By Kathy Hansen, Master Gardener
After attending 18 seminars at the 2023 Northwest Flower and Garden Show (NWFGS) in February, I’m kicking off my inaugural 2023 gardening column with key takeaways I “harvested” from the event. I looked at themes that ran through multiple seminars, as well as ideas Northeast Washington gardeners can apply in their own gardens this year. Most seminar topics could comprise an entire column in themselves, so you may just see more in-depth explorations of these takeaways as this garden season progresses.
You can bring degraded soil back to life. If any message dominated the seminars, it was that gardening is all about soil, especially when it comes to soil that helps grow food. NWFGS presenters David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé are authors of four books on soil, including their latest, What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health. They cited several keys to rebuilding soil: minimal or no disturbance of the soil (see No. 2 below); permanent ground cover, such as cover crops; and diverse crop rotations. The authors illustrated these points with dramatic slides of khaki-colored, hard-packed soil that had been regenerated into rich, loose, brown soil. You can see the difference, too, in a YouTube recording of virtually the same presentation, which you can find on this article’s resources list.
For the sake of soil, digging and tilling have fallen out of favor. Tilling, turning, and digging soil are second nature to gardeners, but these practices have fallen out of favor because they disturb the soil’s microbial ecosystem. NWFGS presenter Charlie Nardozzi, author of The Complete Guide to No-Dig Gardening, recommends building no-dig beds with layers of locally sourced, organic materials – hay, straw, chopped leaves, grass clippings from untreated lawns, compost and composted manure – and then maintaining the beds by always having something growing or covering the bed with organic materials to protect microbes in winter.
Nature and ecology can guide your gardening. NWFGS presenter C. Colston Burrell asserts that gardeners can spend less time maintaining their gardens yet achieve just as much beauty by working with natural processes, such as layering, under planting, free-seeding perennials and annuals, and “a little benign neglect.” Because many wildflowers are considered weeds, we often don’t think about having them in our gardens. But, as Burrell points out, “A weed is a plant whose virtues haven’t been discovered.” Wildflowers are just as attractive to pollinators as traditional garden flowers are.
Consider removing barriers to getting trees and shrubs into the dirt. You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t disturb the root ball of trees and shrubs you buy at your local nursery. NWFGS presenter Linda Chalker-Scott, PhD, however, asserts that roots are not as fragile as they appear. Burlap and pots around roots might suggest that roots are to be protected, but Chalker-Scott notes these vessels are more for transportation than for the good of the plant. “Woody perennials, shrubs, and trees all benefit from a more vigorous approach,” Chalker-Scott says, adding that “surprisingly some of the harshest techniques result in the healthiest plants.” Chalker-Scott, in fact, even supports washing roots of these plants to address problems that may occur with the tree or shrub. She recommends using a hose or a water bath, removing all soil from the roots and then pruning any defective roots.
Join a science-based Facebook garden group. One of the hallmarks of the Master Gardener program, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, is the principle that effective gardening practices should be research-backed and science-based. Home remedies and folklore regarding plant issues may have their place, but it’s hard to beat science and research evidence for valuable gardening advice. The Facebook group Garden Professors is run by Chalker-Scott, cited above for her techniques regarding plant roots. You can join the group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors and see more of Chalker-Scott’s work under the Resources listed at the end of this column.
The WSU Extension Master Gardener Program trains volunteers to be effective community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship. Master Gardeners provide information generated from research at WSU and other university systems.