By Kim Davis
August is typically one of the hottest and muggiest months in what is not so lovingly called “the swamp” of Washington, D.C. This year has proved no exception. We have seen rapid, torrential rainfall comparable to tropical storms. In addition, we have watched as the upper northwest experienced the hottest temperatures on record, fires continually ravage parts of the West Coast with smoke screens extending as far as the Atlantic, serious drought hit the southwest and coastal waters silently seeped beneath buildings and homes undermining their stability, causing collapse and loss of life.
As nature continues to change, experts in the field of gardening and horticulture are urging us to rethink our personal garden spaces, not only for our enjoyment but for the ecological impact to the planet as well. With fall approaching, now is a good time to assess how we can adapt the green spaces around our homes to better help our environment.
The topic has been weighing on my mind as I survey our backyard. Garden plantings, light sources and water patterns have continued to change and evolve. Erosion due to ever-increasing water drainage has caused misplaced plantings to wither and grass that once thrived to resemble a mangy dog.
So, how can we use this time wisely to assess and prepare our gardens for the approaching winter solstice and spring that will not only address our changing landscapes, but also make a positive impact on our environment?
“One of our first and primary concerns should be the health of our soil,” Kirsten Conrad, extension agent and agriculture and natural resources-horticulture specialist for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said. “Soil in our area tends to consist of dense sandy clay with a thin veneer of topsoil that creates erosion problems particularly in yards with sloping topography.”
Conrad recommends several options climate-conscious gardeners can implement to ensure more environmentally friendly gardens.
“Lawns take a toll on the environment due to heavy use of water resources, pollution of waterways due to fertilizers and damage to pollinators and other wildlife from herbicide and pesticide applications,” Conrad said. “One solution is to consider reducing the amount of space devoted to turf grass.”
Conrad noted families can set aside areas for children and pets, but by expanding garden beds to include trees and shrubs, perennials, summer annuals, vegetables and herbs, we provide more root structure to the garden thus reducing erosion and creating better microclimates for our plants.
Plants provide our gardens with color, texture and stunning visual displays, but they will not flourish unless we ensure a healthy, nourishing foundation. A starting point for that process is to gather important information about our yard’s current conditions, starting with a soil test that provides levels of pH acidity and alkalinity, nutrient levels and fertilizer recommendations.
Soil kits can be obtained through Virginia Tech’s soil test lab services at the Alexandria Extension Office, the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia website and at area garden centers and hardware stores.
Development in our area has created increasingly high percentages of impermeable hardscapes including rooftops, patios, streets and sidewalks. This, in addition to heavy clay soil that is slow to drain, causes increased erosion of lawns and garden soil.
Conrad suggested gardeners first take a keen look at their green spaces after rainfall. Pooling water indicates poor drainage and low infiltration rates into the soil. If you see standing water in your lawn for more than a few hours, it likely requires more extreme action. It might be worthwhile to talk with a professional landscaper about options.
According to Conrad, time-honored practices, such as introducing organic matter into lawns that have weak growth by aerating and applying organic compost; installing a rain garden or a bioretention area to collect rainwater runoff; and installing swales, yard drains and French drains to collect and quickly move water away from homes and garden beds, are worth considering.
Conrad said consistently or frequently wet soils in low areas can also provide gardeners with the perfect opportunity to expand beds with native Virginia moisture-loving plants, turning a problem into a beautiful bed that attracts bees, butterflies and birds. There are many attractive native wetland plant species that thrive in poorly drained, wet soils, some of which can be found on Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia’s “Tried and True Native Plantings” list. Residents can also view these plantings in person at gardens throughout Alexandria, including at Simpson Gardens, Fairlington Community Center and Bon Air Park.
Science tells us that trees play a huge role in the carbon cycle. They convert CO2 in the air to oxygen, through the process of photosynthesis, and in this way, they can be looked at as a natural regulator of carbon dioxide levels. The more trees, the less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the more oxygen. If you are considering adding a new tree to your garden this fall, the North Ridge Tree Canopy Campaign, a nonprofit organization headed by Alexandrians Lynn Gas and Jane Seward, has curated a list of 10 native trees for sale during the month. Driven to augment the recent loss of trees in our area, the campaign is selling a variety of oak, poplar, sycamore and elm trees that will grow and mature into canopy cover for generations to come. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Conrad noted that the official USDA Hardiness Zone charts have not changed, but that Northern Virginia is already experiencing weather patterns native to more traditionally southern climates. So, when searching for plantings for your gardens, it might be prudent to begin looking at warm-weather planting options.
“Now is the time to lean in and pivot into how our gardens can thrive into the future,” Conrad said.
The writer is a member of the Hunting Creek Garden Club and formerly served as both president and vice president of the club.