When Skye Raiser moved from Chevy Chase’s Kenwood neighborhood to Spring Valley in Northwest Washington, D.C., in 2017, her blueberry, raspberry and blackberry plants made the trip across the border with her family of five. Also uprooted for the move were her goumi bushes, berry-producing plants native to this area that were an integral part of the sustainable garden she hoped to re-create outside her new home.
Over the past 10 years, sustainable gardening practices have become increasingly popular with local gardeners like Raiser. In fact, landscape architect and designer Basem Saah estimates that almost half of his clients at American Plant, a garden center in Bethesda, request that sustainability be incorporated into the design of their gardens. “Sustainability isn’t one thing; it’s a mindset,” Saah says. “It’s part of the movement toward reusing and not taking resources. People want to feel that they are contributing by not depleting the earth.”
Saah says creating a truly sustainable garden often involves the use of primarily organic soil and fertilizer, and the replacement of grass lawns, which require lots of water and pesticides to maintain, with drought-resistant succulents, ornamental grasses and rock gardens. Sustainability also means incorporating resource-friendly techniques such as the use of rain barrels, which collect water for gardening, and planting native species that require fewer natural resources to thrive in the mid-Atlantic region, such as dogwood, redbud, Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod.
“It’s an economic way of living,” Saah explains. He says sustainable gardening is especially popular with environmentally minded millennials and young couples who appreciate the cost savings in terms of time, money and natural resources. “You are using products that require fewer resources. It’s cheaper to grow food than buy it. Also, sustainable gardens are lower maintenance,” he says.
Another perk of sustainable gardening practices is establishing a closer relationship with food, says Natalie Carver, the director of horticulture at Love & Carrots. The D.C-based gardening firm has installed more than 700 gardens in the area, including more than 50 at Montgomery County homes and the one at Raiser’s Spring Valley residence. “In this consumer culture, people want to reconnect with their roots,” she says.
Once Raiser and her husband, David Perlin, their children, and three dogs were settled into their new home, she wanted to put down roots outside. With Love & Carrots’ assistance, Raiser set about turning the home’s traditional flower garden into a fruit- and vegetable-producing powerhouse capable of feeding her three kids, ages 7, 10 and 13. The first step in the exterior makeover was replacing the nonnative bushes and flowers with three raised garden beds supported by wood frames. Strategically placed in the sunniest area of the property, the beds are now home to more than 30 different species of edible plants, including lettuces, zucchini, peppers, broccoli, snap peas and chard.
“We cut the produce and eat it right away,” says Raiser, who says she relies solely on her garden to produce salads for her family during peak season. “The flavor is so much tastier than what you get in the store—it’s like a different species. I never imagined how delicious freshly picked vegetables could be.”
In addition to the vegetable beds, the transplanted goumi bushes sit in front of the house alongside a Japanese maple, a fig tree and a trellis crawling with blackberry vines. Clay pots filled with herbs surround the perimeter of the dwelling, growing thyme, rosemary and oregano that season the family’s meals, in addition to sage and mint that Raiser uses to prepare fresh lemonade and home-brewed tea.
Love & Carrots’ coaching program, which offers private biweekly lessons from a staff member, allows Raiser to work and learn alongside the professionals and assist with the installation and maintenance of her garden. “I like to get my hands in the dirt with them,” she says of Love & Carrots’ team. “I am right there geeking out with them over different varieties of plants.”
In addition to working with individual gardening enthusiasts, Love & Carrots partners with local businesses to help urban gardens flourish. Its current projects include the installation and maintenance of a 5,200-square-foot urban farm for The Pearl, an apartment building in downtown Silver Spring. From April through November, 30 residents enjoy the fruits of the labor when they receive a monthly basket of produce that was grown on-site.
Backyard Bounty, a Silver Spring-based firm, is designing a garden that will be installed in the Town of Chevy Chase’s Zimmerman Park. Scheduled to debut this fall, the Lee Dennison Sustainable Garden will display native plants, trees and shrubs, along with sustainable techniques such as permeable pathways created with pavement that is designed to allow rainwater to filter below the surface and saturate the ground. In addition to honoring the memory of a longtime resident and gardener, the garden is an effort to expose residents to the sustainable gardening practices that its namesake embraced.
“Sustainable gardening starts with being a steward of the environment in your own garden,” says Edamarie Mattei, founder of Backyard Bounty.