The Conscious Gardener

BY Jamie Walker

Achieving sustainability in the garden

The word sustainable is the latest greatest buzz word thrown around in conversation advertisements and the news as often as the words green and organic. Its a thing we are either skeptical of or are determined to try to be if we could ever figure out what it is exactly.

Riding your bike to work everyday toting groceries in re-usable shopping bags buying second-hand clothing and using locally reclaimed materials for building projects are all sustainable practices that the average citizen could get her or his head around.

But what about that neatly power-trimmed boxwood hedge that adds stately lines to the front of the house or that sweeping green lawn that really must stay that way and those bright annuals that need their weekly dose of Miracle-Gro? What is sustainable when it comes to flower gardening vegetable gardening or yard gardening? And how in the world can one attain it?

These three area gardeners have made it their life goal to figure that out.

Neal Taylor – One World Design

Neal Taylor his wife Laura and daughter Lillian live in Wilmingtons Winter Park area and occupy about one-third of an acre of largely sustainable space. By profession Neal Taylor is a landscape designer. He is also the owner of One World Design.

“Im so glad to hear the word sustainable used with gardening ” Taylor says. “Sustainable agriculture is a typically married phrase that most city residents cant relate to whereas sustainable gardening applies to anyone with a yard.”

Sitting at a reclaimed walnut bar in his open-floorplan home Taylor outlines the sustainable practices he employs with conviction. “Were at a definite crossroads in our existence on the planet ” he says.

It was this awareness and his intention to work and live in harmony with nature that inspired Taylor to turn his garden into a living example.

When the Taylors bought their home there were no more than 12 species of plants on the property. Now there are more than 50 mostly flowering varietals and all thriving.

“Diversity makes the whole system less susceptible because you have more balance ” Taylor says. “Diversity even when not well thought out increases beneficial relationships.”

Taylors front yard vegetable garden is very well thought out. A beautifully structured circular garden space surrounds a path leading to the front door. Climbing vegetables have made their way up bamboo poles that Taylor found at the side of the road a few streets away. The placed poles follow the contour of the garden. Vegetable plants are layered around the path from highest to lowest.

Adjacent to the garden a clump of blueberry bushes are buzzing with bees in late spring with hundreds of the inhabitants of his two backyard hives. The only water source for irrigating his street-side garden is a 55-gallon rain barrel. Surrounding the garden are numerous varieties of perennials and flowering shrubs that help keep pollinators close by pine trees that consistently scatter thin layers of garden mulch and a few flowering fruit-bearing trees.

Taylors backyard chickens are kept in a coop adjacent to yet another vegetable garden and provide high-nitrogen compost and compost tea used in both gardens plus a dozen or so eggs per week. The hives and a Taylor-built compost bin a repurposed blue plastic drum for yard and kitchen waste are nearby. The back porch pergola is covered in a thick canopy of exotic green Kiwi vine that pleasantly shades an otherwise sun-beaten outdoor reprieve in summer.

“Theres a lot of hope in thinking about our own little suburban lots as mini-farms or even little urban homesteads ” Taylor says. “If 10 percent of the residents participated it would change a lot.”

Sustainability like most ideals exists on a scale. Any and every step you can take toward sustainable living is a step in the right direction. Planting a plum tree or loquatinstead of a crape myrtleor blueberry bushes in place of other garden shrubs to provide fruit for your family as well as for the birds bees and other insects; pruning with hand tools instead of power tools; using locally produced fertilizers starting a compost pile; planting vegetables and herbs in pots where garden space is limited; and installing a rain barrel are all steps up the sustainability scale.

“If at all possible ” Taylor says “start the compost pile. Composting is one of the very first absolute things you ought to do.” If time permits do a little research to find the container style that fits your lifestyle and budget. Bins are easily constructed but the pre-made containers require a little less energy. The results of composting will at the very least prevent kitchen waste from entering the landfill and at the very best create black nutrient-rich humus that can fertilize family garden rows or trees and shrubs for months.

The second absolute thing that Taylor suggests is cutting back on lawns. “Weve become obsessed with grass in this country ” he says. And only the greenest will do made possible by gallons of pesticides herbicides and fertilizers all of which end up in the watershed and create havoc in the riparian and for marine life. Although there are ways to achieve more sustainable lawns seeding native grasses fertilizing with organic time-released fertilizer and weeding by hand when it comes to grass less is always more sustainable.

Christin Deener – Federal Point Farms

Carolina Beach resident Christin Deener thinks about sustainability before she thinks of anything else. And her partner David Higgins is no different.

Deener and Higgins set up their Farmers Market booth every Saturday on Water Street beside the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington with tables made from old tongue-and-groove doors originally found in their idyllic last-of-its-kind Carolina Beach cottage. Their wares are unloaded from repurposed plastic buckets that once housed But-R-Creme icing at Sams Club.

