PRFCT Perspectives

Tagged with "Soil"

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This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on October 20, 2023.

Photo: A detail of a planting in the Bosque garden, designed by Piet Oudolf. Oudolf created a horticultural master plan for The Battery in 2004. Rich with texture, color, and fragrance, the gardens are filled with perennial and native plants designed to be enjoyed year round.

For two decades, The Battery has been a model for public parks and sustainable horticulture in New York City and beyond, proving that what we work toward at Perfect Earth Project is possible—and beautiful: You can plant drop-dead gorgeous landscapes for biodiversity. You can care for these perennial gardens, which are designed by a world-renowned designer, without any toxic chemicals—and do it for decades. You can create and plant a playground to handle floods from ever-frequent storms. You can nurture old-growth trees. You can grow an organic farm right in the middle of downtown Manhattan and use it to teach and feed people. You can do all of this while welcoming millions of people 365 days of the year—for free.

The powerhouse behind The Battery is Warrie Price, the founder of the nonprofit Battery Conservancy, which “designs, builds, maintains, and activates” the park. It doesn’t surprise me at all when autocorrect changes “Warrie” to “warrior.” She’s been a beloved and fierce advocate for conservation and sustainable horticulture for decades. “I think we have done an extraordinary project that began so small, but then really took off because how can you not want to keep making things beautiful?” she says. “At The Battery Conservancy, we like to say we’re ‘devoted to wow.’”

Price shares her thoughts about The Battery.

How did The Battery Conservancy begin? How did this park come to be the beloved place it is today?

I was asked by Betsy Barlow Rogers to create a nonprofit for The Battery. The park had a master plan created by landscape architect Philip Winslow, who sadly died before the project could begin. But Betsy said make sure you’re in accord with it, because if you can't visualize, if you can't be excited to implement it, then it’s going nowhere. The master plan is the skeleton of the park, the guidelines. But there was no horticulture, no horticulturist on the team at the time, no playground, no bikeway, no urban farm. Still, it provided the guidelines, and we review it every time we make a change in the park. After reviewing and embracing the master plan, I created The Battery Conservancy. We started with the promenade. We hired Piet Oudolf, who was not well known here at the time. He created a master horticultural plan. I think his genius is bringing the natural world into this romantic environment. In 2003, Piet first designed the Garden of Remembrance after 9/11 to honor those we lost, those who made it home safe that day, and those who would come later. It was created by private funding and a whole lot of volunteer hands. We’ve been able to enjoy them for 20 years, but they’re now about to go through reconstruction with the changes to the park. [Oudolf’s other contributions include the Bosque gardens, woodland plantings, and the bikeway.]

I think from the beginning, I wanted to make the park its own destination, not just a passageway. It was important to me personally because of its rich heritage.

What do you need for a successful garden?

When you’re planning a garden, whatever type it is, you need two things to ensure its success: authenticity and a program for how you’re going to use it. First, you have to be authentic to the landscape. Take the time to understand the history of the land, its topography, geography, and soil. Then, the second thing you need is a program, visualize how you’re going to use the space. If you don't have a program, if you haven't visualized how you want to be there, enjoy it and be a part of it, you're going to have a failed garden.

Why are public parks and gardens important to city life?

Beauty never stops healing the soul, and gardens are beautiful: green gardens, multi-color gardens—all plant life. Also, public parks and gardens in cities are unexpected, so they're cherished. They get people to stop because there is always something of interest happening, especially in a perennial garden. When you come to The Battery every week, you'll see the gardens change and evolve.

Our goal at The Battery is to enhance life mentally and physically. When you physically walk through the gardens, you interchange with nature. Mentally there’s a quiet sense of what beauty does to get your mind concentrating on something. That's an additive to good health and a good feeling versus dealing with the stress and the problems that surround you in a very urban setting.

Why was it important to be toxic-free from the start?

