The Green Outdoors

By Ruth Heil

On most days, outdoors is the place to be. The sounds alone relieve my day-to-day tension: a calling sparrow, a breeze through the trees or a honeybee buzzing from clover to clover. Plus, when I warm my back in the sun, fill my lungs with fresh air, catch the scent of a lily patch, or drop a fresh-picked strawberry on my tongue, I can only hope heaven is as beautiful as the outdoors on Earth.

Assuming, of course, we maintain a healthy planet. We each affect the Earth’s condition, starting with how we treat our yards. When we work in harmony with natural law, we are rewarded with simple pleasures that cannot be bought at any price.

Here are four methods to consider when caring for your little patch of our planet:


When I was a kid, I stumbled upon a plant so unusual, I thought I was the first to discover it. It was a Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). A single stalk (Jack “the preacher”) stood in a striped cup (the pulpit) that was hidden under a hood-like leaf.

This is one example of the amazing variety found in Pennsylvania’s undisturbed places. Sadly, these gems are disappearing due to construction, deer consumption and crowding from aggressive foreign species. Fortunately, you can give them life in your own yard.

Horticulturists Sue Tantsits and Louise L. Shaefer cofounded Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery in Orefield. “[Our mission] is to bring life to the landscape and connect people with native plants. With the growth of the Lehigh Valley, it is important to restore native plant communities that will continue to support the ecosystems in the Valley’s landscape” says Tantsits.

Gardeners often unknowingly beautify their homes with invaders. Foreigners such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) escape garden walls and spread unabated without their original habitat’s natural controls. While not all nonnative plants are invasive, each one planted consumes space that a native that could otherwise occupy.

“Many native plants are specialists, so they do require a bit of care in selecting to thrive in the soil, sunlight and moisture levels you have. Once you select the right plant, the plant will need very little additional attention from you, once established,” says Schaefer. She offers these online selection tools: and (for bird attraction)

The plant world is complex. Use Latin names to ensure you get the exact variety intended. You do not need to pronounce them, but you should write them down before shopping.

“A landscape is a living system. It should be full of life such as insects, birds and other animals and change with the seasons,” says Tantsits.


I never met a farmer who was not calm. Have you? Farmers should be anxious; their livelihoods depend on a fickle and unpredictable Mother Nature. They labor in the fields, battling insects, flood, drought and weeds, but instead it is the non-farmer who succumbs to road rage, self-doubt and stress.

A direct connection to the land delivers an at-peace attitude. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides break that connection. We gain cherished qualities such as patience, perseverance, vigilance and flexibility when we switch to organic methods. Organic soil also yields a higher nutritional content than sterilized soil.

April Johnson farms at the Rodale Institute, a 333-acre organic farm in Kutztown. “There’s more to it than just getting the produce and eating good food. There’s feeling good about what you are doing.” Johnson remembers gardening with her mother, who was born in an era before widespread chemical use. “I loved to be in the garden with her.” Don’t we all hope to be our children’s fondest memories that way?

With the title landscape and greenhouse visionary, Johnson loves small-space and container gardening. She recommends Mel Bartholomew’s book Square Foot Gardening. “You can grow anything anywhere,” she says. “Think about planting vegetables within your landscape.” Put herbs and hot peppers among the flowers.


Why have a lawn that is difficult to maintain and only nice to look at? Too many yards are nothing more than seedless, impenetrable turf and symmetrical statues that need endless maintenance, fertilizer, water and weed killer.

Steven Saffier describes these yards as “counter-ecological.” Saffier coordinates for Audubon Pennsylvania’s Audubon at Home program–a great resource for eco-friendly yard ideas ( “Think about areas of lawn that are not used or used infrequently. It can be lively habitat with the right native plants and maintenance is virtually eliminated” he says.

Terry Schantz, vice president of Western Lehigh Landscape in Allentown adds, “Proper planning and design is the key. Selection of native plant material and plants with little or no pests or disease problems will definitely minimize work. Also, installing plants in groupings or drifts instead of all individuals means you can allow them to grow together, thus reducing the trimming time and weeding”

Landscaping companies can help transform your yard; just make sure to communicate to them what you are trying to achieve. Request a long-range maintenance plan to see whether they are dedicated to the ecosystem as a whole. As Chris Stocker, president of Atlantic Ridge Landscape Design-Build in Easton writes on his website, “We treat the earth with the respect it deserves.”


No one wants another landfill, especially the Earth. Organic matter does not decompose among plastic and Styrofoam because it gets disconnected from nature’s cycle. When piled separately, organic matter turns into valuable fertilizer. Composting can reduce some homes’ trash load as much as 75 percent, and it is fun to watch the contents shrink.

According to Schantz, Western Lehigh “practices composting every day. Biodegradable items such as sod and leaf trimmings that are removed from our customers’ properties are transported to our nursery. Composting items are then stockpiled, aged and churned into our topsoil to provide a rich nutrient-filed byproduct. Heavier branches and tree limbs are mulched and used to protect our nursery plants from heat and drought.”

Your compost pile can be simple or complex. The Rodale Institute and area agriculture extension agencies and colleges hold inexpensive workshops to help you learn to compost. Basically, hungry microorganisms require oxygen and moisture to chew down the pile–a process that generates heat. The more churning you do, the more air added and the hotter and faster the composting process. A slow pile requires patience instead of effort, but is  Johnson’s preferred method. You can buy bins or tumblers; city ordinances sometimes prohibit open piles.

A few tips:
• Add both carbon-rich material (grass clippings, leaves) and nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps (coffee grounds, banana peels, watermelon rinds) at a 25- or 30- to-1 ratio (carbon to nitrogen).

• Avoid cooked food or wood ash.

• The pile should never stink or draw gnats. If it does, add more carbon.

• Do not add weed seed or disease, or you might spread more than compost.

This is the year to transform your yard. Johnson notes, “I think the more people get involved in caring about their environment [the more] they slow down and understand. You have to get connected to it.”

Sue Tantsits and Louise L. Schaefer
Edge of the Wood Native Plant Nursery

2415 Route 100 Orefield, PA 18069

April Johnson
Rodale Institute
611 Siegfriedale Road
Kutztown, PA 19530-9320

Steven Saffier
Audubon Pennsylvania
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove
1201 Pawlings Road
Audubon, PA 19403
610-666-5593 x 112

Terry Schantz
VP/Sales Manager
Western Lehigh Landscaping, Inc.
7127 Ruppsville Road
Allentown, PA 18106

Chris Stocker
Atlantic Ridge Landscape Design-Build
1511 Sullivan Trail, Easton, PA 18040

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