The Well-Dressed Garden

The National Park Service turns 100 this year, and it's something to celebrate in a big way. Visit a park and let the beauty and majesty of nature overwhelm you -- and then take your sense of the uplifting experience home with you. You can't recreate Yosemite or Yellowstone in your backyard, but the powerful lessons of national parks are meaningful even if your own private park is a tiny courtyard in town.

Mark Swartz, a park ranger and coordinator of the NPS centennial, draws a lot of his thinking from Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect and designer of New York's Central Park and many other important parks. In his writings in the late 19th century, Olmsted actually helped lay the groundwork for the National Park Service, Swartz says.

"He was particularly attuned to the stresses of the urban environment," Swartz says, and "one of the key things was the effect that exposure to landscapes can have on people's physical and emotional health." Olmsted knew that spending time in nature provided relief from the cares of the world. "He really nails it," Swartz says.

Visiting a national park "is like a time-out in your life," Swartz says. Yet parks are not lonely places: They bring people together in discovering nature and their place in it. Naturally, visitors want to hold on to the feelings national parks inspire.

Olmsted understood the spontaneity of nature, which is completely different from designed spaces. For him, a naturalistic garden would be the best private refuge, Swartz says, but "we all have our own interpretations of what inspires us and restores us." There are other cues to follow.

The National Park Service works hard in many ways to set a good example for home gardeners, says Charlie Pepper, an NPS landscape maintenance and sustainability expert. The Park Service has instituted practices to reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals in parks, for example. "We're managing the quality of plants in our landscapes," Pepper says, and gardeners can do that at home, too.

Native plants and pollinator plants are increasingly important in national parks, Pepper says. Native plants are naturally adapted to local climates and conditions. They are resilient and not likely to require fertilizers or pesticides, and they do not depend on supplemental watering.

The National Park Service also has a pollinator program and establishes plantings with the express purpose of supporting birds, bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators, whose habitats have been threatened by development and widespread use of pesticides. Pollinator plants and the insects they attract "improve the richness of the plant palette," Pepper says. Among other initiatives, the NPS is monitoring bee diversity in Boston, keeping an inventory of butterflies in the Rocky Mountains, and planting for pollinators to help keep apple trees healthy in the historic orchard at Adams National Historical Park in Massachusetts.

New planting and maintenance practices have also improved experiences for visitors, Pepper says, describing a change at Valley Forge, where many acres of land were once mowed every two weeks during the growing season. Now, native-plant meadows have replaced much of the turf grass, increasing biodiversity in the park and reducing its carbon footprint. The meadows are full of life, and views of the tall grasses are serene. "They evoke the sense that this place is important: They convey the qualities and patina of an older landscape," Pepper says.

One of the best ways to create your own personal park is to plant a tree, says R.J. Laverne, education specialist with the Davey Tree Company, a partner with the National Parks Foundation, an organization that supports the Park Service. Beautiful trees in your garden and neighborhood have both physical and emotional benefits, he says. They make an urban or suburban landscape more pleasing and natural. Good trees change the whole character of a neighborhood.

You don't have to plant a mighty oak, not to mention a majestic redwood, to get the desired effect. Small ornamental trees -- or even trees in pots -- are said to help reduce stress and increase your ability to concentrate. If you have room for it, plant a tree that will grow into a large specimen, Laverne says, but there is no single perfect choice. "It's like asking a car dealer to recommend the perfect car," he says. "Maybe the Ferrari is the way to go. Maybe the mini-van. Maybe the pickup. It depends."

The best tree is one that will thrive in your climate and conditions and is in scale with your landscape, Laverne says. Make sure your tree has room to grow. Do not plant it too close to the house -- an extremely common error -- or under utility lines. Your tree should not need the help of pesticides and fertilizers. "If you plant the right tree in the right place, you can sit back and watch it thrive," Laverne says.

Of course, every plant benefits from a little attention to watering while it becomes established. A mulch ring around your tree -- not piled up against the trunk -- will protect it from being bumped by the lawn mower or damaged by a string trimmer. Mulch also reduces competition from grass and weeds, and helps maintain even soil moisture and temperature.

Trees, like children, provide benefits even when they are small, which is good, because you may never see your tree at maturity. "A truly generous person is one who plants a tree under which they will never sit and enjoy the shade," Laverne says. But, like our national parks, a tree can be your legacy to the neighborhood, a personal park that grows to encompass something a little bigger and grander than its own spreading branches.

Sources

-- The National Park Service marks its 100th birthday on Aug. 25. To celebrate, visitors to National Parks will receive free admission from Aug. 25 through 28. The NPS website, nps.gov, has links to help you find national parks in your area (there are more than 400 parks), learn about centennial programs and events at the parks, and discover the National Parks Service history.

Free days are a great way to discover one of the 127 national parks that charge an entrance fee (normally from $3 to $30). Admission to other national parks is always free. Entrance fees are also waived on National Public Lands Day, Sept. 24, and on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

-- The Davey Tree Expert Company, davey.com, works with communities, corporations, utilities and individuals on tree and landscape care and maintenance. The company's website includes information and advice on choosing, planting and taking care of trees and has links to certified arborists who can help you with your trees.

(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at chooker@amuniversal.com.)

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