I learned a lot about conservation from Mrs. Johnson. [Price was college roommates with Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President and Lady Bird Johnson (or Mrs. Johnson as she called her), and lived at the White House for a time. She helped Lady Bird Johnson found the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX, where she is also a founding director.] When we started the Battery Conservancy, I always thought, no pesticides, no herbicides. We’re small. We can afford to pull our weeds ourselves. We can think of other ways instead of chemicals. For example, we’ll use integrated pest management like beneficial nematodes instead of toxic sprays. Nature has remedies if you’re knowledgeable. We worked with Rutgers to pick the best turf blend for the lawn we do have. We love our nitrogen producing clover in the lawn. The parks department found our perennial gardens to be much more economical than cutting hedges and mowing lawns all the time. We have a slogan: plant our parks. We want to set a standard for both public park design and maintenance. The gardens here are the essence of what the park is.

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Thanks to the efforts of Warrie Price and The Battery Conservancy, cracked and barren blacktop was transformed into a perennial haven planted for biodiversity and beauty—and always taken care of without toxic chemicals.

What are you doing for biodiversity?

We’ve been working with Audubon NYC and now have more birds in the park than ever before. We leave seed heads during the winter and have planted different types of ornamental grasses and habitat. We’re a destination for migratory birds. They're so beautiful, and they bring such life. We're also a Monarch Waystation [A habitat designated by Monarchs International that supports migration and reproduction of Monarch butterflies]. We’ve planted milkweed. They also feed on Agastache and other flowers as they make their way south. We’re feeding them along the way.

We have also decided to support our native bees as much as possible. We will no longer be hosting European honeybee hives in the park because we know our native bees need uninterrupted space for themselves. Bees are great communicators of life. They give hope when you see their populations increasing.

We want everyone to “leave the leaves'' instead of throwing them away. They fertilize the lawn and become habitat for insects during the winter. And then of course, we’re toxic-free. We cultivate everything—our urban farm, forest farm, all the gardens, lawn maintenance—without chemicals and always have. We can all be conservationists.

What are the challenges of having a public park during climate change?

The evolution of The Battery is always about change. We have to adapt to the garden’s needs—and those needs change. I would say every 20 years the needs must be re-evaluated and adapted. We certainly see this now.
For a thousand years, there has been the relationship of landscape to water. As I mentioned earlier, we’re about to go through some changes. The promenade is being totally rebuilt. It will be elevated six feet to handle rising sea waters from climate change. There will still be the Gardens of Remembrance, they’ll just be different. They will be more like embankment gardens because everything will be raised up high and you'll walk up to the promenade versus down to it the way you do now. We hope the project will be completed by 2026.

We recently completed a playscape, which was designed after Hurricane Sandy, to flood and recover. Instead of ignoring this flood prone area, we reimagined it for play. We want to be a model for waterfront flood prone areas all over the world. Come talk to us about creating bioswales and reserve tanks under climbing structures and climbing mounds. Ask us about designing with salt-tolerant plants that like wet soil. A couple of weeks ago when we had a deluge of rain from a storm, the playscape didn’t flood. We don’t want municipalities to leave these areas dormant. We've learned a lot. We're now able to share that knowledge with others.

For so long this park was all about water gazing, to paraphrase Melville, and now it's a landscape about learning. It's a landscape to impart so much knowledge through our gardens, through our biodiversity, through our birds, through our bees. They’re all telling great stories. I think about the evolution of how we are today, how our “learning landscape” has evolved through our programing. This transformation, these 30 years of designing and rebuilding, we now have this transformed landscape of 25 acres, and gardens and horticulture—no pesticides, no herbicides have been a huge part. We continually say no to things that were very much part of traditional park management.

Do you have a favorite time in the garden?

