An historic mill is surrounded by a chemical-free garden
Jayne Bentzen’s garden surrounds her home. The property also includes the historic Red Mill in Litchfield County, Connecticut. This location has history dating back to native American tribes in pre-Colonial times, who had a camp near the River Sprain. As well as working to restore the old mill building, Jayne and her husband, Benedict, have re-established a flower-laden garden around the house. “We could tell from the variety of plants and the remnants of border plantings and so on that the previous owner had made a quite a lovely garden.”
Although careful observation of the site helped to guide Jayne in her planning and planting, she was took her lead from the land. Recognizing that anything that went on the garden would end up in the Sprain—and in their well, which is the source of drinking water at Red Mill Farm—Jayne and her family do their best to garden in as eco-friendly a way as possible. Making the switch from chemical gardening to chemical-free is an ongoing process.
Photography by Matthew Benson
Produced by Tovah Martin
One of the first places a switch to “green” can be made, and where it will have the biggest impact, is on the lawn. But to groom a chemically fattened lawn into a sleek earth-friendly sward takes patience—organic methods work more slowly than chemical. And it also takes energy, because the first step is to give the lawn a good, stiff raking to remove as much “thatch” as possible. Thatch is the build-up of old grass clippings and detritus that forms as a dense mat around the base of each grass plant, smothering the roots, preventing the soil from warming, absorbing nutrients and water. Mechanical removal, by rotary de-thatching mowers or good ol’ muscle power (one hour’s raking can burn several hundred calories) is the traditional, nontoxic method, but there are water-on or dry-application concoctions that make use of biotics—friendly enzymes and bacteria that will digest the thatch, turning it into valuable humus and enriching the soil. BZT Dethatcher from United-Tech, Inc. of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is one such preparation (918/610-5205 or united-tech.com).
Once dethatched, the lawn can be treated with compost tea, which is simply made by steeping a sack (or bag) of well-rotted compost or manure in water; 1 pound of compost to 5 gallons of water is usually sufficient. Also, there are numerous on-line sources of organic compost teabags, and tea concentrate; Soilsoup is an easy-to-use concentrate available from some garden centers and through mail order (877/711-7687 or soilsoup.com). This should be done several times over the season.
Next, top-dress the lawn with clean topsoil, over-seed with a good, basic lawn seed mix suited to your climate zone. Water more, but less often to drive the roots deeper as they look for moisture. Set the lawn mower blades higher, so that there’s some green leaf to feed the roots. And don’t worry about clover and other weeds unless they become rampant (when they can be dispatched by dosing with distilled vinegar).
Every cottage garden needs roses, but not all roses are suited to cottage garden style. Hybrid teas and floribundas and most modern roses don’t have the easy-going, luxuriant nature of the old-fashioned shrub roses and the modern sorts such as those bred by David Austin (800/328-8893 or austinroses.com). Jayne Bentzen makes great use of the Austin rose “Cottage Rose”. Underplanting it with Gaura lindhiemeri “Siskyou Pink” and the carpeting Geranium sanquiniem “Cambridge Pink” gives the rose a complementary underskirt to hide its leggy branches, and also creates the layered planting that cottage gardens depend on.
Garden health begins with good garden practices, like keeping beds mulched and clean of weeds and diseased plant material. Feed plants regularly to keep them strong and water in the early morning rather than the evening to avoid mildew-favorable conditions.
The once-flowering old shrub roses tend to be more disease resistant, so what you lose in flower power you gain in sturdiness, and less dependence on chemical protections against systemic diseases. Modern versions, though, are bred to combine the antique’s robust healthiness with the continuous flowering of the newbies. They are, however, just as prone to aphids and other garden pests, so your best organic defense against these predators is to spray with a solution of insecticidal vegetable soap. Neem oil is also a good choice. (Call 781/878-5397 or visit extremelygreen.com ).
Herbs have a huge role to play in environmentally safe gardening as so many of them are a natural vermifuge. Take the tall-growing turkey sage, Salvia turkestanica (syn. S. sclarea turkestanica). A biennial, in its first year it makes a broad flat rosette of silvery-gray felted leaves. The second year it throws up a tall flower spike, up to 4 feet; the papery blooms are really the flower bracts, but the look is quite eye-catching. Don’t use this for flower-arranging though, as it has a distinct aroma of fox around it—although that same odor might have the benefit of keeping rabbits and deer out of the garden. Worth a try, I’d say.
The little daisy growing beneath the turkey sage is the common Chrysantemum parthenium. Plant it among roses and it will draw insects away from the rose blooms and keep them busy on its flowers’ golden buttons. Also known as feverfew, this species is used to produce pyrethrin, one of the safest garden pesticides (513/354-1482 or gardensalive.com, a fine source for organic alternatives to garden care products).
Companion planting is one way to ramp up environmentally friendly conditions in the garden, and requires associating plants that are mutually beneficial and compatible. Most often associated with the kitchen garden, the technique really lends itself to any kind of gardening because it is so genuinely ornamental, but it is particularly apt for cottage gardens. Roses love garlic, so plant a garlic crop beneath the rose bushes; carrots love tomatoes; and so forth. Pot marigolds, Calendula officinalis, and African marigolds, Tagetes spp., are a terrific companion to many vegetables and flowers and should be used throughout the garden, but then so should petunias and nasturtiums. The book Secrets of Companion Planting: Plants That Help, Plants That Hurt by Brenda Little (Silverleaf Press, 2007) is a good guide to get started with, while Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte (Storey Publishing, 1998) is my personal favorite.