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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

How eco-friendly is your garden, and exactly what does that mean? This question grabbed my attention recently when Barbara Zuegel, chairwoman for Chautauqua in Bloom, asked me to recommend judging standards for a new category: Eco-friendly Garden.

Chautauqua in Bloom is a garden recognition event of the Chautauqua Bird, Tree & Garden Club, an environment-focused organization more than 100 years old. Barbara wrote that eco-friendly gardening ideas “cannot be completely new to people as the Institution has been busy for the past few years installing rain gardens and anything that will help protect the lake.”

But why not encourage and reward individual achievements in this area? And then, how would you judge them?

The analysis led me back to the long successful Certified Wildlife Habitat program ( It rates how well your property supports wildlife, by providing food, water, cover, safe places to rear young and a healthy environment.

(You can see a fine example in Martha Heidinger’s garden during South Buffalo Alive’s Tour of Gardens July 19.)

Getting the NWF certification is a great way to show your commitment to habitat protection and to teach others how to do so.

Wildlife habitat is not the entire focus, though, if you are measuring your eco-friendliness – especially in the city or suburbs. While agreeing completely with the NWF recommendations, I added a few categories and came up with the following standards for judging eco-friendly gardens. I hope you will consider these points in evaluating your own garden or yard, with the understanding that each situation is different and not all components may be possible where you live.

(If you wish, rate yourself in the first seven categories on a 1 to 5 scale, 5 being nearly perfect. I hope to hear of many 30-pluses out there.)

1. Native and eco-friendly plant selection

Did the gardener use a large percentage of native plants (25 percent or more), such as Joe-pye weed, milkweeds, shrubby dogwoods, Lindera, Aronia and serviceberries? Do you see many pollinator-pleasing flowers? A negative factor would be the inclusion of non-native, “invasive” plants in use such as Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive, purple loosestrife, barberry, Japanese knotweed or burning bush (Euonymous alatus)?

2. Water-wise practices

Are the plants grouped according to water needs – drought-tolerant plants (coneflowers, sedums, grasses, Rudbeckia, salvias, daisies) separate from water guzzlers (Ligularia, Rodgersia, hydrangeas)? Is there a rain garden, rain barrel or other water collection device, water wands attached to hoses, or in-ground watering systems. A negative factor would be lawn sprinklers or overhead sprinklers.

3. Minimized lawn

Has the homeowner/gardener kept lawn for consciously selected uses (i.e. a front stretch framing the house, or backyard play or picnic areas) rather than mowing vast stretches? Instead of lawn, are there some meadows, areas with ground covers, mulched paths or islands, hedgerows or large planted beds?

4. Layered plantings

Are landscape plants grouped and arranged in layers – trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, groundcovers – in islands or hedgerows or extended sections of the yard? A negative factor would be isolated trees or single shrubs surrounded by grass.

5. Support for wildlife

Has the gardener provided for birds, beneficial insects, amphibians and mammals by offering any of the following: berrying plants, milkweed, bird feeders, bird houses, water features (bubblers, fountains, waterfalls), bird baths and water dishes on the ground (with shallow water and rocks for insects), a sheltered and sunny butterfly garden, brush piles, dead trees left standing or fallen, rock piles, wood piles, or undergrowth/hedgerow areas for hiding?

6. Free from pesticides, synthetic fertilizers

What products are used for weeds, pest management and fertilizing? If fertilizers are used, generally organic products or slow-release synthetics would be preferable over quick-release products. Clover in the lawn and some holes in plant leaves would be positive; a golf course-like lawn might be a clue to high-input management – not so eco-friendly.

7. Attractive, neat appearance

While appearance is not the most important factor, as in some garden judging, we must reward a pleasing appearance. As Barbara from Chautauqua phrased it: “We want people to realize that they can have a beautiful garden that is also eco-friendly.” Too many people associate native plants or natural landscaping with messiness; let’s show them otherwise. Edge the beds or paths; delineate the hedgerow or meadow area; care for the plants and pull all but highly desirable weeds. While an outer hedgerow or meadow is by definition casual, the planting areas closest to the house or road can be neat. Eco-friendliness does not preclude some care in the design.

8. Lakeside (optional)

For those living next to a lake, pond or stream, it is not desirable to plant lawns to the water’s edge. Lawn clippings, soil runoff and lawn-care products are harmful to water bodies. A limited area cut to the edge for human access and enjoyment is fine, but ideally we should maintain suitable shoreline plants such as willows, shrubby dogwoods or buttonbush. (Deductions for Phragmites, purple loosestrife, giant hogweed and Pseudacoris – those invasive yellow irises!)

9. Country property/habitat (optional)

Country land owners have many more opportunities to maintain natural habitat, including woods and fields with native plants, thickets, berrying and fruiting shrubs and trees, swamps or bogs. We can make trails for others to experience natural habitats and see wildflowers and animals. We can try to fight back invasive plants, plant particular crops to support pollinators or animal populations, and take all the NWF steps recommended for best habitats. On my own piece of land, I’m trying.

10. Beekeeping ...

... gets extra points, if this were really a contest. Hurrah for the beekeepers, everyone who grows plants for the pollinators and those who buy local honey.

In Chautauqua, Buffalo or anywhere, it’s not really about judging and awards. It is about making an effort to support or create healthy eco-systems in whatever ways we can. How is your garden or yard in the eco-friendly category? Only you can judge.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.