Going Organic

The off-season is the best time to prep your lawn, plants, and garden to go chemical-free.

Most of us know the basic benefits of organic garden and lawn care – it doesn’t put toxic products in the soil that can pollute the water supply, it’s safer for pets and children, it even reduces the amount of waste going to landfills by utilizing kitchen compost and yard waste as mulch and fertilizer – but can you get as lush a lawn and as vibrant a garden without using chemicals?

Because Martha’s Vineyard is an island, and our lawn and garden care might affect not only our limited ground water but also the surrounding sea and ponds, organic gardening becomes perhaps more of an imperative. At least it is for Jennie Slossberg, owner of the landscaping business Garden Angels, who says she feels a strict responsibility to use only organic products when it comes to putting anything in the ground.

Jennie firmly believes, and her thriving business validates, you can have gorgeous lawns and gardens using organic products and methods. Especially if your aesthetics lean toward native plants and species that are well suited to our Vineyard soil, which tends to be extremely acidic. One of the largest gardens Garden Angels maintains is Gretchen and Sam Feldman’s celebrated seaside garden off South Road, on Osprey Lane in Chilmark. Although not open to the public, per se, the famous garden designed in the late ’80s by revolutionary landscape designer Wolfgang Oehme is occasionally featured in garden tours by the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club. Oehme’s (and design partner James van Sweden’s) philosophy is to replicate meadows, allowing plants the freedom to follow their natural course rather than restricting them to the shape and form of highly manicured gardens. The Feldmans’ garden is testimony to the success of Oehme’s approach, with its meadow-like beauty and allure.

Enormous beds where varied plant groupings contrast and harmonize give a layered effect that blends beautifully with the rolling hills, rippling dunes, wide arch of blue sky, and sparkling waters of Chilmark Pond and the ocean beyond.

Jennie’s own philosophy for landscaping is similar to Oehme’s and evident in another showcase organic garden, which she designed at the lovely restored Victorian home of Diane and Craig Welburn, on Tuckernuck Avenue in Oak Bluffs. The eye of any passerby cannot help but be drawn to the quintessential New England cottage with its perfect lawn and picturesque garden. “We hand weed the lawn to avoid spraying any chemicals because the Welburns are so committed to organic,” Jennie says. It can be a high-maintenance property because there are so many annuals, and because it’s close to Inkwell Beach, high winds can do a lot of damage. On the other hand, she notes, it’s in town so deer are not an issue. In spring the Welburns’ garden boasts “some of the most gorgeous tulips you’ve ever seen.” But what is so wonderful, Jennie says, is that it’s visually pleasing year-round. Such perennial shrubs as red twig dogwoods and corkscrew hazel, almost invisible in the summer garden, are striking in winter and early spring.

An artist whose photos, paintings, and sculptures have been displayed at many Island galleries, Jennie was also mentored by retired horticulturist Elizabeth Luce at Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury. Jennie’s eye for visual impact pairs well with her green thumb and knowledge of horticulture, especially as it applies to Martha’s Vineyard, and her sensitivities are particularly attuned to native Island plants – Asclepias tuberosa for example – that can really thrive in an organic garden. This perennial on the endangered species list grows well in sandy or gravelly soil and produces clusters of vivid orange flowers that attract butterflies, thus its common name, butterfly weed. Jennie says she also loves plants and bushes with red berries, like beautyberry and winterberry, both of which are irresistible perches for bluebirds, and particularly beautiful in winter against a backdrop of snow.

“And I love miniature evergreens. They’re kind of a secret, hidden in your summer garden, that really come to life and are so lovely in the winter and spring,” she says. For year-round gardens, Jennie also suggests false cypress and low-growing shrubs that flourish in Vineyard soil – like Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’, which has red foliage when it’s sprouting new growth and small white flowers that bloom in late winter.

Tuning into what grows well here, and knowing the soil in your own backyard, Jennie says, will facilitate creating and maintaining beautiful organic gardens. Knowing the pH (a number representing acidity or alkalinity) in your soil is key. A low pH level means the soil is highly acidic; conversely, high pH means the soil is alkaline, or lacking acidity (often called “sweet”). In both cases, the growth of specific plants may be inhibited, and altering the pH can make growing conditions more favorable.

“Just like us, different plants have different needs,” Jennie says. For example, “many purple-blooming plants like lilacs, butterfly bushes, lavender, and Russian sage need sweet soil.” Roses, on the other hand, grow well in more neutral soil, while rhododendrons, ivy, and most major shrubs thrive in acidic soil. (Hydrangeas will grow in both acidic and sweeter soil, but the pH factor can influence the color: Acidic soil produces blue blossoms, while sweeter soil means pinker blooms.)

