Rediscovering Paradise Lost in your Backyard . . .

By Maryann Helferty

Question: Where are EPA volunteers acting as explorers to rediscover the Paradise Lost in the backyards and woodlands of the Mid-Atlantic? Answer: The 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show,   where EPA staff have constructed an educational showcase of environmental gardening techniques since 1993. This year’s exhibit is titled “Palekaiko Nalowale,” roughly translated from Hawaiian into “Paradise Lost.”

Thousands of gardening guests venture into the lost world of plants indigenous to this region. I spoke with one team member who shares his knowledge of botany and vegetable gardening by working on the exhibit. Todd Lutte, a wetlands biologist, often encounters native plants in swampy bogs or steep cliffs. He has a deep appreciation for interconnections between native plants and the web of life. For example, local insects evolved in tandem with native plants so they depend on each other for survival. So when gardeners plant native species such as the highbush blueberry, they also invite bumblebees as pollinators. These delicious berries nourish humans, birds and mammals and the leaves feed a host of butterfly and moth larvae.

Each exhibit visit is a teachable moment. Visitors peer into the pinky bell flowers of a sheep laurel,  or dwarf azalea and are touched by their spring beauty. Factsheets suggest how to select native plants at nurseries. Curious greenthumbs learn to pick plants adapted to local climate and soil, while controlling pests more easily and using less water and fertilizer.

Agency volunteers share experience with using integrated pest control on roses and tomatoes. So, Todd recommends knowing insects to remove aphids and beetles by hand and leave the beneficial insects to help your garden. Video loops help visitors learn about low-impact techniques like companion planting or using bait and traps to control pests. We’re delighted this year to share our thousands of teachable moments with the EPA pesticide program.

It takes a cadre of volunteers to create the magic of a blooming lesson on “green” gardening. Some care for herbaceous plants in personal greenhouses; others force mountain laurels and honeysuckle to flower in winter. Volunteer carpenters create the sturdy flooring and beautiful fencing. With the help of many, EPA spends only one-eighth of the budget of comparable educational exhibitors. Thanks to two decades of team effort, creativity and green thumbs, there have been many awards earned throughout the years. Ah, spring!

About the author: Maryann Helferty is an Environmental Scientist with the Office of Environmental Innovation for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region. In her work on drinking water protection and sustainability, she blends science and education tools to promote the Environment, Social Equity and a Sustainable Economy.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.