Sunday, May 29, 2011

What's New in Gardening at the Oak Lawn Parks...

Photos by Nicole Walsh

Some of you you may know me, but if you don't... My name is Dolly Foster and I am the Horticulturist at the Oak Lawn Park District. I have been working here for four years. In that time I have worked toward making the landscapes and parks more beautiful and more sustainable. Sustainable, seems to be the buzz word in Landscaping and Hort for this decade. Everyone wants to know what it is and how to create it. The definition of a Sustainable Landscape is one that reduces or prevents pollution, conserves natural resources, maximizes ecological function and looks attractive.

What does this mean to the Oak Lawn Park District? It means that we strive to follow all of these tenets within the means of our budget. We try to use alternative methods that are less harmful to the ecology around us. My part is landscaping and weed abatement. One of the programs I run is the Adopt-a-Flowerbed program. When I started at the OLPD, there were 25 beds that could be adopted. I have increased this number to 33. What is it? People who adopt a flowerbed are usually condo residents, community organizations, scout troops (mostly Daisys), school groups, families and not-for-profits. I think of it as a really sweet deal for anyone who wants to participate. I prepare the flowerbeds in the spring, we supply the annuals and perennials, you plant, we water, you weed, we clean it all up in fall. After their planting is finished, I take back all the pots and trays so the volunteers don't have to deal with disposing or recycling them. I reuse everything in the greenhouse.
This spring I really wanted try something different with the soil amendments. In the past I would amend each bed with peat moss, perlite and fertilizer. Rototilling it all in to the soil. Peat moss is not a sustainable product, it forms at a rate of about 1 mm a year. It is also expensive and hydrophobic, meaning once it drys out it takes a lot of water to make it wet again. Perlite has its problems too. It is volcanic rock granules that hold water and aid in drainage. The problem is the application process, it is very dusty and you don't want to breathe in that dust. It also rises too the surface of soil and floats away.
So in the spirit of my job being part experiment, (I like to change things up and try new methods) and after speaking to a number of my suppliers I decided that the soil in these flower gardens need more organic matter to grow large, healthy garden plants that might not need as much water in the summer as in the past. I settled on COIR. Coir is shredded coconut fiber. A completely renewable resource because coconuts are processed all over the world. It holds 6x it's weight in water, a real plus for gardens out in the parks and along roads where there may be a lot of wind.
I also needed a product that was going to add the organic matter the beds need to attract worms and add some long needed natural fertilizer, if you know what I mean. I was told about a person who could help me obtain a lot of coffee grounds from a local coffee company. At first I was skeptical until I realized that by adding the coffee grounds to the garden beds I would be loosening tough soil and attracting beneficial soil organisms. She was nice enough to supply me with as much coffee grounds and chaff as my truck could hold. And since this is waste product for the company, this is all free. Recycling at its best. Thanks!
Ok well that's all good but what does it really mean? It means that by adding organic matter in the soil, worms will come to process it and with worms comes a whole host of microorganisms. These tiny soil inhabitants keep soil healthy and balanced. When a plant is growing in such an environment, they can put out more roots and deeper roots, a critical part of being drought tolerant. Healthy plants can also fight off disease and insect infestations (more widely seen in trees but garden plants can do it on a smaller scale). So if you are out enjoying our parks and you smell the sweet scent of coffee..... stop and smell the flowers too!
WEEDS in the parks. The past two years we have had a particularly rampant inundation of thistle in a few places in the landscaping. Particularly near our buildings. I have tried a few different ways to try to beat back this terrible weed but I have had no luck. I recently spoke with one of my volunteers who heard from another gardener... well you know where this is going. Word of mouth seems to be one of the best ways to learn new gardening practices because someone else tried it first! This weed prevention method reminded me of Lasagna Gardening, an old method of layering newspaper and organic matter to make a new flowerbed. Well I plan on using just the newspaper part to help smother these weeds. It is a simple concept, save a big stack of just black and white newsprint, no slick paper, please. Weed your garden, lay out the paper around your existing plants in layers of 7-10 sheets of news print and overlap them a little. Get your garden hose out and wet the paper down and mulch heavy. If your bed has many plants close together, this may not be the best choice for you. You may want to gradually transform your garden to a "Know Maintenance" garden. This method follows the theory that more plants and less exposed soil along with plants that are suited to grow together equals minimal weed growth. I wish I had before pictures of this landscape, it was full of thistle! I have attached a few pictures of the process. I you have any questions you can email me at the park district. All I can say is I will try it and if it doesn't work, I will try something else. Anything to keep me from spraying herbicides and anything to keep my crew from having to weed.

Happy Plantings! Dolly

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