By Jose German
For Montclair Local
Jose German is a New Jersey environmental activist, Essex County Certified Master Gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition, an nonprofit environmental organization.
Winter is the perfect time to think about your spring garden projects and determine the kind of garden that you want to create. The possibilities, based on your preferences or needs, are numerous. You can create a kitchen garden, herb garden or vegetable garden. If you don’t have a flower garden, think about creating a garden with an environmental purpose, like a sustainable ecological garden to attract butterflies and birds.
A bird or pollinator garden is not only beneficial for the environment but also very attractive aesthetically. This kind of habitat requires selecting bushes and trees related to the natural food chain of birds, butterflies and other beneficial wildlife. My gardening approach is to create a garden that is not only sustainable and eco-friendly but also low maintenance. This concept focuses on placing plants where they’ll thrive on their own, requiring little work on your part. I strongly recommend using native plants from the Northeast region because they belong to this climate, and after they’re established they don’t require a lot of care, resulting in an easy-to-maintain landscape.
SOIL: THE CORNERSTONE OF YOUR GARDEN
I often hear friends say, “I don’t have a green thumb,” but their thumbs would be greener with good garden soil. Plants need specific soil types to grow their best. A nice thing about soil is that you can change it by adding amendments. For instance, you can make slow-draining clay soil more porous and faster-draining by adding organic matter, like compost. Or you can incorporate a completely different soil type in your landscape with raised beds. A soil test is highly recommended, and you can send your sample to the Rutgers University Extension Program. Results will be e-mailed to you directly.
RIGHT PLANT, RIGHT PLACE
Your yard is unique and even has its own micro-climate. The quality of the soil, as well as the natural moisture and the amount of light that your yard receives in a regular day, could be different from your neighbor’s. When selecting plants, you should not only pay attention to the shape and color but also to the conditions affecting the plants. This includes water content (wet soil, semi-dry and dry) and light (full sun, partial shade and shade).
When you select the right plant for the right place, you provide ideal growing conditions and several things happen:
• Plants establish quickly, grow stronger and reproduce.
• Plants produce healthy root systems and abundant foliage.
• Plants are stronger and healthier to resist attack by insects and diseases.
Plants in the wrong place will be susceptible to diseases and fungi and will be easy prey for insects. Careful garden planning is the key to success and will save money and time.
Plants are grouped in two major categories, annuals and perennials. Annuals are seasonal and exotic, require a lot of care, and often are less useful to pollinators and birds. Some perennials can be exotic and invasive; others may require special care. I highly recommend native perennials, especially if you wish to create an eco-friendly and sustainable garden. Native plants are tolerant of local conditions, like summer droughts and winter freezes, and naturally attract pollinators and birds, with nectar for butterflies and often berries and nesting sites for birds. Buy plants that belong to our hardiness zone (6b), to be sure they will survive the winter. Also, consider if your space meets the plant’s light requirements—full sun, partial shade or shade.
EMBRACE COLOR AND TEXTURE
As you select plants, consider leaf and flower colors, and how these will blend or clash with existing landscape and hardscaping. Remember to use the seasonal sequence of blooming to plan your color scheme, to make a great impression on neighbors and passers-by.
Most gardeners experience some “critter” issues in their yards. Some problem wildlife, like groundhogs, raccoons, rabbits or deer, can wreak havoc with the best-laid garden design. While you may not win every battle, you can outsmart the animals. Hardscaping, like a fence, can provide a physical barrier to limit problem wildlife’s access to gardening areas. Selecting plants that are repellent to some predators helps to naturally control unwelcome garden guests.
Visualizing your future garden in the barren winter months can be an inspiring relief from seasonal doldrums. Hopefully, with these guidelines you will have a plan of action ready for when the spring thaw begins.