I love the beginning of the morning. The light is so magnificent because it reflects off the waters. But then the sunsets are fabulous, especially now. I also adore being by the fountain in the middle of a warm day. I watch all the children playing surrounded by plants—the coolness of the shade and the refreshing water sprays. I’m happiest when I see the way people interact with the garden—especially the children. I think, you know, it worked. The people make the programs come alive. We’re free to the public and open 365 days of the year, 24 hours of the day. And the impact is so much bigger than just us. It's so much bigger than downtown. It's so much bigger than any other park. Gardens are beautiful. You can never underestimate the power of beauty on mental and physical health.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bosque

The densely planted gardens are magical in fall.

Photos: Courtesy of The Battery Conservancy

Wethersfield June E News

Perfect Earth continues to expand our Pathways to PRFCT program, a network of diverse public gardens and parks, managed for health and well-being, beauty, biodiversity, and sustainability. I’m happy to announce that Wethersfield Estate and Garden in Amenia, New York, is our newest partner. Conservation has been at the heart of the 1000-acre estate since it was established by the late Chauncy Stillman more than 80 years ago. He helped shape modern farming techniques by enhancing soil health, reducing soil erosion, and promoting water conservation. Today, the estate features an elegant Italianate garden with more than 20 miles of trails and over 400 acres of woodlands. Upholding that spirit of conservation, the horticulture team is now designing flower displays so there’s always something blooming for pollinators, planting more natives, especially keystone species, and removing invasives on the property. They’re also saving resources, limiting watering to establishing new plants and in times of drought, and retaining biomass on site. We’re especially pleased to welcome them because Perfect Earth's Toshi Yano helped revitalize this garden as their director of horticulture from 2019 to 2022, starting many of these methods. We hope you will visit to see the beautiful results of these nature-based practices.

Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

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In November, I wrote about why it is so important to keep biomass (organic matter) on your property and some easy creative ways to manage various types such as branches, leaves, grasses, and garden clippings (Closing the Loop, Part 1).

The way to make the bulk of your biomass into free fertilizer is composting. It is the best-known way, and the most misunderstood.

Composting is simply the act of decomposition; like aging, it is inevitable, just do nothing at all and your various landscape stuff will eventually break down into the ground; that is what happens in the wild. If composting is so easy, and so important an environmental act, why doesn’t everyone do it?

In the managed landscape we like to play a role in how and where the decomposing happens, so we make compost piles. Anything organic can go into a compost pile, and if you just leave it, you will, eventually, absolutely have compost.

But, without some assistance, the process will be slow, and, depending on what you put in there, it could attract pests. In an informal survey of young homeowners (courtesy of my niece April) the amount of work required, the amount of space needed, and the possibility of smells and rodents came out as the top reasons why people don’t compost. But do not worry, these are all very easily overcome.

You really should be composting.

Composting relies on microbes, which can do the job with oxygen (aerobic) or without oxygen (anaerobic). Home composting is aerobic; the key components for happy, hungry microbes are the right balance of air and water. Happily, microbes are very tolerant. If they aren’t getting the right balance, they just slow down.

WORK: You can do nothing and let your compost pile break down slowly or you can help with the air and water to make the microbes more active. Turning a compost pile keeps it aerated. Occasional watering keeps it from drying out. Covering with a tarp helps keep the moisture in but also keeps it from getting too wet. The more you work to keep your pile turned and the right amount of moist, the faster your compost happens.

Compost piles can be cold or hot. Hot compost heats up and kills off pathogens and weed seeds. It is faster than cold. It requires a carefully monitored mix of nitrogen, carbon, water, and oxygen. Sometimes compost heats up all by itself but creating a reliably hot compost is a lot of work. Hot compost is important for garden nerds and compost professionals, but as I think EVERYONE should compost, I focus on the easy version, cold composting. It is simple, it works. It closes the loop just fine.

