Rhubarb is an underused edible perennial. It offers seasonal variation with bold red stems in spring, handsome large foliage throughout the growing season, and a tall spire of cream flowers that can add visual appeal. Cooked stems can be eaten as a tangy vegetable or in chutney. Deep organic soil produces vigorous plants. Check regularly for snails. Remove flower stem after initial bloom to redirect growth into stems and foliage. While the leaves are toxic to ingest, they provide excellent biomass for sheet mulching or added to the compost.
Sustainable gardening is based on ecological principles. When we consider the home garden as an ecosystem, we develop the habit of observing patterns in nature and then look for similar patterns in gardens. Mature organic gardens, like natural systems are complex and rich. One of the goals of sustainable gardening is catching and holding resources.
Always start with the soil— enhance and maintain soil fertility by adding organic matter, so the existing soil microbes can thrive and flourish. Even a degraded site can develop a balanced ecosystem over time as the organic matter decomposes and forms humus. When the microbes of the soil web die, their decayed bodies act as slow-release fertilizer for garden plants. Focus on fertility includes compost, planting nitrogen fixers and other cover crops, adding manure, and growing plants that produce mulch.
We create more resilient gardens when we make connections with all of nature. Select plants that provide habitat for native insects, birds, and animals that can function together in a food web, as part of the home garden ecosystem. Layered gardens include trees shrubs and herbaceous plants that invite more beneficial visitors. The food web becomes more involved as rodents, snakes, and predatory birds engage.
When we design by grouping plants with similar environmental needs together there is less maintenance. Port Townsend’s mild wet winters and mostly dry summers are known as a Mediterranean climate. Native plants and plants from similar climates around the world, including Australia and New Zealand, offer many drought tolerant choices. Woody plants with edible fruits can be planted with an understory of perennial and annual herbs and edible flowers. Remember that perennials and annuals are more work than woody plants, so make sure they serve many functions!
Healthy, well-rooted plants withstand environmental stress caused by weather and poor drainage, and develop better resistance to insect pests and diseases. Planting in beds or mounds edged with paths makes a garden more inviting and eliminates the need for grass.
Gardening to the scale of the property lets us enjoy the intimate small garden or work with generous proportions of larger gardens to include the sky as part of the scale. Larger beds with masses of plants create bold simple patterns. Broadleaf evergreen shrubs and small trees can form the structure or bones of the garden. Strategic placement of flowering perennials and annuals allows us to enjoy the color with less work.