the health of all the other parts. And so it is with our gardens, according to Reichard. What we do in our own garden affects the health of our neighbor’s garden, our watershed, our oceans and the Earth’s atmosphere.
Although some gardening advice in Reichard’s book can be found in other gardening books, some flies in the face of advice that we usually read. Her chapter on using native plants in our gardens is a good example. Much has been written encouraging us that using natives in our gardens is the way to go. Not necessarily true, writes Reichard. While she would encourage us to use native plants in our landscapes, there are a number of considerations we need to think about before we dig planting holes for native plants.
But just what is meant by “native plants”? Some writers believe that if a plant species was growing in our country before European settlement, then it’s native and we should consider planting it. Not so! We need to think smaller. A plant native to Puget Sound, for example, may work well in Seattle gardens, but might be a flop when it is planted in the Yakima Valley. For starters, the climate may be wrong and the soil may be wrong.
And choosing a native plant gets even harder: “Our native lands are a mosaic of different ecosystems — wetlands, rivers and streams, forest, grasslands and so on — and a species that grows in the wetter spots of a dry region may not be as water-efficient, for instance, as many assume,” according to Reichard. So a native plant found somewhere in our Valley may not grow well in every garden in the Yakima Valley. Even the soil in our landscape can vary greatly in soil type and pH.
Many of us have had the experience of choosing a new native shrub, tree or perennial that turned out to be a bust. It struggled or maybe didn’t survive. Reichard urges us to understand the kinds of soils we have in our gardens. Too often we assume the native soil type in our garden will be compatible with the plants we choose. Instead, Reichard advises us to select plants right for our soil type. Additionally, we need to keep in mind that the soils in different parts of our own landscape can be quite diverse.
Still another example of her recommendations that cause more than a few gardeners’ eyebrows to rise concern the use of fertilizers. She contends that perennials, shrubs and trees usually do not need commercial fertilizers — be they synthetic or organic. Adding a little compost, well-aged manure or other organic matter will often suffice. Fertilizers, if overused as they often are, can make their way into our groundwater and as runoff in lakes and streams. It’s not just the nitrogen in fertilizers that cause problems to aquatic life; phosphorus can be equally damaging.
Reichard, a fine gardener in her own right, has based “The Conscientious Gardener” primarily on science-based research along with what she has discovered in her own gardening. Her book makes us mindful that how we go about gardening has a ripple effect in our environment. What we do in our own gardens may seem infinitesimal to the planet’s health, but consider the fact that it’s the millions of gardens that may be no larger than ours that all together can have a gigantic effect on Planet Earth, either for good or bad.
I would recommend this book for beginning and veteran gardeners alike, both for its thought provoking gardening information and also because it makes a fascinating read during our winter’s less than hospitable weather.
• Freelance gardening columnist Jim McLain can be reached at 509-697-6112 or email@example.com.