Published October 30. 2013 4:00AM
There's nothing like the first hard frost of fall to focus a gardener's attention on how things will be better next year. That's one of the reasons why every year the Smaller American Lawns Today (SALT) conference is held around this time at Connecticut College.
It's a chance for like-minded home gardeners - those who believe that our American lawn mania needs to be replaced by more environmentally sound techniques that promote biodiversity and healthier yardscapes - to learn how to improve the environment, yard by yard.
Americans, especially suburbanites, have this love-hate relationship with our lawns. From spring to fall, we're battling weeds and crabgrass, alternately feeding and poisoning plants that we mow into submission. Our vision is a manicured grass lawn punctuated with foundation plantings of shrubs and perennials that we hope the deer won't devour.
We've also been trained that the model American yard has the flowerbeds in the front while the working vegetable garden, if there is one, is hidden in the back. Native plants might be ignored in the no-man's land of the far corner that we never quite know how to finish off, where they're fighting it out with invasive species.
The SALT movement was conceived by the late Dr. William Niering, internationally renowned environmentalist and botany professor at Conn College, to advance the ideals of more naturalistic and functional landscapes in lieu of grass lawns. For at least 10 years, annual SALT conferences that bring in expert speakers in the fields of horticulture, landscape design, native plants and ecology have been dedicated to his memory.
This year's conference, on Saturday, Nov. 2, focuses on the growing popularity of home gardening and how edibles and ornamentals go well together.
"What we're emphasizing this year is that you don't have to make a choice between ornamental gardens and vegetable gardens, they can be beautiful blended together," says Kathy Dame, assistant director of the Conn College Arboretum and conference organizer. "Your garden can provide food for your body and beauty for your soul."
Although she doesn't have hard statistics to show if Connecticut residents are embracing more natural and organic yards, Dame says she feels the sea change in practices and philosophies.
"I feel it, maybe it's the world I'm in. When I came here 20 years ago, I didn't know what I was doing, but I discovered there was a name for it," said Dame, who admits she always had a meadow in her yard but wasn't sure why, other than she liked it. She didn't realize the significance of supporting and inviting the natural diversity of microbes, insects and wildlife.
"The biggest change is people converting to organic gardening practices, not using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers," she says. "It's become their culture, along with composting."
Each year's SALT conference brings in a new crop of speakers. This year's event includes advice on how to create more bountiful, multi-purpose home gardens from Cathy Beauregard, an alumnus of the New York Botanical Garden's School of Professional Horticulture and garden designer, and recommendations from Bill Duesing, former executive director of CT NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association), a passionate advocate of making good use of our yards to grow food and to improve the environment.
Rick Darke, a sought-after design consultant, photographer and author who has designed parks, transportation corridors, corporate and collegiate campuses, conservation developments and botanical gardens, will talk about his 25 years of tending and observing his own Pennsylvania home garden.
Fans of Garden Conservancy Open Days may recognize Duncan Brine, the principal landscape designer at GardenLarge, which installs and cares for naturalistic gardens with native plants. Brine also is creator of the Brine Garden in the Hudson River Valley and teaches naturalistic landscape design at the New York Botanical Garden and at the New England Wildflower Society. He will talk about how to break "traditional" design rules by blending with and replicating nature.
The SALT movement has spawned a local chapter of Wild Ones, a membership organization that promotes native plants and wild landscapes to preserve biodiversity of native plant communities and ecosystems. The group meets on the first Saturday of each month at Conn College for business meetings and speakers.
There's still time to register for Saturday's conference, which starts at 8:30 a.m. The $90 fee includes continental breakfast and lunch, members of the Conn College Arboretum and the Wild Ones pay $10 less. For details, see arboretum.conncoll.edu, or call Dame at (860) 439-5060.
Suzanne Thompson hosts a weekly radio show, "CT Outdoors," on WLIS 1420 AM and WMRD 1150 AM, Tuesdays from 12:30 to 1 p.m., Saturdays from 1 to 1:30 p.m. and Sundays from 7 to 7:30 a.m., or listen to archived show in the On Demand section of www.wliswmrd.net. Reach Suzanne at email@example.com.