Good Gubernatorial Gardening in Harrisburg (and it’s almost there)



Forgot old-style, formal landscaping for the governor's grounds in Harrisburg, PA; they're way cooler than that, as you can see by these photos.  The 3.5 acre-site have been transformed by two serious gardeners – Tom and Michele Ridge.  Working with a 12-person committee of experts, they transitioned the landscape to something more usable, sustainable and educational by adding a native plant garden, plus super-sustainable plants from everywhere for the other gardens.  A super-smart irrigation system was installed, and – amazing to me – they now let the lawn go dormant during periods of drought.  Brown grass in this high-visibility, official site?  Wow, maybe there's hope yet for changing our crazy American expectations for a perfect, always-green lawn, water conservation be damned.   PA-A Portion of the Jane Shaffer Rose Garden June 1, 2007

Now the Ridge family is long gone but the committee in charge of grounds still meets three times a year to assess and advise, and the current Governor Rendell has – no surprise here! – recently added a vegetable garden.  Nothing pro forma for the media, though – it was designed by an actual designer and includes heirlooms and mushroom compost and organically grown plants from local farmers and CSAs.  Otay!  (Lots more details about all this are here.)

So with a native-plant garden and vegetables, what more could anyone want, right?  Some folks (yours truly) might suggest that the elephant in the room is the harm that's done to our waterways by dumping fertilizers and pesticides on our lawns. So while these changes in Harrisburg are really, really commendable, there's one more important step that needs to be taken – ending the practice of using a synthetic fertilizer to "green up" the lawn in the spring.  You know, when it's most likely to run off into the Chesapeake Bay.  I spoke with the guy in charge there – Dennis Rydberg with the Penn. Department of General Services – who was very helpful.  He's very aware of the issues and predicts that feeding will soon be transitioned to fall.  Naturally I nagged him to go that last step – switching to slow-release sources of fertilizer, or feeding using such harmless sources as grass clippings, corn gluten, clover and compost.

Hey, come to think of it, in my research about governors going "green" with their grounds, I have yet to hear of anyone going organic in their lawn care, giving up the petroleum-based fertilizers that contribute to dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and other bodies of water we care about AND destroy the life in the soil.  (It's crazy!)  You know who HAS gone natural, though?  The National Arboretum stopped putting anything on their lawn three years ago and since then has saved 90% of their yearly lawn care expense.  That savings probably includes reduced water usage, since they stopped all watering except for a small area that's seen up-close.

Photos thanks to Dennis Rydberg.


  1. Re top photo: Is that Joe Pye Weed or Autumn Joy sedum with the mauve blooms? What are the yellow blooms on each side of the bench?

  2. Hah! We’ve been green all these years when we just thought we were being cheap! We NEVER water our lawn and this year is only the second time we fertilized – and we splurged and got the corn gluten because we have dogs and we live in a water shed area.

  3. Hear hear! I never think about that but you are right. With all these green green lawns. Ours is a nice, natural brown. It looks nice bordering our veggie garden and I suspect that the governors’ mansions across the country would look equally nice.

  4. Iam removing 1/3 of the lawn and really appreciate the validation I receive from Garden Rant. Since we live in a suburban cul de sac a meadow is not feasible due to covenants. So we are adding more perennials in large beds….works with the neighbors. Also posted the ladybug sign “Pesticide Free” in several areas of property. Proud to be organic.

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