POSTED ON JUNE 15, 2011:
A new crew is rescuing local lawns from the toxic, noisy and hazardous status quo
Ah, summer, the season when landscapers invade neighborhoods with their noisy, gas-guzzling mowers, blowers and weed eaters. If you're normally setting the automatic timer on that high-powered sprinkler system to water your wall-to-wall Bermuda grass and prim rows of azaleas, try something more sustainable this season.
Your yard doesn't have look like the others on your block. Ditch the boring, all-work-no-play Stepford-style yard care, not to mention the creaky trailers weighed down with hedge manicuring equipment, and experiment with the latest ideas in gardening: xeriscaping, native or sustainable gardening, and if you're feeling plucky, urban farming or edible gardening.
And while you're at it, splash your yard with a dollop of color -- in the shape of funky, reclaimed local lawn art or furniture.
While Tulsa County's burn ban expired in April after late-arriving downpours drowned northeastern Oklahoma's driest stretch since 1921, slowly rising temperatures keep gardeners with hoses at the ready. Luckily, there are many ways for Tulsans to combat drought, fat water bills and environmental concerns.
Yard artist and former xeriscaper, Laurie Keeley, feels her heart sink when she sees sprinklers blasting in the middle of the day, while "water just streams down a concrete driveway right into the gutters," she said.
Keeley is the creative dynamo behind Yardistry, a new, hip Tulsa landscaping business that deals in AstroTurf couches and springy, hot-orange lawn stools. Not to mention sustainable, alternative and totally-not-boring gardening.
During a stint in Albuquerque, N.M., Keeley even xeriscaped in exchange for rent. The unusual term is a mash-up of the Greek word xeros, meaning "dry," and landscaping. Popularized in the Southwestern United States, xeriscaping (also called drought-tolerant or water-conserving landscaping) implements seven basic principles to reduce water use. Boiled down, these principles emphasize water conservation through mulching, composting, drip irrigation and other smart watering systems, rainwater collection, and using native species of plants in landscaping.
Though it hasn't caught on in Oklahoma yet, xeriscaping makes more sense as Tulsa teeters on the edge of drought. A few tweaks to your garden could have you conserving water in no time. Keeley recommends switching to a drip irrigation system, which sends bigger drops of water closer to a plant's roots while eschewing traditional sprinklers, which shoot mists of water all over the place -- including the gutter.
"Drip irrigation is inexpensive and wastes less water," she said. And remember to set the timer for an early-morning soak to avoid rapid evaporation.
Xeriscaping isn't just for the dusty Southwest anymore.
"We were just one big rain away from having a burn ban all summer," Keeley said. She also advocates planting trees to "provide shade and conserve water" and recommends purchasing smaller trees because younger ones are less likely to experience serious shock when re-planted in the yard, reducing the need for added water and chemicals.
If Keeley's pet peeve is wasted city water spilling down impervious concrete, Jenny Thompson's is "people who have a trailer plopped on five acres of land with a Topsy Turvy tomato plant hanging out front," she said with a laugh.
Thompson, who has been cultivating a veritable farm on her residential lot since 2006, is the force behind Tulsa's first Edible Garden Tour, June 11-12.
Thompson won't plant anything she can't eat, and her love of urban farming and sustainable gardening dovetails neatly with the principles of xeriscaping. Five 50-gallon tubs are clustered around her back porch, brimming with nutrient-rich rainwater. But it's not nearly enough to water all of her edible delights. "250 gallons is nothing for a garden," she said.
So Thompson had to make a choice between supplementing with some city water and growing less of her own food. In the end she said, "I'd rather use some city water than drive my Suburban to the grocery store."
Thompson also uses drip irrigation to water her extensive fruit and vegetable beds. She's slowly transitioning the small strips of empty lawn in her backyard to clover and lamb's quarter -- two ground covers that require less care and water than a traditional turf lawn.
Thompson maintains a tidy and well-manicured, if full, front yard. To keep her neighborhood association happy, she's designed a pretty and colorful edible garden. Raised beds swell with maroon-leaved beets, purple-blue juicy lettuce, a friendly strawberry patch, and ferny asparagus fronds. Spiky orange Indian Blanketflowers and delicate circles of Echinacea flowers add charming curb appeal to her home.
But to find the really delicious eats, you'll need to walk through the well-loved home she shares with her husband, three teenage daughters and 11-year-old son, and out the sliding-glass back door. Out there, hens cluck quietly in their straw-lined pen, fruit trees sway, heavy with budding plums and peaches, and every Oklahoma grow-able vegetable is tended in carefully-planned beds. Thompson's garden is bursting at her very-square property lines. Fresh broccoli as big as a child's head grows near the house. She snaps off a small floret and pops it into her mouth.
"I'm starving," she said.
She offered up a dark-emerald floret, which promptly defeated any other broccoli in memory, offering a taste explosion rarely associated with any store-bought vegetable.
Thompson's garden is one stop on the Edible Garden Tour, presented by Ellaberry Gardens, Sustainable Green Country and the Tulsa Garden Center. Pick up tickets at Tulsa Garden Center or on any stop on the days of the tour for $5 (kids are free). Check Tulsagardencenter.com for more info.
Keeley's garden, featuring her yard art as well as her green thumb, is also on the tour this year. However, you might not necessarily want to plop Keeley's blooming plants into a stew pot.
