March 2010: Green Scene

Compost curriculum

Attention, novice soil-makers: Are you mystified by the notion of putting vegetable scraps into a pile or container, and weeks or months later, taking out beautiful dark stuff that makes your garden grow? You now have a chance to get smart about compost, absolutely free. Blue Ridge Eco Shop will offer a free half-hour composting class on March 20 at 11am. 

If you can’t make that date, the Eco Shop (found in Preston Plaza) offers these classes about once a month. Spring is a great time to start your compost pile—by fall, you’ll have some black gold you can put on your broccoli crop. Call the shop at 296-0042 for more info.

The gardener’s browser

Craving data? Here are some of our favorite online resources for local green thumbs.

Fifth Season Gardening Co., on Preston Ave., has a collection of gardening info sheets on its site,, covering everything from soil pH to transplanting tips.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation,, offers a list of invasive species so you can think twice before planting mimosa trees or Chinese privet.

Instead, browse the list of native species at and choose something more homegrown, like a flowering dogwood.

What would Jefferson grow? Get garden design inspiration at, where there’s a database of what plants bloom in which months at TJ’s house. Plant Johnny jump-up or dwarf flowering almond for colorful displays in March.—Erika Howsare

Making peace with mud

“There is yet no social stigma in the possession of a gullied farm, a wrecked forest, or a polluted stream….” wrote Aldo Leopold in his 1949 A Sand County Almanac. Thank God the man did not live to see mountaintop removal. But loss of soil can be distressing on a small scale, too.


Flooding that followed this winter’s first storm melt gouged great chunks from our creek banks (remember the blue moon reflecting off the lovely winter solstice snow, before things got really crazy?). Thus our first priority here, as soon as mud permits, will be to build a retaining wall along the banks just a few feet from the deck. This will not be a heedless spring spent gallivanting among the tulips.

In areas farther from the house, the plan is to coppice existing native willows, an ancient springtime practice of cutting to the ground amenable shrubs like willow, hazel and osier dogwood. In olden days, the whippy cuttings were used for fuel or wattle fences while the shrubs would re-grow into impenetrable hedges. We’ll lay our trimmings along eroded slopes, stacked like dams to buffer against rushing water and hopefully to sprout soil-catching roots. 

Then there is the water that comes to stay. If you weren’t sure before this winter where water collects around your garden or grounds, you certainly know by now. The conventional way was to pipe any and all standing water underground and to install a nice lawn or patio that would shed water as fast as possible. 

But the resulting destruction of uncounted mini-ecosystems, with their biofilters of plants and soil, and subsequent pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, motor oil and general suburban excrescence, has proven to be unwise. Water should leave slowly if it must leave at all and soil should stay put completely. 



— Repair earth gouges.

— Slow the water; keep the soil.

— Don’t stomp in the mud if it’s your flowerbed.


By holding water, we feed the vaunted “groundwater” that was nearly sucked dry as an old loofa during last decade’s drought. It’s a good thing. Soil builds up where it should, instead of moving on to smother aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay. And we store water where it belongs, in underground aquifers that feed wells and springs. 

Rain gardens also filter and absorb neighborhood pollutants from overflowing gutters and streets. I have been appalled to see crudely designed subdivisions (hey, Crozet, I’m talking to you) where cul-de-sac back yards drain down into a stagnant mire planted in futile lawn. 

Think instead of buttonbush, Itea, bayberry or pussywillow.

Whatever plans you make for spring plantings, however, it will be crucial not to destroy the soil structure by mucking about while it’s still wet. This is especially difficult to avoid this year when with the detritus of broken branches littering the landscape. I’ve had to restrain myself a few times from picking up the increasing pile of fallen limbs under the giant privet where all the bulbs are growing trustingly. 

Better to be a bit disheveled than to churn a perennial bed to mush for the sake of a sterile neatness.—Cathy Clary



An eco-friendly paint job


I’ve stared at enough white this winter, including walls—it’s time for color! And green painting can be fun and economical.


Pick the right paint, the first time!

If I wasn’t picky about color and material, I could head to Ivy MUC (Materials Utilization Center) and check their PEP (paint exchange program) paints; but I want to ensure a low-VOC or zero-VOC brand (like Natura from Benjamin Moore) to protect indoor and outdoor air. 

Easy-to-clean latex-based paint with satin or semi-gloss finish is vital for my boys and me (outdated oil-based are higher polluting). Request Green Seal certification to limit and prohibit some toxins. My post-1978 home is lead-free, but be safe and visit www.epa. gov/lead for your project. I get 2-4 oz. samples and paint a 12×16 square behind a door: Colors can appear darker inside.

Stick to the basics

After rummaging my garage, I need one high-quality brush, an angled brush, a roller, painters’ tape, and a re-usable aluminum tray. I’ll borrow a step ladder and protect floors and furniture with old sheets or newspaper. Calling—instead of driving—around for prices and selection, I head to Nature Neutral, prep my walls with castile soap and water rinse (or a primer base) and I’m set! A paint calculator on the web tells me exactly how much I need.


If you have less than 1/4 can, let it dry outside. More? Use kitty litter or sawdust to soak up excess, and then dispose as trash. More than a gallon? Call local schools, the Discovery Museum, other kid-centered places, or head to the Ivy MUC. Reselling on craigslist is another option.



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