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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gardening: ‘Messy’ techniques make garden more sustainable

Margaret Drumm breaks up milkweed stems in her South Hill garden. She will break them into small pieces and drop them back into the garden. Messy gardening like this benefits beneficial insects and restores the soil.  (Pat Munts/For The Spokesman-Review)
Margaret Drumm breaks up milkweed stems in her South Hill garden. She will break them into small pieces and drop them back into the garden. Messy gardening like this benefits beneficial insects and restores the soil. (Pat Munts/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Pat Munts For The Spokesman-Review

When Margaret Drumm and her family moved into their upper South Hill home 11 years ago, her yard had the typical lawn and shrubbery landscaping. Over the ensuing years, she became interested in growing a more sustainable landscape that used less water and featured more native plants and their allies to support birds, pollinators and other beneficial insects.

She traded most of the lawn in the backyard for a large, raised bed garden, fruit trees, berry bushes and a flock of chickens. She left some of the lawn for her kids to play on. In the areas not planted to garden or fruit, she began planting drought-tolerant perennials and shrubs that were more sustainable. Then came the front yard. Drumm began removing the old landscaping a bit at a time so as not to shock the neighbors too much. “I wanted to replace it all but I also wanted to do it well so it would be appreciated by the neighborhood.”

She planted back native shrubs like red osier dogwood and dozens of native perennials that would need water only during the driest part of the summer. Doing one section at a time, she removed the lawn, mulched the area with arborist wood chips and replanted. The sod was stacked green side down into mounds that will eventually be planted with more plants after the sod rots down. “Wood chips are a great mulch because they keep weeds down and are very inexpensive,” she said. “The arborist companies are always looking for places to dump chips.” Contrary to popular thinking, the wood chips don’t draw nutrients from the soil in amounts that will affect the plants.

When SpokaneScape was launched by the city of Spokane, Drumm took advantage of the program’s design assistance to remove another section of lawn and replant with more drought tolerant and pollinator friendly plants. As an added benefit, upon approval of her efforts, she received a credit on her water bill.

When spring clean-up time comes to Drumm’s garden this spring, she won’t be raking out piles of dead plants stalks, leaves or other garden detritus. Rather she will merely rake the leaves off the tops of the perennials and break any standing stalks into smaller pieces and leave them on the garden to decay and return to the soil. No creating huge piles of stuff that must be loaded into a trailer and hauled to the transfer station. No shelling out cash to pay to dump the stuff. The debris is left to eventually break down and feed the soil like nature does in the forest.

For many of you, this runs counter to your idea of the perfect garden. However, this is the way nature works and as we shift our gardening methods to a more sustainable model, we need to mimic nature. So, chop down old flower and plant stems and leave them on the ground. Shred up the debris on the lawn and add it back to your beds as mulch. Be a messy gardener.

Correspondent Pat Munts can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.

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