"Did you know that every part of a daylily can be eaten?" she asked excitedly. Keeley also suggests asparagus as an ornamental plant with ferny foliage and easy maintenance.
Thompson has slowly adjusted her and her family's diet and recipes to suit their garden's harvest. "We go by the seasons and only eat things when they're ripe," she said.
Not that they don't splurge from time to time. Some nights they still head over to Taco Bell, Thompson said, laughing. "As big as my garden is, it's only a part of my life not my whole life."
"We need to change our brains," she said. And by that she means changing our attitude toward food and the land your house sits on.
"You are paying good money, in property taxes, for the land," Thompson said. So you might as well get something out of it -- like fresh fruits and salads.
Thompson teaches small classes on gardening and raising chickens right from her own backyard. "People were always saying to me, 'I wish I could grow food or I wish I could have chickens, but I don't live in the country,'" she said, pausing for effect before looking around at her bountiful residential lot-turned-farm. "You don't have to live in the country!"
A full list of class offerings can be found on her site, ellaberrygardens.com.
Native gardening is part of a balanced sustainable lifestyle.
Oklahoma is located in a cold hardy climate and is designated USDA Zone 6, which makes Tulsa a great place for a wide range of species to flourish. No hardscrabble cacti here, unless you're into that. Oklahoma's native plants are pretty, blooming things that require little or no extra watering. Plus, Oklahoma's own benefits the environment by providing food for local songbirds, butterflies, hummingbirds and other wildlife, and requiring less fertilizer and pesticides. Local plants need fewer chemicals to succeed because they're already acclimatized to Tulsa's soil and insect populations.
Pesticides and fertilizers, in general, "aren't great for humans or for nature," Keeley said. So, "learn to live with weeds," she recommends.
Keeley also suggests ditching unattractive and impermeable landscape fabric in favor of newspapers or cardboard to prevent evaporation and provide food for earthworms. Use your copy of this paper, now printed with biodegradable soy inks, to protect plants and conserve water in the garden. Thompson uses straw to line the pathways of her flower and vegetable beds because it's cheap, soft, and doesn't heat up the way other pavers tend to do.
"I've got to be able to walk barefoot in my yard," she said.
Sustainability is about conserving resources, whether it's water or your time and money. Casual gardeners sink lots of cash each year into annuals that only last a single year before dying out. Opt for perennials, said Keeley, which will come back year after year and offer more bang for your buck. Or harvest the seeds from your annuals and use them the next spring, she suggests.
"Almost everyone participates in yard care in some way," Thompson said. "So why not make your investment -- your time and effort -- pay off by requiring plants to give you something back." She recommends replacing purely ornamental plants with utilitarian ones that are pretty to boot.
The National Wildlife Federation, on its website, stated that sustainable plants are native plants. Check with the Oklahoma Native Plant Society for updated information on indigenous varieties. Having trouble finding a particular plant in stores? Keeley maintains a seed catalogue of plants she's grown and proven to work well in Tulsa gardens. Give her a shout at LKYardistry@gmail.com for seed availability.
Keeley's sense of color gives a visual clue to her intensely artistic and contrasting personality. At Dilly Deli on a recent weekday, she pulled off a fire-orange jacket and mint earrings, with fun mint sunglasses whose arms were wrapped in orange string. Two colors that seem opposing in theory but somehow, some way, work fantastically together. Keeley cursed loudly as she described vivid native plants she adores. She's wildly imaginative, but keeps her ideas organized like the top-selling real estate agent she was. She's a conscientious vegetarian who bummed a Marlboro -- a brightly-colored contradiction and a hard-worker to boot.
She's just the kind of artist who would shoot 10,000 industrial staples into a couch to upholster it in high-grade Astroturf; or who would take old heating coils, spray paint them bright orange and turn them into funny little stools. And, somehow, some way, it works. Fantastically.
In planning a new, environmentally friendly garden, Keeley's No. 1 piece of advice is to "stay away from big-box stores!" Followed closely by, "Don't buy the easiest thing. You have to totally get outside the box and look at all the other options that are more affordable than easy."
One of her favorite sources of inspiration and loot is the Habitat for Humanity "melt pile," or plastic and metal rejects set for destruction.
"I always say, 'No, don't melt that! I can make something else with it!'" she said. Her reuse and reclaim mantra has helped her find free or cheap alternatives to lots of gardening stand-bys. She recommends searching out "dumpster-free" old concrete, now dubbed "urbanite" in sustainable living circles. Keeley uses chunks of found urbanite as garden pavers, flipped to reveal its textured underside, which resembles "limestone over time," she said.
Reusing old concrete is one thing, but pouring fresh is a big no-no in Keeley's book. For your driveway, "concrete is boring, wasteful and expensive. And it's not permeable, so the land underneath it will never get water or air," she said. On a mission, Keeley called around until one driveway contractor told her about a pervious alternative called R.A.P., Recycled Asphalt Product, which is half the price of regular concrete and allows for groundwater to soak into the earth underneath.
Keeley spends most days with her hands in the dirt and a website for her spring 2011 collection of lawn furniture isn't up. Yet. She named the collection as a play on words because her funny spring-and-turf pieces resemble foie gras and feature soft, high-end fake grass, or Faux Graux.
"Spring is every season" is her motto. Indeed.
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