'Working yard' will save you money

With the economic downturn getting more "official" every day, perhaps you've begun thinking about gardening for sustenance, rather than as a hobby or for curb appeal. It's a change in approach, looking at our landscape with the old-fashioned notion that "beauty is as beauty does."

Stealing an analogy straight from the farm, we could call such a landscape a working garden, rather than a hobby garden.

The factor that makes the difference is that the working garden is an economic asset while you're living in the home, not just when you go to sell it. It can provide something that you otherwise would have to pay for.

It's easy to see how that principle applies to vegetable gardening, but a working yard provides more than food. And if you like gardening, having a garden that contributes helps justify all the time and money you invest in it. I'm a bit of a workaholic and I expect the same from my garden. I want it to "work" all year, just like I do.

I consider the wildlife-friendly portions of my garden to be working plants. These shrubs and perennials provide seeds and berries that I otherwise would have to buy. Of course, sunflowers fill that bill in my yard. I love these generous flowers for their incomparable summer bouquets, but I leave many in the garden to set seed. I love to watch the chickadees and finches come and tug the seeds out of their little pockets. I suppose I could harvest some myself, but I am sure the chickadees are having a much better time opening them and devouring them than I would.

I purchased some millet plants this year, wondering whether the birds would find them, but those seeds are still clinging to the fuzzy seed heads.

One of the many pleasures of growing a hawthorn is watching the birds harvest fruit in the fall. Today, I still have yellow leaves on my tree, which contrast smartly with the bright red berries. I've watched robins, cedar waxwings, rufous-sided towhees and others picking fruit. Of course, they do it when the blue jay — a capitalist who thinks he owns the tree — is absent. The tree, ahem, earns its place in my garden.

This is the time of year when my juniper hedge gets extra credit for working overtime. Of course, the hedge works all year to ensure privacy in my front yard, but I don't give it much positive feedback. Ungrateful to the max, I'm likely grimacing over its vigorous growth, constantly clipping it so it doesn't take over the world. Now that it's dormant, my only clipping is done to selectively collect boughs for my holiday wreath.

Rosemary, which grows so easily here, is a component of my wreath, contributing contrasting color and resinous scent (at least while I'm working on it I can smell it). Other wreath elements that come from my yard are rose hips ("Bonica" produces lovely small hips and "Hot Cocoa'" gives me big, fat ones.) More red is added with colorful nandina sprays from another shrub in the privacy hedge. Contrasting green comes from tiny-leaved twigs from the boxwoods, and soft sprays of cotton lavender (Santolina chamaecyparissus) contribute another shape element.

All in all, my yard is working pretty steadily this month. I wonder whether you'd consider this — oh dear get ready — seasonal labor?

Althea Godfrey is gardening editor for HomeLife magazine. Reach her at writealthea@charter.net.

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