COLD COMPOSTING (it is logical, there are no mysteries):
  • Air? If you don’t want to turn the pile, start with a layer of twigs and/or wood chips and add more fluffy stuff (leaves, small branches) between successive layers to provide airflow.
  • Time? The smaller the pieces, the faster they break down. So, if you wish to speed things up, as well as reduce the size of your heap, run your mower over the leaves and chop up garden trimmings into smaller pieces before adding to your pile.
  • Bulk? For large amounts of compost and faster results, use the 3-pile system (see below).
  • Moisture? Remember the moisture: if dry, add some water and then cover the pile with a tarp weighted down with bricks or logs.
  • Weed seeds? Make a separate pile for plants with seeds or viable roots. Don’t use compost from this pile in your garden beds until you are sure the seeds and roots have been there so long, they are dead. If you aren’t turning and your piles start sprouting, do your best to cut or pull the growth before it goes to seed. Or just keep heaping stuff on top to suppress growth.
  • Rodents? Not a problem if you are turning your pile very frequently, but if that’s not happening, don’t put “food” (kitchen scraps) in the heap; use a rodent-proof closed bin system (see below).
  • Smells? It is anaerobic decomposition that stinks. If your pile has enough air, it will smell earthy-good. Kitchen scraps add a lot of moisture and can get anaerobic/smelly (not to mention the rodent thing), so turn them a lot or used a closed bin system.
  • Additives? What about adding manure or other inputs? This is only needed if you are growing produce like fruits and vegetables that require high fertility. If you are removing food from your garden, you need to replace what you have taken, that’s another story. PRFCT focuses on food for non-human life forms; they live, eat, poop, and die in your garden; that’s the closed loop.
  • Sun or Shade? Warmth is good to keep the organisms going, but too much sun can overheat them and dry out the pile. Best (but not essential) to pick a spot that gets a bit of shade in the heat of the summer and sun in the winter.
  • Done? Compost is ready when there are no big chunks. If you want to get fancy, you can screen it before adding to your plantings and throw any chunks back on the pile.
  • Don’t? Put anything in that has been exposed to pesticides (pre-emergent herbicides, broadleaf killers, insecticides) which may kill the microbes and/or inhibit growth of beds where the compost is eventually applied. Best not to use pesticides in the first place.
  • More Don’t? Avocado pits, corn cobs, citrus peels, dog and cat poop (except if on certain medications) – too slow to break down or too icky for an open pile but fine in closed bin.
SYSTEMS: Piles or bins? Ready-made?
  • Piles: heap everything in one or more places that are convenient and let it go or turn as your time and energy allow. Push the pile aside at the edges to remove finished compost beneath. Very big piles will take longer (less oxygen) so best to spread them out if space allows.
  • Bins: build enclosures to contain piles and help you look and feel organized. Warning – most prefab bins are squares and make it fairly impossible to reach in and turn; you need at least one open side to access. Although it is nice to have some air flow in your bin walls, avoid using wire cages, as your spading fork (preferred tool for turning) will get stuck in it – very annoying.
  • Configurations: If you have the space for lots of yard waste, and feel a bit more energetic, a 3-bin system is great – one space each for new, mid-process, and done. You can move the compost from bin to bin as it matures, or you can simply stop adding to a bin when it gets full and go to the next. Ideally, by the time the last bin is full, the first is ready for harvesting. That will depend, of course, on how big the bin, how much you add, and how often you turn.
  • Closed Bins: rodent proof, odor free, space saving, self-aerating bins can take meat, fish, and dairy, and chunky stinky stuff. Turning is suggested but not essential. Most important is to add plenty of “carbon” (leaves, wood chips, sawdust, clean shredded paper, cardboard). For a very small property, one or two of these can be your entire composting system. I love my Green Johanna but have just purchased an Aerobin to test it. The problem with both is they are plastic and shipped from overseas.
  • Contraptions: Rotating bins are another type of closed system now offered on most every garden retailing site. The concept seems solid: turning a handle is easier than turning a pile with a fork. The problems: 1) too small for most needs as they get too heavy to turn when larger. 2) At some point you need to stop adding material so you can finish what is in there. Buy, or make two or more of them. One of our respondents uses two barrels which she just rolls around. 3) Some require the purchase of proprietary “activator” pellets, which is contrary to the concept.
  • Vermiculture: fun but fussy. Not recommended for those seeking low-maintenance options.
USES:

Compost is organic matter; every teaspoon can contain billions of microorganisms, ready to help your landscape thrive. Compost, however, is not the same as soil as it doesn’t contain minerals. Use compost to improve moisture retention and enrich soil, but not to replace soil. Compost is organic matter; every teaspoon can contain billions of microorganisms, ready to help your landscape thrive. Compost, however, is not the same as soil as it doesn’t contain minerals. Use compost to improve moisture retention and enrich soil, but not to replace soil.

