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Meet HPSO Member Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes and Tour a Climate-Wise Garden (2022 Open Gardens Host)

Meet Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes, HPSO board member and Open Garden Owner. She gardens in USDA Zone 8, SE Portland, Oregon. Jeanne applies climate-wise gardening methods to create a beautiful, sustainable garden, and shares some of her tips in this profile. 

Some of the climate-wise elements I include in my garden are:

Respecting my garden’s natural conditions –

I designed the gardens to meet the site conditions. I would think what kind of soil do I have here, how much sunlight is there? What kind of plants would do well? The garden on the north lot reflects an interest in Chinese gardens, like Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden. Taking advantage of a northern aspect, I planted many trees and woodland plants from the Himalayas, Japan and China. This garden is easily 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. The beds around the porch and out near the street face south. These areas get a lot of hot, baking sun. After removing several large and somewhat sickly-looking camellias, I created berms with the soil. I planted the streetside garden with Willamette Valley native shrubs such as Ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), and madrona nearly twenty years ago. These plants have now created an excellent soil from leaf drop and provide cover for birds. I planted manzanita, cactus, yucca, grevillea and other plants that enjoy full sun conditions, around the front porch and foundation, adding sand and gravel to improve the drainage as well as serve as a mulch.

Recycling –

I use as much material from the garden in the garden as possible. Nothing like your own “local” compost for your garden. I leave fir needles, leaves, branches, stones etc. in place to provide soil structure, retain water, shade plants or to provide warmth to plants that might need a little extra. I place woody debris, logs, or stumps in the beds to decompose naturally, feed the soil and to soak up rain, water from irrigation, soaker hoses etc. allowing the water to slowly seeps into the ground.

Planting for wildlife –

I grow natives and companion plants to feed birds, bees, bugs etc. I let the animals control the “bad” bugs in my garden. I also leave a few “wild” places in the garden to provide for ground nesting bees and bugs.

How does being a geographer impact the way I think about gardening and climate change?

A geographer is a person “who studies Earth’s natural environment and human society, including how society and nature interact”. I have always been interested in how the geography of a place, the climate, and the site condition of a location affects plants, animals, and people. The plants I collect, and the way I garden reflect this.

As a geographer, I spend a large portion of my workday collecting and developing data and maps to answer questions such as what is the habitat here? What would happen to wildlife and endangered plants if we made a recreation site here? Or clearcut 20 acres of trees? I guess it is only natural to do this with my garden. I want my garden to be sustainable, to thrive without my intervention, and to be a little piece of paradise in my own backyard. I like to recreate natural ecosystems or biomes by combining plants that share geography, or habitat, or ecology.

How is climate change affecting my gardening practice?

With Climate change, I am reevaluating my gardens and what I do with my plants. Currently, it is directing my plant purchases and plant collecting habits to purchase drought tolerant plants that can handle more extreme heat or cold. Extreme weather such as ice storms and heavy snows are “pruning” the plants for me. Ultimately, climate change plays a part in changing my gardening activities. Do I put down more mulch? Do I add a soaker hose here? Do I move these plants to another, shadier garden bed?

What authors or designers inspired my garden and what did I take away from them?

Although I have enjoyed reading many books on nature, plants, gardens and garden design, there are three books that really influenced my garden, my ideas, how and why I garden. All three were an epiphany for me. The first is Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. This book discusses how “nature” is a modern concept, romanticized by society and yet is so worthy of protection, of conservation, of allowing wild areas to be wild, for animals, for plants and ultimately for humans. The Wild Garden by William Robinson also supports this notion but in a more “controlled study” of Robinsons’ own garden. And finally, Plant Driven Design by Scott Odgen and Lauren Springer Ogden, showed me how plants can be combined “to honor the plants, place and spirit of a garden”, to select plants that thrive in a location based on the site, to garden for what is good for the plants and animals that live there. This book was fascinating in how it “explores how plants interact with place”.

What are my favorite tips for reducing water usage in the garden?

Conserve water by using irrigation systems or soaker hoses to reduce the amount of water needed and to make sure the water is going directly to the plants. Use the naturally occurring water on your property like creating a rain garden in low areas. Direct the water from the downspouts to the rain garden.

Consider alternative plants. Instead of a mophead hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), try an oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) or Hydrangea paniculata. Or how about replacing those thirsty petunias with long blooming and sweet smelling Agastache (Hummingbird mint) or colorful penstemon?

Use native plants that are adapted to dry conditions and summer drought such as manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.), ceanothus, Oregon grape (Mahonia sp.), pacific coast iris (Iris x pacifica or Iris tenax) and many others.

Consider watering less. Maybe well-established plants don’t need as much water as you think!

You can still have a garden with your favorite plants. It just might take more inventive solutions to make it happen!

Thank you, Jeanne, for sharing your tips to create a climate-wise garden!


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