If you want to go organic with your beds, autumn is a good time to start. Top dressing the soil with organic fertilizers will have a tremendous influence on the condition of your plants come spring. Jennie says, “All of the nutrients you give to your plants are absorbed through the roots and depleted over the winter. If you haven’t fertilized in the fall, they might not hold up.”

Jennie purchases an organic fertilizer from Chilmark’s Rainbow Farm that’s top-dress ready, because the manure has been turned with wood chips and organic matter from the horses’ stalls. You can also purchase dehydrated manure from Island vendors like SBS in Tisbury, to mix with your own compost. Mixing greensand (a sandstone with a high percentage of glauconite) into the soil will reduce impaction and provide additional nutrients such as phosphorus, potash, and magnesium. Winter’s severe temperatures, high winds, and lack of snow (a natural blanket) are extremely stressful for plants and damaging to the soil, but top dressing acts as a blanket to shield your plants from the elements, both winter freeze and spring thaw.

Ideally, you should top dress in late fall, when it’s cold, but before the first frost. Protect the hearts of your plants and bushes by spreading fertilizer right where they are growing out of the ground, so nutrients will penetrate directly to the roots. Build a thick mound up around the crown of roses and climbing plants. (Jennie recommends fortifying rose beds with composted tea bags and eggshells.)

Focus on protecting your plants, both by providing nourishment to strengthen them through the winter, and by securing them. Anything around the house under your roof line, where plants are especially susceptible to breakage from snow, should be pruned back and secured. Wrapping with burlap also helps protect plants and shrubs from weather conditions – and deer.

If the opportunity to go organic in the fall has passed, you can start in the spring by fertilizing with a corn gluten product, like Safe ’n Simple, available at SBS. Jennie calls corn gluten a miracle for organic gardening, as it is highly effective against weeds because it prohibits the growth of roots as seeds open. (It won’t affect a plant with established roots.) “At some point, someone noticed that weeds don’t grow around corn silos. It turns out cultivating corn gluten fertilizer into the soil [prevents] weed growth,” she says. It needs to be reapplied and cultivated throughout the growing season, every month or so. However, she warns, “when corn gluten fertilizer gets wet, it ferments. When it ferments, it smells like wet dog – so you want to work any corn gluten fertilizer or mulch well into the soil.”

Jesse Fuller also encourages using a corn gluten–based fertilizer in early April – “before the forsythia blooms.” The owner of Island House and Yard, a landscape company that specializes in natural solutions, says there are many tried and true horticultural practices that are in keeping with organic sensibilities. One is keeping the grass on your summer lawn a little longer to choke out weeds. Another is to aerate lawns and gardens in the fall, to increase water absorption and air circulation in the soil.

If you’ve always relied on chemical solutions but are thinking about organics, Jesse says you don’t necessarily have to switch cold turkey. In fact, many of his customers use a combination of organic and chemically based products. He might treat for weeds, bugs, and disease with chemical solutions (though there are organic treatments and homemade solutions for those problems) but he encourages using organic fertilizers in your soil, as he does at his own home.

“All the nutrients in my lawn and garden are from organics,” he says. “The great thing about most organic products – except maybe lime or phosphate, which alter the pH factor of your soil – is that you’d have a hard time damaging anything, even your lawn. Whereas just a little too much chemical fertilizer can easily burn your grass and gardens, and even kill them.”

Safety aside, Jesse agrees your lawn and gardens will be just as beautiful using organic fertilizers – “possibly more so, as they often supply nutrients that chemical fertilizers do not have. Chemicals are…just cheaper imitations of the organics.” Jesse says if there’s a con to organic gardening, it would be that organic products can be more expensive.

But where we live, some organics can be free. Jesse suggests crushed oyster shells to add calcium to soil or wood ashes as a source of potassium. Decaying wood chips or leaves spread around the base of newly planted trees and bushes help retain moisture and provide an additional source of nutrients. Pine needles make great mulch for acid-loving plants and will help thwart weeds. You can also work seaweed into mulch or fertilizer to feed your plants, especially roses and blueberry bushes. “Seaweed is so rich in organic nutrients, and it’s a multi-purpose fertilizer, feeding the soil and the roots of the plant,” says Jesse. But he notes, “It’s best to rinse the salt off first.”

Salt blown in by northeasters and winter storms can be a hazard for Vineyard lawns and gardens. Jesse considers Island weather patterns when designing and caring for an organic yard or garden. He says there are many native bushes that can be planted any time of year: viburnum, beach plum, Rosa rugosa, bayberry, low-bush or high-bush blueberry, and Clethra. There are few things that flower in winter, so he leans toward exfoliating trees, like birch, that look exceptionally beautiful against a sparse winter background. He also loves the effect of imported Korean stewartia trees, which have a rich, flaky bark that can be a grayish brown to orange hue, and Chinese fringe trees in a winter yard.