All things by immortal power, Near and far, Hiddenly To each other linked are, That thou canst not stir a flower Without troubling of a...

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All things by immortal power,

Near and far,


To each other linked are,

That thou canst not stir a flower

Without troubling of a star.

— Francis Thompson, 19th century English poet

Gardeners have their fingers on the pulse of the planet. Every time we pull a weed by hand rather than douse it with chemicals, we’ve chosen health over a poisonous quick fix. When we plant a native shrub that feeds hummingbirds or hosts butterfly larvae we create a ripple effect of planetary well-being.

It might seem redundant to talk of a “green” garden, but until all those bright little warning flags on chemically treated lawns and landscapes disappear and the piles of plastic nursery pots end up recycled rather than clogging landfills, our gardens aren’t necessarily sustainable, organic or green.

I had a wake-up call last summer when an angry neighbor knocked on my door. Unbeknownst to me, young painters I’d hired hosed off their brushes in my gravel driveway. It didn’t take long for blue paint to seep through the soil into a ditch behind the house and run down the alley into my neighbor’s fish pond. The fish lived because of my neighbor’s quick action, and I learned a lesson about how closely we’re all linked.

It could be argued that we hold ecological fate in every turn of the compost heap or sprinkle of slug bait. According to a duo of local experts, this needn’t be a scary thought, but an exciting, encouraging one. Small changes in attitude, practices and design can reap big results.

Go with, not against, nature

Sue Nicol is an arborist, horticulturist and project associate at O’Brien & Company, a Seattle firm involved in sustainable design, education and research. For 18 years she was in charge of the landscape at Woodland Park Zoo, where she came to understand that for successful garden projects, “You use nature as the guiding principle instead of working against it.”

Observe which way the water flows on your property, from which direction cooling winds blow, where your garden is shady and where it is sunny. Then plant accordingly, grouping thirsty and dry-land plants together in harmonious communities. Nicols calls this “nature-based plant care” in the new book she contributed to, “The Northwest Green Home Primer” by Kathleen O’Brien and Kathleen Smith (Timber Press, 2008, $24.95).

Integrated pest management isn’t as intimidating as it might sound, Nicol says: “IPM is simply a system of decision making that asks you to learn and observe and seek alternative methods of pest control.”

For instance, do you really need systemic insecticide to keep aphids off your roses? Grow them in the full sun and richly amended soil, and you can just blast the aphids with a strong spray of water from the hose to keep the flowers blooming happily.

“We hope the idea of IPM stops people from hiring companies that spray chemicals quarterly, needed or not,” says Nicol.

And how about native plants?

“I’m not a purist,” she says. Planting a wide diversity of flora, including natives, keeps gardens healthy.

Do good and rest

Ladd Smith, along with partner Mark Gile, is the owner of InHarmony, a local sustainable, organic garden design and maintenance company that has grown exponentially to 36 full-time employees in the last couple of years.

“We’re seeing our dream come true,” says Smith, “We’re not on the fringes anymore.”

This working landscaper defines sustainable as simply a practice or product that meets present needs without compromising those of future generations. And he points out that sustainability is lower maintenance in the long run. How great is that? Do good and rest…

“We’re an organic ChemLawn,” says Smith. “We focus on plant health care rather than insect and disease problems.”

He begins by building the soil with compost, especially in new developments where the soil has been severely compromised. “Instead of spraying insecticides and fungicides, we apply compost teas, kelps, mycorrhizae products, organic fertilizers and root stimulants.”

Ladd suggests cutting down on garden maintenance by planting shrubs and trees where they can grow comfortably to their mature size. He enriches gardens with easy-care plants like blueberries, carex, coneflowers and penstemons.

“People know when we’ve been in a neighborhood,” says Smith, “We put up our own little signs that say, “Don’t Panic, It’s Organic.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is