If you turn your compost occasionally and maintain average moisture, it should be ready for use in 6 months to 1 year. Lazy version, figure on 2 years. Ready to:

  • Fix bare patches in your lawn
  • Top dress the entire lawn
  • Add to soil when planting trees and shrubs
  • Add to soil in raised veg beds
  • Mix into new flower beds or scratch into old ones
  • Let it be

Honor what your place produces; sending it to the dump uses fossil fuels for transport, generally involves dump fees, and creates methane (highly potent greenhouse gas) when it decomposes in the anaerobic landfill system.

Your yard does not produce garbage, it makes its own perfect food. It is free.

MORE:

General info https://www.nrdc.org/stories/composting-101
About microbes https://compost.css.cornell.edu/microorg.html
Full on compost nerd info https://www.compostmagazine.com/

Quote: “This beautiful gift of attention that we human beings have is being hijacked to pay attention to products and someone else’s political agenda. Whereas, if we can reclaim our attention and pay attention to things that really matter, there a revolution starts”. Robin Wall Kimmerer, NY Times Feb 2023

Book: The Uninhabitable Earth , David Wallace-Wells

Allan Pollack Morris

Eco Anxiety Antidote

January 18, 2023

If you use a landscaper for the maintenance of your property, the beginning of the year is contract renewal time. Of course you are probably starting this year anxious about your health and the environment and you aren’t sure whether signing up for a weekly dose of noise and poison in your yard is the best thing to do. It just doesn’t quite feel right, which adds to your eco-anxiety. But instead of worrying more, you could use this moment to do good. Guaranteed good for the environment, and super healthy for you and your family.

You just need to ask your landscaper to do things a bit differently by switching to nature-based practices. He/she may not know how, and chances are, you don’t know either. So who does know? Sadly, there are very few nature-based landscapers, and there probably isn’t anyone better for you to hire than the one you have got. So unless they flatly refuse to try, don’t fire them. Let’s engage and train the ones we’ve got, and send the message out that this is the future of land care. It is healthier for them too.

Everything you need to get started is in our PRFCT LeafLet Basics of Nature-Based in English and Spanish. For a typical annual maintenance schedule, which you can use as the basis of your new contract, go straight to page 21 – review it with your landscaper. It should not cost more, there are no products to purchase.

What is nature-based? Here’s the nutshell: Healing, not Harming. Let nature do the nurturing.

  • No toxic fertilizers or insecticides. Fertilizers overstimulate plants and make them susceptible to disease. The right plant for your soil, doesn’t need them. Insecticides are not target specific, they kill beneficial insects and soil organisms. You don’t depend on your landscape to eat, so why not share it with a host of wonderful life forms that could find refuge there?  
  • Retain, recycle and reimagine all biomass. Keep what your property produces (grass clippings, leaves, twigs, weeds, etc.) and feed it back to the soil. It is the food your place made for itself. Better than anything you can buy, and without the carbon footprint. (See PRFCT Lawn Basics for more).
  • Plant at least 2/3 native plants. Plants did fine without us humans for eons, so if you plant the ones that evolved in your conditions, they will still be fine with very little from you. Plus, they provide just the right food and shelter for local birds and pollinators. (See 2/3 for the Birds for more).
  • Avoid and remove invasive plants. Get to know which plants are invasive. (See the Invasive Plant Atlas for more). Don’t buy them. Remove and replace any you have already got. (See Beyond Pesticides for more).
  • Water properly. Very seldom. Very deep. Over-watering is one of the most common landscape malpractices. It leads to a wide range of plant and soil problems and promotes tick and mosquito populations.  
  • Minimize pruning. Every cut is a wound. Plant with plenty of space for trees and shrubs to grow to their natural shapes. Leave deadwood and standing dead trees, unless positioned dangerously, they provide unique food and nesting opportunities.
  • Relax and enjoy. Your landscape is not your living room; forcing it to be tidy, clipped, and fixed in time is “dead room.” Let it be alive; always changing and creating new surprising delights for you.

