New Year's Resolutions for the Garden

January is one of the best times for thinking about the garden.   While plants rest in dormancy under the frozen ground, my mind starts racing next spring’s garden.  It’s particularly true this year.  Last month, my wife and I bought a house in Arlington, Virginia.  It’s an ugly 1951 rambler that needs quite a bit of work (the real estate ad said “ignored, not abused.  As-is condition”).  But it was a great deal, and has a nice-sized sunny yard that I can’t stop thinking about.  I redesign it every other day.  I keep moving around the different gardens I’d like to have in it. 
My I-can’t-live-without list includes a potager (the French counterpart to the English kitchen garden), a cutting garden, a wild garden, an herbaceous border with a color theme (maybe oranges, saffrons, corals . . . I’m mad about orange this year), some boxwood or yews clipped into dreamy shapes, a potting shed . . . the list goes on and on.  Of course, all this has to be done with almost no budget (the money evaporated with the down payment), so perhaps I’ll have to collect seeds from the wild.  Or steal cuttings from the neighbors under the cover of darkness.
All of this dreamy delirium needs to be harnessed with some disciplined New Year’s resolutions.   Here I’m proposing some of my garden resolutions for 2011.  Perhaps some of them will inspire your garden resolutions.
1.       Turn Lawn into Gardens:  It’s time for me to practice what I preach.  For years, I’ve railed against the American lawn, claiming that lawns should be more like area rugs—small, well defined spaces for living—rather than wall-to-wall carpeting.  This winter I’m hoping to smother around 70% of the existing lawn under a blanket of newspapers and compost, and stimulate the decomposition process with microbiological stimulants.  By late May, the sod will have dissolved and the beds will be ready for planting.  Now if I could only afford plants . . .
2.       Eat your Garden:  As an obsessive ornamental gardener, I have been rather dismissive of vegetables and fruits in the garden.  Why sacrifice precious space for a straggly tomato or sprawling cucumber?  But the urban food movement (and my wife) has finally worn down my resistance.  What could be more grounding, more sustaining than eating fresh food from the garden? 
Of course, the challenge will be how to make vegetables look good.   For inspiration, I’ve turned to the ancient art of the French potager.  These kitchen gardens are neatly organized in geometric beds, making even the most sprawling vegetables look designed.  This image from California landscape architect Rob Steiner, one of my favorite designers, has inspired my potager:
A vegetable garden designed by landscape architect Rob Steiner.  Click here for website. 

3.       Set Sustainable Standards for Plants:  I have a weakness for weird and fabulous plants.  But in this small yard, it’s not enough for plants to be merely pretty.  Instead they have to perform some greater good.  So before I go out and buy a plant for the yard, it needs to answer yes to at least two of these questions:   Does it provide nectar for a pollinator?  Can native insects, moths, or butterflies feed off its leaves?  Will it provide habitat for birds, small mammals, or reptiles? Will it lower the energy costs for my house?  Can it tolerate drought? Is it native to my region?  Will it filter and clean runoff from my roof?  Does it inspire and ecological aesthetic?  Can I eat it? 
Leonotis leonorus, Lion's Tail is a rich nectar source for pollinators. Photo by Thomas Rainer
4.       Spend Time with Family in the Garden:  The benefits of gardening are well documented in research.  It relieves stress, improves your heart and flexibility, promotes deeper sleeping, helps children develop social and intellectual skills, and encourages better nutrition.  This year, we will try to forgo cable and head out to the yard—together.  

5.       Skip the Cultivars; Use Straight Species:  This one is the hardest for me.  Each time I open my library of nursery catalogues, I swoon over the latest cultivars, particularly of native plants.  But this year, my goal will be to use a majority of straight species.  Why?  Straight species are plants as they are found in the wild; cultivars are forms of the species bred asexually for particular ornamental characteristics.  Cultivars are typically more colorful, floriferous, and compact than their parent plants. 

It’s not that cultivars are bad.  In fact, there’s no evidence to suggest that it supports less wildlife than the straight species.  However, cultivars represent a genetic reduction of the species as millions of plants are bred from one parent plant.  This genetic reduction can be problematic in the future, making the plants less resistant to diseases and pests.  Genetic variation holds the key to the species future, allowing for mutations that will help the species survive well into the future. 

So this year, I plan to support straight species in my garden.  I was inspired by reading that the legendary British gardener Beth Chatto actually prefers straight species to cultivars.  Her stunning Gravel Garden gives me the motivation to resist the lure of cultivars.
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