Their truck farm tractor and Deeners personal car are all fueled by biodiesel that Higgins makes himself using leftover oil from a local restaurant. The tractor used for cultivating is a 1952 Chalmers “G ” found and restored by Higgins. All plastic pots and flats used to start plants were salvaged by Deener from a defunct nursery. And the primary water source on the three-acre farm is an old fire hose that stretches across the acreage ready to put out Julys garden infernos.

Their cottage built in 1939 has been well-preserved and is filled with reclaimed materials a commercial kitchen sink salvaged from the old A&P butcher-block counters once used in a Wilmington electronics company a bathroom sink salvaged from Sweetwater Surf Shop and the list goes on.

Needless to say Deeners farm is planted and worked by the sustainable book.

“Its all about the soil ” she says. The soil at Federal Point Farms located near Carolina Beach off Carolina Beach Road has been amended and amended and amended some more with horse manure green manure lime and much more. The only topical fertilizers Deener applies are organic fertilizers produced as close to home as she can get them.

“Peolple learn to fertilize ” Deener says. “They think that chemical fertilizers are just what you use. And this automatically sets them off the sustainable track.”

Nitrogen a prominent element found in most fertilizers is as serious a water pollutant as most pesticides. (According to Taylor it is connected to more fish kills than pesticides.)

Almost all fertilizers chemical and organic alike contain some percentage of nitrogen.

Deener like most organic farmers tries to redistribute necessary nutrients like nitrogen added to the soil through the use of cover crops. Not only does this practice keep nutrient content from infecting the watershed it builds the rich humus necessary to grow strong healthy plants.

The illusion of chemical fertilizing Deener says is that the plants are usually big and healthy for a short while.

But in the case of fertilizer instant gratification can be deadly. Aside from producing toxic runoff these high-nitrogen chemical fertilizers essentially kill the soil. All those awesome microbes earthworms and other insects that burrow in and feed the soil are nonexistent in areas where chemical fertilizers are heavily used. Eventually this takes a toll on plants leaving them defenseless and vulnerable to disease and fungus because their natural nutrient source is gone. To garden sustainably Deener says living nurtured soil is essential.

Molly Rousey – Copper Guinea Farm

Molly Rousey artist turned gardener and baker has four children ages 5-12. Still somehow in the last five years she has managed to: restore a gorgeous country house in Pender County built in 1840; help create a small Community Supported Agriculture farm for which Rouseys one-acre garden provides; design and operate an in-home bakery; create a line of dressings; and set up a reinvestment fund that assists farmers in developing new sources of agricultural income through the provision of a cost-share grants initiative project that helps fund Mollys garden and bakery endeavors.

The long-time Wilmington resident has had to adjust to country life. “It has been hard ” Rousey says. “But the benefits have been endless.” Her 3 000-square-foot home is heated in the winter by two wood-burning stoves and cooled by window units in the three bedrooms. Her artwork is found at every threshold decorating door-frames with wispy vines and other natural renderings. The long list of renovations to the house all involved reclaimed wood found in dumpsters piles and old buildings as well as sinks and other miscellaneous materials found in the woods on the property.

“I just felt like … so disconnected with the pulse of the planet ” Rousey says. “I couldnt shake an overwhelming desire to re-invent myself.”

The kids roam free here she says. An acre or so from the house they recently constructed a twig hut that all four of them can relax in. The large teepee erected near the house is adjacent to a large sheet hung between trees used to project movies on family night.

The 9.5-acre farm contains four acres of pasture groomed by two cows and a ram. The paddies are used for garden compost. Sheep and chickens are kept on another half acre. There is an acre of garden an original garden shed and lots of open and wooded space. Outside the bakery at the back of the house is a cottage garden filled with herbs perennials and flowering vines.

Taylor a childhood friend of Rouseys has been integral in creating harmonious garden spaces. He designed all the gardens on the farm and has been heavily involved in the CSA which provides anywhere from 28 to 50 area families with a large box of organic produce bread and optional meats and flower bouquets in summer. The meat is offered by Grassy Ridge; herbs and some vegetables by Meg Shelton; and flowers by Deener. “Its a community of gardeners ” Rousey says. “Thats important to me.”

Taylor provides most of the honey that sweetens Rouseys wheat bread and other baked goods. The organic wheat used in her baking comes from a North Carolina certified organic farm.

Sitting at the kitchen table with her children who are munching on turnips and radishes just pulled from the garden minutes before and bread baked that morning Rousey says her creative spirit is sustained by living more sustainably.

As challenging as this new lifestyle can be Rousey says it just feels right. “This is what Im supposed to be doing ” she says with a smile.