Thomas Christopher | Be-A-Better-Gardner: Learning sustainability from a master

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Sustainability is on many gardeners' minds these days. This is not just because of their sense of responsibility to the local environment, although, I do find that gardeners, because of their regular contact with nature, tend to be more conscientious about that than the general population. Sustainability also appeals to gardeners like me for less noble reasons. By its nature, sustainability means less investment of resources, which saves money. In addition, sustainability emphasizes working with nature, which I have found typically means following a path of least resistance, and, in the long run, that saves work.

All of this explains why I am excited about a class in sustainable garden care and maintenance that will be taught later this month at the Berkshire Botanical Garden by one of the great hands-on experts in this field, Brad Roeller.

After completing studies at Cornell University in horticulture and environmental sciences, Roeller spent 37 years at the Cary Arboretum in Millbrook, N.Y., as it first morphed into the Institute of Ecosystem Studies and later into the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Roeller installed and managed plant collections and gardens at this institution; with the encouragement and assistance of the management and the scientists on staff, his emphasis was on designing and managing these plantings in an environmentally sensitive and sustainable manner. While doing this, Roeller had the opportunity to work with leading figures, such as Dr. Elaine Ingham, the eminent researcher on the soil food web. As a result, he developed a long list of practices that the rest of us are just beginning to catch up with. Subsequent to his time at the Institute, Roeller took his findings with him to the New York Botanical Garden, where he worked for a couple of years as garden manager, and later, working with a roster of internationally famous landscape architects and garden designers at the Altamont estate in Millbrook.

According to Roeller, sustainable garden care and maintenance must begin with the design of the landscape. A careful analysis of the site, with respect to the ecology of the area and the type of plant communities that would naturally occur there, should be the basis of garden plant selection and installation. In his class, he will introduce students to tools and online resources that make this sort of design possible. Without such a foundation, he emphasizes, sustainable maintenance is almost impossible or at least very challenging.

How the plants, perennials, woody plants and turf are planted and the post-planting care they receive are also important. Roeller will also focus on such inevitable maintenance tasks as staking, fertilizing, winterizing and mulching. He'll also discuss sustainable management of plant disease and pest control, with an emphasis on deer. The latter, the management of deer in a cultivated landscape, is an area in which I know that Roeller has nearly unique expertise, for it was a major emphasis of his research at the Cary Institute. I remember interviewing him for a magazine article on that subject maybe 20 years ago, when all my horticultural sources agreed that he was the person to speak to, not only with respect to deer-resistant plants, but also the details of excluding deer from the landscape effectively. While sympathetic to the needs of the native wildlife, he long ago recognized, as have most gardeners in the Northeast, that there are situations in which including the deer in the landscape will make gardening virtually impossible.

I have a great respect for the academic researchers who develop our theoretical knowledge of gardening. When it comes to what I actually do in my own back yard, however, I like to combine sound theory with practical experience. Roeller combines these things in a way that few horticulturists do, and to listen to him is an opportunity.

His class, "Sustainable Garden Care & Maintenance," is aimed at home gardeners, as well as landscape professionals. It will meet for four Tuesdays, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., beginning on Jan. 21. For information or enrollment, visit Berkshirebotanical.org or call 413-298-3926. For more information about Roeller's work on sustainable garden care and maintenance, listen to a free interview at thomaschristophergardens.com.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden located in Stockbridge. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including "Nature into Art, The Gardens of Wave Hill" (Timber press, 2019). His companion broadcast to this column, "Growing Greener," streams on WESUFM.org. berkshirebotanical.org.

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