The Tribune's Food and Garden series is sponsored by the Travelers Rest Farmers Market.
"The length of time that plants have been on this planet says more than all plant books can explain about their care and what they need to survive."
By Andrew Padula, Contributing Columnist and owner of Greer-based Padula's Plants:
Creating a garden is like putting together a puzzle that has infinite pieces. Those pieces are nature showing you how interconnected it really is with all living things.
Of course, while creating your garden there will be certain puzzle pieces that simply do not fit where you want them to -- like Black Widows and Copperheads. However they do have their place, just not around people or in the garden.
Once you begin to notice how you garden lives, you will see a more complete picture of it's self sustainability. Many times here at the plant nursery what starts off as silence in a garden ends in hearing many different sounds of that gardens life and self sustainability.
But hearing your garden takes time, practicing relaxation, and patience. It also means leaving certain things out of it, like chemicals. Nothing will cause a true silence in a garden like poison. In order for your garden to become self sustainable there has to be a natural food chain in it. From microbes and the plants themselves on up to birds of prey, predatory small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. That is why introducing chemicals into your garden which are only meant to treat one "problem" actually end up causing many problems, because the chemicals will kill parts of the food chain.
Some natural problem solving and chemical free alternatives to maintain your garden's health and natural balance include adding predatory insects like ladybugs and Praying Mantis for pest control, crop rotation to eliminate certain plant pests and diseases from gaining a stronghold in the garden, keeping a high percentage of organic/native soil in the garden, and providing shelter for the beneficial life that helps in the garden's self sustainability.
In short, for every problem you encounter in your garden there is a natural cure that will eventually either work its way into becoming part of your gardens life or leave after the problem is solved, doing so without causing any additional permanent harm to the rest of your gardens life. Many times the gardens life will adjust to and around your naturally introduced cure on such a small scale that it often goes unnoticed.
Hearing your gardens life takes the addition of flowers. Flowers are not only beautiful to look at, they are essential in keeping your garden healthy, and self sustainable. To increase the self sustainability of your gardens life, try to incorporate many different styles of flowers. Flowers from perennials such as Penstemon, Snapdragon, Bee Balm, Liatris, Peppermint, Columbine, Alpine Wallflower, Dianthus, Butterfly Bush, Fennel, Iris, Carolina Allspice, Thyme, Mimosa, along with countless other species and varieties. Each style flower has evolved its own unique shape to attract a certain type of pollinator. Some of these pollinators are also predators of insect plant pests, quite a few of these plant pests spread plant diseases when they feed. So by attracting more and different pollinators to you garden, you also help to keep your garden plants beautiful and disease free.
When listening to the health of your garden, pay attention to bird calls. Most birds in the garden help with insect control while also eating seeds of potential future weeds. Another sure sign of a healthy garden is the sound of pollinators flying through the garden. Pollinators such as Bees, Hummingbirds, and Wasps. If you take the time to sit at ground level in your garden, the ground should sound alive with subtle sounds. At night, keep an ear out for Frogs, Toads, and Bats, which are also important to have around in order to keep the number of insects down.
The last thing to consider for the overall health of the garden is the soil. Here at the plant nursery I make sure there is at least one Nitrogen fixing perennial in each of the stock gardens. Having these permanent plant residents in your garden helps to ensure lush green growth for many of the plants around them. Also, having plenty of organics in the soil will make sure that plants and animals at the bottom of your gardens food chain will be well fed. Some Nitrogen fixing perennial plants that are also great herbs to have in the garden include, Thorny Silverberry, and Mimosa. The Thorny Silverberry produces fragrant flowers in the Fall, followed by edible Fruits in early Spring, it is also an evergreen here in the Upstate. The Mimosa Tree's Pink puffy flowers make a wonderful tea, while also attracting Hummingbirds.
Getting a garden to the point where it can take care of itself is not accomplished in a few weeks or even a few months. It takes cycles of the seasons. What you see in your garden after a couple of summers and a couple of winters is the foundation for life in your garden. From that point on, it is up to you and the choices you make as to how well your personalized mini ecosystem grows and flourishes. This is where respecting nature comes into play when designing your garden. By simply watching how nature around you lives, it will give you a better understanding of how your garden will be on its way to self sustainability. By simply allowing nature into your garden, much of the work in the care of your garden is done for you.