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Conservation Landscaping, with Wendy Bell

Wendy Bell, long-time gardener, garden-club activist, horticulturist and Master Gardener, is also a Watershed Steward. (Recently retired from her long career at the EPA, she’s obviously busier than ever.)  Wendy brought her knowledge of watershed protection to Behnkes and shared it with participants in our recent Garden Party.  She urged us to use gardening practices that help, not hurt the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways in our area.

The problem:  as more and more land is developed, covered over with buildings and pavement, less stormwater gets absorbs, so more and more it simply runs off, untreated, into streams and ultimately the Bay, taking with it air pollutants, excess fertilizer, “dog poop”, oil, and heavy metals.  With development comes not just buildings but millions of acres of lawn, which is too often as impervious as concrete, thanks to the compacted soil it’s planted on, post-construction.

Add to the problem of more impervious surfaces the fact that climate change has brought with it more severe storms, with more of our rainfall arriving in large quantities, not spread out over several showers.  So streams have become wider, and their banks are eroding down the sides, taking trees with them.

Such a huge, multi-faceted problem, but the solution for homeowners is so simple: keep rainwater where it falls.  Concepts go by names like environmentally sensitive design and conservation landscaping, but the goal is the same, that simple one of keeping rainwater on our property so it can seep into the soil.

Wendy summarized the techniques for keeping rainwater on our property:

– Rain barrels, which hold some rainwater, which can later be used to water the garden.  Unfortunately, they only hold the rain produced in the first few minutes of a storm.  To hold enough water to solve the problem, we’d have to use large cisterns.

– Rain gardens are wonderful but their use is limited by requirements that they be at least 10 feet away from buildings and in places like Takoma Park, that they be 50 feet or more away from any tree!  (Wendy’s a Takoma Parkian, so knows whereof she speaks).  Also, after you’ve dug out a big hole for the rain garden, what do you do with the soil you’ve excavated?  Cart it off to the landfill?

So, Wendy encourages people to do what’s easier, cheaper, and generally more effective and in more situations – just grow the right plants.

Perennial-packed garden with very little lawn

Plant Choice
Wendy suggests that we remove as much lawn as we can and replace it with plants that hold more water –  most of us have more than we need, anyway.  Then add compost and plant mostly native plants that have deep roots and really hold rainwater.   Those deep roots also make the plants drought-tolerant!  Gardeners know that trees, shrubs and perennials are more fun to take care of than lawn, anyway.

But what above all the nonnative plants in our gardens?  Wendy grows and loves nonnatives, too, and encourages people to choose plants that are adapted to our climate, wherever they come from originally.  In general, natives will do well here (assuming you give them the right exposure) and do a better job of providing for wildlife than nonnatives, but easy generalizations rarely work in nature, so check to make sure that all the plants you choose are well adapted to where you’re putting them.  That means they don’t need pampering during droughts or treatments to save them from pests.

Mulch, Weed, Water, Repeat
Besides choosing the right plants, environmentally sensitive landscaping means using smart, low-maintenance, organic gardening techniques: mulch to prevent weeds and retain moisture, do a bit of weeding (though fewer and fewer if you keep the mulch in place) and, of course, water (but surprisingly little watering, if you choose your plants wisely).

There’s Money in this Kind of Gardening
Montgomery County’s rainscapes program provides rebates up to $750  for 250 square feet or more of conservation planting.  There’s money for removing pavement, for installing permeable pavers, for rain gardens, cisterns, et cetear.  (Up to $1,200 for a rain garden!)  Click here for all the rebate program details.

And DC’s Riversmart program gives rebates, too.  Here are some Success Stories.

Text and photos by Susan HarrisGarden is by Priscilla Labovitz.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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