Gardening for Life
A holistic garden includes you.

Jose German is a New Jersey environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition (, a nonprofit environmental organization.

For Montclair Local

Gardening for Life

“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the sun.”

The gardening season is behind us and now lives in our memories. There were things we planted and successfully harvested, as well as things we planted with love and care, but that had disappointing results. The garden always provides a lesson of life. Let’s cherish the good meals and great times we had with friends and family, along with the blessing of sharing our abundance with people in need.

We have left behind the birds’ mating season, their demanding babies, and the squirrels running crazily around the yard hiding things. The warm nights of summer with the magical singing of the mockingbirds is also behind us. Behind us, too, is our tireless work and the beautiful sunsets in the yard, drinking a beer and sharing time with friends and neighbors. The garden inspired us, sustained us, and made us stronger in many ways. Let’s be grateful for that.

It is time to reflect on everything that happened in our yard and move forward for a new journey.  Winter is the perfect time to think about spring garden projects and plan the kind of garden we want to create.

There are many possibilities depending on your preferences or needs. You can create a kitchen herb garden or vegetable garden. If you do not have a flower garden, think about creating a garden with an environmental purpose, like a sustainable ecological garden to attract butterflies and birds.

A bird or pollinator garden is not only beneficial for the environment but is also very attractive aesthetically. This kind of habitat requires selecting bushes, trees, and flowers related to the natural food chain of birds, butterflies, and other beneficial wildlife.

My gardening approach is to create a garden that is not only sustainable and eco-friendly but is also low maintenance. This concept focuses on placing plants where they’ll thrive on their own, requiring little work on your part. I strongly recommend using plants native to the Northeast since they are adapted to this climate and, once established, don’t require a lot of care, resulting in an easy-to-maintain landscape.

Make soil your cornerstone. I often hear friends say, “I don’t have a green thumb,” but their thumbs would be greener with good garden soil. Plants need specific soil types to grow their best. A nice thing about soil is that you can change it by adding amendments. For instance, you can make slow-draining clay soil more porous and faster-draining by adding organic matter, like compost. Or you can incorporate a completely different soil type in your landscape with raised beds. A soil test is highly recommended, and you can send your sample to the Rutgers University Extension Program (contact information is here: Results will be e-mailed to you directly.

Embrace the right plant, the right place. Your yard is unique and has its own microclimate. The soil quality, as well as the natural moisture and the amount of light it receives on a typical day, could be different from your neighbor’s. When selecting plants, pay attention not only to shape and color but also to the conditions affecting the plants, such as water content (wet soil, semi-dry, and dry) and light (full sun, partial shade, and shade).

Selecting the right plant for the right place provides ideal growing conditions, and several things happen. Plants establish quickly, grow stronger, and reproduce. They produce healthy root systems and abundant foliage and are stronger and healthier to resist attacks by insects and diseases.

Plants in the wrong place will be susceptible to diseases and fungi and will be easy prey for insects. Careful garden planning is the key to success, saving money and time.

Select native plants. I highly recommend native perennials, especially if you wish to create an eco-friendly and sustainable garden. Native plants are tolerant of local conditions, such as summer droughts and winter freezes, and naturally attract pollinators and birds, with nectar for butterflies and often berries, seeds, and nesting sites for birds. Buy plants that belong to our hardiness zone (6b) to be sure they will survive the winter. Also, consider if your space meets the plant’s light requirements — full sun, partial shade, or shade.

Embrace color; outsmart wildlife. As you select plants, consider leaf and flower colors, and how these will blend or clash with existing landscape and hardscaping. Remember to use the seasonal sequence of blooming to plan your color scheme to make a great impression on neighbors and passersby.

Most gardeners experience some “critter” issues in their yards.  Some problem wildlife, such as groundhogs, raccoons, rabbits or deer, can wreak havoc with the best-laid garden design. While you may not win every battle, you can often outsmart the animals. Hardscaping, like a fence, can provide a physical barrier to limit problem wildlife’s access to gardening areas. Selecting plants that are repellent to some predators helps to naturally control unwelcome garden guests.

Take a holistic approach. Holistic gardening is a way of connecting the mind, body, and spirit to the environment. We grow food to feed and nurture our body, and we plant flowers to create a beautiful, relaxing visual environment around our homes. We plant herbs with medicinal and healing purposes. The physical work we do in the garden provides exercise to invigorate our bodies. Contemplating the garden gives us a bridge to reflect and meditate, which also facilitates stress reduction and makes our healing processes easier.

Holistic gardening is not a lifestyle or an environmental movement — in my view, it is a practical approach to a way of gardening that benefits the mind and the spirit as much as the body, as much as the garden itself. Holistic gardening is my gardening philosophy, summarized in the title of this column: Gardening for life.

A plan to develop a multisensory garden should include a relaxing view from your home, plants with interesting fragrances, and diverse textures to be touched and flavors to taste. Make your garden a place that goes beyond landscape design. You can create a sanctuary for wildlife and an oasis for yourself to connect with Mother Nature a few steps from your living room.

The gardener’s goal is to fulfill personal needs to create a well-thought-out space filled with purpose, a meaningful space to enrich daily experience. A garden is like a micro-universe with the gardener in the center. It means working with nature to create a place where humans and nature coexist in perfect balance. Hopefully, with these guidelines you will have a plan of action ready for when the spring thaw begins.


4 replies on “Gardening for Life: Winter is a season to plan”