For the past several years, King Conservation District has provided educational information for attendees of the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. This year, with the help of Snohomish Conservation District and the Better Ground coalition of Puget Sound conservation districts we took on the work to design, build and showcase a 1,000 square foot ‘Better Ground’ garden to the more than 60,000 attendees! Over 3,000 people directly engaged with conservation districts as potential support for a broad spectrum of needs that can help them clean our water, strengthen local food systems, and grow healthier forests.
Check out our garden build time-lapse!
Better Ground aims to inspire local stewardship practices and assist conservation action for backyards and communities. Most people don’t know that whether you are removing invasives, or purchasing and planting native species, your local conservation district has an array of programs and services from education, technical assistance, and even financial support so that you are not alone in your efforts.
Every county in Washington has a conservation district. While most of them offer similar programs, each is separately run by a resident elected board of supervisors so they prioritize the local conservation needs of each distinct area. Most conservation districts have native plant sales, offer workshops and coordinate restoration events, provide expertise for natural resource management and cost-share options for landowners to implement best management practices that improve our environment.
Our display focused on highlighting native plants and practices such as rain gardens. While the show had a theme of “Gardens around the world” our Pacific Northwest garden was often referred to as familiar and a breath of fresh air, that fueled inspiration of a realistic idea for someone’s backyard. While visually appealing to those meandering by, this garden was a careful consideration of specific methods of native plant location and communities, rainwater catchment, soil conservation, and wildlife habitat.
Beyond native plants, we focused on soil conservation for nutrient retention, erosion prevention, and rainwater catchment. Moss, leaves, and cover crop not only keep soil with valuable nutrients in place but also provide insect and pollinator habitat. A passerby told us that our practice of leaving leaves was even recognized in seminar talk on increasing soil health from show presenter Anne Biklé, a soil biologist and writer. A rain garden, a depression for collecting excess water with moisture-loving native plants, demonstrated how to help keep water clean and slowly percolate the water back into the ground. When desired a pipe allows irrigation of our raised garden bed. The creek by the forest had some large debris in the stream and a hedgerow of native plants surrounding both sides as a buffer, a practice we commonly cost-share streamside landowners.
Our garden was biodiverse, encouraged wildlife habitat, and natural yard care practices. Large pieces of downed woody debris in the forest, simultaneously promote the growth of native plants by providing nutrients but also offer habitat for birds and insects. Alder logs, in our garden, grew Reishi from Fungi Perfecti an illustration that you can intentionally cultivate or just celebrate rotting logs as a part of the landscape. Seattle’s chapter of the Audubon Society donated a hummingbird’s nest (which was in our Indian plum) and a robin’s nest which was in the thicket of branches beneath our Douglas-fir.
Besides the “meeker” raspberries, cover crop, and brassica vegetables, the rest of the garden comprises all native plants to the Puget Sound lowlands. Lowlands Farm run by Alice VanderHaak provided the rye and brassicas from her farm out in Snohomish County. The acreage she currently leases once was in poplar tree production until the mill closed down. Now with help from Snohomish Conservation District the margin of the farm may include a native plant hedgerow. There is potential that they will work with the landowner and her to select native plants to encourage habitat, filtering and also in areas planted into the farm she can use the perennials as a yearly supply of additions for her bouquets. Traditionally flowering crabapples, salal, willow branches and more have been used in arrangements.
The cover crop, a mix of yellow field peas and crimson clover, composed the blend in our raised bed at the garden show. King Conservation District passes out this mix for community gardens to educate on the benefits of increasing organic matter, conserving soil and reducing weed pressure.
This garden and the many practices highlighted within aimed to increase awareness and understanding that a natural approach to gardening can simultaneously benefit the environment, reduce costs and labor, and be visually appealing. Native plants support birds, pollinators, and wildlife. The Better Ground Garden resonated as a display that captured Pacific Northwest memories and makes us feel at home in our region of Washington.