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Be a Better Gardener: In an age of climate change, gardening is a matter of ‘Trowel and Error’

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Ken Druse
January 11, 2018 11:32 am Updated: January 11, 2018 11:40 am

Even at this season of the year, Ken Druse is busy in his garden.

If he’s not outside pruning trees — he can’t wait until spring, he says, he’s “champing at the bit” — then he’s indoors starting seeds or tending the plants over-wintering in his sun room. But, he’s taking a day off Jan. 13 to deliver the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture at 2 p.m. at the Lenox Memorial High School in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Ken, a noted garden author with 20 books to his credit, admits the subject of his lecture, “The New Shade Garden: Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change,” is somewhat controversial.

Personally, he says, he has no doubts. He’s seen a marked change in the weather in his New Jersey garden over the last 20 years, with increasing numbers of “anomalies” — earlier springs, hotter summers and warmer winters, violent rains and other storm events. He’s comfortable, though, with those who do not believe the climate is changing and his talk will have much information in it for them, too. His recommendations aim toward clean air and water for our grandchildren and an unpolluted earth. Who doesn’t want that?

Besides, planting more trees and lush gardens beneath them will not only contribute to that better future, in the short run, it also ensures a more pleasant experience for the gardener. Ken doesn’t like being hot while he’s gardening, and he finds the temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler in the shadows of his trees.

What’s more, the filtering of the sunlight reduces the threat of skin cancer, a major hazard for unprotected gardeners. Anyway, Ken said he has always had a special love for the ephemeral woodland wildflowers that thrive in such a situation.

“A lot of the things I love,” he notes, “you have to crawl on your stomach to see. I’m either looking up at the trees, or down on the ground.”

Then, too, there is a very practical reason for the trajectory of Ken’s gardening. As he grows older, he explains, he plants more and more woody plants, shrubs and trees, because they are self-reliant, requiring less care from the gardener.

Ken has thought a lot about these topics; in 2015 he published a book, “The New Shade Garden,” which won an award as the best book of the year from the Garden Writers Association. Written from his first-hand experience, it is, with 400-odd photographs, beautiful as well as informative.

A true connoisseur of shade, Ken describes the different degrees, from ”light shade” (six hours of direct sunlight in the height of summer) and “filtered light” (light that passes through the foliage of broadly spaced branches and feathery leaves) on down to “woodland shade” (areas underneath deciduous trees where the sunlight is full from mid-fall to mid-spring, but then shaded all day for the rest of the year). The garden expounded in these pages is easy to live with and easy to like: native plants are preferred, but space is left for non-invasive exotics the gardener cannot do without.

Over the years, Ken Druse has won many honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award for Garden Communication from the Garden Club of America. His expert photographs, in addition to adorning the pages of his books and countless magazines, are also in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. — in 2013 he donated 45,000 transparencies which now constitute the Ken Druse Collection of Garden Photography.

His work is not just for devotees, however. Ken has sympathetic advice as well for the starting gardener.

“Do it. Just do it.” Learning to garden, he says, “is a matter of trowel and error.”

Talk to people who garden, he adds. Go visit gardens. Read books. “But most of all, go out and do it.”

Finally, he has a useful tip for the gardener who feels overwhelmed when faced with all the tasks that come due in spring: “Just do one thing. Then before you know it, you’ve done 10 things.”

I will try to remember that, when the snow melts, the buds burst and the whirl begins again.

Tickets for Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture with Ken Druse are available at berkshirebotanical.org or by calling 413-320-4794.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of the nation’s oldest botanical gardens in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Its mission to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through 25 display gardens and a diverse range of classes informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors on horticultural topics every year. Thomas Christopher is the co-author of Garden Revolution and is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden. berkshirebotanical.org.