Keep in mind, your landscaper doesn’t necessarily know any more about this than you do. So make sure he/she understands that this is an adventure in earth friendly relationships and as long as they are willing to truly commit to the practices, you will be happy. It is a whole new way to relate to your land.

Hooray, eco-anxiety reduction in action! You are doing something unquestionably good for the earth. (Not to mention yourself, your family, and your pets). Once you get started, you will find there was nothing to fear. It is all fascinating, joyous, and beautiful. 

If you encounter some problem that makes you want to give up, contact me: edwina@perfectearthproject.org

Suggestion: Watch as your nature-based landscape supports more and more birds and pollinators. Start recognizing and recording them on iNaturalist and eBird, and become part of a global network of citizen scientists.

Next month: Help me prepare for Biomass Part 2. Send me your composting concerns. If you aren’t composting, why not? If you are, what worries you? Write me: edwina@perfectearthproject.org

Bonus: All you ever wanted to know about climate change.

Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris

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Closing The Food Loop - Part 1

November 17, 2022

It’s Fall and here comes the Plant Biomass -- leaves, twigs, tumbling grasses, and the last of the fluffy seedheads. Biomass is all the organic stuff your property makes and, in the PRFCT world, gets to keep…all for itself. Plant biomass provides habitat for insects and adds decomposing matter, which makes healthy soil, which feeds healthy plants, which makes more biomass. That’s the way of the food web loop.

We are all hearing about Leave the Leaves, so while we are figuring out how to do that, why not just do it all, and close the loop: save ALL your biomass? Imagine: No biomass sent to the landfill; no fertilizers, mulch, or compost bought in. Nothing your property makes is treated as garbage. Total harmony, perfect balance, major good for the planet, and for you.
Leaves alone can be a challenge to manage, and they degrade quickly, what about the longer lasting stuff: Twigs, branches, even whole trees; how to find a place for them? ARTFULLY!

Leaves: Chop (when dry!) with a mower and leave as many as possible on the lawn. Next batch can go into planting beds, chopped or not. All the rest – compost. Chopping does damage to insects tucked in for the winter, like Fireflies and Luna Moths, so please do keep that in mind.

Twigs: Make habitat piles as ephemeral art. Wrens and Thrushes especially like having such places to hide from predators and nasty weather.

Every place’s pile has its own personality. The bigger a garden, the more biomass it makes. The more habitat it hosts.

Branches: Get them chipped and use them for garden paths and for smothering difficult weeds.

Get inventive! Every fall, every fallen branch, every invasive shrub cut down, a new opportunity.

Trees: Log piles make great dividers and screens, plus habitat for native bees, chipmunks, and snakes. Yes, you really do need snakes, they eat voles.

Stumps: The heart of a Hügel, (the hill in HügelKulture) PRFCT Earth style. Place stumps and funky logs in a shallow hole. Cover with twigs, sod/soil, leaves, compost, whatever needs a place to decompose. Wet it all down well. Plant a cover crop, or finish with an imaginative use of biomass, like more twigs, or leaves. The stump, deep in the center of it all, emanates moisture and feeds the biome. Artful decomposition.

Meadow and Flower Bed Cuttings (late spring): Haystacks! So many wonderful ways to make them– old sticks can get used up inside…also handy for smothering weeds.

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