2013 in my Garden and my Town

Tibetan prayer flags help provide screening until the Cryptomerais grow up.

Following Elizabeth’s lead, I’m celebrating the year-end with a round-up of the yay’s and boo’s from my garden in its first full year and what’s happening in my adopted town of Greenbelt, Maryland.

YAY:  The perennials in my garden are filling in nicely, and where they haven’t, I used annuals, and together they attracted lots of bird and pollinators. I’ve added several bird feeders and moved the bird bath to a more protected location, with good results.

YAY:  As planned in my downsizing move to a townhouse, the garden needed very little upkeep, especially compared to my monstrous-seeming former garden on a hillside.  With no lawn and two large patios, I can weed and water the whole thing in less than an hour.

Less than robust ‘Emerald Green’ Arborvitaes provide cover to birds near feeders and bath.

BOO:  Plants with the important job of providing screening are taking their good time, especially the Arborvitae ‘Emerald Green.’  And worse, they’re losing needles in spots.  At least they’re not as sickly as the ‘Blue Maid’ Hollies I thought would provide screening, of which most are already dead, thanks to some fungal disease that I’d have to spray to combat for the rest of my life.  Not gonna happen.

YAY:  Gardening activism in this small town is long overdue, so ripe for success.  We had our first plant swap, an easy-to-organize, feel-good, garden-friendly event if there ever was one, and we’ll continue them each spring and fall.  In lieu of an actual garden club (dues-collecting, speaker-booking – nooooooo!) the swaps will keep us gardeners in touch, as will the local Yahoo group for gardeners that I started, which is being used to swap advice, extra plants, and rides to gardening events.  Most exciting of all was the Less Lawn Garden Tour in early September, which attracted people from across the region and contributed to gardeners and gardener-wannebees meeting other local gardeners.  For the organizer – this newbie in town – it meant getting to know 15 other serious gardeners who are neighbors.  I’ve been walking by and snooping on their gardens ever since.

Community gardens, with water barrels in the distance.
Community gardens, with water barrels in the distance.

BOO:  For a city that started in the ’30s with abundant victory gardens, the condition of the community gardens now is quite a surprise, starting with the lack of water supply!  One hurdle to petitioning the town for water is the subset of gardeners against it, fearing that it would just bring in more gardeners (wtf?) and also unwanted government involvement.  (Kind of a libertarian subgroup here – though the gardens ARE on city land.)  And even more contentious is the campaign by gardeners to have the weed trees growing up around the gardens cut down to restore sun to plots around the edges.  Trouble is, the gardens were carved out a “forest preserve,” so treehuggers are successfully fighting to save the encroaching weed trees, and veg gardeners had better switch to – what, hostas?  There’s also a battle between IPMers and the organic-only advocates, of course.  All very discouraging, and more than enough conflict to keep me away.

Coming up in 2014

This look back has me wondering what I might be writing a year from now, and how I might create more yays than boos.

  • Now that I’m becoming used to the less-than-scenic views I was so frantic to hide initially, I expect to be less anxious for the screeners to grow, dammit!  I hope to be a mellower gardener this year, more focused on enjoying the wildlife IN the garden.
  • As much as everyone would love it, I won’t be organizing another garden tour any time soon, though if someone else wants to, I’ll help I’m hoping to be busy this year with another, much bigger garden-type project…
  • To wit, if just one of the applied-for grants comes through, I’ll be working with two local landscape architects (Sharon Bradley and Lanshing Hwang) on an updated master plan and tree replacement plan for the whole city, plus garden-design and plant-list suggestions for the residential spaces – gardens.  How this scheme came about is thanks to one GardenRant reader who wrote to tell me that since Greenbelt is famous among landscape architects, I should contact the local chapter for help.  I did, and found two savvy professionals nearby (one literally across the street from me) who’ve already worked with the city and with a large federal agency here and are raring to go.  So thanks, landscape-architect Rant reader whose name and location I’ve long forgotten!


  1. I love this article. And I love the idea of organizing plant swaps instead of having to attend dues paying, political garden clubs! I live in a small town in Chester County, PA and would love to get some info on how you organized the swaps….and what happens next in the “shared” garden. I’m all organic and have been for years. Just finished writing an organic gardening book (Amazon Kindle) based on my years of gardening. It’s funny, informational and shares tips I learned from my Mom and my Gran – Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us. And I started/manage the Linked In group – Grow Girls Grow Organic — would love to see some of your tips show up on this group, too!

    • Organizing swaps is easy, and can be done in several ways. My favorite way is to provide a couple of tables, and ask people to display the plants they brought based on shade or sun. Also, they’re asked to label them. At first, people browse, then at the imaginary gun, everyone is allowed to grab 1 plant. Pause, step back, go get a second. Third time, take as many as you like. A club I used to belong has people taking numbers as they arrive, as they choose/take the free plants one at a time – too time-consuming, in my book. Oh, we also have people very briefly describe what they brought before anyone takes any plants. And people who have nothing to bring are encouraged to come anyway – the “exchange” will help them more than anyone, so we want them involved – and bring a snack to share. Also, we like tools, books, magazines, anything garden-related.
      That’s it! Susan

  2. Living in England, I would consider providing water for allotmenteers to be a RESPONSIBILITY of local government rather than an intrusion. Living in an area where there are lots of houses, I wonder if you may go well off your screening in time – preferring to keep the light it is likely to cut out. Looks as if you’ll have your work cut out for this year. It is bound to be busy – but hopefully fruitful too. Best wishes for 2014. Esther Montgomery

    • Esther, I agree the city should provide water!
      About the screening, that’s an important point, making sure it doesn’t shade the whole garden. In this case, most of the screening plants won’t get taller than 6-8 feet, and the other ones – Cryptomerias – will get tall but there are already oaks behind them producing shade, so not much sun will be lost. I woke up today to find the Cryptomerias bent over from snow, so I’m worried for their future!

    • That is sort of the probem with community gardens on public land, the entirety of the public are stakeholders. Because of that, everything gets politicized. But since it is a commons, that discourse is necessary in order to prevent a classic tragedy of the commons. I imagine preventing a tragedy of the commons has something to do with why the ‘libertarian contingent’ doesn’t want piped water as well.

      When the community garden is on private land you just get infighting among the members, which is unfortunately only mildly better.

  3. Haha, “weed trees”–that’s a new term for me! On our property, we selectively thin our weed trees to fuel our woodstove in the winter, and more always sprout right back up. It’s not necessarily bad for the forest or the ecosystem to thin the trees, and I would imagine you wouldn’t have to remove them very far back to get the sun you need. You should consult with an arborist or forester and see what they think.

    Now, if there were “weed buildings” nearby blocking the sun, you’d have a real problem!

  4. We had wonderful spring plant swaps in our tiny town – until we all had the same flowers. Our technique after all the pre-swamp viewing and explaining was to line up and go through staying in line so the first was last for the second pass through and so on. The swap also made connections for people to visit each other for further swapping. Great for new gardeners. A local community garden was founded about three years ago on town land that had been the Poor Farm. http://www.justroots.org. They even got a well to provide water!

  5. I can sympathize with your “BOO” on the emerald green. Lost a few but eventually (6 years), they DID fill in nicely (well, the ones that didn’t die). I bought ones that came with a 2-year warranty but it’s still a hassle to dig them out and haul them back… not to mention finding the old, faded, crumpled, soil-spattered receipts! In the meantime, until the birds had some privacy, I had great success with squirrel proof bird feeders that kept away the worst of those urban thieves. Thanks for a fun roundup of your gardening year!


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