Talking Sustainability with P. Allen Smith
...and solving the mystery of a stunted Clivia
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Happy spring, everyone!
As gardeners, I know you’re familiar with biodiversity, pollinators, water conservation and compost — all of which contribute to a healthy ecosystem. And you’ve likely been hearing a lot about environmental sustainability — the practice of meeting our own needs in such a way that will not compromise future generations’ ability to meet their needs. All of these things are connected and important, which is why I’ve written extensively about incorporating native plants into the garden (most recently, here, here and here), shrinking the lawn and implementing eco-friendly practices inside and outside the home.
So when I was offered the opportunity to interview P. Allen Smith, one of the country’s leading conservationists, I shot up like a bean sprout on a Kindergarten windowsill.
Smith, who’s also a notable landscape and garden designer, horticulturist, best-selling author and television host, will be sharing his own sustainability tips in a much-anticipated presentation at Colonial Williamsburg’s 75th Annual Garden Symposium, which will be held April 28-May 1. But he shared a preview with me, exclusively for The Weekly Dirt readers.
Smith gardens at Moss Mountain Farm, his breathtaking home just outside Little Rock, Arkansas, and is devoted to promoting the local food movement, organic gardening and the preservation of heritage poultry breeds there. The 600-acre, 1840 estate also serves as an educational “venue that people travel to, to see sustainable practices in use” and bring that knowledge home, regardless of where they live, he told me when we spoke by phone on Friday.
For instance, “we have several ways of harvesting rainwater with cisterns,” as well as a large retention pond that collects water “that is drawn to irrigate the agricultural landscape,” he said. “Rainwater harvesting is something you can do on a fire escape and on a large property.”
Pollinators, too, can be nurtured just about anywhere, Smith said, simply by using plants that attract and provide food and habitat for them. At Moss Mountain Farm, “we have ‘No Mow May’ — we don’t mow anything except for designated paths during the month, and everything else is allowed to go wild because it’s an important time for pollinators and birds.”
Smith said he’d like to see everyone reconsider the mowing of lawns, which are chemically dependent. “We care for turf or lawns an area larger than the size of Pennsylvania in this country,” he said. “And we heap petrochemicals on the ground every year and use pre-emergents. What’s wrong with a diverse lawn? Why shouldn’t the lawn have 30 species of wildflowers in it? What’s wrong with that?”
At Moss Mountain Farm, “we don’t grow plants, we grow soil,” Smith said. “If you can grow soil and nurture the soil, you can grow anything you want, and compost is the essence of good soil.”
So why is it so important to Smith personally that gardeners adopt sustainable practices? “I live on planet Earth, and it’s my home. And it needs to be cared for.”
“We’re destroying resources at an extraordinary rate, and there needs to be more conservation at every level. We’re at a stage in history where we have the greatest loss of biodiversity than ever in the history of the planet –- except during the Ice Age or the Jurassic Period,” he said. “I go to sleep thinking about it, and I wake up in the morning thinking about it. It’s all about the choices that we all make, isn’t it?”
Colonial Williamsburg's 75th Annual Garden Symposium is themed “Responsible Gardening: Sowing Seeds for a Bright Future.”
The event will be held in person as well as online, and will feature P. Allen Smith and other horticulturists, historians, and designers who will share their methods and techniques for creating gardens that benefit both humans and wildlife.
To register by the April 1 deadline, visit colonialwilliamsburg.org/garden-symposium
💡 If you do one thing this week…
Repot houseplants into the next-size pots (no more than 2 inches wider than their current homes) and reintroduce them to fertilizer.
For more great gardening tips — 365 of them! — get a jump on the growing season with my award-winning Day-by-Day Gardening Calendar. It’s like a complete gardening course in a wall calendar! By the end of the year, I promise, you’ll have earned a green thumb! Plus, your wall will be adorned with beautiful photography provided by The Weekly Dirt readers. Take a look:
📬 Ask Jessica
DEAR JESSICA: I have had this plant for many years, and its flowers used to grow on big, long stems. But as the years went by, the flowers started blooming between very tight leaves. I tried to cut leaves away from the base of the plant to give the flowers more room, hoping to get blooms like the old days. Please tell me what I am doing wrong? —Teruko Torres
DEAR TERUKO: Your Clivia flowers’ stems have been stunted, likely either by too-low temperatures or improper watering during their development.
Clivia thrives best when kept between 65 and 70 degrees in bright, indirect light, except over winter, which I’ll get to shortly. A cold draft from a nearby window or placement near an exterior door that is frequently opened during winter also can stunt its stems.
These plants have very specific watering needs: When flower stalks reach about 6 inches tall, keep the soil consistenly moist, but not soggy. After blooming—and until mid-October—allow the soil to dry completely between waterings. And in mid-October, gradually reduce waterings over the course of two weeks, then stop altogether and move the plant to a spot that’s between 50 and 60 degrees until buds appear, typically in January.
Apply fertilizer diluted at half-strength during summer.
👏 Sunday shoutout
Debbie Carpenter of Johnstown, Pa., captured this amazing close-up of a pollen-bathed bee in her garden last July.
Send in your photo, and you could be featured next!
What I’ve been up to
In today’s Newsday, I write about the Pollinator Pathway movement and easy ways you can make your home garden and container planters more friendly for pollinators:
📰This week in my Associated Press gardening column
I started writing a bi-weekly gardening column for the AP in January, so you might be seeing my byline in your local paper (or news website) — wherever in the world you are. In case you miss it, though, I’ll post the most recent here every week.
Plants to plant in spring for a beautiful garden next winter: When you’re planning and planting your spring garden, think ahead to next winter too, and include plants that will create interest in your landscape in the so-called “off season.”
Black innovators who reshaped American gardening and farming: The achievements of 19th-century scientist George Washington Carver have landed him in U.S. history textbooks, but many other agricultural practices and innovations that traveled with enslaved people from West Africa or were developed by their descendants remain unsung. Here’s a look at five.
Tips for indoor seed-starting: When to start planting seeds indoors? First, check your frost date.
Holey leaves and vines! A look at houseplant trends for 2022: A look at trends in houseplants for 2022. Popular varieties include fenestrated plants, that is, those with leaves that are split or contain holes. Vines are another hot category.
Let’s be friends! Follow me @JesDamiano on Instagram
📧 How’m I doing?
I welcome your comments and suggestions, so please send them along — as well as any topics you’d like to see covered and questions you’d like answered in the Ask Jessica section.
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