Spring is just around the corner and it’s that time of year again, The days are a little longer, the air is warmer, and pretty green and colorful things are popping up everywhere. For some, it’s a lifesaving, therapeutic time of year, for many different reasons. For those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a type of depression exacerbated by the lack of Vitamin D our bodies produce when exposed to the sun, being shuttered away during cold months and inclement weather, spring is a welcome change. For others, spring offers options to socialize outdoors more frequently and comfortably. 

Then, there are those of us who can’t wait to return to immersing our hands in the soil, digging in the dirt while pruning and planting to our heart’s delight. That last group are the folks we commonly refer to as gardeners, and they’re as plentiful and diverse as anything. 

For a plethora of reasons, gardening can beautify, sustain and offer therapeutic benefits. Horticultural therapy uses plants and gardening to improve mental and physical health. It is a professional practice with a multitude of advantages many folks are interested in accessing, particularly during such a stressful time in history. 

However, once we feel better from all that planting and digging in the dirt, what about our planet?  Are we actually helping or hurting our environment with our spades, shovels and shrubbery?  

If the environment is just as important to you and green means more than spending money on sod or grass seed, you might want to consider sustainable gardening. Sustainable gardening involves practices in gardening that enhance while not causing harm to us or our planet. It’s something that the environmentally conscious should seriously consider. It’s also the reason that Qnotes spoke with local gardener, Craig Maxwell. 

Maxwell has lived in Charlotte since the tender age of five. During the day, he works for Wells Fargo as a Content Manager. He also serves as Chapter Chair for the North Carolina Native Plant Society. In this capacity Maxwell says, “I’m in charge of organizing our monthly events, hikes, garden tours and getting speakers to come to events to talk and share information.”  

It was just before the COVID-19 pandemic when Maxwell started gardening quite a bit – in honor of his grandmother, a stellar gardener herself. Maxwell credits his grandmother for being a big part of his inspiration. 

“She was a science teacher and could name every flower and tree she passed. She was an impressive woman. She had gardened since she was a kid, always had a farm and grew her own vegetables.”  

With the inspiration of his grandmother guiding him, once COVID hit he “started down a podcasting rabbit hole on gardening and then more specifically native [North Carolina] plants.”  

During our conversation with Maxwell, we learned that native plants for our area, (the Southeast) include such plants and flowers as the Cardinal Flower, a pretty flower with a red bloom; Beautyberry Bushes, a shrub with purple berries so pristine that it can be mistaken for being artificial and Trout Lily, a flower we often see along our highways and creek banks. Many of these native plants are also edible or can be used for medicinal reasons. Trout Lily is one such flower. According to the Edible wild Food website, the leaves of this plant have a very mild flavor, and the flowers have a slight sweetness from their nectar while the corms (short, squat stems) offer a cucumber-like taste. It is said this plant has been used by Cherokee people for numerous medicinal purposes like reducing fever, healing wounds, and preventing pregnancy. 

These flowers are also non-invasive, meaning they won’t spread and encroach upon other plants and areas like ivy and mint are known to do. According to Maxwell, the top three invasive plants in our area are Privet (often viewed as a bush or hedges); English Ivy and Bradford Pear Trees. The latter is generally a pretty tree, with white flowers that indicate spring has arrived and, for some, offer breathtaking vistas when placed properly on a landscape. Regrettably, Bradford Pears have a propensity when they reach 25 to 30 years of age, they can split right down the middle during a gusty wind storm. 

Storm damage is something Carolinians dread and are unfortunately well acquainted with. But who knew the planting of the pretty Bradford Pear would create a victim of mother nature’s wet and windy wrath?  Obviously, Maxwell and those he joyously educates on sustainable gardening. 

Check out local plant nurseries to find native plants. CREDIT: Facebook

Like other sustainable gardeners, Maxwell has earned the moniker of being anti-grass. Wait, a gardener that’s anti-grass?  How is that possible? Sustainable gardening is about protecting the environment. This means not planting items that are not native to the area and remembering (or learning about) how certain plants and vegetation lend to our environments by providing food, shelter, and control of wildlife. So, to be fair, Maxwell isn’t necessarily anti-grass. However, he explained, “I am anti-turf grass. There’s a big ‘kill your lawn movement’ based on the premise that turf lawns are not sustainable and are ecological nightmares. Anything that you grow and walk on is turf grass. The alternatives would be other native ground covers, most of which would not be grass.”  

“Some grass is okay, but having big swaths of it isn’t,” he continued. “Turf grass is the number one crop in the United States. It takes up more land than any other crop we grow. More than corn, more than cotton and more than soybeans.”  

Another option not mentioned by Maxwell, for those who can’t give up grass, is artificial grass, and we’re not talking CBD or plastic-coated AstroTurf, either. If you like the look of a plush green lawn and/or enjoy the feeling of the softness beneath your feet, artificial grass may be an option to consider. It will most certainly save your back, doesn’t need mowing and won’t hike your water bill because it never needs watering. 

For those who are skeptical about beginning a journey of therapeutic and sustainable gardening, Maxwell warns against buying into area gardening myths.

 “I would say for our area, the myth is that the red clay is bad soil,” he explains. “It’s not. You just have to know how to work it. One of the big mistakes people make is working it when it’s really wet. It’ll be a little easier to work with but clay is the finest sediment one could have. When [attempting to work wet red clay] what you’re actually doing is compacting the soil. You’re walking around the [planting] area, causing all the oxygen and water to be pushed out of it. Kind of like a construction site, where you can see the tire tracks from all the big trucks and heavy equipment. Eventually, nothing grows there. The only thing that will grow are weeds.”  The lesson here is to be patient in working with red clay, be careful and don’t overwater it for ease or quickness. 

Maxwell also offered some advice for those who are interested in simultaneously saving the planet and money on traditional therapy.

“Check out your local plant nurseries and ask them where their native plant section is. You’re not going to find native plants typically at a big box store. There are resources like the NC Native Plant Society and your local extension office. With my lawn, I slowly added beds that have now taken up 75 percent of my lawn space. It’s very intentional and you can still have a pretty yard without having your HOA on your case. A lot of their regulations and standards were started in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s when people knew very little about the benefits of native plants.”  

In conclusion, Maxwell added a few cautions. “When you do fall clean up and remove all the brown leaves, you also remove potential homes for the winter for local wild wife, mostly bugs but also some birds, worms and snails. We need them. A healthy ecosystem provides its own pest control. Having dragonflies that eat mosquitoes, not to mention pretty butterflies…all that feed up into the food web. So much of this is getting people not to be afraid of nature. We’ve been so disconnected that it’s easy to be afraid when in reality there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Start small and don’t be afraid to kill a few plants. Good gardeners have killed hundreds of plants. Master gardeners have killed thousands.”

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